A recipe for diplomatic collapse

How U.S. envoys (and others) are making their own peace missions fail.

A recipe for diplomatic collapse
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Israeli ministers Moshe Ya’alon, Yuval Steinitz and Tzipi Livni meet with Secretary of State John Kerry in Jerusalem (photo: Government Press Office)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is in the final stages of his effort to resume direct negotiations between the two sides. So far, no breakthrough has been reported. In Israel, coalition members are distancing themselves, one by one, from the two-state solution, and new projects in the settlements registered a record seven-year high. At the same time, the Palestinian Authority refuses to enter direct negotiations as long as Netanyahu rejects the terms of reference agreed upon in previous rounds of talks.

Kerry might eventually be able to force the two parties to meet – the U.S. still has enough leverage here – but then what? Prime Minister Netanyahu and PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas already met in 2010; Netanyahu had a more comfortable coalition and Abbas had more legitimacy, plus Prime Minister Fayyad on his side, and still, the talks broke down immediately. In fact, the diplomatic process seems so futile and hopeless that today, many view it as part of the problem rather than a means to bringing about a solution.

In order to bring about effective talks – or perhaps in order to resume any process at all – some of the faults of the past will need to be addressed. These are the most important of them:

Preconditions for one side only

Israel’s stated position, which the Obama administration adopted and the EU followed, is that negotiations should start “without preconditions.” Yet this rule is applied only to one side. In order to be included in the political and diplomatic process, Palestinian organizations need to meet the condition of abandoning armed resistance and recognize the State of Israel. This is the reason there are no formal contacts with Hamas. At the same time, Israel is exempt from a settlement freeze or agreeing to the pre-1967 borders as a starting point for negotiations. In fact, no Israeli government has even adopted the principle of a two-state solution.

The solution, I believe, is not to exempt both sides from past agreements and other so-called preconditions, but the other way around: force both sides to agree to certain terms.

Punishing one side only

President George W. Bush cut all ties with the Yasser Arafat following the discovery of a ship loaded with weapons was on its way to Gaza. Contacts were resumed only when Abbas took over the PA. Israeli violations of the Oslo Accords, the Road Map and other past commitments were never punished in such a way. The obvious example is the construction of new settlements and the Israeli commitment to evacuate the so-called outposts, which the government also made to the Bush Administration but never fully implemented.

The same goes for future behavior: the United States warns the Palestinians against “unilateral actions” at various international bodies, while at the same time the State Department publicly declares that it won’t take any action against new settlement projects. The European Union is a bit more vocal on the settlements and slightly more supportive for Palestinian diplomatic initiatives, but not to a degree that would change the dynamics on the ground.

No real deadlines

The longer the process takes, the more meaningless it becomes (the talks which led to first Oslo agreement took less than a year and implementation started almost immediately). A long timeframe creates the feeling of “talks for the sake of talks,” and more importantly, it provides enough room for organized opposition groups to make the process fail.

A deadline is not just a date – Oslo was supposed to be replaced with a final accord by 1999; we are still waiting – but also needs to include a strong incentive which will make both sides respect it.

Rewarding bad behaviour

This is a continuation of part 2 – over the years, violations of the principles behind the entire process became the new norm, thus incentivizing parties to continue with them. Often, Israel rewarded armed resistance against the occupation by making territorial concessions (the evacuation of Hebron, the Gaza pull-out) or releasing prisoners after refusing to take those very same actions as part of the diplomatic process.

The United States rewarded Israeli violations by declaring that the new Israeli-Palestinian border will reflect “changes on the ground,” meaning the settlements. By doing so, the administration encouraged Israel to take more and more land into the so-called “settlement blocs,” to prolong the process, etc. In this respect, it is worth noting that Israel’s insistence that “settlements can be evacuated” (and therefore, don’t stand in the way of a final status agreement) and the demand to recognize “changes on the ground” contradict each other.

No alternatives

The United States and Europe are very careful not to clarify the cost of sustaining the current trends. Public statements by their envoys sound more like assumptions than references to political action. For example, a popular statement is that “the status quo is not sustainable.” Or, if a solution is not reached, “violence is inevitable.” Yet from an Israeli perspective, one could argue that the status quo is desirable or that Israel could prevail in another violent escalation, as it has in the past.

For a serious process to begin, answers to the question about “what if” should be a bit more specific. Dahlia Scheindlin and I tried to address this issue in a piece we wrote together several months ago (“Giving the occupation an expiration date”).

Final note: Most of these problems have played into Israel’s hands, a fact which is rooted in the unwillingness of Europe or the United States to invest political capital in the process by confronting Jerusalem. Yet as long as the old approach to the negotiations prevails, things are likely to get worse on the ground.