Critical Currents: Talking differently

It is time to think about the relationship of two independent states living side by side.

rabin shake 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
rabin shake 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The ongoing paralysis in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is attributable - so conventional wisdom has it - to the absence of a viable negotiating partner. Israelis claim that Yasser Arafat was untrustworthy, that Mahmoud Abbas is too weak, and that Hamas is unacceptable. Palestinians, in turn, have expressed their lack of confidence first in Ehud Barak, then in Ariel Sharon, and now in the politically beleaguered Ehud Olmert. These protestations are beginning to ring hollow. One suspects that these constant person-centered procrastinations are merely an excuse not to deal with the real heart of the matter. The problem is not that there is nobody to talk to, but that no leader wants to tackle the hard issues that need to be talked about. The reciprocal reluctance to contend with the core problems of the conflict stems from the fear that any permanent settlement will require concessions that go beyond what the present leadership is politically willing or able to offer. For too long, Israelis and Palestinians have effectively been grappling with the language and concepts laid down in Oslo and uncritically perpetuated since in the Clinton proposals, the road map and even the Geneva Initiative. Indeed, the five major permanent-status issues established within this framework - borders, Jerusalem, settlements, security and refugees - have assumed an almost sacrosanct status. Since the signing of the Declaration of Principles on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993, the working assumption has been that if only some understanding could be reached on these extremely contentious matters, the conflict would be resolved. Without belittling the significance of each of these questions or ignoring the difficulties they entail, this presumption might not be as ironclad now as it has appeared in the past. The Oslo-rooted mode of defining the main issues may have actually hampered their timely resolution. A thorough revamping of the presumptions, elements and procedures of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations might reinvigorate progress towards their successful completion. TODAY, UNLIKE at the outset of talks, the objective of efforts to achieve a just accord focuses squarely on the two-state solution. There is now near-universal unanimity, reiterated unequivocally by the Quartet barely a week ago, that any sustainable agreement must concentrate on ending the occupation and establishing a viable and contiguous independent Palestine alongside Israel. No such consensus exists on the list of the items that have to be negotiated in this context, because little effort has been made to discuss and agree on the nature of the relationship between these contiguous sovereign entities. The first challenge is therefore one of reframing the precise purpose of negotiations. It concerns engaging in the crucial exercise of laying out a clear vision of the type of interaction between two independent states living in close proximity after years of enmity and strife. Without a more lucid depiction of the preferred relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, it is impossible to move ahead. Sadly, no such attempt was made in the past. Initiating such a process now is vital not only for introducing a new discourse, but also for significantly expanding the dialogue within and between the two societies. The outcome of these discussions, besides concretizing the objectives of negotiations, would also provide something totally lacking at the moment - a powerful impetus for their resumption. The second challenge follows from here: reformulating the key ingredients needed to achieve the shared vision. It may very well be that a different list of permanent-status issues will emerge. Thus, it is conceivable that to reach a stable two-state relationship, much more attention has to be paid to questions not directly addressed within the Oslo framework. These might include economic relations, human rights, environmental concerns and political ties, along with the inescapable security issues. Within each of these categories (not dissimilar to the baskets created to reorder European relations in the waning years of the Cold War), it would still be imperative to deal with the implications of any understandings for the undeniably ultrasensitive questions of Jerusalem, settlements, boundaries and refugees. But it is very possible that existing disagreements might be at least somewhat allayed when tackled as part of a different set of concerns leading to mutually beneficial results. The third challenge then would be to launch negotiations and finalize agreements within each of the main clusters and, on this basis, to draw up a timetable for implementation. In the interim, initial acts of goodwill could be launched with a view to improving conditions on the ground and increasing the opportunities for new, nonviolent, forms of Palestinian-Israeli interchange. An overhaul of the manner in which outstanding sources of friction are presented may provide the missing component so needed to jump-start a productive negotiating process. It would also connect any future talks more closely to a peaceful outcome by encouraging joint work on what has been so glaringly ignored in recent years: the nature of the relationship between two independent states living side by side. Breaking away from the tension-ridden agenda that has quashed any chance for accommodation may be the way to move, before it is too late, toward the resolution of the conflict. Coming to terms with the actual, substantive meaning of a two-state solution is the mechanism to its achievement.