Fear of blame gets negotiations under way

July 26, 2013
Sarah Benton

The article by David Makovsky is followed by one from Natan Sachs, Foreign Policy, on what’s changed since the last peace talks.

PM Netanyahu makes deal with Tzipi Livni, justice minister and minister responsible for negotiations

Setting the Stage for New Peace Talks

By David Makovsky, The Washington Institute
July 22, 2013

The various calculations and concessions that brought Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table are mostly encouraging, but the tough decisions all lie ahead.

On July 19, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that Israel and the Palestinian Authority had “established a basis” for renewing peace negotiations after a nearly three-year standstill. Yitzhak Molcho, a top advisor to Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, is expected to join Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and chief PA negotiator Saeb Erekat for meetings in Washington, perhaps within the next two weeks. Palestinian officials say they are still awaiting some unspecified clarifications from the United States before resuming talks. In the meantime, the initial discussions that Kerry has led since April and the political environment within Israel and the PA could provide analytical clues about how the negotiations might unfold.

A new motif emerged during the Kerry mission: Netanyahu publicly railing against the status quo. Specifically, he has been emphasizing that Zionism is based on Israel remaining Jewish and democratic, and that these traits will not persist indefinitely if Israel fails to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. Most recently, his office just released a quote from his Sunday cabinet meeting in which he stated that holding talks is a “vital strategic interest” because Israel is keen on “preventing the creation of a binational state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.”

For his part, PA president Mahmoud Abbas has not emphasized any new rationale for negotiations except the statement he made about Israel in early July: “They are our neighbors, and we recognize them as such. We must live together in security and stability.” Given the mistrust between the parties, a positive Palestinian rationale for the talks (besides the obvious desire to end occupation) is important amid skepticism about the prospects for a breakthrough. Polls show that while a majority of Israelis and Palestinians favor a two-state solution, each side is convinced that the other is not serious. Leaders must therefore find ways to rally their publics around compromise and provide justifications for new talks. This is especially important because hardliners on both sides will likely intensify their opposition if negotiators make progress.
Saeb Erekat, chief negotiator for PA.

Another theme of the pre-negotiations phase is that right-wing politicians in Netanyahu’s government did not bother to block new talks because they are convinced the process will fail. In particular, they firmly believe that Abbas will not make a deal. Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin, an internal critic of Netanyahu’s two-state policy, said he favors talks but called his dispute with the prime minister over Palestinian statehood “theoretical,” apparently due to his belief that the PA will not sign a deal. Similarly, leading politician Avigdor Liberman has called Abbas an obstacle to peace and apparently does not believe that Israel will have to seriously consider tough concessions to the Palestinians. Thus far, the various settler factions have not spoken out against Netanyahu’s decision either, though their silence may be based on factors other than low expectations.

For his part, Netanyahu clearly wants to minimize his critics’ ability to undermine the talks. This was part of the reason why he refused a pre-negotiations commitment to base the outcome of any deal on the pre-1967 borders, as requested by the Palestinians. Right-wing leader Naftali Bennett said his party would bolt the coalition if the prime minister made such a promise. Netanyahu has also signaled that no final agreement with the PA will receive his government’s consent until it is approved by a national referendum. He even raised the specter of new elections to ratify the results of negotiations. Given the precedent of Ariel Sharon — who split the Likud and formed a new party when his ruling faction was not sufficiently supportive of the 2005 Gaza disengagement — some have speculated that Netanyahu might do the same in the event of a breakthrough.

In light of Abbas and Netanyahu’s mutual doubt regarding each other’s commitment to reaching a deal, many questioned whether Kerry would succeed in getting them back to the table. Yet Kerry was apparently able to exploit another shared sentiment between the two leaders: the desire to avoid U.S. blame for failing to resume talks. Israel did not want to be blamed because it would face even greater risk of diplomatic isolation from Europe and elsewhere.

For the Palestinians, the issue was about not just blame, but also concern that another failure would end U.S. peace efforts for the remainder of President Obama’s second term, especially given the various other crises Washington faces at home and abroad. It is an open question whether this mutual fear of being blamed will be sufficient to keep the parties at the table, or just enough to get them there.

Off-the-table concessions and benefits also played a role in jump-starting talks, and such moves will likely continue as the negotiations unfold. For example, it is no coincidence that Kerry and international peace envoy Tony Blair chose the former’s peace mission earlier this spring as the moment to announce a $4 billion economic development package for the West Bank. The Palestinians had to assume that if they spurned Kerry, the assistance would not be forthcoming.

Moreover, Abbas knew everyone wanted the PA to return to the table, so he used this leverage to secure two concessions: a phased release of approximately eighty Fatah prisoners convicted by Israeli courts before the 1993 Oslo Accords, and limitations on Israeli settlement growth (it is unclear if these limits apply to all settlements or just the less-heavily-populated nonbloc areas). For its part, Israel apparently secured a commitment from Abbas not to return to the UN to further upgrade the PA’s status as long as negotiations continue for the next six to nine months.

Yitzhak Molcho, expected to be part of negotiating team in Washington

All parties seem to have learned at least one lesson from the three weeks of negotiations that took place in 2010. At the time, the process entailed that the leaders themselves negotiate — a politically risky arrangement that quickly produced an impasse. This time, with Livni, Molcho, and Erekat acting as negotiators, neither leader will be exposed to controversial obstacles too early. Although significant decisions must ultimately be made by the leaders, backchannel efforts can still help break the types of deadlocks that occur in formal talks.

Yet Kerry’s understandable focus on simply getting the parties to the table has obscured important substantive and structural issues regarding the new talks. As a result, questions abound. Will the parties attempt to negotiate all issues, including Jerusalem and refugees, or will they defer sensitive narrative and symbolic matters and deal with practical issues first, such as territory and security? Will they deal with issues in sequence or in parallel working groups? What will the U.S. role be in direct negotiations between the parties? Will Washington put its own ideas on the table or stay outside the room? Some reports indicate that the United States will name veteran Middle East diplomat Martin Indyk as special envoy, but this has yet to be made official.

The regional role is uncertain as well. Arab leaders gave Abbas political cover last week by saying they support the Kerry peace initiative; ideally, that will continue once the difficult business of negotiations begins. In Egypt, the military’s ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government could constrain Hamas’s ability to cause mischief, but the situation obviously remains fluid. Meanwhile, the European Union — Israel’s largest trade partner — decided last week not to fund any Israeli activities in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. In addition to potentially affecting future trade agreements, this move could harden Palestinian attitudes on the need to compromise if the PA believes it can count on Brussels to press Israel outside the negotiating room.

Given the many issues left open for the negotiators, Kerry will likely be adding to his tally of trips to the region in the near future. Indeed, high-level attention will be paid as the parties face critical policy decisions, though not at the pace of the past few months. Kerry has brought the Israelis and Palestinians together for the first time in three years, but the tough decisions on the terms of peace itself all lie ahead.

David Makovsky is the Ziegler distinguished fellow and director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at The Washington Institute.

Prepare for the Worst

It’s already time to start planning for what happens if the Middle East peace talks fall apart.

By Natan B. Sachs, Foreign Policy
July 25, 2013

Last month in Jerusalem, I sat in on a small conference organized by the Yesha Council, the central organization of Israeli settlers in the West Bank. A featured speaker was Naftali Bennett, leader of the far-right Jewish Home party and minister of economy, who made a simple point: The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not solvable.

To underline his point, Bennett spoke of a friend from military service who suffered a shrapnel wound close to his spine — “near his backside,” Bennett said, in a line that immediately made headlines. The doctors told his friend that they could operate, but he’d run a serious risk of paralysis to his lower limbs. Alternatively, the friend could learn to live with an unpleasant but manageable problem.

The medical choice was clear, Bennett said. And the choice facing Israel was clear as well: Rather than try to solve an unsolvable conflict with the Palestinians and risk catastrophe, Israel should opt for limited and practical measures to manage the reality in the West Bank. The death of the two-state solution may be unpleasant for can-do Westerners to acknowledge, he argued, but the depth of the conflict and the number of settlers now living in the West Bank precludes a peace agreement.

It’s a good story, but Bennett’s parallel is, in fact, wrong. And yet Secretary of State John Kerry’s motivation for pushing to revive Middle East peace negotiations was actually similar. Kerry reasoned that if the two-state solution is not achieved soon — perhaps in the coming two years — it might never be possible. Soon, in other words, Bennett and others who make the same point would be right.

While hoping for the best, and striving to make it reality, we should also prepare for the worst. While Kerry must lay the groundwork for giving the resumed peace talks the best chance of success, he must also plan for their failure. If the negotiations collapse, there is a danger that people will take the secretary of state at his word and conclude that the door to peace is finally shut. Whatever happens at the negotiating table, Kerry must ensure that he doesn’t help convince people that Bennett, after all, was correct.

The risk of failure is real. The Israelis and Palestinians are far apart on the most important issues and, moreover, each of the sides suspects the other has entered the talks with bad intentions. Trust is hard to come by these days in the Holy Land: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas fears that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is only interested in talks for the sake of talks, in order to ease international pressure on Israel. Netanyahu suspects that Abbas, faced with a Palestinian society where most oppose a return to the negotiating table, has entered the talks just to avoid blame for Kerry’s failure, and will continue to play the blame game during the negotiations.

The bad news is that they may both be right. Kerry’s creative ambiguity, which was necessary to get the talks off the ground, will apparently entail him enunciating terms of reference — notably referring to the 1967 borders as a starting point for negotiations. This will permit each side to voice its reservations about these parameters before entering into negotiations. The sides have agreed to disagree, in other words, but they have agreed to do so in the same room.

To avoid the blame game, Kerry seems to have wisely insisted on the secrecy of the talks. Maintaining the discreet nature of the negotiations throughout their duration — and even if and when they stall — will help prevent the parties from backsliding into blame attribution. In general, the less hype there is around the talks, the less media frenzy is likely to emerge around their conclusion. The less the United States apportions failure or blame, the less credible the sides’ accusations will be.

If the talks do collapse, will Kerry find the peace process back to where it started — or could the situation be even worse? Many fear that unmet expectations may lead to an outbreak of violence, and point to the outbreak of the Second Intifada in the wake of the much-hyped 2000 Camp David summit as evidence. In the ensuing bloodshed, more than 4,000 people lost their lives over the next four years.

But those drawing parallels between today and the Second Intifada risk learning the wrong lessons from history. Much of the events of 2000 had to do with internal dynamics and decisions of both parties before the collapse of peace talks. The Palestinian organizations — including the grassroots militia of Yasir Arafat’s Fatah Movement — were preparing for violence long before the disappointment of Camp David. And the Israelis were already preparing a forceful response to Palestinian violence — a response that may have helped turn the conflict into a full blown and horrifically violent intifada.

Today, the circumstances are different. Abbas is not Arafat, and the Palestinian security organizations have been thoroughly reformed under the leadership of former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. At present, military cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank is good, and is supported by an ongoing U.S. effort to maintain security. On the Israeli side, too, responsible and cool-headed generals now command the forces in the West Bank — men who are well aware of the dangers of over-reaction.

Yet even if a failure of negotiations does not lead to an outbreak of violence, it could lead to renewed demands on the Palestinian side for dissolving the Palestinian Authority. Palestinians are weary of the peace process, and there is real risk that they will increasingly prefer dangerous (and unrealistic) aspirations for a one state “solution.” There is also the risk of growing demands in Israel to annex less inhabited parts of the West Bank to Israel proper: Naftali Bennett, for example, has called for annexation of “Area C,” which includes all the Israeli settlements. Most in the Israeli political system still oppose a move along these lines.

Staving off worst-case scenarios is possible, but requires close attention — even as Kerry’s energy is devoted to giving his effort the best chance of success. The secretary of state will also have to lay the groundwork for keeping the possibility of future negotiations alive, even if this round of talks stalls. To do so, Washington should prepare steps that fall short of a final-status agreement. The United States, and even Israel, may, for example, recognize the state of Palestine even before agreement on its borders or its relations to Israel is finalized. This suggestion is less outlandish then it might seem: Several Israeli politicians, including the hawkish former Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, suggested doing just that. Doing so would help protect some degree of Palestinian self-rule from rash steps in the wake of failure.

Further interim steps, while undoubtedly difficult, would go a long way for providing the peace process with a safety net. Israel, for example, may return to the idea of limited disengagement in the West Bank. Under such plans, Israel would pull out of most of the West Bank without a final status agreement, shaping its own eastern border. The authority in the vacated area would then presumably fall to the Palestinian Authority, just as it did in the Gaza Strip did when Israel evacuated in 2005. It is important that such steps be coordinated with the Palestinians as much as possible — rather than unilaterally implemented, as they were in 2005 — so that they encourage rather than preclude future negotiation.

Skeptics (like me) have been wrong before. This round of peace talks may succeed, and we should wish wholeheartedly for their success. Netanyahu has the political backing — from opposition parties, if necessary — to make bold, historic decisions. Abbas may prove skeptics wrong and demonstrate courageous leadership in the face of difficult circumstances.

And yet, even while wishing the parties Godspeed, we should also think seriously about the possibility that the talks may fail. Washington should make sure that the ultimate winners of this peace effort are not those who oppose peace.

© Copyright JFJFP 2022