Failure is not an option

If the current peace push fails, Israelis and Palestinians will continue to bleed each other and the US will forfeit regional status.

Tzipi Livni 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Tzipi Livni 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Not surprisingly the renewal of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in late July after a three-year hiatus was greeted with widespread skepticism. Over the past 20 years Israelis and Palestinians have seen too many promising starts come to nothing.
Recent surveys by leading Israeli and Palestinian pollsters show that 69 percent of Israelis believe that the chances of success this time round are poor, while only 6 percent rate them as good. On the Palestinian side the figures are much the same: 69 percent see the likelihood of a two-state solution within the next five years as slim or non-existent.
Ironically, conditions for peacemaking have rarely been better. In Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel has a right-wing prime minister who claims to be committed to the two-state solution and who could easily carry the country if he shows the required leadership.
Despite rumblings in the coalition and his own Likud party, Netanyahu can rely on the opposition Labor party and its parliamentary allies to help him get any peace deal he makes through the Knesset.
As for the nation, polls consistently show over 60 percent in favor of a two-state solution – a figure that would almost certainly grow if a deal were actually cut and its advantages for Israel spelled out in a referendum campaign – especially one orchestrated by a securityminded leader from the right.
The Palestinians too are ripe for a deal. For the West Bank leadership, the prospect of fullfledged statehood and a $4 billion investment package are strong incentives. Moreover, in four previous sets of largely secret talks with the Netanyahu government over the past three years, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reemphasized his longstanding commitment to the two-state solution through a string of far-reaching proposals.
The Arab League is also playing a positive role. To Abbas it has given its imprimatur for Palestinian concessions and to Israel the carrot of normalization with the entire Arab/ Muslim world if peace with the Palestinians is achieved.
Most importantly, this time the Americans will be in the room determined to make things work. Secretary of State John Kerry is a man on a mission, who will not be easily denied.
Both parties will have to show a bona fide commitment to the new American endgame initiative or risk Washington’s wrath. Neither can afford to have the Americans believe they were bluffing all along, simply in the talks to have the other side blamed for failure.
If there is to be progress, the first thing the parties need to do is dump one of the cardinal principles of all previous negotiations – that “nothing is agreed until all is agreed.”
Introduced at Camp David in 2000 by prime minister Ehud Barak, the idea was to stop the Palestinians simply pocketing concessions, and then resuming negotiations from a more advantageous starting point.
Ultimately, however, this proved destructive.
Each time negotiations broke down, the new talks had to be restarted from scratch, generating ill-will and a lack of trust. A more productive approach would be to progress sequentially, building on common ground and even implementing partial agreements that do not run counter to either party’s final two-state vision.
Kerry is calling for a final peace deal within nine months, all core issues resolved, all claims waived, two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace. On the face of it, this seems overly ambitious. There are huge differences between Netanyahu and Abbas on all the core issues.
For example on borders, Abbas wants land swaps of not more than two percent with the 1967 lines as the reference point; according to Likud insiders, Netanyahu wants to annex at least 14 percent of the West Bank, and has yet to accept the principle of land swaps or recognize the ’67 lines as the basis for territorial negotiation. On security, Netanyahu wants a long-term IDF presence in the Jordan Valley; Abbas is ready to consider only an international or NATO force. The gaps on Jerusalem and the refugee issue are even wider. And what about Gaza, which Abbas does not control, or the projected land corridor between Gaza and the West Bank? Therefore many in Israel across the political spectrum insist that it makes more sense to go for an interim settlement, deferring some of the more intractable core issues for later.
Yossi Beilin, one of the architects of the Oslo peace process, proposes that Kerry first go for a full-fledged final settlement, but, if after two months he sees it is not happening, he should “switch to plan B” – an interim or transitional agreement, which entails the immediate establishment of a Palestinian state in a relatively large chunk of the West Bank, followed by intense state-to-state negotiations on all outstanding issues, including final borders.
This would be easier for Netanyahu – he would not have to make major territorial concessions straight off and easier for Abbas, who would get internationally recognized statehood without having to compromise yet on refugees or sign off on end of claims.
This model was first put forward by former defense minister and Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz in late 2009. Mofaz proposed that the parties first set the final goal: Two states along the 1967 borders with land swaps on a one to one basis and the Palestinian state demilitarized.
Israel would then withdraw from 60 percent of the West Bank, a Palestinian state would be established there, and final borders, security arrangements, Jerusalem, refugees, water and all other outstanding issues negotiated on a state to state basis.
The trouble is Abbas sees this as a trap.
He fears that once the Palestinians accept a mini-state, it will end up being all they get.
Beilin, however, claims Abbas told him he would be ready for an interim deal on two conditions: a relatively short time frame for transition from the provisional mini-state to the expanded final state with permanent borders and a “vision” or guarantee of the parameters of all core issues in the final settlement.
In Beilin’s view, Netanyahu won’t be able to give such a vision or guarantee at this juncture.
If he could, the parties could go straight there without the interim phase.
Here Beilin believes the Americans could play the decisive role. As the mediator and the power with the most influence on the parties, they could spell out the final vision and provide Abbas with the necessary assurances.
Others propose even stronger, more formal, guarantees. For example, Ron Pundak, one of the initial Oslo negotiators, suggests a new UN Security Council resolution setting out the parameters and time frame for a full-fledged peace deal.
Would this be enough for Abbas, when it is Israel, not America or the international community, that controls the relevant territory? Indeed, the outcome of the current peace push will depend largely on just how serious Netanyahu is about reaching a two-state solution – whether by stages or in one fell swoop. On this the jury is still out. Over the past several months, he has certainly been talking the talk. He has described renewing the negotiations as “an essential strategic interest,” spoken of the strategic need for a two-state solution “to prevent Israel from becoming a binational state,” released Palestinian prisoners and passed legislation for a referendum on territorial concessions, which could be seen as a move to outflank his rightwing critics and allow him more flexibility on the grounds that whatever he agrees to will be put to the nation for its approval.
Netanyahu has also reportedly taken on board what he has been hearing from the economic elite on lost business because of the occupation and the growing threat of further private and governmental sanctions if the status quo is allowed to continue.
The recently projected European Union sanctions against Jewish settlements in the West Bank or dealings with them helped drive the point home. In other words, according to this reading, Netanyahu, like Ariel Sharon before him, has “seen the light,” and partly because of the demography and partly because of the growing danger of diplomatic isolation, he has come to the conclusion that Israel needs to make a genuine attempt to reach a two-state solution that would ensure its Jewish majority, its democracy and its place among the nations.
But has he? For most of his political life Netanyahu has been staunchly opposed to a Palestinian state for security reasons. His close family influences have always tended to the ultra-hawkish. In the diplomatic sphere his record as prime minister is not one of bold initiatives but rather of sitting tight and doing nothing.
Moreover, during his previous term Netanyahu quashed four promising peace tracks, once, in the summer of 2011, even stopping President Shimon Peres at the eleventh hour from travelling to Amman to sign a framework deal with Abbas. Indeed, in September 2010, Abbas actually gave Netanyahu a peace offer in writing – agreeing to land swaps that would leave 260,000 West Bank Jewish settlers in Israel, a demilitarized Palestinian state, a NATO force in the Jordan Valley and phased Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. Netanyahu never replied.
This has led some commentators to argue that Netanyahu is only in the talks for their own sake to gain time. According to this view, it’s only a question of short-term tactics to ward off international economic and diplomatic pressure and to prevent the Palestinians from going back to the UN for the duration. Some even see it as a move to gain international brownie points to pave the way for an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
If this is Netanyahu’s game, he is skating on very thin ice. Like PA president Yasser Arafat before him over Hebron in 1997 and at Wye Plantation in 1998, Abbas will be able to get the Americans to pressure Netanyahu to make real concessions. And if in the process the talks break down and Netanyahu is blamed, Abbas will have a free run to the UN with considerable European and possibly even American support.
There is some room for optimism though.
Netanyahu must be aware of the dire consequences of being caught playing tactical games, and hopefully intends to prove the skeptics wrong by negotiating in good faith.
The American contribution will be crucial.
They will need to press the parties to go the extra mile, provide carrot-and-stick incentives and quietly wield a big blame stick.
They will record progress – both for future reference and to shape possible compromises.
Perhaps, at some point, they will present a bridging proposal of their own, taking the “Clinton parameters” of 2000 further with more up-to-date and detailed “Obama parameters,” again giving both sides a takeit- or-leave-it ultimatum.
Kerry and his team have been brilliant in getting the parties into the room. Now it will take all their skill, ingenuity, determination, patience and power to broker a two-state agreement. Falling short would be disastrous for all concerned: Israelis and Palestinians would continue to bleed each other and the US would forfeit regional status.
It is with this in mind that Kerry frequently repeats his determination to succeed.
“Failure,” he says, “is not an option.”