Theresa May Is Negotiating Like Yasser Arafat
The late Palestinian leader was legendary for forsaking promising opportunities, caving to extremists, and failing to appreciate the challenges of negotiating against a stronger opponent. Britain’s prime minister has perfected his diplomatic style.
A few weeks after the 2016 Brexit referendum I got chatting with a Palestinian journalist at a wine bar in London. “How did you vote?” I asked, as the conversation turned to the inevitable subject.
“Leave,” he said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Immigration,” he replied.
Palestinian nationalism can fairly be described, in part, as an anti-immigration movement, so perhaps his position was not so shocking. What’s more surprising is British Prime Minister Theresa May’s negotiating strategy since 2016—which is looking more and more like the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s with each passing day.
Arafat’s legendary “three noes” were no to peace with Israel, no to recognition of Israel, and no to negotiations with Israel. May began, at her speech on the future of U.K.-European Union relations at Lancaster House in 2017, by saying she would take back control of “our laws, our money, and our borders”—or as Arafat might have put it: no to jurisdiction from the European Court of Justice, no to freedom of movement, and no deal is better than a bad deal.
Like Arafat, she has been forced to cave in on all three issues, while simultaneously choosing to acquiesce to the demands of her own hard-liners. And all the while, May and her government refused to acknowledge the obvious: that they were negotiating against a larger, stronger power that needs Britain far less than Britain needs the European Union.
In the era of Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu, it can be difficult to recall the Middle East peace process. For those who remember, that much-touted diplomatic marathon ended with no deal. The current talks over the British-EU Withdrawal Agreement boiled down to three “phase one” issues. The Middle East peace negotiations turned on three “final status” ones. Instead of money, migrants’ and citizens’ rights, and the Irish border, negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians centered on Jerusalem, refugees’ rights, and borders.
An agreement was actually reached on two of them, just before lame-duck President Bill Clinton left office in early 2001: The pre-1967 borders would be modified by land swaps, and Jerusalem was to be divided. Of particular ingenuity was the solution to Jerusalem. It wouldn’t only be divided horizontally, but vertically, too. The territory below the dome of the rock—the ruins of the ancient Jewish temple—would go to Israel, while everything from the ground upward, where the mosques were built, would belong to Palestine.
The Withdrawal Agreement reached between the EU and the British government was an equally fine piece of work. It resolved how Britain would pay its liabilities to the EU, it set up a framework for how the U.K. and EU would look after their respective citizens living in the other’s territory, and it set limits on the eventual U.K.-EU relationship without needing to specify exactly what shape it took. It provided for up to four years of negotiations where that could be hammered out. To be sure, May had her own views of what it would be, expressed in the nonbinding “Political Declaration,” but these had no formal force.
That gave May the flexibility to say to all but the most fanatical opponents on either side: If you vote for my deal, you can get the Brexit you want, or if you don’t really want Brexit at all, you can at least have one you can live with, without plunging the country into a divisive second Brexit vote.
Yet May did the opposite. Rather than selling her deal as a centrist compromise that could please all sides, she cast this monument of subtlety as having two simultaneous and incompatible endpoints. She told Remainers that the only alternative to her agreement was to leave without a deal. And she told Brexiteers that the only alternative to hers was no Brexit at all. They all smelled a rat, and when her deal was finally put to Parliament, it was defeated resoundingly by 432 votes to 202.
Whereas the Middle East negotiations failed on the issue of the refugees of 1948, the Brexit deal has come unstuck on the Northern Irish border. The provisions to address it, known as the “backstop,” are designed to implement the agreement the U.K. and EU made in December 2017 to avoid having to put up a hard border, with customs posts and security infrastructure, between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Britain finds itself in this quagmire because, after squandering the majority David Cameron had won in 2015 in an unnecessary general election, the ostensibly secular nationalist May was forced to rely on the religious fundamentalists of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (one of whose more hard-line members, Sammy Wilson, even told the BBC recently, in what many viewed as a Freudian slip: “We fought a terrorist campaign to stay part of the United Kingdom.”)
The British political system today, like the Palestinian one in 2000, has maneuvered itself into setting conditions that cannot possibly be accepted by the other side. The Palestinians wanted the descendants of everyone who fled or was expelled by Israel in 1948 (what actually happened is a matter of dispute between the two sides) to be resettled not to the new state of Palestine but in their original towns in what had since become Israel. The Israeli offer wasn’t good enough for Hamas and other hard-line Palestinian factions, however. They, too, preferred “no deal” and were willing to fight a terrorist campaign to protect their red lines.
Like Arafat, May found herself trapped by her own side. So last week she threw her weight behind a parliamentary amendment demanding that the backstop, which had been negotiated at Britain’s request, be replaced by unspecified “alternative arrangements.” It proved a disastrous miscalculation and was rejected by the EU within three minutes.
Just as Arab leaders told the Palestinians that they were central to the struggle against the “Zionist entity” while in fact coming to terms with Israel, European leaders say they want Britain to abandon Brexit, but they no longer really mean it. Despite prominent Europeans expressing their love of Britain in a mawkish letter about milky tea and ale drunk after work, they have not allowed sentimentality to cloud their practical judgement. Instead, the European Commission and national governments have stepped up their no-deal contingency plans.
May’s problem was not so much Britain’s relative weakness in the negotiations (it’s one-fifth the size of the rest of the EU) but her failure to calibrate her strategy to this fact. She could have brought the U.K. together around a soft Brexit that reflected the 52 percent to 48 percent Brexit referendum margin; she could have made tactical concessions at the outset to win friends across the continent; she could have retained her parliamentary majority by avoiding an election; she could even have sought a wider range of partners instead of cementing her dependence on the Democratic Unionists; and she could even at this late stage have sold her deal as one that left the final shape of Brexit open. Arafat, it is said, never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. May has given him a run for his money.
After all, weaker countries can obtain satisfactory outcomes with guile, focus, and ingenuity, as indeed Israel itself did when battling five Arab armies in 1948. Britain’s mistake was, like that of the Palestinians, thinking it could simply coerce a stronger opponent.
As a matter of brute logic, membership of the EU confers benefits to its members that aren’t available outside. As a matter of brute fact, the EU is economically more important to Britain than Britain is to the EU. And, as a matter of brute administrative capacity, the EU has been able to establish clear priorities and mitigate its risks, whereas Britain has dithered—making the price it would have to pay if there were no deal higher than it needs to be.
Rather than strengthen its position by preparing for no deal, Britain has weakened it by believing its own propaganda. Leavers have told themselves that “no deal is better than a bad deal,” while Remainers imagine the EU is in a mood to further appease idiosyncratic British demands. They are guilty of what Alexander Clarkson of King’s College London regards as the two characteristic mistakes made about the EU: Leavers believe it’s weak, while Remainers think it’s nice.
The British government now finds itself in a mess entirely of its own making. In December 2017, it agreed that any deal with the EU would require sufficient alignment of regulations and customs procedures to make the resurrection of border infrastructure in Northern Ireland unnecessary. In March 2018, it repeated its promise. And earlier this week May was in Belfast promising to do so again.
In the withdrawal agreement itself, the British government agreed with the EU on how it would put this promise into practice. The EU considers this agreement to have involved significant concessions to Britain. Then, on Jan. 29, May instructed her party to vote against this key plank of the agreement she had painstakingly negotiated.
The British political debate continues oblivious to the fact that the country is actually negotiating with someone else. Even serious newspapers declare that unilateral acts of the British Parliament can stop a no-deal Brexit, or that an extension to the Article 50 negotiating period is inevitable—they might as well insist that Israel will end its occupation of the West Bank tomorrow without checking to see if the Israeli side is willing to do so.
The veteran BBC Radio presenter John Humphrys even asked an Irish minister whether her country should seek to rejoin the U.K. instead. I struggle to imagine Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu being asked why, with all of Israel’s problems, he doesn’t simply bring back the British Mandate in Palestine.
A century ago, Britain still had the power to force the other side to come up with alternatives. The memory of that power inspired the belief that Britain could recover its sovereignty by leaving the EU. Yet the sovereign Britain they imagine only prospered at the expense of the sovereignty of others. Gunboats steaming toward the Río de la Plata to recover unpaid debt may have seemed sovereign to London. They didn’t enhance the sovereignty of Argentina.
Brexit was a decision to leave the EU system and its legal regulation of national power and return to the old rules where size matters. Britain’s fatal mistake was to get its opponent’s size wrong. Brexiteers like to describe the country as the fifth-largest economy in the world, of around the same size as France, Germany, Italy, and Japan. But global economic power is now consolidated in blocs, not nations, and the EU27, as a bloc, is five times bigger than Britain. Thus, May’s characterization of Ireland as a small country that should count for less was worse than rude; it was a profound strategic misunderstanding.
By choosing Brexit, the U.K. challenged the EU to a fight according to the old rules. And in a fight where size matters, the EU is trouncing Britain. Parliament’s own three noes—no to the deal, no to no-deal, and no to the backstop—in turn reflect Britain’s inability to accept the reality of a midsized power’s relationship to a huge global bloc from which it has excluded itself.
The U.K. has less than 60 days to accommodate itself to these facts. Perhaps time pressure will finally force it to confront this reality. If it does, and Parliament passes May’s Withdrawal Agreement, it will give itself four more years to decide precisely which compromises it should make.
If not, it will have accomplished what Israel’s government is strenuously seeking to avoid—Britain will have unilaterally imposed Boycott and Disinvestment, if not quite Sanctions, on itself.