Critical Currents: Disproving skepticism

Critical Currents Dispr

jerusalem anti haredi rally 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
jerusalem anti haredi rally 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Yet another process is brewing. George Mitchell's visit to the region is designed to iron out the provisions for the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian discussions on all outstanding issues - starting with borders - within a two-year time frame. Should an understanding be reached on the terms of reference, and this is still a big question mark, then this will be the last chance for a two-state solution by agreement. These negotiations can therefore not be a mere rehash, with mild correctives, of the format that failed systematically in the past. They must be molded differently from the outset, especially since they will have to contend with two contentious, nervous, divided and ultimately disbelieving publics, whose responses will shape the outcome at least as much as the proceedings at any reconstructed table. The frame of mind of Israelis and Palestinians is more similar than they care to admit. The most overwhelming sentiment for the past decade has been one of utmost skepticism - an ingrained conviction that whether one favors a viable and lasting agreement or not, such a result is simply not possible. This attitude has nurtured ongoing diplomatic paralysis and plays directly into the hands of Israeli and Palestinian rejectionists. If it is not dealt with head-on, these extremist minorities will continue to dictate the agenda and, against the will of the majority in each community, determine their fate. THE EVIDENCE of the prevailing mental stalemate on both sides of the Green Line is consistent and categorical. For quite some time, a solid majority of Palestinians as well as Israelis have been two-state stalwarts. In the latest joint Israeli-Palestinian poll conducted by the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah published last month, 64 percent of Palestinians and 73% of Israelis believe that the best solution to the conflict is the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The percentage of spoilers on both sides, impressions aside, is small by any measure: 20% of Palestinians and 9% of Israelis think that one state shared by Israelis and Palestinians is preferable. Both publics, however, do not believe that the two-state solution they desire is actually attainable. A full 66% of Israelis and 68% of Palestinians think that the chances of creating a Palestinian state next to Israel within the next five years are nonexistent or extremely low. Only one-third view the prospects as either medium or high. The very same proportions have lost faith in the possibility of reaching a final status settlement: 65% of Israelis and 67% among Palestinians do not see such an outcome on the horizon. There is a profound contradiction between the aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians and their assessments of the likelihood of their realization. Immense skepticism bred of experience rules the roost. This overwhelming mind-set is fueled constantly by a heightened perception of the threat posed by the other side. In Israel, 67% of the population are worried that they or their families may be harmed in their daily lives by Arabs. Not surprisingly, 77% of the Palestinians are frightened that Israel will hurt them, confiscate their lands or demolish their homes, even though there has been a mild improvement in their sense of security in recent months. Israelis and Palestinians inhabit a world of fear and mistrust which not only nurtures misperceptions, but has also repeatedly proven to be self-defeating to the core. THE ASTONISHING symmetry in this negative mindset has, predictably, exacerbated the asymmetry of power in the real world. Israel's continued control over the Palestinians against their will (and in clear contravention of its own best interests and the desires of most of its own citizens) is justified by the lack of confidence in the Palestinians in general and in the motives of their leaders in particular. Palestinian frustration, in turn, is intensified by their inability to break the vise of Israeli overrule. Neither Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu nor President Mahmoud Abbas, even if they grasp the need to do so, have been able to extricate themselves from the constraints imposed by a worldview fraught with paranoia and reciprocal disbelief. Thus, the absence of an agreement has increased mutual suspicion, which now looms large as the most potent and elusive impediment to the resolution of the conflict. Another round of prolonged, enervating talks with little tangible results will seal the fate of all involved. The Gordian knot of skepticism must be tackled directly. The only way, however, to dispel skepticism is to disprove it. And this implies that any negotiations have to be crafted very differently than in the past. From the outset, the working premise of any reconvened talks must change emphatically from reigniting the process to producing the outcome. This means that the goal of fostering negotiations per se must be replaced by the need to ensure the result of ending the occupation and terminating the conflict. Such a goal-driven agenda is a necessary, but hardly sufficient, prerequisite for dealing with the prevailing skepticism. To be effective, any discussions have to be completed swiftly - within a much shorter period than the proposed two-year deadline currently being contemplated. The year 2010 appears to be the outer limit for reaching a sustainable accord. MANAGEMENT OF affairs during this contained time frame should be meticulous and palpable. First, negotiations must be visibly linked to concrete improvements on the ground (quite the opposite of the construction in Jerusalem and the West Bank that has accompanied the so-called settlement freeze). Second, the discourse has to be consciously altered not only to prevent the familiar resort to mutual recrimination, but also to inject a sense of efficacy where helplessness is the norm. Third, all moves must display a modicum of transparency: Secrecy merely generates increased anxiety and recalcitrance. And fourth, the international community, with the US playing a lead role, must be proactive in every facet and at every stage of the process: giving guidance, providing protection, offering incentives, furnishing guarantees and, above all, assuring deliverables. Any renewed diplomatic effort which does not restructure the framework of talks, change the composition of the interlocutors, involve regional actors, collapse the timetable for completion, shift the tone and substance of the discourse and demonstrate the benefits of accommodation is doomed to failure. It should not be launched if it cannot produce the required results. Israeli-Palestinian relations are the prisoner of a deleterious emotional mind frame which inhibits the exercise of rational choice at this most sensitive of crossroads. In this chicken-and-egg situation, successful negotiations can shape a new political reality - the precondition for mitigating skepticism and allaying fears. These are the materials that pave the road to the difficult, long and excruciatingly painful process of true reconciliation down the line.