If... then...

Encountering Peace: In order to see change, regional leaders need to begin by formulating their messages differently.

UN Security Council_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
UN Security Council_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
The Palestinian media are reporting that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has responded to President Barack Obama’s request for an answer on whether or not Israel agrees to the president’s parameters for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. According to the reports, Netanyahu demanded a letter of commitment from the US, patterned on the letter from former president George W. Bush to prime minister Ariel Sharon, indicating that the Palestinians must recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, that the settlement blocs must be annexed to Israel, that Israel will maintain a long-term security presence along the Jordan, and that Jerusalem is not on the negotiating table. Netanyahu has indeed said all these things in public, adding that there are no preconditions for negotiations; yet, at least according to the Palestinian interpretation of Israel’s position, there is no place to start.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and almost all the leaders of the PA repeat several times a day that their first priority is to return to negotiations. They are begging the US and other members of the Quartet to find a way to avoid their having to bring the Palestinian issue to the United Nations in September, while at the same time preparing themselves and their allies for a UN vote in September.
The Palestinians are well aware that the conflict won’t be resolved in the UN, nor will the occupation end there. They really do want to negotiate, but they want to negotiate in order to reach an agreement, not to negotiate and negotiate and negotiate while more and more of their future state is built over by Israeli settlements. And if negotiations based on parameters they believe are necessary are not on the table, then it is urgent to change the status quo whereby Israel holds the veto on Palestinian statehood and the end of occupation.
Palestinians, too, have their preconditions for negotiations, and have stated them repeatedly over the past two years: a total moratorium on settlement building and an agreement to negotiate with the June 4, 1967, lines as the base point, with agreed-on territorial swaps. The representatives of Palestine, it seems, will not come to the table without this, and the representatives of Israel will not come unless the Palestinians accept their preconditions. To talk about there being no preconditions while at the same time putting preconditions on the table is typically Middle Eastern, and both sides are guilty of doing so.
Everyone is searching for a way to renew the negotiations, but no one has any confidence that negotiations will lead to an agreement. The gaps between the parties are simply too wide to narrow through traditional means, and neither side seems willing to cut the other any real slack. The PLO Executive Committee authorized Abbas to inform Obama that they accept the parameters for negotiations presented by the US president last month. In reality, the Palestinians authorized only those parameters that deal with the territorial question: 1967 borders with agreed territorial swaps. Obama also spoke about a sovereign nonmilitarized Palestinian state with defined, recognized and secure borders, stating that “the ultimate goal is two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the State of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people – each state in joined self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace.”
The Palestinians have not yet recognized Israel as the homeland for the Jewish people.
NEW APPROACHES are needed to break the deadlock. Both parties want peace. Both sides believe the other does not. Both sides recognize that the conflict can be resolved only through negotiations. Both sides welcome the current calm and economic growth, and both sides know that a new wave of violence would be damaging. Both sides recognize that the United States must be actively engaged in mediating the negotiations. Both sides are concerned with the volatility of the immediate neighborhood. Both sides want to be recognized as the nation-state of their people. Neither side has any trust in the other.
One possible, but unlikely, move would be for the Quartet to articulate the framework for an imposed process. As one US diplomat said to me this week: “Washington has not shown the political will to resolve this conflict. It has the power, but it chooses not to use it.” The EU is divided among its 27 member states on what it can or should do, and the powerful countries of Europe will not take any action without Washington’s support, yet Washington is not interested in an EU initiative.
To break the deadlock, I propose that the leaders on both sides begin to frame language that would be conditional, but could begin to develop the trust necessary to move forward. Rather than stating conditions and preconditions for talks, it might be more useful to begin using terms such as “if... then...”
For example, Palestinians might be able to say: “If we get our sovereign state in the size of the territories occupied in 1967 with territorial continuity, with our capital in east Jerusalem in an open city, and control of our holy places, with an agreed solution to the refugee problem and guarantees for the equal rights of the Palestinian minority in Israel, then we could accept Israeli annexation of the large settlement blocs in exchange for equal territory inside Israel, and we could recognize Israel as the nationstate of the Jewish people.”
Israel could say: “If we were able to guarantee the security of the State of Israel based on long-term security arrangements, and the settlements blocs, including the Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem, came under Israeli sovereignty within the framework of territorial exchanges, and if the Palestinians recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, then Israel would withdraw from all other territories, ensuring Palestinian sovereignty and no Israeli control.”
It might be too difficult for the parties to articulate these kinds of statements in public, so perhaps they should do so privately to the US, with the US providing its own version of “if... then...” which would provide security and implementation guarantees to both parties. This is what former US secretary of state Warren Christopher got Yitzhak Rabin to do regarding negotiations with Syria – it was called the “Rabin deposit.” Perhaps with such large deficits in the peace process bank on both sides, it is time for Israel and Palestine to make some deposits.
If we don’t find a way to break the deadlock, then we are going to the UN in September, and no one knows what will happen after that.
The writer is 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 is a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.