All so predictably, it’s happening again. Three months into the revived Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the skeptics (who lack confidence in any positive result) and the spoilers (who are bent on derailing the process) are hard at work. The former find every opportunity to articulate their disbelief, paving the way for the latter on both sides to ensure, through ratcheting up verbal and physical violence levels, that nothing happens. Once again, it is clear that the outcome of the negotiations will have as much to do with what takes place outside the closed doors of the negotiating room as within its highly secretive interior. For anything constructive to emerge in six months’ time, it is critical that as much attention be paid now to fostering a favorable climate for an agreement as to fine-tuning its substance.
The past few weeks have demonstrated the growing hazards of detaching the ongoing negotiations from their surroundings. Despite the stepped-up pace of the discussions and their obvious intensity, the fact that very little is known about their content has inevitably shifted public debate to the question of their intrinsic necessity. The extraordinarily low expectations prevalent in both the Israeli and Palestinian publics have paved the way for opponents of any accommodation to take over center stage.
The spoilers have two main tools at their disposal, the first of which is the purposeful resort to violence. The steady rise in instances of violent attacks in the West Bank—of Palestinians on Israelis and Israelis on Palestinians—should surprise nobody. Approximately one-third of both communities have no interest whatsoever in reaching any agreement. They are committed, each in their own way, to a vision of a future devoid of the other. To them, any form of negotiations constitutes an existential threat; their goal is to do everything possible to derail them before any binding decisions are made.
The extremists among the opponents of accommodation have recently stepped up their activities. On the Palestinian side, the number of sporadic rocket attacks emanating from Gaza and skirmishes in and around the Strip has risen in recent weeks; so, too, have apparently disconnected instances of armed assaults and rock-throwing in the West Bank. On the Israeli side, militant settlers have had a field day—destroying fields, cutting down olive trees, harassing farmers and torching property with abandon. The fact that the IDF has entered the fray has done little to stem this escalating spiral.
It is well known that serious efforts to resolve armed conflicts invite especially violent reactions. This was the case in other parts of the world (in South Africa during the transition from apartheid thousands were victims of political violence; in Northern Ireland the months preceding the Good Friday accords were fraught with physical strife; in the Balkans and the Democratic Republic of Congo such acts accompanied every attempt at a ceasefire). It has also been a byproduct of all negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians precisely because those opposed to any compromise have everything to lose. For this reason, too, one would have expected that exceptional provisions would be made to prevent these acts and to deal firmly with their perpetrators.
Instead, more moderate opponents of negotiations have used, through the skillful employment of rhetoric (the second instrument of opposition to negotiations) each and every instance of violence to highlight the dangers inherent in negotiations. In crafted campaigns designed to condemn the acts of the other and excuse the infractions carried out by their cohorts, they have developed a discourse designed to denigrate the concept of negotiations in its entirety. To press home their point, they now have gone one step further: discrediting the negotiators themselves.
The outright attack on Israel’s chief negotiator Tzipi Livni by politicians and government members, ostensibly party to the policy of a resumption of the diplomatic effort, is the culmination of this dynamic in Israel. These verbal assaults are nothing short of incitement: they identity a culprit, call for action against her purported betrayal and, incessantly, hammer away on their message. Unharnessed, such attacks —sadly reminiscent of the language used prior to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin exactly eighteen years ago—may have repercussions way beyond thwarting the current talks (the situation of the Palestinian interlocutors is not much better).
This is not an atmosphere in which productive negotiations can be sustained, especially when opportunities for spikes of violence and rhetoric are built into the nine-month negotiating timetable. The agreement on a phased Israeli release of Palestinian prisoners makes every deadline in this process into an opportunity for the opposition to raise havoc—even when it is accompanied by the announcement of new settlement construction to placate these very forces. The lackadaisical treatment of the spoilers at these predetermined junctures is a prescription for failure regardless of what takes place at the negotiating table.
It is not too late to stem the tide. But this can only be done if a concerted effort is made now to reconnect the negotiations to the charged realities of Israeli and Palestinian life. This requires the conscious nurturing of a culture of negotiations comprising several clear steps. The starting point, of necessity, is agreement of the parties to condemn all forms of violence and incitement unequivocally and treat their perpetrators firmly. Netanyahu and Abu-Mazen, along with John Kerry as the convener, have failed to date to marginalize the rejectionists. They all have a vested interest at this stage in doing so and making it abundantly clear that violence will not divert them from their goal of seeking an end to the conflict.
The second, parallel, step involves building up confidence in the diplomatic effort as the only viable alternative to ongoing violence and insecurity. The vast majority of Palestinians and Israeli who dearly want a settlement but don’t believe it is going to happen need a language and concrete evidence that it is possible. Periodic public reassurances on progress in the negotiating process (notably absent in the first trimester of this round) can go a long way towards averting the guesswork and rumors that provide fuel for the grist of the nay-sayers.
A real effort to develop a language and norms that accentuate the advantages of negotiations as a means of dealing with profound disagreement is also long overdue. It really is not so difficult to show that the continuation of negotiations actually serves all political viewpoints better than anything else: they offer proponents a decent chance to reach a viable agreement and opponents the ultimate opportunity to prove them wrong. And, in the public sphere, the negotiations can benefit greatly from digital campaigns (like the current internet petition for a million hands for peace) to support the diplomatic initiative.
The third, and by far the most important, step in the creation of a climate of negotiations is a matter of political will. The current leaders in Israel and Palestine have it in their power to nurture an atmosphere that will enable constructive interchange. They now have to show that they have the necessary courage to deal with the spoilers, disabuse the skeptics and, by nurturing the political and social climate necessary for negotiations, conclude them successfully.