Encountering Peace: Q&A on the future of the Middle East

The divisions are not between Jews and non-Jews, but within each community there are conflicts between the pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian.

Clinton, Barak, Arafat at Camp David 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Win McNamee)
Clinton, Barak, Arafat at Camp David 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Win McNamee)
Meeting with American Jews and non-Jews on college campuses, synagogues and churches all across America is always a refreshing opportunity to see how much interest our small country attracts. It is also quite disturbing how divisive the issue of support for Israel has become.
The divisions are not between Jews and non-Jews, but within each community there are conflicts between those who are pro-Israeli versus those who are pro-Palestinian.
Even more interesting are the differing interpretations between those who consider themselves to be friends of Israel on the meaning of that friendship.
In all of my talks I always leave a large amount of time for questions, of which there are many, and not unsurprising to me the questions asked in the United States and not unlike those asked in Israel.
Q: The Palestinians breached every agreement they ever signed with Israel, how can we trust them? A: Israel and the PLO, representing the Palestinian people, signed five agreements. Every one of those agreements was breached by both sides. Neither side fulfilled its obligations, and the breaches were substantive in all of the agreements.
It is historically incorrect to assume that the failure of some 20 years of the Israeli- Palestinian peace process is the story of “good guys” against “bad guys.”
The failure to include an implementable dispute resolution mechanism in the process meant that when there were breaches of the agreements, or disputes regarding their interpretation, there was almost no way to repair the damage. The failure to deal with breaches in real time, when they took place, meant that many of these misunderstandings (deliberate or otherwise) ended up turning into full-fledged political crises at the highest levels, often having to involve presidents and prime ministers from the international community.
Breaches upon breaches piled up and created a total breakdown. The failure of both sides to implement in good faith and to repair the damage in real time led to a total collapse of trust between the parties. The basic idea of an interim period (of five years) was to develop the trust that would be required to negotiate the main issues in conflict.
That trust never developed – quite the opposite. Today, objectively speaking, there is absolutely no reason why Israel and Palestine should trust each other – they have completely earned the mistrust that exists between them.
Q: So, if there is no trust how can a negotiated agreement be reached?
A: The thinking until this past year was that there needs to be a trusted third party who could mediate and negotiate between the parties. The accepted third party is the United States. Even though the Palestinians do not believe that the US is an impartial mediator, they accept this role for the United States because they understand that the US is the only effective mediator.
This special status is granted to the US by the Palestinians because they understand that only the US can provide the security guarantees that might ease Israel’s concerns, and that the US is the only party which can apply effective pressure on the government of Israel. Now, however, with a US presidential election in full swing, there is recognition that the US cannot play an effective role until after the November elections.
If President Barack Obama wins a second term, he could begin on a new Middle East mediation effort immediately after the elections. If the Republican candidate wins the elections, that person will not take over the administration until January 20, 2013, and then it will likely take an additional six months before the new administration’s policy directives are fine tuned. My question is: do we have the time to wait?
Q: Without an effective mediator in the coming months, is it at all possible to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace?
A: It seems that neither side is particularly anxious to advance real peace. The Palestinians have demanded pre-conditions to negotiations that Israel refuses to accept. Both sides say that the position of the other is a clear indication that neither side is really willing to negotiate.
There is no possibility for progress without negotiations, yet while both sides recognize this truth it seems that the complete absence of trust, what I call the “trust deficiency,” is more powerful than the desire to reach an agreement at this time. This is enhanced by the complete belief on both sides of the conflict that there is no partner for peace on the other side. Both sides say that they want peace, and both sides blame the other for lack of any progress.
Q: With the current state of internal politics on both sides, the divided Palestinian camp and the right-wing religious coalition in Israel, is it even possible to consider that progress towards peace is possible?
A: Both leaders have been negotiating over their shoulders with their own public, either in the talks in Jordan, or in public diplomacy, rather than negotiating with each other. It is clear that both sides are concerned with the viability of their ability to govern with the current political constellations on both sides. This is why there is zero chance of success in a negotiation which is public or in the public’s eyes.
The only chance for progress in this situation is a secret back channel for negotiations.
If an agreement could be reached, it could only be done in secret. Abbas has already pledged to his people that if he were to reach an agreement with Israel he would bring it to a referendum. I have no doubt that if the agreement is fair ends Israeli control over the Palestinian people, an independent Palestinian state next to Israel and contains the parameters of a peace deal based on prior negotiations, the large majority of Palestinians will accept it.
If Netanyahu were to propose an agreement that would provide Israel with security and fall within the parameters of accepted concessions from previous negotiations he could then go to new elections, and I have no doubt that he would win a landslide victory. Current coalition realities are a lame excuse for forfeiting the responsibility of leadership.
It would be wise if the parties adopted the mechanism of negotiations that was used to create the breakthrough in the negotiations for the release of Gilad Schalit. This mechanism I call the “joint stakeholders mediation team”. This is what my counterpart in Hamas, Ghazi Hamad, and I did to enable those negotiations to reach a positive conclusion. In the total absence of trust between the parties, we worked as a team with basic trust between us (based on five years of contact) and the entire process was kept secret.
The writer is the co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, a radio host on All for Peace Radio and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit.