The chain of events during the past week might as well have sent the peace process to the emergency room. It began with the Israeli government reconsidering its commitment to the fourth prisoner release. Then premature reports of an American “package deal” to extend negotiations, including freeing American spy Jonathan Pollard, were nipped in the bud. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas went on to apply to join 15 UN treaties and conventions.
Housing and Construction minister Uri Ariel announced 708 new housing units in east Jerusalem settlements. Both sides broke their commitments to US Secretary of State John Kerry, who came out with a somber statement: “There are limits to [...] time and effort the US can spend if the parties [...] are unable to take constructive steps.”
True, the peace process suffered some serious blows.
However, although it might smell funny, it isn’t dead yet, and the time for writing dirges for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations has not yet come. Only eight months have passed since the start of this peace process. Before rushing off to mourn the failure of Israeli and Palestinian leaders and American mediation, everyone should make a final effort to deliver results.
First, it’s up to chief negotiator Tzipi Livni. Her diplomatic efforts should be reinforced. Professional teams should begin working alongside her and her counterpart, Saeb Erekat, and begin addressing issues on the micro-level. Both political figures and technocratic Israeli-Palestinian committees shaped the Oslo process.
These committees dealt with basic issues ranging from military affairs, economics and finance to mundane matters regarding transportation and sewage. Camp David and the Taba talks included a professional peace administration, which worked meticulously on the details of the grand issues that prime minister Ehud Barak and president Yasser Arafat negotiated in the spotlights.
The last serious effort to move forward on the peace process was conducted in two tracks, one purely political between prime minister Ehud Olmert and President Abbas, the other dealing with a variety of issues such as water and energy, security and crossings, and how to build a culture of peace. Eight months into the current round of peace talks, however, Livni negotiates pretty much solo, accompanied only by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s aid. Livni should remind Netanyahu of articles 17 and 18 in her coalition agreement with him, which specify authorities to set up a professional Israeli negotiations unit. Realizing these articles may help infuse the frail peace process with some substance.
Second, it’s up to Secretary of State Kerry to a) share an objective view of what took place in the negotiations room, and b) provide parameters for continuing the talks. Of course it would be far better if the Israelis and Palestinians would sign on a framework agreement themselves. If that’s not possible at this stage, Kerry should carry on.
His team has been reportedly working tirelessly on security, regional and international cooperation, economic development, as well as the political track. With all the challenges, his team also reported some success.
Some of that success has been made public, but most of it is kept in the dark. The European Union came out publicly offering both sides an unprecedented “Special Privileged Status,” which would upgrade the financial, political and security assistance from Israel’s biggest trade partner. On security, Kerry dispatched American General John Allen to Israel, where he was working on a plan to increase Israel’s security as part of an agreement with the Palestinians, in which the Israeli forces would redeploy behind recognized borders. His plans were kept under a lower public profile, but were coordinated with Benny Gantz, the IDF’s chief of staff.
On the political level, Kerry himself spent countless hours in meetings with Netanyahu, Livni, Abbas, and other senior leaders on both sides. State Department officials maintain that all of these channels yielded progress, at least on some issues. On where there’s been agreement, the public deserves to know that. On crucial issues on which there was no consensus between the two parties (for example on the 1967 borders or the sharing of Jerusalem), the US should present its best bridging proposals. Moderates supporting the peace process on both sides would be empowered to know what both sides actually agreed upon so far, as well as to realize where Kerry considers talks should be heading to in the future.
Third, trust must be built between Netanyahu and Abbas. No matter what amount of technocratic teamwork and international mediation and maneuvering, there can be no deal without a degree of mutual trust.
Prime minister Menachem Begin and president Anwar Sadat were locked up for 13 days in Camp David. It was essential for developing a degree of empathy for the other side’s concerns, and establishing some sort of personal working relation.
Yitzchak Rabin may have loathed Arafat, and the two hadn’t met during the first stages of the Oslo process.
However, their famous handshake on the White House lawn was essential to conclude the deal. Olmert and Abbas went much further and built a truly warm relationship, and met at least 36 times. Eight months into the peace process, no trust is being built between Netanyahu and Abbas. Any peace accord requires at least a small leap of faith from both sides, but the current leadership is separated by light years of suspicion.
Netanyahu and Abbas have to meet.
There are concrete measures that still need to be taken before negotiations end. Livni should pressure to set up professional teams, Kerry must reveal some of the progress that was made so far, and Netanyahu and Abbas need to engage in the process more directly. The diplomatic process sometimes feels irrelevant to the lives of ordinary citizens on the ground. Nevertheless, it must be remembered that saying Kaddish on peace might potentially give birth to another round of violence.
The writer is the previous Executive Director of OneVoice Israel. He is currently living and working in Washington D.C.