What Now? Saying Good-Bye to the Peace Process Illusion
January 12, 2012
The train wreck of the Palestinian request for recognition as a state at last year’s meeting of the United Nations, which could have been seen coming for at least the whole of last summer, laid bare the total vacuity of the term “Middle East Peace Process” and the impotence of the international diplomacy surrounding it. Such a disaster often occurs when process takes over substance and justifies its own existence by belated and ultimately unsuccessful attempts at remedy. Some of it is a matter of physics—when the train sets out it is relatively easy to stop with a timely application of the brakes. When, on the other hand, it is allowed to gain full speed because of arguments among the engineers, idle hopes that the train will run out of steam, or the simple refusal to acknowledge that it is even moving, the only thing left to do is to lie down on the floor and pray.
There are no innocent parties here. The Palestinians may have initially thought of the move as a pressure device to get the peace process restarted under favorable terms, but they predictably became prisoners of their own rhetoric and boxed themselves into a position from which the only way out was forward. The Israelis may have decided to call the Palestinians’ bluff, thus making certain that what may have been a bluff originally would change into the real thing. The Quartet (the UN, the EU, the US, and Russia) vacillated between hopes that the specter of Palestinian recognition would make the Israelis more willing to make concessions and that the specter of the failure of the effort would make the Palestinians more amenable to talk. The United States relied on the threat of its veto to make the Palestinians avoid the Security Council while visibly doing their best to avoid using the veto. The Palestinians were choosing between losing face among their constituents, a fatal weakness in the ruthless world of Middle East politics, and losing any realistic chance at moving ahead in the negotiations. The Israelis were choosing between accepting the Palestinian preconditions for the restart of the negotiations, which they believed would lead to the collapse of the government coalition, and seeing their international position undermined and weakened. Obama was choosing between alienating much of the Middle East by exercising the veto and possibly losing the presidential election the following year. The Europeans were choosing between demonstrating the real differences of point of view among the EU member countries and demonstating unity in helplessness. As often happens lately, only the Russians and the Chinese were the conceivable beneficiaries, although it is hard to tell of what.
A failure of this scope and predictability is not often seen, even in the failure-prone business of conflict resolution. The positions will now inevitably harden, the tensions will increase, and the risks will multiply. Yet the whole thing should have never happened. The reason for this is not that there should not be a Palestinian state. A majority of countries, a majority of people, and even a majority of Israelis believe that there ought to be such a state. The reason is that even if the resolution passes in the UN General Assembly, it will not bring such a state an inch closer to being and might even lead to a new confrontation. And yet, for all the protestations to the contrary by all involved, this problematic move by the Palestinian Authority is a proper reflection of the hopelessness of the negotiation track in the current conflict.
Fareed Zakaria, an astute observer of foreign policy, recently quoted a source close to Palestinian-Israeli negotiations as saying, “It’s not that there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. Everybody sees the light at the end of the tunnel. The light at the end of the tunnel is blindingly clear and obvious. The problem is there’s no tunnel. There is no actual concrete path to getting to that light.”
This is the heart of the Middle East problem. It is of small comfort that most reasonable people agree what things should look like at the end of the day if the end of the day never arrives.
Of course, it is not popular or fashionable to cast doubt on the wisdom of negotiating to the bitter end. Even some friends are prone to sermonizing that “we should question the motivations of those who insist so vehemently that negotiations are useless.” A persuasive argument is therefore needed to be able to claim, sadly rather than vehemently, that negotiations between the two parties are, if not useless, then likely to be unproductive and to remain so for the foreseeable future.
Starting with the obvious, for a negotiation to succeed, some ambition to reach a solution is needed on both sides of the conflict. This is conspicuously missing in the current situation. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians believe that negotiations will get them anywhere. Naturally, they will not say it, instead inventing preconditions, which they say are not really preconditions. It is perfectly understandable why continuing expansion of the settlements in the West Bank is an anathema to the Palestinians. But in a true negotiating spirit, there could always be a formula that would provide for adding buildings to existing settlements, particularly those that will remain part of Israel in any conceivable agreement, in exchange for parts of Israeli territory that will go to the Palestinians. It is equally understandable why the recognition of the Jewish character of the state of Israel is of crucial importance to the Israelis. But in a true negotiating spirit, language could surely be found to acknowledge the Jewish history, origin, prevailing culture, and majority language of Israel without prejudicing the rights of the non-Jewish minority.
Second, and equally obvious, for a negotiation to succeed, there must be an intersection of the negotiating positions of the two sides, which can be built upon and expanded into a viable solution. Little of that exists here. The minimum Palestinian position on refugees does not come near the maximum Israeli concessions on the subject. The minimum Israeli position on security does not come near the maximum Palestinian concessions on demilitarization or the Jordan Valley.
Third, if a negotiated solution could be reached, it would almost certainly have been reached already. Conflicts tend to be resolved quickly or, save a new and often violent confrontation, not at all. This is how frozen conflicts become frozen—in Kashmir, in Cyprus, or in Bosnia. When equilibrium, however unsatisfactory, is reached at a certain level, the chances of finding a new, hopefully more just and satisfactory balance will always be measured against the risk of new instability and chaos.
The history of past Israeli-Palestinian negotiations provides ample evidence of these old verities. They have invariably ended in failing to find the grand settlement of the conflict, regardless of the personalities involved and their motives, and regardless of the external support (or the lack thereof) by various third parties. The tireless efforts of Shimon Peres and the ultimate sacrifice of Yitzhak Rabin opened the way for Camp David, yet Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat could not arrive at an agreement there, or in Taba and Sharm el-Sheikh a few months later. The 2003 “Road Map for Peace,” forced by President Bush on reluctant Ariel Sharon and Yasir Arafat, did not lead anywhere. The 2007 Annapolis Conference led to protracted and ultimately fruitless secret negotiations between President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
It is true but completely misleading to point out how close—ninety percent, ninety-five percent, a hairbreadth away—the two sides were to an agreement at various times because it obscures the fundamentally nonlinear character of any negotiation. Since both sides invariably work on the easiest issues first in order to create trust, build momentum, and demonstrate progress to their publics, the time needed to resolve half of the total issues might be needed again only to resolve one half of the second half, or one half of the remaining quarter, and so forth. The resulting exponential curve, y = ½x, in which x is a time period and y is the proportion of the problem resolved within that period, means that talks can go on for any length of time without producing any signatures on the dotted line. The accounts of various participants in such negotiations over the years differ in how close the two sides really came to consensus, but they all agree that it was simply not close enough…