Encountering Peace: Diplomatic frustration

Everyone is waiting to see the outcome of the Kerry efforts to launch new Israeli- Palestinian negotiations.

July 17, 2013 22:21
Kerry and Abbas in Ramallah, June 30, 2013

Kerry and Abbas 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

During the past few weeks several important countries including Canada, the United States and France have held their Independence Day parties at their respective ambassadors’ residences in Israel for Israelis, in Jerusalem for Israelis and Palestinians and in Ramallah for Palestinians. Thousands of Israeli and Palestinian guests attended the various celebration parties.

Now most of the diplomatic community is heading home for summer vacation and many of them have spent their last days before leaving trying to assess the Israeli- Palestinian political realities in order to report back to their governments.

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During this period I have had many conversations with ambassadors, consul-generals, and political and economic officers from various countries.

The general consensus is that everyone is waiting to see the outcome of the Kerry efforts to launch new Israeli- Palestinian negotiations.

Kerry is back in the region, expecting to close gaps and to hear positive responses from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Very few of the diplomats are optimistic.

All agree that Kerry must be given a fair chance and be supported in word and in deed.

Everyone wants him to succeed, but they all asked me what will happen if he does not. There is a growing sense of frustration among the diplomats regarding the freeze in any kind of peace process, reflecting the frustration they understand exists back at home in their governments.

Unlike in the past when most of the frustration was directed solely at the Israeli side for its lack of flexibility, now the frustration is directed at both sides. Netanyahu and Abbas are both seen as being stubborn. Almost every diplomat I spoke to voiced their lack of ability to understand how the Israeli and Palestinian leaders seem (to them) to be acting against their own national interests. Almost all of them asked me what can be done.

My response to them, I think, surprised them.

They all wanted to know what could be done to influence public opinion. Most of their attention was placed on influencing Israeli public opinion. Mostly coming from democracies, their logic tells them that if the public demanded their leaders advance peace, the leaders would have to listen and act accordingly.

The diplomats see almost no public outcry in Israel or Palestine for political action toward peace. There are no mass demonstrations, there is no rage from “the people” about the lack of negotiations. There is no public pressure.

In fact, it appears that the public is completely complacent, apathetic, non-political and even blind to the unfolding potential disaster (for both sides) that they foresee. The diplomats are bewildered by the total absence of demand for action at a time that seems to them to be a window of opportunity against the perceived fading chance of peace.

THE EUROPEAN diplomats told me that there is no way to prevent the European decision to label settlement products.

The decision has been made and there is no turning back, as long as the political freeze remains. In the eyes of Europe, continued Israeli settlement building is a direct affront against the chances of making peace.

Settlements are also in contravention of international law, as understood in Europe.

The Europeans are no longer willing to suffice with impotent statements against settlements; they have turned up the heat and are now talking about taking action.

The recent publication of EU guidelines on no support for projects beyond the Green Line is a clear indication of European political intentions and decisions. However, when it comes to boycotts of Israeli products, there is a firm negative position.

The EU and its 28 member states are not willing to even talk about boycotts right now, but the issue is not off the map forever. For now, it is not part of the discussion, but it could be. They asked me what kind of pressure could help.

On both issues – creating public opinion from the ground up and on pressure on the Israeli government, my responses surprised them. I don’t believe that it is possible to create a wave of public opinion in Israel or on the Palestinian side that will make the governments act differently than they are currently acting.

The publics will not demonstrate for peace not because they don’t want peace – they do (on both sides) – but because they don’t believe peace is possible. And if you don’t believe that something is possible, you don’t go to the streets to demand it. I told them that in my assessment, if there were an agreement, the public support for the agreement is there.

The majority of Israelis and Palestinians will support their governments if they do reach an agreement between them.

That is what all public opinion research in Israel and Palestine shows us. Given our current reality, it is waste of time and resources to try to get the public to come out and demonstrate for peace.

Regarding pressure on Netanyahu, I expressed the opinion that there is a need to influence both leaders – Netanyahu and Abbas. In fact, it seems that while Netanyahu may have demonstrated more flexibility than in the past, Abbas, it appears, is hardening his positions. Both sides need to be convinced to get to the negotiations.

Even those who express that negotiations are destined to fail, I say that negotiations have a dynamic of their own and it is impossible to predict their outcome once they commence, if both sides are sincere in their claims that they really want to reach peace.

The best way to influence Netanyahu and Abbas is not through pressure and threats but by clearly presenting the potential benefits that both sides can gain for their people by moving forwards toward peace. Threats, I believe, knowing the Israeli and Palestinian mentalities, will be counter-productive.

I suggested that the leaders of the more Israel-friendly countries in Europe should come to Netanyahu with a small group of their top business people and clearly state how willing they would be to make significant investments in the Israeli economy if Israel were at peace with its Palestinian neighbors, while pointing out that at the moment they have no intention of making such investments and are even considering withdrawing or limiting whatever investments they may already have (because Israel is becoming increasingly unpopular among European citizens).

The same can be done with President Abbas by Palestinefriendly countries. Both sides would respond much more favorably to those kinds of incentives than the threats that are thrown around so loosely.

Peace is possible and negotiations between Netanyahu and Abbas are the best way to get there. The only way we will get into serious negotiations, and that those negotiations will succeed, is by convincing the two leaders. The fate of possible peace, the fate of both peoples is in the hands of two men. Binyamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas bear tremendous responsibility, more than any two other people in the world regarding the future of the people of Israel and Palestine.

They must be convinced to live up to opportunity.

The writer is the co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit.

His new book, Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel, has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew.

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