Many people are familiar with the old joke about the Buddhist monk and the hot dog vendor. The monk asks to “make me one with everything.” He pays for his food with a $20 bill and receives nothing in return. When questioned, the vendor replies “change comes from within.” Stingy hot dog sellers aside, this is exactly the kind of mentality that is required for Israel and the Palestinian Authority to make peace. For things to change, change must come from within and not imposed from without.
Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have been described as a rocky shoal on which seasoned negotiators and peacemakers have dashed themselves seeking a place in history. They’ve also been described as a long highway strewn with the wreckage of hopes, dreams and peace plans. You can pick whichever metaphor suits you, but the pattern is patently obvious: A foreign nation brings the two sides to a meeting, a peace plan is presented, a peace plan is rejected, and the fighting resumes.
The one thing that negotiations have always had in common is a foreign nation or nations bringing the two sides together and “helping” them make peace. Usually this foreign nation is the United States but the United Nations, Spain and Norway among others have weighed in as well. Ironically, it is this desire to “help” that has led to so much suffering, violence and failure. Like a Chinese finger-trap puzzle, the more effort is applied to solving the problem the worse the problem becomes. Just because America was able to assist in the peace between Israel and Egypt does not mean the same formula can be repeated in this situation.
The United States is a powerful and wealthy nation with strong diplomatic influence. Accordingly, it has the ability to help or harm the two nations as a means to “pressure” them into making concessions and deals. It is human nature to take advantage of the powerful, especially in the Middle East, and even more so in this particular case: both sides see themselves as desperate and vulnerable, and will seek to exploit the United States whenever they can.
We will begin with Israel. Israel knows that its alliance with America is solid. The Israeli-American relationship is not based upon peace with the Palestinians but mutual interests and values. This alliance, and the military and diplomatic support that it comes with, is not reliant upon the success of peace talks. To maintain its standing, however, Israel must appear to want peace at all costs. America does not approve of an Israeli anti-peace stance. On the other hand, Israel’s government knows that too many concessions will leave the country vulnerable to attack, as in the case of the Second Intifada and the withdrawal from Gaza. So they walk a line, making as few concessions as possible while trying to look as peace-loving as possible.
Notice that Israel does not make concessions such as settlement freezes and prisoner releases because they believe that it is the right thing to do or because they sincerely believe it will lead to peace. They do it entirely because outside forces want them to. And the only reason why outside forces want them to make concessions is because the Palestinians insist on it.
This takes us to the Palestinians. The Palestinians like to present themselves as desperate, poor, and oppressed by Israel. This is done deliberately to secure themselves financial and diplomatic support even over those more deserving of world sympathy. Yet despite the allegedly difficult lives of Palestinians, they don’t appear to be in any hurry to make peace and attain the “end of occupation” that is their mantra. This is because they know that if peace talks break down, they too can simply return to the status quo: the helpless victims of the cruel, settlement-building Israelis and the recipients of hundreds millions of dollars of international aid.
That victim status allows them to reap the support of their defenders among the Arab nations, left-leaning Westerners, sympathetic Europeans and so forth. In fact this is part of the “Durban strategy.” The Palestinians believe that if they can just amass enough popular support and pressure against Israel, the Jewish state will collapse and they will “win.” By this logic they therefore have little to lose and quite a lot to potentially gain by ensuring that peace talks never succeed. But this strategy only works because they know that they can rely on outside forces to literally fight their battles for them. More sobering, it also leads to pressure against any kind of moderate Palestinian leadership from their so-called supporters. If the Palestinian Authority makes peace with Israel, there will be a lot of anti-Zionist writers and pundits who will suddenly find that much wind has been taken out of their sails.
Both sides feel that time is on their side and that they currently have the advantage. Both believe that they would lose more than they would gain with a successful treaty. Therefore they don’t see America and the Europeans as allies fighting alongside them for peace, but rather as meddlers to be exploited or nuisances to be endured.
It would be foolish to believe that America and the international community would sincerely leave the Israelis and the Palestinians alone to sort out their differences. But it is now clear after twenty years that the more outsiders get involved, the less interested the parties become in sincere negotiations. A disengagement from the process, as unlikely a prospect as that might sound, might actually be more likely to lead to peace in the long term. At the very least it would break the cycle of negotiation and fighting.
Only when the two sides are actually ready to make peace is when negotiations should begin. That was how Egypt and Israel were able to make peace and the same principle ought to apply here. Anything else is just putting the cart before the horse.