Is the peace process stuck? And does it matter?

Oct 15, 2010 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

October 15, 2010
Number 10/10 #03

This Update features pieces on the current stalemate in renewing the peace process, the prospects for ending the stalemate and the implications for the longer term.

First up is Washington Institute scholar Michael Singh, who argues that what is preventing talks is incompatible policy positions, but that there are actually strong underlying shared interests between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that make progress possible. Taking off from Netanyahu’s offer to extend the moratorium on additional building in settlements in exchange for a promise to recognise Israel as a Jewish state, and the Palestinian rejection of this idea, Singh tries to look at the underlying interests of both sides in taking the positions they have. He concludes that to help the parties recognise the interests behind the positions, the US administration will need to defuse the settlement freeze issue, and admit that its previous emphasis on it was a mistake. For the rest of his argument, CLICK HERE. Some other ideas for progress come from former Israeli foreign ministry official Alan Baker.

Next up, American writer Ben Cohen argues that many of the repeated dead ends in the peace process come from an over-emphasis on the need for, and expected effects of, a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. He points out that conflicts do not have solutions, they have outcomes, and quotes various experts opposing the idea that a peace deal is the key to all Middle Eastern problems, as well as the idee fixee of insisting on rushing toward a comprehensive peace agreement. Instead, both the experts cited and Cohen himself urge US mediators to focus on small steps and  on controlling those aspects of the process that they actually can control – including avoiding building up unrealistic expectations. For Cohen’s complete, eloquent essay, CLICK HERE. Also correcting various peace process myths, including that direct negotiations are all that matter, is former Middle East mediator under President Clinton Aaron David Miller.

Finally, former top US government official on the Middle East Elliot Cohen argues that the current hiatus in direct peace talks should not be seen as a big deal, and points to repeated similar breaks in talks in the past. He argues that the talks are actually much less important than the major improvements in security, governance and the economy in the West Bank, and notes that these continue apace. Further, he urges the US government to stop mentioning the settlement issue all the time, which, he argues, makes both facilitating the changes in the West Bank and finding a compromise in order to renew talks more difficult. For all that he has to say, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, former Middle East correspondent Thanassis Cambanis argues that experience shows failed peace talks can actually make things worse.

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Negotiations amidst the Settlement Freeze

By Michael Singh

ForeignPolicy.com, October 12, 2010

In negotiating tradecraft, the distinction between positions and interests is a fundamental one. Parties with divergent interests can unite behind common positions, like the environmentalists and trade unions who opposed NAFTA in the 1990s. Just as often, parties with opposing positions fail to perceive their common interests, like divorcing parents whose acrimony blinds them to what is best for their children.

It is neglect of this vital distinction that now has the United States scrambling to salvage Middle East peace talks, which are threatened by a resurgent dispute over Israeli settlement activity. The Obama administration initially viewed the settlements issue as “low-hanging fruit” — the Palestinians, Arab states, international public opinion, and frankly even many Israelis were against settlement activity, whereas a seeming minority on the Israeli right favored it. Thus, the White House viewed insistence on a settlement freeze as a way to restore confidence in U.S. impartiality while jump-starting the peace process. As is now well known, precisely the opposite occurred — U.S. relations with all sides have been strained, and the peace process has yet to take flight.

To understand what went wrong, one must look past the Israelis’ and Palestinians’ positions on settlements and understand how they define their interests.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, in a June 14, 2009 speech, provided insight into his opposition to a settlement freeze. In his remarks, Netanyahu asserts that “The simple truth is that the root of the conflict has been — and remains — the refusal to recognize the right of the Jewish people to its own state in its historic homeland.” In his view, Arab efforts to eliminate Israel began in 1947 with the United Nations proposal to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, and have not truly ebbed since despite Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. That those efforts began before Israel took the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, and that rocket fire from southern Lebanon and Gaza continued after Israeli troops withdrew from both territories, are to Netanyahu and many Israelis evidence that the presence of Israeli troops in the West Bank is not the cause of the animosity toward them.

It is this interest — defending the continued existence of a Jewish state that has been under attack since its founding — that leads not only to Netanyahu’s insistence that the Palestinians explicitly acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state, but also to his rejection of a settlement freeze. If the Palestinians and Arabs will not do the former, Netanyahu and his allies view the latter as pointless at best and at worst dangerous succor to those who would delegitimize Israel. While many Israelis do not share Netanyahu’s position on settlements, they do share his interest in defending Israel’s legitimacy, and thus have reacted negatively to what they view as Washington’s harsh approach.

The Palestinian narrative is quite different. For Palestinians, the events of 1948 constituted a catastrophe which left them scattered and displaced. In the nations which received them, they were — with few exceptions — refugees or guest workers with few rights and little respect, despite the lip service paid to the Palestinian cause. For years, Palestinians themselves had scant voice in that cause, and there was little support among leaders in the region or elsewhere for the independent state envisaged in 1947.

For Palestinians, these twin interests — justice for refugees who have been the region’s second-class citizens for sixty years, and ensuring that the emergence of a Palestinian state remains viable — motivate deep opposition to continued Israeli settlement activity. In their view, it makes little sense to engage in negotiations aimed at satisfying these interests while simultaneously acceding to activity which undermines them.

On Monday, Netanyahu offered to extend Israel’s settlement freeze if the Palestinians would recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and the Palestinians immediately refused. Given the interests described above, one can see why Israel made the offer, as well as why the Palestinians rejected it. Israel is ready to modify its position on a settlement freeze if its interests are otherwise satisfied; but Palestinians likewise wish to see their interests fulfilled, and not merely their position on a settlement freeze conceded. For this reason, the Palestinians for their part have insisted that Israel and the United States declare that the basis for negotiations over the borders of a Palestinian state will be the “1967 lines” to ensure a Palestinian state’s viability.

Thus the fight over a settlement freeze is in reality a conflict by proxy over the competing interests of each party. But because those interests will only be satisfied through negotiations, and not conceded by the other side prior to the talks, no sustainable compromise can be found as long as the freeze remains an issue. For this reason, temporarily extending the freeze as the United States is reportedly seeking to do can only postpone a crisis for another day, if that. Moving forward will require that the Obama Administration acknowledge that its early emphasis on settlements was mistaken in order to deflect blame and anger that might otherwise be directed at Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Abbas for changing their stances.

The good news is that while Israeli and Palestinian positions on a settlement freeze are seemingly irreconcilable, the interests underlying their positions are not. Indeed, polling data and anecdotal evidence suggest that the people on both sides are ready for a two-state solution. What’s more, the parties have other interests — such as the desire for peace and quiet for their people and to sideline extremists sponsored by Iran — which enhance the motivation of each to find common ground. This is where American mediation must play a role — helping the parties see past their conflicting positions, and to recognize their mutual interests.

Michael Singh is a visiting fellow at The Washington Institute and an adjunct fellow at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

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Rethinking Israeli-Palestinian Talks

By Ben Cohen

The Propagandist, October 12th, 2010

Watching the direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians fizzle out over the last week, I was reminded of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s observation that “conflicts don’t have solutions – they have outcomes.” For nearly two decades, the contours of a final compromise on territory that would enable the State of Israel to live alongside a new State of Palestine have been known, yet an actual agreement has remained elusive.

The current hiatus in the talks, if the Palestinian Authority and the Arab League are to be believed, stems from Israel’s decision not to renew its ten month moratorium on building in existing West Bank Jewish settlements, which a combination of media shorthand and anti-Israel sniping has translated into “new settlement building on the West Bank.” The distinction is important, because there is a long-established understanding that these settlements would be incorporated into Israel in the event of a Final Agreement, and therefore would not impact a fresh partition of the land.

Now the Palestinians and their Arab allies have given the United States one month to get the talks restarted, hoping that the Obama Administration will cajole the Israelis into renewing the moratorium. This, incidentally, is the same moratorium which the Palestinian Authority dismissed when Israel first announced it, because it didn’t encompass the entirety of the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem. Less than a year later, the moratorium has conveniently become the test of Israel’s trustworthiness.

There’s nothing new in these spoiler tactics – for that is essentially what they are. Invariably, it begins with PA President Mahmoud Abbas reminding the world, “après moi, le déluge” –  in other words, talk to me, because after me, there will be no-one to talk to. Fearful negotiators then round on the settlements as the primary, even sole, obstacle to a peace agreement. Israel doesn’t see it that way and highlights other issues, like continuing incitement against Israel on PA-financed media outlets. In response, Abbas, wearing a wounded look, threatens to resign as President. Predictably, he doesn’t follow through, talks begin, go nowhere, and arrive at a point where the Palestinians blame Israeli intransigence for the failure, and the Arab League dutifully provides the PA with cover.

Why, then, is the international community so keen to retrace its steps toward such a familiar dead end? In part, it’s because politicians, like everyone else, want to succeed in life – securing an Israeli-Palestinian agreement is the grand prize which Bill Clinton had thought was his, only to see it slip through his fingers when Yasser Arafat launched the second intifada in 2000.

And why is it a grand prize? Because of the prevailing myth that an Israeli-Palestinian agreement is the key to global stability. Once justice is secured for the Palestinians, the wisdom goes, the anger of the Islamic world toward the west will be assuaged.  The former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, neatly summarized this view upon leaving office: “We may wish to think of the Arab-Israeli conflict as just one regional conflict amongst many. It is not. No other conflict carries such a powerful symbolic and emotional charge among people far removed from the battlefield.”

Eloquent, perhaps, but wrong. Well over a year ago, three of Washington’s seasoned Middle East wonks, who sharply disagree on substantive matters, all warned against a peace process founded upon overarching ideas and transformative goals. “The peace process is not a solution to the problem of global terrorism,” said Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Presciently, Satloff further advised: “Don’t try to identify, pick, and put on a pedestal our chosen Palestinian leader. We have tried this. This is always a losing effort.”

“None of us is going to recommend, and, in fact, all us will recommend against, rushing towards a grand, comprehensive, end-of-conflict deal between Israelis and Palestinians,” said Robert Malley, a former Clinton negotiator who has often counseled the Palestinian side in his writings. Another veteran negotiator, Aaron David Miller, argued for “transactional” as opposed to “transformative” diplomacy – small, incremental steps on specific issues like the Gaza blockade, instead of a Middle Eastern version of the Congress of Vienna.

In the face of such caution, the Obama Administration nonetheless opted for a big idea approach – an Israeli-Palestinian agreement would strongly counter Iran’s regional influence, explained State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley – with the aim of resolving the conflict within one year. Only the most churlish would wish Obama failure in this endeavor; at the same time, the historical precedents are hardly encouraging.

Even if the direct talks are again rescued, the final status issues on the horizon stand out as so many obstacles. Israel will never agree to the physical division of its capital, Jerusalem, even if it wouldn’t discount a creative proposal on shared sovereignty. Where the Palestinians insist on the so-called “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 refugees, Israel counters by demanding recognition of its character as the state of the Jewish people. Max Weber might have famously defined a state as an entity with a monopoly on the “means of violence,” but it is nigh on impossible to picture Israel assenting to a fully militarized Palestine a short drive away from Tel Aviv. And as for incitement, neither Abbas nor his congenial Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, have much incentive to stamp on it, loathsome as the rhetoric is.

There is a more basic question. Does it matter if the talks fail, when so little is expected of them anyway? After all, as Elliot Abrams recently pointed out, the West Bank is one of the few places on earth where the economy is booming, with growth at 8 percent and tax revenues up by 50 percent over last year. This kind of performance is one reason not to place Mahmoud Abbas – as Robert Satloff would say – “on a pedestal.” As they increasingly enjoy the fruits of their own labor, West Bank Palestinians, much as they might resent Israel, don’t want to risk a situation where Abbas is followed by the kind of Hamas regime which has brought so much devastation to their brethren in Gaza.

As for the U.S. Administration, it needs to exercise care that disillusionment with the peace process doesn’t become hostility to those urging it along. The present record is unsettling enough: among Israelis, President Obama’s policies have been viewed with distrust for some time. Among American Jews, according to the latest survey conducted by my organization, the American Jewish Committee, 45 percent disapprove of Obama’s handling of U.S.-Israel relations, while 62 percent approve Benjamin Netanyahu’s. Even in the Arab world, the President’s reputation is suffering (“President Obama has not translated his Cairo speech and all these good intentions into a coherent program and that is why his credibility among the Arab public has declined,” a former Jordanian Foreign Minister, Marwan Muasher, told CNN.)

There is no reason, in the final analysis, not to work for a peace agreement. Equally, there is no reason to believe that the lack of a peace agreement will plunge the region into war, especially when other factors, like Iran’s nuclear weapons quest and Hezbollah’s military build-up in southern Lebanon, are much more obvious triggers. Would an agreement deflate these belligerents? Perhaps, but the logic goes both ways – a two-state agreement could spur the rejectionist camp to renewed action against the hegemony of the “Great Satan” in the Middle East.

In such a situation, the best strategy is to assert control of those elements which you actually do control. Do not build up expectations. Do not allow apocalyptic prophecies to become self-fulfilling. And do not collapse into despair when what appears to be a solution turns out to be just one more outcome.

Ben Cohen is a Contributing Writer for The Propagandist.

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Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks Are Suspended. So What?

What matters is growth and state-building in the West Bank. Yet the Obama administration is still fixated on settlements.


Wall Street Journal, SEPTEMBER 29, 2010

The sky is not falling. Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations were suspended on Sunday, perhaps briefly and perhaps for months, after Israel’s 10-month moratorium on settlement construction expired. Palestinian officials said they would refuse to talk if construction restarted, and so they did. Yet war hasn’t broken out, nor will it.

Terrorism exploded after the Camp David talks broke down in 2000 because the Palestinians’ leader at the time, Yasser Arafat, supported it. Fortunately, those days are gone. As current Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad told Jewish leaders in New York last week, violence “has to be dealt out of the equation permanently regardless of what happens in the peace process.” 

Also last week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reminded his people that “we tried the intifada and it caused us a lot of damage.” Hamas, the terrorist group that rules the Gaza Strip, can commit acts of terror at any time. But with Israeli and Palestinian officials working together to keep the peace, Hamas can’t create a general uprising.

Peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) have been an on-again, off-again affair since they began with the Oslo Accords in 1993. During the Arafat years talks alternated with terrorism, for Arafat viewed both as useful and legitimate tactics. After the so-called second intifada of 2000-2001 and the 9/11 attacks, Israel’s then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ran out of patience with that game, as did President George W. Bush. From then on they worked to push Arafat aside.

After Arafat’s death in November 2004, negotiations between Israel and the PLO were almost continuous—until 2009. They broke down when the Obama administration made settlement construction the central issue, declaring that it had to stop dead for peace talks to proceed. Mr. Abbas, who heads both the Palestinian Authority and the PLO, could not allow President Obama to take a harder line than his own, so he echoed the demand.

Why Mr. Obama felt it necessary to raise this issue is unclear, for it had successfully been put aside during the Clinton and Bush years. Settlements grew steadily in the 1990s despite the Oslo peace process. Under Mr. Bush, an arrangement was reached whereby the Israelis would build inside settlements but not expand them physically.

The Obama administration junked that deal, and its continuing obsession with a settlement freeze—Mr. Obama mentioned it again at the U.N. last week—has cornered Mr. Abbas. The Americans are effectively urging him back to the table while making it impossible for him to get there. This diplomatic problem is what medical science calls “iatrogenic”: a disease caused by the physicians themselves.

Faced with this situation, Mr. Abbas has once again decided to hide behind the Arab League. When Arab foreign ministers next meet, on Oct. 4, he will seek the league’s cover—and public support—either for continuing to refuse talks or for returning to the table.

This is where American influence should be focused now: on getting the Arabs to give Mr. Abbas the green light. As for the Israelis, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to find a middle path. He won’t renew the moratorium, but he has asked settlers to act with “restraint and responsibility.” That seems to mean that construction—and publicity surrounding it—should be limited.

The good news is that while settlements capture headlines and excite diplomats, back in the real world progress is being made. The World Bank reported this month that “If the Palestinian Authority (PA) maintains its current performance in institution-building and delivery of public services, it is well-positioned for the establishment of a state at any point in the near future.” The West Bank’s economy will grow 8% this year, said the bank. Meanwhile, tax revenues are 15% above target and 50% higher than in the same period last year.

Regarding security, cooperation between Israeli and PA forces has never been better. This month the International Crisis Group acknowledged that “In the past few years, the Palestinian Authority (PA) largely has restored order and a sense of personal safety in the West Bank, something unthinkable during the second intifada. Militias no longer roam streets, uniformed security forces are back, Palestinians mostly seem pleased; even Israel—with reason to be skeptical and despite recent attacks on West Bank settlers—is encouraged.”

Most of this good news came, of course, during 18 months when there were no peace negotiations at all.

This week’s suspension of talks will be dangerous only if it interferes with this progress. A Palestinian state must be built on the ground in the West Bank, not at a conference table in Oslo, Camp David or Annapolis.

Both sides want negotiations and sooner or later will find their way back to them. But Israelis and Palestinians could more easily find compromises if American officials would be pragmatic and stop mentioning a freeze in every speech.

Mr. Netanyahu, for his part, could further improve conditions in the West Bank by removing additional checkpoints that limit Palestinian mobility more than they help Israeli security. Mr. Abbas could receive the Arab League’s blessing to return to talks, even if “temporarily” or “conditionally” at first. And both could agree on some limits on settlement construction. All sides would explain that there are other important issues—refugees, borders, security—on the table, and they want to dig into them.

This will happen eventually. How long it takes depends largely on when American officials stop obsessing over settlements.

Mr. Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, handled Middle East affairs at the National Security Council from 2001 to 2009.

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