Opinion

‘Let us never fear to negotiate’

Kennedy spoke about negotiations and the attitude and approach that ought best be taken if success were to be achieved.

Former United States President John F. Kennedy
Photo by: Reuters
Among the perspectives that may be offered towards the current, “intensive,” protracted negotiations, orchestrated by former US senator (from Massachusetts) John F. Kerry, are observations made by one of his predecessors as Massachusetts senator, John F. Kennedy, in his celebrated, and inspiring, inaugural address.

For much of what Kennedy had to say that day – on January 20, 1961 – was about negotiations: not only the need for them, but about the attitude and approach that ought best be taken if success were to be achieved.

Of course, Kennedy stressed that negotiation should be from a position of strength – “We dare not tempt them with weakness” – but it was not this commonsense realism that was the most remembered feature of his address. For he went on to say, “to those nations who would make themselves our adversary,” that the United States offers “not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace.”

In doing so he presented a set of principles, or precepts, appropriate to any deadly serious “long twilight struggle.”

His first – and perhaps most important – idea was this: that adversaries put aside incitement and abuse, as they “begin anew, remembering… that civility is not a sign of weakness” (while recognizing, as well, that “sincerity is always subject to proof”).

His overarching principle, elegantly expressed, was this: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

Kennedy – in speaking about his country and the Soviet Union – was clear not only about the need to negotiate but about what negotiations ought actually to be about: “Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.

“Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals… “Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors.

Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce.”

Unlike some Israeli politicians, Kennedy was not uncomfortable quoting Scripture: “Let both sides unite to heed in all corners of the earth the command of Isaiah – to ‘undo the heavy burdens... and to let the oppressed go free.’” Finally, looking further to the future, Kennedy sketched a brief vision of peace with security: “And if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion, let both sides join in creating a new endeavor, not a new balance of power, but a new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved.”

The rhetoric with which John F. Kennedy launched his presidency does not envisage a “framework,” painstakingly hammered out between intractable adversaries, but rather a genuine new beginning, based on well-articulated, carefully defined interests and values.

Kennedy’s vision of negotiations has application well beyond discussions taking place involving the authorities in Jerusalem and Ramallah. For the larger issues of peace and war ultimately and inevitably embrace relations between Israel and the Arab and Muslim states both near and far.

The 1947 UN General Assembly vote was, indeed, for “two states,” a Jewish state and an Arab state. Such was the language of the UN General Assembly Resolution.

That vocabulary – involving a proposal to establish a Jewish state alongside an Arab state – does not come from the present prime minister of Israel, or from Israel’s governing coalition, but from the UN General Assembly’s own resolution.

The requirement that Israel’s negotiating partner recognize the existence of a Jewish state, as an appropriate part of a permanent peace settlement in which all claims have been resolved, is in this sense assuredly a central, rather than peripheral, element in the ongoing discussions.

But the requirement is even more fundamental to Israel’s wider relations with the many Arab League countries. In a sense, this can regarded as something of a “what if” scenario, inviting those Arab countries which voted against the 1947 resolution – rejecting the idea of a Jewish state – to have a “do over,” a second chance: to demonstrate that today, now, if given another opportunity, in the interest of peace and reconciliation, and in recognition of all that has occurred since 1947, that they would vote, even if regretfully, differently.

That is the challenge that former senator Kerry, now secretary of state, today faces: not to see whether Israel’s negotiators will support a “two-state” solution, one Jewish, the other Arab – the essence of the 1947 resolution so opposed by the Arab states of the time (and subsequently) – but whether Arab governments will do so.

Failure to do so – to (in a sense) retrospectively vote “yes” in favor of a Jewish and an Arab state – would demonstrate that today, apart from the governments of Egypt and Jordan, the 1967 post-Six Day War Arab League summit’s famous statement – the three noes: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel – remains in force. Sometimes commentators write about these “principles” in the past tense, but the governments of Arab states continue to refrain, today, from openly meeting for discussions with Israeli government representatives: “no negotiations.” Nor is there peace, nor yet recognition, though neither requires prior agreement on matters of policy, and both are obligations implicitly found in the UN Charter – “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state” – by which all UN member states are ostensibly bound.

I suppose that any Israeli leader can, with little effort, remind themselves, their adversaries, and their negotiating partners that the Israeli people are, in Kennedy’s words, “heirs of that first revolution” and that, today, “tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage,” the government and people of Israel are able to “let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe,” in order to assure the survival of Israel and the achievement of its aspirations for liberty, justice and security.

These undertakings, too, form a part of a proud negotiating stance for leaders who “never negotiate out of fear” yet at the same time ‘never fear to negotiate.”

Kerry and indeed all those involved in the current negotiations would no doubt recognize the truth in Kennedy’s outlook as he sought negotiations while remaining skeptical about what they might achieve. For in striving for peace, Kennedy, a self-described “idealist without illusions,” did not anticipate immediate results – “All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet” – but he did set a good standard for all negotiators, impatient or otherwise, to keep before them: “With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”

The writer is a professor of political science at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.


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