What does trust have to do with peace?

Trust is an overused word and an overrated virtue.

Netanyahu and Abbas (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu and Abbas
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The US currency is the most powerful in the world and it is based on four words inscribed on every coin and paper denomination: “In God we trust.” This is a good belief to have about God, but not the right belief to describe how affairs of state and of business should be conducted.
That is why when I hear Israelis say they don’t trust President Mahmoud Abbas, and Palestinians say they don’t trust Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, all I can say is they are right. But what has trust got to do with settling a dispute? Settling a dispute is not based on trust but on the national interests of each party.
One of the most important things I learned in 60 years of doing business is that trust is an overused word and an overrated virtue. What really happens in business is this: two sides in a negotiation come to an agreement, and they shake hands.
And, as warm as the handshake might be, the next thing they do is execute a carefully worded contract in which every expectation that each party has of the other is carefully delineated. If the contract is in the best interests of each party, it is a good agreement. Then, as each party fulfills its contractual obligations, trust evolves.
And why does each party fulfill its contractual obligations? Because it’s in their interest to do so. They realize that they are better off fulfilling the agreement than not doing so.
In business and in all negotiations, including those involving countries and between peoples in conflict, it is best if a carefully constructed agreement is worked out first. Trust can come, or not come, later.
After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, was there any man Israelis had more reason to distrust than Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president who orchestrated the attack against Israel on the Jewish people’s most sacred holiday? Some 3,000 Israeli soldiers, almost all of them young men, died during that war. And so, when Sadat suddenly announced his willingness to come to a settlement with Israel, many Israelis were very skeptical. With good reason, they wondered if they should trust Sadat.
Meanwhile, and despite his offer, Sadat had his own strong doubts about the character of Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin. On a 1977 visit to Romania, when Romanian president Nicolae Ceausescu told Sadat to meet with Begin, the Egyptian president didn’t want to. He told Ceausescu that he didn’t trust Begin. Ceausescu in turn told him that that shouldn’t stop him from negotiating with the Israeli prime minister, for while Begin “is a hard man to negotiate with, once he agrees to something he will implement it to the last dot and comma.”
The ensuing negotiations between Israel and Egypt were hard, and sometimes acrimonious. And the problems weren’t only between Sadat and Begin. Even though this was an enormous breakthrough, the first time Israel would be signing a peace treaty with an Arab country, when Begin brought the carefully constructed agreement to the Knesset, almost a third of the representatives refused to support it. They didn’t trust Sadat.
But Sadat lived up to his commitments, even though it turned him into possibly the most hated figure in the Arab world. And Begin did implement the agreement “to the last dot and comma,” even when he had to make the painful decision to use Israeli troops to vacate the Israeli settlement in Yamit, because the territory on which Yamit was situated was Egyptian land and had to be returned. Each side carried out its commitments because they felt that doing so was in the best interests of their country.
Four years later when Sadat was assassinated, how did Begin react? As he recounted to his advisor Yehuda Avner, “We were drawn to one another.... His family became like my own. I said to Jehan [Sadat’s wife] and to Anwar’s sons and daughter, and I meant every word of what I said, that his death was a loss to the world, to the Middle East, to Egypt, to Israel, and to my wife and myself personally.”
It seems that real trust comes after an agreement, not before.
What Israelis and Palestinians need now is not trust, but an agreement.
Palestinians need to have their own homeland in the West Bank and Gaza. And Israel, for the sake of its own national interest, needs this to happen too. Otherwise, Israel will evolve either into a bi-national or a non-democratic state, a fate that can only be averted if a Palestinian state comes into existence.
The wounds between the Israelis and the Palestinians are so deep that it is naive in the extreme to expect a feeling of trust between them now.
What is needed rather is a negotiated divorce, in which each side signs a contract that will make life better for its people than the status quo.
And this is exactly what American Secretary of State John Kerry – who many Israelis on the Right mistrust – wants as well: “I don’t want this to be a leap of faith, but a leap of rationality and choice, based on an understandable and tangible set of guarantees,” Kerry told Channel 2’s Ilana Dayan less than a week ago.
Over 30 years ago, for Anwar Sadat it was better to regain Sinai than to go on fighting a war Egypt would never win. For Israel it was better to give up the Sinai than to go on fighting wars in which thousands of its young men would be killed or crippled for life.
Today, for the Palestinians, it is better to have a small state in which the Palestinian people can control their destiny than to hold on to an unrealizable dream of defeating Israel and settling it with millions of Palestinians. For Israel, it is better to guarantee that the Jewish state remain a Jewish and democratic state than to hold onto lands in which the Jewish people are a tiny minority, no matter how much sentimental and historical value these lands have.
If an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians is not reached, three things will happen: Arabs will become a larger and larger percentage of the people living under Israeli rule, and will eventually start to demand full rights of citizenship.
Israel will become a progressively less democratic state as it strives to preserve its Jewish character in a state the majority of whose residents will soon be non-Jews.
A large number of young Israelis will grow up to die and be maimed in unnecessary battles fought not to save Israel from destruction but to hold on to more land.
Talking of trust, these are three things which we can actually trust will happen. But why, in God’s name, would any of us want to? The author is an American entrepreneur and founder of the Center for Middle East Peace in Washington. Follow the center on Twitter: @AbrahamCenter.