The sweet and sour response to Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement of the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations mirrors the dualistic attitudes current on everything to do with the most prolonged conflict of the last century. On the one hand, there is general agreement that conditions are now ripe for the renewal of the diplomatic process. The majority on both sides favors a just and durable negotiated peace. On the other hand, there is widespread consensus across the political spectrum that nothing much will come of yet another round of frustrating talks.
One thing is clear: if the forthcoming discussions follow the pattern of the failed efforts of the past two decades, then the results are not going to be any different. Reducing expectations is one thing, repeating the mistakes of the past is another. Only the foolhardy make the same moves time and again in the hope that they will yield other outcomes. Instead of engaging in endless debates on why negotiations are bound to fail (extremists on both sides are doing a stellar job in this regard), it might be worthwhile to look seriously at the weaknesses that impeded talks in the past and how these can be rectified today to ensure the effectiveness of this round–probably the last effort to realize a two-state solution.
The most glaring flaw of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations during the past twenty years is that they avoided setting a vision for the future and establishing precise goals. Discussions repeatedly faltered when it became apparent that the parties had a very different concept of their purpose. There are indications that Secretary Kerry is aware of the need for a vision statement (some claim that various U.S. drafts are already being circulated). What is indisputable is the need to construct the revived process around a definitive and achievable endgame.
Another recurring problem of previous efforts relates to their duration. The defunct Oslo process was conceived as a phased series of talks on interim and final stages to be conducted over a period of several years. Subsequent attempts suffered from the same defect: either imprecise timetables and/or complicated stages (vide the Roadmap). Drawing out talks–especially when previous negotiations in this format yielded naught–makes no sense today. John Kerry has been emphatic about overseeing an accelerated process to be completed within nine months to one year. During this time frame the permanent settlement should be concluded. Its implementation, as in the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, could then be staggered by agreement.
In the past, the structure of negotiations also proved to be an obstacle to their successful completion. The Oslo process was predicated on a bilateral mode. There is little doubt that the two parties are the ones responsible for reaching an accord; it is also abundantly clear today that they are incapable of doing so on their own. That is why an attempt was made, unsuccessfully, to construct an international umbrella in the form of the Quartet to oversee the process during the past decade. But this formula introduced conflicting interests that only impeded progress. The current effort highlights the need for a different international involvement, especially since both the Israelis and Palestinians are being dragged kicking and screaming to the table. John Kerry has knit together an international security net consisting of the European Union and the Arab League with a dual purpose: to provide added incentives for the success of negotiations and to serve as a constant reminder of the imminent penalties of failure. This carrot and stick approach could improve the likelihood of a positive outcome.
Previous talks were based on the presumption that secret negotiations relieve those engaged in the process of undue pressure. But, in fact, the thirst for information nurtured a rumor mill which exacerbated doubts and distrust, while creating an almost unbridgeable gap between the negotiators on both sides and their respective publics. The breakdown of the Oslo process can be attributed, more than anything, to this breach in public confidence.
The new round of negotiations must try to find a better balance between the advantages of secrecy and its drawbacks in an era of mass communications. Since it is not realistic to make the renewed process more inclusive, it may be necessary to compensate by either introducing a measure of transparency during the now delimited period of talks or by conducting consultations with critical segments of Israeli and Palestinian society as negotiations proceed. In any event it would be a serious mistake to presume that popular sentiments and antagonistic political interests will not impinge on the negotiations. These are already intruding even before the talks on the framework of the talks commence this week.
To avert the derailment of discussions as they proceed, this time it is also crucial to put in place a series of mechanisms that will assure their continuation even when the eruption of violence or political turmoil threaten to disrupt talks. A sensitive monitoring system capable of gauging public opinion and attitudes must be put in place immediately. So, too, should back door mechanisms (including periodic confidence-building steps) that would enable uninterrupted communication even in the most difficult circumstances. These measures are essential–as past experience in South Africa and Northern Ireland demonstrates–in order to insure both steady progress and to highlight a common commitment to achieving a just solution.
Even if all the steps related to the why, when, who and how of negotiations correct previous faults, the impending negotiations are not likely to yield positive results if adjustments are not made on the substance–on what is to be discussed. Unquestionably, the root cause for the collapse of past discussions has been the inability to agree on specific provisions. The devil, indeed, has been in the details. And it will continue to be so unless changes are made at the outset.
The forthcoming talks, as Secretary of State Kerry made clear, are intended to bring about a permanent settlement between Israelis and Palestinians leading to a lasting and just two-state solution. This has implied, since the Oslo accords, a focus on five interrelated issues: borders, security, settlements, Jerusalem and refugees. The United States has signaled that it plans to start with borders and security on the assumption that once these issues are resolved the outstanding matters will fall into place. While such an approach is a vast improvement on past efforts, it may not suffice.
It might be prudent to expand the terms of reference to include at least three heretofore-absent elements crucial to a viable agreement. The first involves some discussion of the roots of the conflict–and in particular disagreements over the events of 1948 and their aftermath. Even though it is by now axiomatic that a return to the past is fraught with danger, it is also increasingly evident that failure to grapple with the ramifications of history makes the prospects of arriving at some understanding increasingly remote. Both the Palestinian demand of the right if return and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s insistence on recognition of Israel as a Jewish state serve as constant reminders.
Since the Israeli and Palestinian narratives diverge dramatically, revisiting the past is necessary not in order to reach a common interpretation, but to acknowledge (at least partial) responsibility for past occurrences, thereby enabling constructive compromise on the knotty issue of refugees –which has a direct bearing on the composition and character of Israel and an independent Palestine.
The second subject that should be introduced at this stage relates to the future. This undertaking has a regional dimension: it suggests embracing the Arab Peace Initiative in order to depict a Middle East in the era after the termination of the Arab-Israel conflict. The regionalization of the solution by this extension encapsulates an important step towards reconciliation–something that embodies the fundamental aspirations of both peoples.
The third topic that needs to be incorporated into the discussions is practical in nature: it concerns the delineation of measures for the implementation of the accords. Such an addition has the advantage of focusing attention on effectively carrying out the agreements; it also promises to expedite the discussions by making a clear distinction between the role of decision makers in designing the principles and the task of professional experts in putting these into operation. Taken together, these substantive addenda can go a long way towards overcoming the hurdles facing today’s negotiators.
There is, then, quite a bit that can be done to dispel the skepticism that mars the immense opportunity inherent in the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The measures suggested here are just some of the possible moves that may create an atmosphere more conducive to finally realizing the hope of bringing an end to the conflict.