Can Mahmoud Abbas negotiate on equal basis with less fluent English?

The language in which Israelis and Palestinians negotiate is: English. The original language of documents signed during the Oslo process is: English.

This brings up a delicate but extremely important point: Can Mahmoud Abbas negotiate on an equal basis with less fluent English than the Israeli Prime Minister?

Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff touched on the point in his report today, published here, of his interview with Israeli former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who presented a map and detailed negotiating points to Abbas in their last meeting on 16 September 2008.

The question is worth exploring.  Issacharoff reported that the first meeting between Olmert and Abbas on 23 December 2006 “launched a model for talks between the two leaders: every so often, usually every two week, the two would meet and after some opening remarks and some food, they would go off to the side and speak one-on-one about the issues regarding final status”.

Was Abbas able to navigate the subtleties?  Did his imperfect control of the English language have anything to do with his reported lack of response?  The last discussion between Olmert and Abbas was inconclusive — yet Abbas wants any new talks to start from that point.

Mahmoud Abbas has said many times that he wants direct negotiations to resume where they left off on that day.

Israel’s current Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu does not agree. He explains this by saying he wants negotiations without preconditions. But, Netanyahu does not agree with the major concessions that Olmert offered Abbas in September 2008 — (1) that the hugely important mosque esplanade in the Old City of East Jerusalem would be under no country’s sovereignty, and would instead be administered by a five-nation group of countries; and (2) that Israel was prepared to make significant Land Swaps with Palestinians, including giving up the Jordan Valley that Netanyahu seems determined to retain on a long-term basis as an essential security assurance. [Netanyahu is also determined to obtain Palestinian recognition of Israel as "a Jewish State" or "the state of the Jewish people", which is a point that was also raised by Olmert at the start of the Annapolis process of negotiations in November 2007.]

The substantive part of the negotiations began, apparently, four months earlier — in May 2008.

Olmert told Issacharoff that Condoleeza Rice “was concerned about the differences in our English – since mine was much more fluent then Abu Mazen’s…”

It’s interesting that Rice was so concerned. The disparity in power between the two parties — one of whom is occupied by the other — and who have engaged in direct negotiations over the self-determination of one of them, could be considered an argument that might invalidate the legality of any agreement reached. And the imbalance in negotiating conditions is exacerbated by an imbalance in linguistic capability.

By Olmert’s account [reported today by Issacharoff], he said that even before the Annapolis process — in fact, on 23 December 2006 — Abbas asked for Israel to free 500-600 prisoners. “I said, ‘Why don’t you ask for more?’…”

In this 23 December 2006 meeting at Olmert’s house, Abbas “asked for the taxes owed the PA – 50 million [shekels]“… And Olmert said he told Abbas: “not a chance…you will get 100 million, it’s Palestinian money. The days when you have to ask for what is rightfully yours are over…”

But, when Condoleeza Rice gave Abbas Olmert’s proposal “that he appoint a representative on whom he relied completely who would formulate the peace agreement. I had already turned to someone like that; someone with international standing. But Abbas said he preferred that the talks be carried out directly with him. She was concerned about the differences in our English – since mine was much more fluent then Abu Mazen’s – but I promised her that I wouldn’t take advantage of it, and she believed me”

But, by Olmert’s account, he actually had to coach Mahmoud Abbas: “When we talked about the subject of borders, Abbas reiterated that he wanted land swaps of 1.9% only, or the 1967 borders. I told him that the 1967 borders did not include a passage between Gaza and the West Bank, and if they want to make that connection and the necessary adjustments of the map, then it should be done in a smart way”…

According to Olmert, “The two men met 36 times, mostly in Jerusalem + once in Jericho”.

At the end of this series, it was Sa’eb Erekat who cancelled the post-map-presentation follow-up session scheduled for 17 September 2008, Olmert said, and their excuse was that they’d “forgotten that Abbas had to go to Amman”.

Olmert told Avi Issacharoff that he’s “still waiting” since September 2008 for a call from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, just as just as Yasser Abed Rabbo told Avi Issacharoff [for an article published in mid-May in the Times of Israel] that he’s been waiting for a call from Netanyahu since February 16 2011..

Our reports on Avi Issacharoff’s recent reports are on our sister blog, Palestine-Mandate, here: [Olmert-Abbas 2006-2008] here … and [Yasser Abed-Rabbo-Netanyahu 2011] here.

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