Playing the hard way

Given the bleak outlook, will the US stick to its self-imposed task of bringing the parties back to the peace table?

peace (photo credit: marc israel sellem)
(photo credit: marc israel sellem)
TWO WEEKS BEFORE Christmas, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unveiled a new, no-nonsense American initiative for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Speaking at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington, she argued that the status quo, despite the economic progress and ostensible quiet in the West Bank, do not serve longerterm American, Israeli or Palestinian interests. Ongoing conflict is at odds with America’s regional goals, will create demographic and missile threats for Israel and could cost the Palestinians their chance for statehood.
The new American modus operandi would be to hold intensive parallel discussions with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on all the core issues, including borders, security, Jerusalem and refugees, forcing them to put detailed, realistic positions on the table in an effort to establish enough common ground for direct talks on a framework agreement for peace. If the parties prove incapable of getting close enough on their own, the US will make bridging proposals, which, although the secretary never said so, might well be presented as binding, as were the “Clinton Parameters” of December 2000.
In other words, the very notion of American bridging proposals carries a veiled threat that if the parties fail to enter serious negotiations, the international community would know precisely who is to blame and why.
Throughout, Clinton’s tone suggested a strong, businesslike determination. At last, it seemed, the Americans would be doing what many observers had been calling for for months – taking the recalcitrant parties by the scruff of their necks and banging their heads together until they see sense. “The United States will not be a passive participant. We will push the parties to lay out their positions on the core issues without delay and with real specificity. We will work to narrow the gaps asking the tough questions and expecting substantive answers. And in the context of our private conversations with the parties, we will offer our own ideas and bridging proposals when appropriate,” she declared.
As if to underline American resolve, special peace envoy George Mitchell arrived for talks on borders on December 13, just three days after Clinton’s speech. Then, during the same week, Dennis Ross, now with the National Security Council, met with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and IDF top brass to discuss Israel’s security demands, and the NSC’s Mideast Director Dan Shapiro, together with Mitchell’s deputy David Hale, held separate follow-up talks with the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams.
But not much emerged from these initial feelers. The initial sticking points, it seems, concern Palestinian demands for an Israeli commitment to the 1967 lines as the basis for a future border and Israeli demands for a residual military presence in the Jordan Valley. Mitchell was reportedly unhappy with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, he thought, could have given him more to go with on borders and the Palestinians were subsequently unhappy with a “non-paper” on borders and security presented by Mitchell because it was too vague.
THE AMERICAN INITIATIVE FOR intense parallel talks came in the wake of the precipitate collapse of direct negotiations in late September, when Israel refused to renew a moratorium on building in Jewish West Bank settlements. Claiming they had been duped over a promised extension of the freeze, the Palestinians launched a twopronged counter-strategy circumventing the Netanyahu government altogether. The tactic was to get as many members of the international community as possible to recognize a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders and, through direct appeals over the government’s head, to convince the Israeli people how committed the Palestinians under President Mahmud Abbas are to a genuine peace.
The goal is far-reaching: to generate heavy international and domestic pressure on Netanyahu to move towards acceptance of a Palestinian state on their terms.
Israel retorted that unilateral actions by the Palestinians were meaningless and would get them nowhere. Israeli embassies across the globe conveyed the official Israeli position that the conflict could only be resolved through mutual consent, that unilateral actions could undermine all previous agreements and that international support for unilateral actions could subvert any chance of a meaningful peace process by encouraging the Palestinians to think they could achieve statehood without having to negotiate with Israel or make concessions.
Clearly, given the breakdown in communication between the parties, the American role in getting the peacemaking back on track is crucial. But how much are the Americans willing to invest in a process that has proved so intractable in the past? Can they rein in a Palestinian leadership that has moved off on an entirely different tangent? And can they get a right-tending Israeli government, skeptical of Palestinian intentions, to make significant concessions for peace?
In other words, what chance does the current effort have of succeeding where all others have failed? And what are the strategic consequences of failure – for the US, Israel, the Palestinians and the region as a whole? Although Israel is going along with the new American initiative, it sees it as a significant regression from the direct peace talks the parties agreed to with great fanfare in early September. “From Israel’s point of view, this is second best,” a senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office, speaking on condition of anonymity, tells The Report. “Obviously, ongoing direct negotiations on all the core issues, with Israel compromising on some and the Palestinians compromising on others, would have been preferable. That is what we wanted,” he declares.
In the Israeli view, the current impasse in the talks is a direct result of the Palestinian refusal to engage. The official charges that the Palestinians have made a conscious decision to avoid direct talks with Israel for two main reasons: For one, with the radical Hamas breathing down their necks, Palestinian leaders don’t want to be seen to be making major concessions to Israel. They have also come to believe that they can get a deal on their terms through the international community.
“It won’t work,” the official warns. “Because it won’t change things on the ground one iota.”
In other words, Israel won’t withdraw from the West Bank just because countries recognize a Palestinian state there or because the UN passes a resolution on the issue. “On the contrary,” the official continues, “the message from the international community to the Palestinians ought to be that there can be no peace without negotiations and that everything else is a mirage.” Worse, he says, people backing the Palestinian move are unintentionally subverting the process, because they are fostering the illusion that somehow the international community can deliver a twostate peace deal without talking to Israel and without the Palestinians having to make compromises.
“People with good intentions are inadvertently putting a spanner in the works,” he maintains.
That is not the only problem bedeviling the current American initiative. Even more worrying for the Americans is Israeli reluctance to make the serious offer on borders that could get the Palestinians interested in the new process. The Israeli side argues that there can be no discussion of borders “in a vacuum” – in other words, that Israel cannot be expected to delineate a final frontier until it knows more about the nature of the Palestinian state on the other side. Israel also needs to discuss borders together with other core issues so that it can make trade-offs between them.
All this, however, creates a paralyzing Catch-22 situation: Israel argues that borders can only be seriously discussed in tandem with all the other core issues, whereas the Palestinians want assurances on the border issue before they talk about the rest.
There is also a domestic political side. Netanyahu, according to his aides, is loath to make an Israeli concession on borders public until he can show the Israeli people what he is getting in return. Indeed, Netanyahu seems to be inhibited by two major fears: that he will make concessions in a vacuum, which the Palestinians will pocket without making significant reciprocal moves and that, in the end, Abbas will not sign the deal, leaving the Israeli prime minister high and dry after making far-reaching concessions and unelectable as leader of the right.
THE PALESTINIAN NARRATIVE is very different. They claim peace is there for the taking. All that is needed is for Netanyahu to pick up where his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, left off.
This was the main message Abbas tried to get across when he hosted a large delegation of Israeli politicians, peace activists and journalists at the presidential Muqata’ah in Ramallah in mid-December. According to Abbas, he and Olmert had finalized a detailed agreement on security and were very close to a deal on borders.
The security arrangements included a clause known as the “Jones agreement,” after US General Jim Jones, now the national security advisor and then the special US envoy on Middle East security, for the deployment in the West Bank of an international force, probably from NATO and US-led, to help secure peace after an Israeli withdrawal.
Abbas implied that he remained agreeable to this – a major concession by the Palestinians – although he would not countenance any Israeli presence on the international force, or on its own, as Netanyahu was demanding. On borders, Abbas insisted that the differences between him and Olmert had been minimal and were eminently bridgeable. Olmert, he said, had proposed annexing 6.5 percent of the West Bank with land swaps on a one-to-one basis, to which he had made a counteroffer of 1.9 percent. Once there was agreement on borders and security, which was well within reach, everything else, including loaded issues like Jerusalem and refugees, would fall into place, Abbas insisted.
Israeli doves tend to agree with Abbas that conditions are ripe for a peace agreement, and that what is needed are brave decisions by the leaders on both sides. “There’s not all that much left to discuss. The solutions are more or less known. The American goal should not be simply to keep a process going, but to bring both sides to a point where they have to take the hard decisions,” says Gadi Baltiansky, director general of the Geneva Initiative, an Israeli-Palestinian peace lobby based on an unofficial 2003 draft peace agreement.
Baltiansky and other Geneva Initiative leaders, including former Labor party boss Amram Mitzna, now on the comeback trail, were guests of honor at the Muqata’ah. Mitzna, once the general in charge of the West Bank, was particularly impressed with the new levels of Palestinian law and order. Ramallah, he and other Israeli generals present agreed, was now a much safer place for Israelis than when they were in charge.
For Baltiansky, this means that Israel no longer has any security excuse for staying on in the West Bank. “It’s ridiculous. People who don’t want to withdraw keep finding excuses not to. First they say the Palestinians aren’t doing enough on security, then that there is still incitement and after that that they don’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state. But these are just excuses. The current government doesn’t want to pull out. If it did, it would have done so by now,” he charges.
The problem, in Baltiansky’s view, is that Netanyahu, caught between his own staunch right-wing beliefs and minimal international demands, is doing all he can to avoid making decisions. “Either he will express outmoded and irrelevant right-wing positions the whole world will ridicule, or he will be forced to adopt positions he doesn’t really hold. In both cases, he loses. So he is trying to avoid having to decide,” Baltiansky asserts.
The upshot, in Baltiansky’s view, is that the Israel-Palestinian peace process is not just marking time, it’s actually going backwards with potentially inimical consequences for Israel in the region. He points out that for some time now there has been no Turkish or Jordanian ambassador in Israel and he warns that deadlock with the Palestinians could lead eventually to the Egyptian ambassador leaving too. “Israel’s failure to become an integral part of the region through peace agreements will lead to growing isolation and to the strengthening of the radical forces that don’t want to see us here.
“Our tragedy,” he declares, “is the fear that paralyzes our leaders.”AS A RESULT OF THE STALEMATE, Israeli diplomacy, instead of taking the peace process forward, finds itself fighting a rearguard action against the Palestinian unilateral initiatives. Over the past few weeks the Palestinians have scored some notable successes: Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia and Ecuador have recognized Palestine in the 1967 borders. EU counties like France and Spain have upgraded relations with the Palestinian Authority and others are considering following suit. All this is setting the stage for two sweeping Security Council moves: first, a Palestinian-initiated resolution condemning Israel’s “illegal settlement activities” in the West Bank and then another recognizing a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders.
Crucially, though, the Palestinians have failed to make inroads in the US. Indeed, they received a major setback in mid-December, when the House of Representatives passed a resolution calling on the administration to “deny recognition to any unilaterally declared Palestinian state and veto any resolution by the United Nations Security Council to establish or recognize a Palestinian state outside of an agreement negotiated by the two parties.”
Given the bleak outlook, will the US stick to its self-imposed task of bringing the parties back to the peace table? Bar-Ilan University political scientist Eytan Gilboa, an expert on American policy, is convinced it will. In Gilboa’s view, the US has invested too much on the Israeli-Palestinian track to pull back now. Moreover, he says, Washington still sees realistic chances for success, which could offset looming failures in other parts of the region, like Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. He thinks the Americans will try to pressure Netanyahu, using the twin-specter of a Security Council resolution on Palestine, which they might not veto, and a binding American peace plan, which might not be to Israel’s liking.
Gilboa, however, believes these strongarm tactics will fail, mainly because the parties are not ready to make the major, irreversible concessions needed for a final peace deal. Instead, he says, the Americans would be better off going for an interim deal that serves the interests of both Israelis and Palestinians. “I would advise Obama to create goodwill by visiting Israel and the Palestinians. Then to change his peace team, starting with Mitchell. Then I would change the strategy. I think both sides would find it much easier to go for an interim agreement,” he declares.
Gilboa, however, does not believe that failure of the current American initiative will have major regional repercussions, precisely because the stakes for America are so high. “They will not allow something that is perceived as a final, irrevocable failure, because if they have a failure and leave it at that, the consequences would be catastrophic. The chances are that failure this time round will simply morph into a new American plan,” he declares.
Others are less sanguine. Some pundits talk eerily about a situation reminiscent of the calm before the storm of the 1973 Yom Kippur War – a country lulled into a false sense of security by economic prosperity, military prowess and a conception that peace with the Palestinians/Arabs is not really necessary. Others point to what they see as a multiple failure of leadership: Israel arrogant and blind; Palestinians failing to engage and pursuing a dead-end unilateralism; moderate Arab states failing to pressure the Palestinians or press their 2002 Arab Peace Initiative; Americans unable to assert real authority.
The result: The moderates in the region are failing to take advantage of favorable conditions for an Israeli-Palestinian peace, a failure which plays into the hands of Iran and its radical supporters.
In this view, the wider backdrop for the Israeli-Palestinian track is the overarching regional battle between Iranian-led radicals and US-led moderates. That is what is fundamentally at stake. And the question is: Will Hillary Clinton be able to translate the determination in her Saban Forum speech into determination on the ground to get the moderate camp to do what is in its own overall best interests?