A foreign journalist called me the other day to ask the Passover question: “Why,” he asked, “is this peace negotiation process different to the others that preceded it during the past 20 years?” Simple, I answered. On the previous occasions there was at least some modicum of interest on the part of the participants to attempt to reach an agreement, even an interim agreement. But on this occasion it is clear to everyone that neither side has any real interest in coming to the table with the sort of willingness, or compromises, which would take the process forward even one small stage.
Only two things explain this current process of talks. One is the strong American pressure on both leaders – and neither is prepared to endanger the long-term relations with the US beyond a red line (unlike the situation with the EU or any other external power ). Coupled with the mutual fear that the events in the turbulent region – especially in Syria and Egypt – could quite easily spill over into the West Bank, to the detriment of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
And then there are the peace spoilers.
There are always groups who will go out of their way to undertake provocative acts or make provocative statements, the intention of which is to derail any attempts at peace making or conflict resolution. The extremists on both sides, for a mixture of ideological, religious and political motivations, have an interest in maintaining the situation of conflict, while in many cases this is their very raison d’etre.
There is no qualitative or quantitative comparison to be made between the nature of peace spoilers on both sides of the conflict. There is no way one can compare the violence of a sniper or a suicide bomber with the building of a settlement – certainly not from an Israeli perspective.
But the end result of both of these actions is exactly the same – they are designed to bring an end to any form of negotiations, they are designed to show that “we” are not prepared to make the necessary compromise on the one thing that is most important to each side.
For Israel, we require security and an end to any form of physical violence which threatens our safety – as individuals or as a collective entity. Suicide bombers and shootings makes it clear to us that there are people on the “other” side who are not prepared to give us that guarantee. For the Palestinians, they want an absolute end to occupation of the land which they see as constituting their future state territory.
The continued construction of settlement infrastructure, roads and houses, is, for them, a sure sign that the “other” side is not sincere in its intentions.
Peace spoilers are normally associated with the fringe and the extremist groups, who disproportionately wield power. The actions of a few can go a long way to completely derailing any formal process of negotiations. It only takes one suicide bomber to cause the Israeli government to cease negotiations.
And it only takes the construction of one new neighborhood in a settlement to make the Palestinians walk out.
But there is a much deeper problem.
In the case of Israel-Palestine, it is no longer the fringe and extreme elements who are the peace spoilers – it is the governments themselves. The people who proudly appear before the American president and the international media to declare their intention of returning to the negotiating table, are in fact the same people who are doing their utmost to ensure that these negotiations will have no chance of succeeding.
It is the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, who makes it clear, on an almost daily basis, that there will be no recognition of the State of Israel as a Jewish state, while it is the Israeli government that immediately declares its intention to build new settlements and new neighborhoods.
If they were sincere about trying to get some meaningful negotiations back on track they would, at the very least, be more diplomatic in their public utterances, and at the most would refrain from these actions altogether.
They are equally aware that much of their domestic constituency no longer wants to hear the word “peace” if it means a return to the events of the past 20 years and has no substance.
They are aware that there is a huge dissonance between the messages which they have to broadcast to the international community as a means of remaining in their favor, and the messages which much of their home constituency wants to hear. They are unable to muster up the courage, which is required of real leaders, to tell their domestic constituencies that for real conflict resolution to be achieved, one side is going to have to recognize the safety, security and sovereignty of the Jewish state, while the other side is going to have to come to terms with the painful reality of settlement evacuation and an end to further construction.
The fact that neither leader or government is courageous enough to take that step is, in itself, the greatest peace spoiler of all.
Any basic introductory text to conflict resolution will tell you that it is essential for two sides entering negotiations to demonstrate confidence building measures (CBMs) as a means of sending a positive message to the other side. Israel will argue that its release of prisoners, including those who murdered innocent civilians in cold blood, is indeed a major CBM on its part. But to follow it up, within a matter of days, with the provocative announcement of new settlement activity makes the painful gesture meaningless.
It is a self-defeating own goal, no less than the public statements by Abbas concerning the issues on which the Palestinian leadership is not prepared to compromise or to negotiate over.
This is far beyond the normal process of one-upmanship where each side has to retain some “no compromise” issues as a card to be negotiated in the future, often during the brinkmanship of the final difficult hours immediately prior to reaching an agreement and a public signing on the White House lawn.
The peace spoilers at present are the governments, not the fringe groups. We have invented a new concept known as CDMs – Conflict Destruction Measures – a term which will have to be added to future introductory texts on the topic of conflict resolution.
If both leaderships are sincere in their intent in trying to move beyond the traditional impasse where everything always breaks down, then they have to be prepared to tell it as it is to their domestic constituencies, rather than pretend that they can have the best of both worlds – compromise for the international community, non-compromise for the domestic constituency.
Their failure to do so, and their public utterances which only serve to further inflame the mutual suspicions and mistrusts of both sides for the other, would indicate that there is little hope of achieving anything new from the present round of negotiations.
The writer is dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Ben- Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.