The failures of all the previous attempts – in Madrid in 1991, in Oslo in 1993 and at Camp David in 2000 – highlight the difficulties entailed.
What are the obstacles that have prevented the parties from making peace? And what have we learned from these failures so that the same errors in judgment do not recur? What we now know is that the conflict is no longer simply about territory. Israel was ready, in secret negotiations that took place with Syria in the 1990s, to return the whole of the Golan. At Camp David Israel formally agreed to the establishment of a Palestinian state and was prepared to offer the Palestinians 92 percent of the occupied West Bank and Gaza, but no peace agreement was reached. So if the territories and acceptance of a Palestinian state are not the main problem, what are the real issues still dividing Israelis and Arabs? If we look deeper at the psychological level of this conflict, the two main requirements for Israelis are security and recognition, while those of the Palestinians and Syrians remain “justice” and “equality.”
The academic literature dealing with psychological barriers to conflict resolution emphasizes that simplistic principles of “justice,” “equality” and “security” do not sufficiently define tangible interests, but are purely subjective for the parties involved.
An issue like “security” is very difficult to define.
Can territorial compromise promise security? It was very clear to me at Camp David that the Palestinians were much more interested in the illusive ideas of “justice” and “equality” than in definable interests. Agreement was reached on all the concrete issues, including territories, settlements and even the thorny issue of Jerusalem. The two main obstacles, the refugee problem and the political status of the Temple Mount, were more symbolic than concrete.
Today we can say that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have developed new insights into the difficulties. The most important realization Israel has reached is that territory does not guarantee security and that security can never be absolute.
The Palestinians have come to a similarly realistic conclusion regarding their ideal of justice. In parallel with the collapse of the idea of a “Greater Israel,” the Palestinians have woken up from any former dream of a “Greater Palestine.”
Likewise with the idea of achieving justice regarding the refugee issue as defined by the simplistic slogan, “Right of Return”: most Palestinians today accept that they will not be able to return to their former homes in Israel. These, I would suggest, are significant steps forward on the long road to peace.
I would like to add a few further comments regarding Camp David. What really happened there? I do not accept the thesis offered by Clinton and Barak, that the responsibility for failure was all Yasser Arafat’s, and I would like to analyze the main sticking points, as objectively as I can, without pointing the finger of blame. Only in this way can we avoid similar mistakes in the peace conference to take place.
By now there are lessons that should have been learned. The first is that we must be more aware of the specific minefields the negotiators will be walking into. Ironically, the only questions that were not prepared for in advance of Camp David were those concerning the Temple Mount and the refugee problem. These two issues were considered such hot potatoes, it was thought advisable not to bring them up until all other problems had been resolved.
But what happened at Camp David was that these issues jumped to the head of the queue. All the other issues – borders, territories, settlements and even Jerusalem – had been all but solved.
The second lesson highlights the need for new UN resolutions on Jerusalem and the refugees, taking into account the new realities. The existing resolutions are totally anachronistic. The Holy Places, as well as Jerusalem itself, are supposed to be internationalized according to UN Resolution 181, which was passed in 1947 and is still considered binding. Regarding the issue of refugees, UN Resolution 194, passed in 1949, speaks of the right of all Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in Israel.
But even the Arab League modified this stipulation at their Beirut summit in 2002, with a new resolution proposing “a just solution which must also be accepted by Israel.”
The third lesson teaches that Israel and the Palestinians on their own are clearly not capable of reaching peace. But meanwhile the United States can no longer be considered an honest broker for all the protagonists in future talks. A suitable arbitrator must not only be ready to reward the two sides for any concessions they are ready to make, but also ready to bang their heads together when necessary. The United States has no real tools with which to pressure either side. Clearly, a fourth party needs to wield its influence, and, in my opinion, any arm-twisting that is to be applied to the Palestinian side can only come from the Arab League.
The fourth and final lesson is that we cannot separate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the Israeli-Arab conflict as a whole. For years we have been told that solving the first will bring peace with the Arab world. I want to suggest that it should be the other way round: first Israel must achieve peace with the Arab world. The issue of peace with Syria, despite recent events, is, in some ways, far more achievable.
The question is no longer, as it used to be, “is Israel ready to give up the Golan?” Israel makes just two demands in return for the Golan: 1. that it have full control of the Sea of Galilee so any new agreed border be at least 50 meters from the water-line, and 2. that monitoring stations be permitted on a demilitarized Golan. Peace with Syria, in my opinion, is even more important and urgent than peace with the Palestinians.
Ending the dispute between Israel and the Arab states would make it much easier to later find solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The author has been involved for the past 30 years in back-door diplomacy with many Arab leaders, in Palestine, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt and was an advisor to prime minister Ehud Barak at the Camp David and Taba talks, 2000-2001.