Encountering Peace: The worst negotiations, the best negotiations

A lot of people are waiting to see if President Obama will launch a new Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative before leaving the White House on January 20, 2017.

US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Opposition leaders Isaac Herzog and Yair Lapid have challenged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to build thousands of housing units in Ma’aleh Adumim and other settlements located in the blocs that they assume will be annexed to Israel in an eventual agreement with the Palestinians. And while there is no agreement yet on the horizon, these opposition leaders propose that Israel take unilateral steps to determine its border now, which they believe should be the line of the separation barrier which annexes between 9-11% of the West Bank (depending on the final line of that barrier, which has not been completed). These Israeli leaders, together with others in the coalition, including the prime minister, believe that this idea of building in the settlement blocs is OK because the United States will agree to it. Some of them justify this demand by using a letter that was presented by US President George W. Bush to prime minister Ariel Sharon in which the president indicated that Israel would not be required to withdraw to the armistice line of June 4, 1967, in a peace deal with the Palestinians.
It is very nice to have the support of the US for determining Israel’s final borders, but why do they even have a say in the matter? It is not their border and it is not for the president of the United States to determine the border between the State of Israel and the future state of Palestine. This is a matter to be determine by the State of Israel and the leadership of the Palestinian people.
A lot of people are waiting to see if President Obama will launch a new Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative before leaving the White House on January 20, 2017.
There is a lot of talk that the US president could actually do something meaningful after the November 8, 2016 elections when he is freed from all political concerns and still has the helm of US foreign policy until January 20, 2017. The White House has been collecting proposals and ideas on what should/could be done in that short time on the questions concerning Israel and Palestine. One of those suggestions is a new United Nations Security Council resolution setting clear parameters for future negotiations that would aim to save the two-state solution. I think that this is necessary and a good resolution from the Security Council that could be very useful as a new benchmark that would better enable successful negotiations to take place in the future. It is clear that the US understands that there can be no Pax Americana or any imposed peace on Israel and Palestine and that there must be a negotiated end to this conflict.
Likewise, France is busy working on its own peace initiative based on a possible regional/international conference to relaunch negotiations and perhaps advance the drafting of the UN Security Council resolution. If the French initiative moves forward it will be clear that the US signaled its agreement to the French moves.
I am not opposed to outside engagement and assistance in moving Israel and Palestine toward the recognition that ending the conflict is predicated on the two parties to the conflict having the political will to do so. International attention and proposals for bringing the parties to the conflict back to the table are essential for helping this failed peace process to get back on track toward a positive outcome. What is bewildering is that the parties themselves have no initiatives toward what is clearly in their own interests.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has once again become existential for both sides. The binational reality, almost 50 years old, it working against the interests of both the Jewish people and the Palestinian people in their demand to have a territorial expression of their own identity. Through the binational reality the identity of the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people is threatened and the identity of the Palestinian nation state is no less threatened. This is existential for both peoples. They have both proven, for more than 100 years, their willingness to fight, to die and to kill for that territorial expression of their identity. And yet, their lack of action and initiative on ending the binational reality, which will only happen through a negotiated agreement, is completely against their own fundamental interests.
Moreover, in looking back at the past quarter of a century of negotiations between the parties, it is clear that the very best negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians took place when they were alone in the room. The three best negotiations were the original negotiations in Oslo, facilitated by the Norwegians but not mediated by them, the Taba talks in January 2001, with no third party in the room, and the negotiations between President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The worst, almost catastrophic negotiations took place under US mediation, including Camp David in July 2000, the mediation efforts under Senator George Mitchell under the first Obama administration and the most recent negotiations under Secretary of State John Kerry.
The usual dynamic that takes place when the US is mediating is that the Israelis speak to the Americans, the Palestinians speak to the Americans, and the Israelis and Palestinians don’t speak to each other. US mediator Martin Indyk tried the trick of leaving the room when he was in charge only to return to discover that the parties had waited for him to come back. When the US recently failed to meet Israel’s expectations and demands in the negotiations with Iran, the trilateral talks under Kerry completely broke down (at the end of November 2014 after the interim agreement with Iran) and then the US began the ridiculous task of shuttling back and forth between Jerusalem and Ramallah. Trilateral talks under Kerry took place from July-November 2014 – only four of the nine months that Kerry allocated to the talks. Rather than telling the parties that they must stop being dependent on the US and figuring it out on their own, both parties continue to rely on their dependence on others to resolve this conflict.
They are like drug addicts addicted to substances that continue to damage their own wellbeing.
The US and others should always be ready to help, to step in at the end of a process and put forward good bridging proposals, to offer assistance in the monitoring and implementation of agreements, in providing material support to help to translate agreements into reality. The international community could also offer carrots and sticks to both parties that will encourage them to get back to the work of finding an end to the conflict. But it is on the parties themselves to be responsible to their own people to take the initiative, to talk to each other and to change the fundamental relationship between them that would enable to build relations based on cooperation and peace.
The writer is co-chairman of the Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives, a Jerusalem Post columnist 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 from The Toby Press.