Encountering Peace: Yes, but!

What is needed more than ever before is a secret track of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas at the United Nations 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Chip East)
PA President Mahmoud Abbas at the United Nations 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Chip East)
Ah, the status quo, it’s so good, let it only last. September is gone. The UN is behind us. No tsunami, no international sanctions. In fact, Israel came out pretty good from the whole thing.
This very newspaper even reported over Rosh Hashana that polls show nearly 70 percent of Israelis are satisfied with life in this country. On the Palestinian side, too, people are also relatively pleased with the current situation – security stability, economic growth, Palestinians are perhaps a lot more pessimistic about the immediate future than Israelis are, but a majority of Palestinians do not wish to see the current situation of calm pass quickly.
No one, on either side, wants to return to another round of violence. But can it last? Almost every Israeli and every Palestinian I know says they want peace. Personally I don’t know anybody who doesn’t want peace. Perhaps there are some out there, but I haven’t met them. At the same time, almost no one I know, in Israel and in Palestine, thinks it is possible to reach peace. Each side clearly blames the other (although in Israel there are a lot of people who also blame their own side too). In my own view, it takes two to tango, and neither side has their dancing shoes on.
Both Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu know very well that there can be no end to the Israel-Palestinian conflict without a negotiated agreement between Israel and Palestine.
Abbas knows that Palestine cannot really exist without the agreement of Israel. Netanyahu knows that continued and genuine security cannot exist without a peace agreement. He also knows that the economic growth he wants so much will not happen until there is a negotiated end to the conflict. Both men know that the current status quo, which the people on both sides would like to prolong, will not last without a negotiated agreement.
In public, both leaders tell the world that they want to negotiate, but they each have their own conditions for those negotiations, even though the code word is “no pre-conditions.”
Each leader has set up a situation where negotiations cannot succeed. Both sides know that they must appear to the world as being reasonable and as wanting peace. That is why both sides announced that they accept the latest Quartet initiative to renew negotiations: yes, but! Israel has reservations about the time frame; Palestine has reservations about the lack of clear terms of reference.
BOTH SIDES know that at the current moment there is actually no one who will apply real pressure.
To a large extent the so-called Quartet is a political fiction. The United States created the Quartet during the George W. Bush administration as a means of providing the US with a veto against the rest of the world at a time that its own focus was on the war against terror, not on peacemaking. Europe, the United Nations and Russia agreed to this charade, which essentially came to replace the United Nations itself as the primary reflection of the will of the international community in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Each of the three other parts of the Quartet allowed the US to set the policy that they themselves would follow. From time to time they would weigh in with their own separate statement, but in the end, the Quartet statements and policies have always reflected primarily the American position.
In July 2011, the European Union issued a statement that included: “An agreement on the borders of the two states, based on June 4 1967 lines with equivalent land swaps as may be agreed between the parties... Fulfillment of the aspirations of both parties for Jerusalem. A way must be found through negotiations to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of both states... The EU reiterates that settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, are illegal under international law, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a twostate solution impossible. All settlement activity, including in East Jerusalem, should stop immediately.”
None of this appeared in the Quartet statement issued after the Netanyahu and Abbas speeches at the UN in September. The new call for negotiations is devoid of any content regarding terms of reference. There is now only a timetable. Three months for negotiating borders and security. The rest of the year for completing the negotiations. This is not a serious effort to renew negotiations.
At best, the new Quartet statement will create a new focal point for attention. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Quartet leaders must believe, needs something to deal with. For months we had the UN. Now the UN process is bogged down with political bureaucracy while the search is on the find what will keep the parties busy next. The Palestinians are lobbying for nine “yea” votes in the Security Council so that the US will be forced to use its veto. Israel and the US are doing their own lobbying with the 15 Security Council members to keep the issue from coming to a vote and, when it does, to try to assure at least seven countries vote against Palestine state membership in the UN.
BOTH PARTIES are fully aware that the American presidential race has begun and that Barack Obama is busy trying to save his job, mostly by trying to save the US (and global) economy while having to deal with a Congress which rejects every legislative initiative he presents.
The American house is deeply divided and Obama is viewed in America as a weak and disappointing president, and even weaker in the international community when it comes to dealing with global problems. Europe’s attention is also focused inward with the Eurozone in danger of breaking apart and several key economies on the verge of collapse. Russia is not very interested in really playing a peacemaking role between Israel and Palestine; it has been proposing to hold an international conference in Moscow for at least six years and will probably continue that line for years to come. The Quartet’s special envoy is close to being declared a persona non grata by the Palestinians as he is seen as supporting the Israeli position and lately has been accused (rightly or wrongly) of having an affair with an Israeli businesswoman. Both Abbas and Netanyahu are keenly aware that the Quartet has no real mechanism to apply pressure, or even to mediate between them.
At a time when these two leaders enjoy more popular support at home than ever before, oddly there is little confidence in both of their societies in their ability to deliver anything on the most important issue that they have to deal with. In this political environment, locally and internationally, it is impossible to publicly negotiate Israeli-Palestinian peace. It is possible to generate a lot of attention, to create headlines in the local papers every day and to provide a sideshow for the international press from time to time while the rest of the world deals with other problems.
It is true that without a strong US president, finalizing and implementing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal will be almost impossible. Time is not on the side of peace. The US is neutralized until after the November 2012 elections (if Obama wins, and until after January 2013 if he does not). After the US elections, Israel will move into elections frenzy (if elections are not advanced). Can the current status quo last until then? Personally I doubt it. Time does not stand still in this conflict.
What is needed more than ever before, and perhaps the only avenue left for avoiding the eventual breakdown into another round of violence is a secret track of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. That will only happen when the two leaders come to terms with the reality that they have absolutely no other better option to not negotiating with each other. Because both men know that there can be no peace without negotiations, because they know that the calm will not last indefinitely, because they know there is no other strategic alternative to protect the national interests of their people, they have to return to the negotiating table. These two popular leaders can use their leadership and their popularity to do what they both know must be done, or they can continue to say “yes, but.”

The writer is the founder and co-director of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, he hosts a weekly radio show in Hebrew on All for Peace radio, and a voluntary columnist for The Jerusalem Post.