Extracting success from the negotiations

The all-or-nothing approach of a permanent agreement spells failure.

Netanyahu, Clinton, Abbas talks (photo credit: GPO)
Netanyahu, Clinton, Abbas talks
(photo credit: GPO)
Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are back – for the third time. Most observers believe success to be highly unlikely, with failure causing the two-state solution’s possible demise. Major amendments, even a paradigm shift, are necessary.
A common view holds that the decisive moment for political negotiations arrives in their last phase. In the present context, this may be by the end of the agreed time frame, in a year. The principle of nothing-is-agreed-until-everything-isagreed creates the illusion that the parties have full freedom and low risk until they face the yes-or-no moment.
Yet, in reality, the negotiations’ overarching structure determines the scope of possible outcomes. The parties’ statements and positions made along the way increasingly constrain their discretion.
Sometimes, at the critical moment, they can only choose between bad and worse.
The paradigm of the present political process is that of a comprehensive permanent status agreement (PSA). Its objectives are to resolve the issues outstanding since 1948, establish a Palestinian state in permanent borders and set the principles for future relations between Israel and Palestine – thus terminating “occupation,” “ending the conflict” and establishing “finality of claims.”
Past experience highlights the significance of managing expectations. First, there is a limit to what even the most skillful of negotiators can achieve. Second, heightening political energy and anxiety often turn into violence when frustrated. With the PSA paradigm dominating the negotiations, the bar for success could not be set higher.
Israel should be gravely concerned by this. Its convenient reality in the West Bank, whereby it controls the external perimeter but does not carry full responsibility for the Palestinian population, remains dangerously fragile and will end if the Palestinian Authority implodes. This would present a major setback to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s objectives of securing both Israel’s security and identity.
THE HISTORY of the peace process suggests that Israel can reap great benefits from presenting a strategy that sets clear objectives, sequencing and benchmarks.
Whenever Israel led, it was able to shape the political agenda. Otherwise, it was pushed to outcomes that not only compromised its interests, but reaffirmed the view that it only budges under pressure.
The time for Israel to present such a strategy may be near, but the seeds of an alternative paradigm must be sown now.
If some have a strong feeling of déjà vu, it is because the PSA paradigm that dominates present negotiations governed the Camp David and Annapolis processes as well.
This approach is founded on a powerful mind-set. It assumes a “zone of possible agreement” exists, with the challenge of negotiators to articulate it. It blames past failures on bad timing, management, personal skills or judgment.
One may expect that, given the stakes, the structure of a renewed process would be designed based on an extensive deliberation of past experience and recent fundamental changes in the Middle East.
There could have also been a serious debate on the different strategies for reaching permanent status: The dominant PSA paradigm; the road map approach aiming to establish a Palestinian state in provisional borders through an agreement; or an alternative approach, coordinated unilateralism, which calls for upgrading the PA in the West Bank to de facto statehood and then recognizing it de jure without a formal agreement.
Yet, no such reassessment seems to have taken place in Washington, assuming that its first year of missteps cannot be an outcome of such a process. Instead the US dove headfirst into the PSA paradigm, failing to create a political space where other ideas could be explored.
If the US strategy sounds both lofty and dangerous, that’s because it is. One common reason for debacles is working within powerful worldviews that blind us to reality. Another is seeking to improve ourselves within a dominant paradigm, when the world has actually transformed.
The most evident transformation is the constitutional and political crisis on the Palestinian side. Hamas’ Islamism and Fatah’s secular-nationalism, split between two geographical and political entities, have locked horns on ideological, constitutional and political levels. Their confrontation is permanent for the foreseeable future. Unsurprisingly, repeated attempts to address this divide have failed.
The decisive battleground is the PLO, a “political shell company,” with no real activity but one prize asset: Recognition by the world as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Fatah rejects Hamas’s participation in the PLO unless it accepts existing agreements with Israel. Accordingly, Hamas challenges Mahmoud Abbas’s claim that his being the chairman of the PLO grants him legitimacy to negotiate with Israel as being merely a legalistic one and not anchored in the political reality. Needless to say that Hamas, contained in its Gaza province, also lacks the authority and legitimacy to represent the Palestinians.
This is everybody’s problem.
The danger is that the backlash against historic compromises that lack legitimacy may be violent. It may not only derail the process, but also lead to a breakdown of law and order in the PA to the point of collapse and necessitate reentry of Israel into the Palestinian areas. Paradoxically attempts to pin down the two-state solution may lead to its very demise THERE ARE other concerns. It is often stated that outstanding issues, such as Jerusalem, refugees, security or borders have been thoroughly discussed and that the outline of their resolution was proscribed by the Clinton parameters.
The reality is that there is an additional and equally contentious set of yet unexplored issues, such as management of joint airspace or access to and sovereignty of Hebron.
Moreover, radical parties such as Iran, Hamas or Hizbullah remain staunchly opposed to any agreement granting Israel legitimacy. They will not stand idle as their strategy experiences a setback.
Indeed, we have already seen their first wave of terrorist response.
Achieving a PSA is a monumental political project in the best of conditions, let alone when faced by powerful opposition and in the aftermath of tectonic changes on the Palestinian side.
Its major weakness is that failure to resolve the issue of Jerusalem, for example, prevents the creation of day-to-day agreements on practical matters such as trade and economics. Unfortunately, it is an all-or-nothing affair, with the latter being the likely outcome.
Many call for the parties to embrace the road map approach and to negotiate a long-term interim agreement that brings into being a Palestinian state with provisional borders.
However, this approach would encounter most of the same pitfalls as the PSA strategy. It would have to address the multitude of issues stemming from the provisional nature of borders, and balance Israeli security concerns with Palestinian sovereignty. For example, it would need to establish an interim regime for remaining disputed territories, settlements and Jerusalem. In addition, it would still require ratification and will be shadowed by the aforementioned Palestinian constitutional crisis.
BASED ON the above, is the political process an exercise in futility whose dangers exceed its opportunities? The answer is no. There is an alternative logic with a much higher likelihood of success, security and stability: coordinated unilateralism.
Coordinated unilateralism calls for reversing the political sequence. It views Palestinian statehood as the anchor for resolving the conflict, thus severing the Gordian knot around Palestinian statehood, PSA, end of occupation, end of conflict and finality of claims.
At the core of coordinated unilateralism is a set of back-to-back unilateral Israeli and Palestinian actions leading to the PA reaching de facto statehood, declaring it and receiving de jure recognition by Israel, the US, Arab countries and the UN. This is compounded by bilateral assurances from the US to both parties with regard to the permanent status of Israeli-Palestinian relations and the process of getting there. This requires a new level of American leadership, able to orchestrate a trust-based political process.
Coordinated unilateralism has two political foundations: First, a solid majority in the Knesset would support any proposition by Netanyahu that would serve the logic of ending control over the Palestinian population. Second, the PA has gone through an impressive process of institution and capacity building and of economic growth.
This logic requires Israel to take bold steps. Initially, and in parallel to the negotiations, the parties must continue to upgrade PA institutions. Israel will need to go as far as unilaterally relinquishing some restrictions on PA sovereignty relating to issues such as international representation, currency or customs.
At a later phase, Palestinian territory will have to become contiguous including not only Areas A and B, where the PA already has security or civil responsibilities, but also parts of Area C that are presently under Israeli control. This requires dismantling 15 to 25 settlements and some illegal outposts, as well as providing direct territorial access to Jordan with appropriate security arrangements.
Finally, Israel would have to allow for elections in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. It would require Abbas, as president of the PA, to establish new laws for elections of legislative and executive bodies, which would become the government of the Palestinian state until the split with Hamas is resolved.
When the PA becomes a state de jure, Israel and the PLO would have to accept well-coordinated constructive ambiguity that reflects their conflicting views on the different issues of permanent status, but do not compromise its outcome. For example, while Israel will have to tolerate PLO declarations that the permanent borders of the Palestinian state will be based on the June 4, 1967 Lines, the Palestinians will have to tolerate Israeli statements on not returning to the these lines.
A Palestinian state will usher in a new era and transform the relationship.
Henceforth, Israel and Palestine could address many of the outstanding issues such as security, water, economics or trade on a direct state-to-state basis.
Why should the parties strive to avoid a formal agreement? While, naturally, the framework of coordinated unilateralism does not offer a perfect solution to every issue, it does provide an approach that is holistic enough to challenge the prevailing PSA paradigm for six notable reasons.
First, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The PA in the West Bank has made significant strides toward statehood, balancing institution and capacity building with security for both parties. This is a successful working model that can be developed further.
Second, lower risks for lower rewards: Coordinated unilateralism, while not ending the conflict, will take Israeli-Palestinian relations forward, with a much lower risk.
Third, most unilateral actions fall under the jurisdiction of the governments and do not require endorsement by the legislators – the Knesset or the Palestine National Council. This point is relevant primarily to the frail Palestinian party, whose only historic decision in this process would be declaring statehood.
Fourth, this framework defers addressing the split between Gaza and the West Bank. While their principled political integrity is a cornerstone of the political process, their reality is of two separate units. This gap stretches the PSA paradigm to its limits, for example when discussing Palestinian de-militarization while Gaza is armed to its teeth.
Fifth, the PSA paradigm would entail very complex implementation arrangements that are systemically interdependent and interrelated to a point of being highly unrealistic.
Finally, Palestinian statehood will accelerate the dissolving of Palestinian refugeeism. With a Palestinian state, many refugees may feel that they finally have a home that realizes their collective desire for self-determination. Furthermore, the Palestinian state is the most effective platform for offering a permanent resolution to refugees that seek it.
As it stands, the parties may have to continue down that well-travelled road of the PSA paradigm, even if results appear inevitably dangerous. Notwithstanding this, they should also open the door to the alternative paradigm and create a safety net to the political process.
The writer is the president of the Reut Institute. He served as the secretary of the Israeli delegation for the peace negotiations between 1999 and 2001 and at the Camp David summit.