The launch of direct Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations earlier this month after 15 months of relentless
groundwork marks the third attempt in a decade to resolve the outstanding core
issues pertaining to a two-state solution.
Many on both sides question
whether Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas have
sufficient will or ability to make the necessary sacrifices – the main factor in
determining whether this round of peacemaking will fare better than its
predecessors at Camp David and Annapolis.
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Both leaders seem to grasp the
importance of the moment in its domestic, bilateral, and wider regional
contexts, as well as the consequences of failure.
Yet they have entered
negotiations amid an atmosphere of mistrust and facing significant
Although both are currently stable at the helm, they will
have to overcome strong ideological inhibitions and political opposition from
within their own constituencies – not to mention resistance from extremists –
before they can bridge substantial bilateral gaps on sensitive core
Completing a full year of negotiations – the ambitious target for
reaching a framework agreement – and achieving a breakthrough will
navigating major obstacles.
On the ground, optimism regarding the West
Bank’s relative stability, economic growth, and unprecedented security
coordination is overshadowed by Abbas’s inability to deliver
Gaza into a practical peace agreement.
Moreover, spoilers are anxious to
derail the process, as shown when Hamas killed four Israelis and wounded
others in a pair of West Bank terrorist attacks just as the talks were
Settlement construction moratorium Israel’s 10-month moratorium
on West Bank housing construction expires in two weeks.
already announced that he will not extend it – he is concerned about
trapped in a measure that has engendered strong opposition in his own
and party, and that could break him politically if sustained over
Abbas, facing his own domestic pressures and feeling insecure
without assurances regarding settlement activity and the territorial
countered diplomatically – in a letter to Quartet leaders – and
threatening to withdraw from negotiations if Israel resumes
Consequently, talks could break down one month after launching, which
their near-term resurrection extremely difficult, if not impossible.
moratorium froze the issuing of new housing permits in the West Bank and
the implementation of old permits for projects that had not yet broken
New permits are subject to approval by the defense minister and are more
controlled, but building under old permits would not require further
approval if the current moratorium expires, unless a new restrictive
Over time, thousands of old permits have accumulated, and there
is no telling how many would be implemented when the moratorium expires.
Traditionally, such projects are subject to financial considerations.
given the settlement movement’s announced intention of speedily renewing
construction, one can expect a considerable number of housing starts at
end if the government stands pat – enough to spark a crisis in the peace
Some Israeli officials have suggested approving a limited number
of permits in the major settlement blocs that all parties assume will
under Israeli control in any future peace agreement, but this is
In any case, the government will probably postpone its
decision until the last moment.
Accordingly, finding an acceptable
solution to the moratorium quandary, one that properly balances both
constraints, will require an assertive and creative American role. In
establishing ground rules for the talks, Washington should set a high
that makes it difficult for the parties to leave the table.
reference and agenda When inviting the parties to direct negotiations,
Washington abstained from issuing terms of reference. The Palestinian
demanded that the baseline for talks be the 1967 lines with agreed
Israel rejected as an unwarranted precondition that would establish a
single-issue endgame (i.e., on territory) before negotiations even
Washington sidestepped this demand, referring to the PA’s
preferred baseline as “the Palestinian goal.”
Palestinians embraced Quartet statements closer to their position as
reference, while Israel related only to Secretary of State Hillary
invitation to resume direct talks without preconditions.
technical issue is likely to become a substantive one. The PA has
the territorial endgame as a prerequisite for compromise on other core
But security is the first priority for the Israeli government, which
yield major territorial concessions until it is sure that the resultant
Palestinian state would be effectively demilitarized and
Comprehensive vs rolling agreement To bypass such an
impasse, past negotiations were based on the principle that “nothing is
until everything is agreed.”
This allowed the parties to sequence their
negotiations (e.g., the “radioactive” issue of Jerusalem was delayed in
Annapolis process) and expose some flexibilities. Yet it also proved to
obstacle when the parties failed to bridge gaps on all core issues: “all
nothing” resulted in nothing and prevented incremental steps forward.
is time to adopt a less rigid formula that allows for progress even if
parties cannot reach a comprehensive agreement.
Such an approach is
preferable, at least as a fallback, to the despair of gridlock and the
failure. This approach could also help compensate for Hamas-ruled Gaza’s
from the process.
For this to work, the United States would have to play
a leading role, reassuring the Palestinians about the continuity of the
the aims of the talks, and settlement construction, while providing
a safety net regarding its vital security interests.
The regional aspect
Although the moderate Arab states encouraged Abbas to enter direct
talks, it is
not clear to what extent they are willing to contribute to the
Active Arab support is important.
Absent a comprehensive
regional peace architecture involving Syria and Lebanon, Arab
buttress Israeli-Palestinian talks by providing cover for painful
compromises and incentives for Israeli ones, demonstrating to Israelis
regional benefits of peacemaking.
Egypt and Jordan could also help
establish security arrangements, while the Gulf states could provide
backing. It is also time to revisit a Madrid-like multilateral
The US role All previous negotiations were conducted
bilaterally – despite varying degrees of US involvement at certain
American negotiators were present in the negotiating room, with rare
only during summit gatherings.
This time, however, Palestinians are
pushing for a more active American role in the negotiations, with the
the Obama administration, committed as it to Palestinian statehood, will
ultimately deliver – or, in case of failure, not blame the PA. This is
Palestinians preferred proximity talks to direct ones.
For its part,
Washington seems poised to have US officials in the room, even though
the negotiating is supposed to be conducted directly by Abbas and
parties will have to find the right balance between relying on the
and maintaining true bilateral negotiations as would-be partners for
And regardless of actual US participation in the negotiating room,
they should keep Washington informed so that it can help minimize and
gaps as needed.
Thinking about success and failure The stakes are high,
and a third failure within a decade would be a catastrophe for all
would deal a devastating blow to the twostate concept and energize
throughout the region – particularly Iran and its affiliates who reject
and espouse jihadism.
Unfortunately, most of the past 15 months were
spent simply getting to the table.
Now is the time to focus on what will
be required to succeed.
In light of this, the parties should approach
this round of peacemaking carefully.
Before addressing the core issues,
they should thoroughly discuss a number of other items: the nature of
top-down process; its guiding principles; how it converges with the
process of state-building led by PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad; proper
sequencing of issues; confidence-building measures; alternatives to
creating a public atmosphere conducive to peace; and the regional Arab
In statesmanship it is always advisable to contemplate a Plan B in
case Plan A is derailed. Currently, only the PA seems to be doing so via
West Bank state-building process, coupled with fostering the idea of
recognition of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines. The one-year
for the peace talks coincides with Fayyad’s timeframe for completing the
essential phase of the state-building process.
While the state-building
process should be encouraged by all, the United States would do well, at
stage, to dispel Palestinian hopes of adding a unilateral diplomatic
the negotiations; falling in love with Plan B might minimize the chances
success for Plan A.
The writer, a retired brigadiergeneral, is The
Washington Institute's Milton Fine International Fellow, based in
He participated in all Israeli- Palestinian peace talks since
1993. From May 2009 until March 2010, he served as special emissary for
Israeli prime minister and defense minister in efforts to relaunch the