When Negotiating: Trust but Verify!

At the risk of perpetuating the stereotype of centrists as Hamlet-like wimps who cannot even decide, pre-Six Day-War Levi Eshkol-style, between drinking coffee or tea, I am deeply ambivalent about these upcoming peace talks.  On one hand, I genuinely want serious negotiations to start. On the other hand, I resent the high price Israel must pay before Palestinians deign to make even more demands at the table, most especially this mass murderers’ release. On one hand, I desperately want Palestinians to control their own national destiny, both for their sake and ours, because democracies should not rule over millions of non-citizens. On the other hand, I have trouble trusting the Palestinians after they turned so abruptly and brutally from peace talks to suicide bombings in 2000, while I am dismayed that the professional, perpetual peace processors have never explained Oslo’s failure. In fact, their high priest Shimon Peres keeps calling that “peace process” which killed over a thousand Israelis a “success.”
Rather than making this ambivalence – which many Israelis share -- an excuse for inaction, it should be the basis of more cautious maneuvering that might trigger a more lasting success. Yitzhak Rabin’s “peace of the brave” failed, mostly because the cowardly Yasir Arafat feared changing, and feared his own extremists. I would rather learn from Ronald Reagan’s approach to the Soviet Union, epitomized by his mantra, echoing an old Russian proverb, doveryai, no proveryai, “Trust but verify.” Reagan befriended Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan negotiated with the Soviets. Reagan could see the good in individual Russians and appreciate their desire for peace. But he recognized Communism’s evils while fearing the dastardly Soviet apparatchiks would sour the goodwill he and Gorbachev nurtured.
A “peace of the brave” throws caution to the wind; “trust but verify,” retains a healthy skepticism. A “peace of the brave” idealistically hopes to make today’s enemy into tomorrow’s ally; “trust but verify” realistically tries managing relations with your foes.  The Rabin-Peres “peace of the brave” banked on Yasir Arafat evolving into the Middle East’s Nelson Mandela. Today’s “trust but verify” approach should assume that Mahmoud Abbas will remain Mahmoud Abbas, a weak leader who has outlived his mandate but whose people might finally be ready to grow up, stop fighting, accept Israel’s existence, and start building their own state. Most important, “trust but verify” might recalibrate the professional peace processors’ greatest perversion, which enables Palestinian extremism by accepting the Palestinian narrative that Israel is the aggressor, expecting Israel to make more concessions, and absolving Palestinians of responsibility.
For too many observers – and too many Israelis – Israel lost the moral high-ground decades ago.  It began in 1967 when Israel dared to win big just as the world, especially the left, was falling in love with losers.  Absurdly, throughout the 1970s, as the Palestinians terrorized their way onto the world’s agenda – and into far left hearts, Israel lost popularity in Europe and with America’s radicals. Even in 1973, when Israel suffered a surprise attack on its holiest day, radicals like the Reverend Daniel Berrigan denounced Israel – in a move signaling the far left’s abandonment of Israel. Two years later, the United Nations’ libeling Zionism as racism helped provide the ideological infrastructure for the new war against the Jews, while the Israeli reaction emboldened the Gush Emunim settler movement in Sebastia – as Yossi Klein Halevi details in his forthcoming book, Like Dreamers. Then, in 1977, the election of Menachem Begin and his Likud Party, transformed Israel’s world image from the socialist paradise of Jaffa oranges and earnest kibbutznikim to the Western world’s bad boy of fanatic settlements and fundamentalist rabbis.
This image change, rooted in a one-sided reading of events, continues to harm Israel today, internally and externally. By the 1990s, an Israeli elite had grown up internalizing this critique, taking the ancestral Diaspora Jewish guilt the Zionist movement tried to exorcise to a newer, pathological level. Throughout the Oslo years, even as Israel took unprecedented risks for peace with the Palestinians, the radical disdain for Israel grew. When Oslo exploded due to Yasir Arafat’s refusal to make peace, the Blame Israel First industry was already well-established, having flourished during the Oslo years, despite Israel’s concessions then.
This institutionalized hostility to Israel, fueled by a systematic Arab campaign that builds on traditional anti-Semitism, is a factor in these peace talks. It helps explain how Israel is forced to appease Palestinians with what they call a “prisoner” release and we should call a terrorist or murderers’ release, because in peace-making like war-making the doctrine of necessity, “Ein Breira,” operates. We can only fulminate about enabling Palestinians and the injustice of it all so much.  As Israel sometimes bows to these unpleasant realities, Israeli resolve to insist on Palestinian recognition of the country as a Jewish state should strengthen.
Palestinians must learn that their actions have a cost.  If the Palestinians did not encourage this worldwide struggle to delegitimize Israel, the demand for them to recognize Israel as a Jewish State would not have emerged – or proven so popular. Similarly, if the Palestinians had not undermined the Oslo peace process in such an ugly, bloody way starting in September 2000, many current skeptics like me would be more trusting.
This round of negotiations may be tougher than the ones that produced the Oslo Accords because Israel has been badly burned by the Oslo debacle, the guns of Gaza, and other peacemaking fiascoes. But healthy skepticism might challenge the Middle East peace processors and Palestinian enablers constructively. Naïve assumptions will guarantee another failure. Starting with Bibi Netanyahu’s Reaganesque skepticism, seeking to “trust but verify,” might be the path to a breakthrough that does not just generate headlines – but actually lasts.
Gil Troy is a Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow. His latest book Moynihan''s Moment: America''s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, was just published by Oxford University Press.Watch the new Moynihan''s Moment video!