Encountering peace: Both sides now

Neither side takes any responsibility for the failures of the peace process and their inability to reach a final peace agreement.

Netanyahu and Abbas (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu and Abbas
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The urban legend regarding Israeli-Palestinian peace is that because we have failed to reach an agreement and peace for the past 22 years, it is impossible. This myth exists on both sides of the conflict and there is total agreement on both sides that the failure is due to the other side.
Neither side takes any responsibility for the failures of the peace process and their inability to reach a final peace agreement. Each sides blame the other for refusing to accept compromises it believes would lead to an agreement. Both sides easily point to all of the compromises that their own side accepted and insist that only they demonstrated flexibility. Both declare without hesitation that there is no partner for peace. Both believe that the first step toward renewing negotiations must be taken by the other side. Both declare that there are no preconditions for resuming negotiations and then lay out their preconditions.
Both sides will attack this introduction, stating that there is no symmetry in the conflict and that it is the other side that is primarily responsible for the continuation of the conflict. Both sides will then document lists of “facts” that prove they are right and the other side is wrong. Then after all of this, those who oppose peace on both sides (a minority) will add the famous statement of Einstein defining insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
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I have never suggested that we do the same thing – which is failure. I have always proposed, as I am doing once again, that we learn from our mistakes and do it differently, do it better, do it more intelligently and mainly do it based on the total mistrust each side feels toward the other. Simply repeating something that has already failed would be insane.
We must not do that. But we have to also recognize that we have not yet done it right. We have not yet reached an agreement for peace. Israel and Palestine have never signed a peace agreement and the state of peace has never existed between the two sides.
The six agreements signed in the Oslo framework were not peace agreements, they were at best “peace process” agreements. None of those agreements settled the main issues in dispute, and despite several attempts to negotiate a permanent-status agreement, the parties have failed to conclude those talks. Yes it is true that offers have been made and compromises offered, but another “urban legend,” namely that the Palestinians have repeatedly rejected the generous Israeli offers, is untruthful and fails to understand that successful negotiations for genuine peace are not based on “take it or leave it” offers. There is a give and take in negotiations and in successful negotiations there are joint efforts to find solutions to resolve problems and steer away from the idea of “zero sum” negotiations whereby one side’s gains are the other side’s losses.
Both sides often say to me “we have learned from experience that we can’t trust the other side – they never fulfill their part of the agreement.” Both sides are correct. The six Oslo agreements were breached substantively by both sides and both sides have proven unworthy of trust. It is extremely difficult to renew negotiations when there is complete mistrust between the parties. They naturally say to themselves, why should I even sit with them – they have no intention to honor their obligations, in fact they have the exact opposite intentions. In this situation any agreement is hardly worth the paper it is drafted on. This makes negotiations almost impossible.
This is why I propose viewing this total mistrust as an advantage rather than a liability. The mistrust must become the basis for negotiating a more intelligent agreement. If the Oslo agreements were naively based on a sense of good will and on the belief that the process itself would build trust, today the basis for negotiations must be mistrust and therefore the process must be built on mitigated risks and on de-risking. This is what any responsible businessperson does when they enter a new environment for investment. Before risking money and assets they conduct a risk assessment and then devise a process to de-risk as much as possible and then to mitigate the remaining risks through cautious steps based on monitoring and verifying discernible benchmarks.
Too many people have been killed because of the failures of the peace process over the past 22 years to allow leaders to take those risks once again.
Insanity in the Israeli-Palestinian context would be to continue not to negotiate and to continue not trying to resolve the conflict. It is insane to continue not to do anything that will improve the lives of millions of Israelis and Palestinians. It is insane knowing that the continuation of not trying to resolve the conflict results with its flaring up in violence every couple of years that costs thousands of lives and billions of dollars. The reality that Israelis and Palestinians live in is insane and must come to an end.
Making peace is a decision. Negotiating for peace is a decision. Not negotiating and not making peace is also a decision. Creating a partnership is a decision and deciding that there is no partner is also a decision.
There are no guarantees that negotiations will result in an agreement or that agreements will result with peace. But there are guarantees that not even trying will result with more conflict, death and destruction.
Not trying is ignorant and foolish. Trying might be only foolish, but certainly not ignorant – especially if we were adopt the methodology that I propose here – working on the intelligent peace, de-risking, mitigating risks and rebuilding trust based on implementation of agreements rather than accepting that non-implementation is the automatic outcome in this conflict.
The author is co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His book Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew and in English as The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas by The Toby Press.