The body language evident in two recent pictures of American, Israeli and Palestinian officials speaks volumes. The first was of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas along with US Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli President Shimon Peres. The picture was taken during the World Economic Forum held on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea in May. It was during this conference that Kerry pitched the economic plan that included the goal of raising up to $4 billion to boost the Palestinian economy.
The second photo worthy of deconstruction was taken at a press conference in Washington on Tuesday at the resumption of direct Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. In addition to Kerry, the photo includes chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Israeli Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni.
In both photos a trend can easily be noticed: the Israeli participants flash the widest smile possible, followed by the Americans, while the Palestinians have forced Mona Lisa-like smiles.
It is easy to understand why the Israelis were smiling at the Dead Sea and in Washington. They have finally received the payoff that they have been demanding, namely the appearance of talks. Many have commented that the Israeli side is more interested in the process of peace talks than in peace itself. The photo opportunity of talking to Palestinians appears to cleanse the Israeli image from all the sins and guilt that they have accumulated as an occupier holding another people against their will for an astounding 46 years of military occupation.
Kerry has his reasons for smiling. Following guidance from President Barack Obama and his own gut feelings developed over years as a senior member of the US Senate’s foreign relations committee, Kerry understands clearly the importance of photos with Palestinians and Israelis shaking hands or standing alongside each other.
This brings in the $64,000 question. Why aren’t the Palestinians smiling? Or, more importantly, why are the Palestinians in the same room as their occupiers without having secured a clear pathway to ending this 46-year-old occupation and colonisation of Palestinian land.
The forced Palestinian smile is a reflection of the unenviable position that Palestinians find themselves in. Having failed to produce anything like the liberation they promised their followers, the leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organisation are finding themselves having to eat the crumbs being offered by the Americans and Israelis. Having committed to the peace process, Abbas has little choice but to give the go-ahead for direct talks even without all Palestinian demands being met. As a politician (and not a revolutionary), Abbas has to accept the constraints that realpolitik presents in modern society. The moment you decide to accept a negotiated track, rather than dubious and possibly unsustainable resistance, constraints and demands are forced on you.
Having learnt from bad experiences with the Israelis, Palestinian negotiators did try hard to secure three conditions before the start of the face-to-face talks: freezing settlement construction, defining the parameters of the talks to the 1967 borders and obtaining the release of Palestinian prisoners held before the 1993 Oslo peace accords. Palestinians say that all three of their demands were satisfied, albeit at different levels. On the settlement issue, the Israelis have promised to limit activities to the three settlement blocks that Israel is hoping will be included in the land swap provision previously agreed in the Camp David talks between Yasser Arafat and then-prime minister Ehud Barak. While this was not clearly and publicly declared, it seems that the Palestinians accepted the US guarantee of its implementation with the clear proviso that they would simply walk out if it was not honoured.
The border issue was more complicated, as the Americans seem to have accepted the Israeli argument that there will be nothing to negotiate if one side declares its position prior to the talks. Palestinians balked, and the US secretary of state had to make an oral, and later written, promise that the talks (at which the Americans will be presented at all times) will be based on the 1967 border as President Obama himself had stated in his AIPAC speech last year. What appears to have helped sway the Palestinians was the binding decision by the European Union to refuse to accept any products coming from the areas occupied in 1967, thus indirectly declaring the support of the largest Western bloc to the 1967 borders.
Finally, the prisoner issue was one that Palestinians were adamant about. If Abbas was going to bear the political fallout of going to the peace talks without having secured a settlement freeze and an Israeli commitment to the 1967 borders, at least a prisoner release could help boost his standing amongst reluctant Palestinians.
While Israeli and American smiles were much more obvious in the latest meetings in Jordan and Washington, Palestinians participating in the talks are not likely to smile before they can deliver some concrete changes on the ground to their sceptical constituents.