Editorial: To Washington, with realism

Colin Rubenstein

US Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement on July 19 that Israel and the Palestinians had reached an agreement that establishes a “basis” for the resumption of peace negotiations was certainly a very welcome development after almost five years without substantive peace talks. But this does not change the fact that a cloud of uncertainty surrounds where matters currently lie and where proposed negotiations go from here.

Part of the confusion arises from the fact that Kerry announced the deal before its details had been fully finalised, according to Kerry himself. Moreover, Kerry is keeping the actual details of the agreement under wraps until the talks, planned for Washington, actually start.

We therefore face an odd situation where, despite Kerry’s announcement, Palestinian officials continued to insist that they had not backed down from any of their prior preconditions for negotiations – such as a settlement construction freeze and Israeli acceptance of the pre-1967 lines as a baseline for any future agreement.

Meanwhile, Israeli officials were just as adamant that, notwithstanding their keen interest in direct talks with the Palestinians, they had not accepted these Palestinian preconditions that would prejudge the outcome of negotiations.

This open disagreement left some doubt at press time whether Kerry’s touted talks would actually ever commence, and if so, how substantive – as opposed to “talks about talks” – they would end up being.

The lingering doubt surrounding the restart of negotiations underscores the risk that has accompanied the Herculean US-led effort to coax the Palestinians back to the table since they walked away from a generous, comprehensive peace offer from then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008.

It should be remembered that while it is generally true that talking is better than not talking, failed negotiations can often create genuine negative consequences. This is why US mediators must now proceed with even greater care and caution – and learn significant lessons from the mistakes of the past.

Israeli peace negotiator Tal Becker likes to say that at least 75% of Israelis consistently support making a two-state peace agreement with the Palestinians, but an even higher percentage have come to believe it will never happen.

This growing lack of faith in the seriousness of the other side and confidence in the peace process – a sentiment that has been echoed in Palestinian polls – can be traced back to repeated peace process stalls and failures.

Meanwhile, never far from Israeli minds is the terror wave of the second intifada, which Palestinian officials have admitted was initiated by Yasser Arafat after rejecting a US brokered deal at Camp David in 2000.

Israelis also learned painful lessons after the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 strengthened and entrenched Hamas, and led to a new, unprecedented and ongoing rocket threat on Israel’s southern communities.

Moreover, Israel now faces the most confused, challenging and uncertain regional security environment that it has faced over the past thirty years.

On the other side, the Palestinian public has become conditioned to believe – in no small part by their leadership’s unrelentingly hostile anti-Israel rhetoric – that negotiations are a folly that can only lead to an erosion and abdication of Palestinian “rights” – rights which by definition are justly owed to them and are therefore non-negotiable.

Furthermore, state-run Palestinian newspapers and television continue to portray Israel as a bitter enemy, not a potential peace partner, and routinely reassert the Palestinian claim to cities and towns inside pre-1967 Israel.

It’s no surprise then that, with the exception of Abbas’ Fatah, all factions within the PLO have come out against the resumption of the peace talks under Kerry’s terms.

Finally, it is doubtful that the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, which is years overdue for new elections and lacks any authority to speak for Gazans since Hamas forcibly took over the Strip in 2007, has any clear mandate at this time to make concessions to Israel on behalf of West Bank Palestinians – let alone the Palestinian diaspora.

All this means that there is very little reason to believe that the substantial gaps between the parties – on borders, Jerusalem, refugees and security arrangements – that by all accounts existed at the end of the 2008 talks can be easily bridged.

Does all this sobering context mean that Kerry’s peace moves should not be supported?

Of course not. Forging peace, or even a state of non-belligerence with the Palestinians remains a strategic interest for Israel as well as the US, and moving toward a viable, lasting and secure two-state resolution remains the only way to attain the rights and needs of both Israelis and Palestinians.

However, this cannot be achieved by turning a deaf ear to inconvenient realities or downplaying some very acute risks that exist every step of the way.

In this respect, it is essential that the perfect – the goal of a final and definitive two-state peace – not become the enemy of the good.

If it becomes clear that a final deal is not currently achievable, as is likely, the opportunity to move forward in other ways must not be lost. An interim arrangement must be pursued which brings us closer to the end goal of real peace – preferably including the “interim Palestinian state with temporary borders” proposed in the 2004 Roadmap for Peace.

Diplomatic creativity – for instance, such an arrangement might be called something like a “phased final status arrangement” – as well as sustained pressure, will likely be required to overcome Palestinian objections to this idea.

The success of the US-brokered peace effort needs our support, but it also requires our watchful vigilance. Realistic goals and a determined effort not to allow great dreams to unravel smaller but very valuable achievements are essential – not least because the consequences of another peace process failure could be severe.