The first nine months of permanent- status negotiations are about to run out, with a possible renewal still fiercely debated.
This period is a testament to the weakness of the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships.
Not a single courageous decision was taken by either Binyamin Netanyahu or Mahmoud Abbas. Both skillfully played the blame game as to who will carry the onus for a failure of the effort. They did not meet once and their negotiations mainly tried to convince the Americans of their just cause. Negotiate they did not.
This nine-month pregnancy was aborted from day one when the parties offered vague but maximalist positions, knowing all too well that they are irreconcilable.
Nine months later, the parties stick to their opening positions, and, if anything, they have hardened them. Netanyahu asks for settlement blocs and security arrangements that would make a twostate solution impossible. Abbas is rejecting even oral compromises on the recognition of the Jewish state.
We witnessed an exercise in political escapism, both leaders caring about their popularity, not their people. With such an unwillingness to compromise and total mutual suspicion, even an agreement to open a supermarket in Area C of the West Bank would be impossible.
And yet both sides want to avoid a collapse of the talks that would most probably lead to violence and intifada. For this, they ask for American rescue, without supporting the American efforts. The champions of missed opportunity seek another period of so-called negotiations in order to miss other opportunities. The only people to profit from this, together with Netanyahu and Abbas, are about 100 Palestinian elderly terrorists from the pre-Oslo period.
The United States has the best of intentions for this process and means business.
John Kerry can be entered into the Guinness Book of World Records for the most hours spent with the leaders of the region. It’s not “messianic obsession” that moves him, as our offending minister of defense would like us to believe, but a true interest in peace between Israel and Palestine as a strategic cornerstone for a more stable Middle East. In this, he has the full support of President Barack Obama.
By now, even the well-meaning Americans understand who their clients are: leaders unwilling, or unfit, to make courageous decisions in favor of necessary historic change. Both sides have demonstrated a degree of thanklessness to the Americans rare even in the annals of Middle East peacemaking. And yet the United States, under Obama, is still willing to attempt to revive the process to launch a new round of negotiations, hoping against hope for a more serious attitude.
The American regional policy is part of a larger foreign policy doctrine of the Obama administration. Barack Obama bases his doctrine on a liberal world view and on an astute reading of the modern world. He concludes that the use of force is futile in an era of proliferation of terror and arms of mass destruction, and that the policies of countries who seek hostility can only be affected by economic sanctions and collective diplomacy, as is beginning to be the case with Syria and Iran. For those who don’t follow the new rules, such as Vladimir Putin’s Russia, they will be isolated and boycotted. The Obama doctrine combines a great belief in the power of diplomacy, in international relations in general and in conflict resolution in particular, with a non-interventionist attitude – countries are free to join the club of diplomacy, irrespective of their strength, or to remain isolated, irrespective of their weakness.
There is a clear parallel between the conceptual background of Obama’s foreign and domestic policies. At home, he intervenes in an inclusive socioeconomic process in favor of the needy, while respecting the freedoms of the private sector. This is very much reflected in Obamacare, which expands the affordability, quality and availability of private and public health insurance without replacing private insurance. Over 100 million Americans have already benefited from the new healthcare law, others are critical of it.
In the Middle East, the Obama administration is also attempting a healing process for affordable peace and an improved quality of life, while respecting the right of countries to go in other directions – an invitation to join “Obama’s Middle East- Care” or not.
The right thing to do for the regional leaders would be to take the destiny of their countries into their own hands and make the necessary decisions to put an end to the conflict. As Obama said: One knows the form that the outcome of the process will take – a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines. The question is: Will this happen as a result of a negotiation process before the outbreak of violence in the region, or will it be imposed by the world after regional violence? The necessary decisions are for our own good, both for Israel and Palestine. We actually don’t need an American babysitter for such an agreement, if we are mature enough. But apparently we are not, and so we need Obama to take care of the process.
The US administration has shown tremendous responsibility and commitment in dealing with an obstructive region and with Israeli and Palestinian naysayers.
Given the limited success so far, a redefinition of policy attitudes is warranted.
John Kerry and his gifted diplomatic staff have been concentrating on finding a middle ground between the formal positions of Netanyahu and Abbas. That cannot work, because there is not sufficient political will on either side. An effective Middle East policy has to take into account the shift that the region is going through, due to the greater clout that is carried by the people, mainly the younger generation of Arabs and Israelis. In an era of more information and connectivity, the majority of young citizens have a growing skepticism toward their government and feel an unprecedented sense of empowerment. It is therefore important that the middle ground between Israelis and Palestinians should be defined between the people’s consensus in the two societies.
A majority of citizens on both sides want an end to the conflict and are ready for compromise in favor of a better quality of life. Most Israelis would give up on the West Bank (i.e., accept a border based on the 1967 lines) and at least parts of east Jerusalem in return for concrete security arrangements and relations with the Arab world. Most Palestinians are ready to live in peace and security with Israel (with security, not occupation, arrangements) and without the right of return to Israel, provided that it leads to a fully independent state. Oral statements on recognition or normalization are viewed as unimportant.
Young people (60 percent in our region are under 30) want good education, good employment and basic civil rights. If that can be assured, they will go a long way to compromise, much more than their leaders.
It is in between these consensuses that the Americans can define the key principles for a two-state solution. Such a document would state the basis for permanent- status negotiations – a two nationstate solution with a border based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps, with the Palestinian capital in the east Jerusalem area, stringent security measures with temporary IDF presence along the Jordan River and a just and agreed upon (also by Israel) solution to the Palestinian refugee problem, an end to the conflict and claims, normalization of relations with the Arab states and an economic upgrade for Israel and Palestine by the EU and the US.
More than 60% of Israelis and Palestinians would agree to such a compromise formula; only 10% of each side’s government agrees with it. Yet the governments know the views of their constituents from social media and therefore, with some pressure, would probably agree to continue negotiations.
Peace is not about politics. It is about the most basic rights of people – the right to live in dignity, equality, security and prosperity.
The American peace effort should take a turn toward a peace of the people. This is in full harmony, not only with Obama’s foreign policy doctrine, but also with his fundamental values at home. Just as Obamacare is aimed at the needs of the American people, “Obama’s Middle East- Care” should be aimed at the desires and interests of the people of the region.
The writer is honorary president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.
Barbara Hurwitz edited this column.