Decades of failed peace talks: How Israel negotiates with itself

For 50 years Israel has maintained full control over the entire land, economy, borders, movement and natural resources between the river and the sea. The only thing Palestinians have to offer Israel in peace talks is international legitimacy. But Israel doesn’t need peace to gain legitimacy — it needs an endless peace process.

Why have Israeli-Palestinian negotiations failed? The most common answer among the Israeli right focuses on “Palestinian rejectionism” or mistakes made by American facilitators. According to the narrative espoused by the center-left, Israel also hasn’t shown up to the negotiating table with clean hands — certainly not in the past decade. And yet, the fact that talks continue to fail without any correlation to the makeup of the leadership on either side (leaders representing different governments with different politics and approaches, operating under different international and regional circumstances), leaves much to be desired.

I’d like to propose an alternative framework, focusing on the dynamics and interests in the process, rather than the personalities and ideologies.

We already live in a one-state reality

The median age of the Jewish population in Israel is 32. The median age for non-Jewish Israeli citizens is 22.5, and the median age of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza is 20. In other words, half the population between the river and the sea was born — or, at least, grew up — in the post-Oslo era. Only a small minority remember what things were like before the occupation began in 1967. We talk about the status quo as a temporary state of affairs, but it is actually the opposite: in a chaotic and volatile world, the occupation is a rare constant for most people in Israel-Palestine.

What does this reality look like on the ground? The Jewish and Palestinian populations are mixed together throughout the territory. Jews and Arabs live alongside one another in the West Bank, along the coastal plain, in the north and in the south of Israel, and of course in Jerusalem. And in each one of these areas, the State of Israel is sovereign. It controls every land and sea border, all of the airspace, the primary currency and the population registry — within the Green Line, in Jerusalem, in the West Bank, and for the most part, in Gaza as well. The State of Israel also exercises perhaps the most important ingredient of sovereignty — it enjoys a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence in the entire territory.

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Israel’s sovereignty was not undermined or compromised by the very limited transfer of power to the Palestinian Authority under the Oslo Accords. Israel has always decided which Palestinians can enter or exit the entire territory; the Israeli government still controls the economy; and the Palestinian security forces’ mandate is to protect Jewish Israeli citizens, rather than Palestinians. The Oslo Accords even explicitly set out that any powers not transferred to the PA would remain with Israel. There is no legal vacuum and the PA has no sovereignty — including in Area A of the West Bank. Even in Gaza, Israel retains most of the characteristics of a sovereign power.

Let’s put it another way: although we love arguing one state vs. two states, in reality we have been living in a single state for some decades now — one in which half the population (Jews) holds almost all of the political power and controls all the resources, while enjoying full rights throughout the entire land.

The Jewish public has learned to consider the West Bank population part of a separate system (after all, West Bank Palestinians are not citizens). The opposite is true: the Israeli establishment keeps the majority of Palestinians without rights in order to preserve Jewish control. We’ve even come up with innocuous-sounding euphemisms (“the demographic problem”) in order to describe this goal.

The “solutions” to the conflict — one state, two states or a confederation — are theoretical ideas about how to more equitably redistribute sovereignty and resources within the territory at hand. They might happen, they might not. But as things stand today we are in a permanent reality of a single state under Jewish control.

Border police officers stand in front of Palestinians as they wait to cross from Qalandiya checkpoint outside Ramallah, West Bank, into Jerusalem to attend the second Friday Ramadan prayers in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, July 26, 2013. (Photo:
Israeli troops stand in front of Palestinians as they wait to cross from Qalandiya checkpoint outside Ramallah, West Bank. (Photo:

Israel controls the peace process itself

The diplomatic approach to conflict resolution is based on a premise of two sides and various steps those sides must take to reach a resolution. But the truth is that the Palestinians are not a real actor in this story. It doesn’t really matter what they do. They could join Hamas or even the Likud party — without the acceptance and assent of the Jewish Israeli population, the status quo will continue.

In other words, the Jewish population can change the legal situation on the ground by itself, whereas all the Palestinians can do is try to convince the Jews to do so.

Decision-makers in Israel are keenly aware of this fact at every juncture. From Israel’s perspective, any decision it takes with regards to the Palestinians — from easing the siege on Gaza to removing checkpoints in the West Bank to creating a Palestinian state — are the sole purview of the Jewish Israeli population, and any external intervention in that decision-making process comprises a serious blow to Israel’s democracy. In theory, the Jewish population could decide to rule over the Palestinians forever, and as long as that decision is made “democratically,” it would be legitimate as far as Israel is concerned. That even some countries in the world accept this logic is a testament to Israel’s strength, and its ability to force its own point of view onto external actors.

A few months after the Oslo Accords were signed, the Ma’ariv daily paper published a conversation between Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz and Shimon Peres. Leibowitz, who like many others on the ideological Left immediately saw the deficiencies of the Oslo Accords, asked why the Israeli government didn’t go straight for a permanent resolution and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Peres’ answer was surprisingly candid: “Nobody is compelling us or forcing us to take part in these negotiations. The Palestinians have nothing to give us. They don’t have land and they don’t have any authority and they don’t have an army. The way I see it, it’s a negotiation that Israel is having with itself.”

This is still true today.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu consults with settler leaders at the Wye River Plantation on the sidelines of peace talks with the Palestinians, October 18, 1998. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu consults with settler leaders at the Wye River Plantation on the sidelines of peace talks with the Palestinians, October 18, 1998. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

The Israeli population chooses to maintain the status quo, and it has good reason to do so

Theoretically, the negotiation that Israel is having with itself is about the question of one or two states. And according to public opinion polls, a slim majority of the Jewish population still supports the two-state solution. In practice, the decision facing Israel is whether to alter the status quo. The majority of Jewish Israelis choose not to. That is especially true of the past decade.

Choosing the status quo is a rational choice, easily explained when you think about the alternatives: a one-state solution would lead to a redistribution of all of the resources between the river and the sea and would transform all of the current political and constitutional arrangements — if not immediately, then within a few years. It could succeed or it could devolve into civil war, but either way it represents the least attractive alternative for the Israeli population.

The two-state solution is less costly: its price is known to all (22 percent of the territory between the river and the sea), and Israel would not need to change the character of its regime in the remaining territory, or redistribute further resources. Yet it still carries a heavy cost, and those politicians who have advocated two states all paid for it politically, including Prime Minister Netanyahu during his first premiership. There is also no way to predict the nature of the relationship between the State of Israel and the State of Palestine, and the chance of any agreement falling apart and further conflict erupting remains high.

The status quo, on the other hand, is by far the most attractive option. For the majority of the Jewish population, life in Israel is not bad according to any Western parameter. The Palestinians are the ones who suffer as a result of the occupation; they even do most of the policing work themselves and the international community shoulders the economic burden. I don’t think anybody would argue that it’s an ideal situation, and I believe even the right wing would prefer not to rule over another people, but political decisions usually have more to do with the least worst option, not utopian ones. For the Jewish population, the status quo is clearly the least worst option.

That equation has become even clearer in recent years. Israelis have benefited from economic prosperity and relative security while the Palestinians slowly slid out of sight. Most of the Jewish population believes that Israel has very little to gain from an agreement, and has much to lose. That is why it continues to choose leaders who preserve the status quo. That choice is a completely rational decision, at least in the short-run — and the short-run is the timeframe in which electoral decisions are made (if not, green parties would have formed governments the world over).

The political consensus on the status quo is absolute. Those on the left who support changing the current order — Meretz and the Joint Arab List — have become political hot potatoes for any governing coalition. Those on the right who support annexing the Palestinian territories — Bezalel Smotrich, for example — are in the coalition, but only due to internal party politics, are treated as political anomalies, and could easily find themselves on the outside after the next elections.

We tend to mix up the intense tribal and personal competition that exists in Israel with actual ideological disagreements. The ideological consensus in Israel is astonishing. Everyone wants to maintain the existing situation.

Construction in the Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba, near the West Bank city of Hebron, April 02, 2017. (Wisam Hashlamoun/FLASH90)
Construction in the Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba, near the West Bank city of Hebron, April 02, 2017. (Wisam Hashlamoun/FLASH90)

Israel’s interest is a peace process that never ends

One might be tempted to conclude that Israeli support for the status quo translates into opposing the resumption of peace talks. In practice, the opposite is true. The peace process itself helps strengthen the status quo.

As stated earlier, the Palestinians have almost nothing to offer Israel in negotiations. The only card they hold is international legitimacy. They are the ones who can bring about international recognition of Israel’s borders, of its sovereignty in Jerusalem, and actually, in Israel as well. Legitimacy, not security, is what they bring to the table.

Except Israel doesn’t really need a final status agreement to gain more international legitimacy. Just participating in a peace process is enough. The moment the Palestinians and Israelis enter the negotiating room, Israel’s legitimacy — and even that of the occupation — is bolstered. The negotiation process also bears fruit on the ground immediately — for Israel — as pressure mounts on the Palestinian leadership to stamp out any and all resistance to the occupation. Palestinians, meanwhile, can only hope to see whatever concessions they are able to extract years after a final agreement is signed, if at all.

Israel’s interest, therefore, is to sit around the negotiating table forever. Doing so helps it gain international legitimacy, and it has to give nothing, or very little, in return. That is why even right-wing politicians like Naftali Bennett, who vehemently oppose the two-state solution and any peace agreement with the Palestinians, have no problem when Israel sits down with Mahmoud Abbas and even discusses dismantling the settlements and the future of Jerusalem.

Paramedics and police carry away a victim of a suicide bombing in Jerusalem that killed eight and wounded 60 during the Second Intifada, Jerusalem, February 14, 2004. (Flash90)
Paramedics and police carry away a victim of a suicide bombing in Jerusalem that killed eight and wounded 60 during the Second Intifada, Jerusalem, February 14, 2004. (Flash90)

The Palestinians’ only achievements came as a result of uprisings

Uprisings — both violent and unarmed — have thus far been the Palestinians’ most effective tool for altering Israel’s cost-benefit analysis of the occupation.

There’s no shortage of examples. On the eve of the First Intifada, Israel had rejected the Peres-Hussein London Agreement, which bypassed the PLO and empowered Jordan’s King Hussein as the representative of the Palestinian people. After the First Intifada, Israel signed an agreement directly with the PLO — a contradiction of its previous policy.

Before the Second Intifada the Israeli leadership believed there was no way to evacuate settlements without some sort of final status agreement and an end to all claims in the conflict. After the Second Intifada, Israel evacuated all of its settlements in Gaza and four in the northern West Bank, and immediately after that showed unprecedented flexibility in peace negotiations. The Palestinians paid an enormous price in both intifadas — far greater than Israel — but they also succeeded at rocking Israel enough to affect change in its politics, but also its ideological precepts.

The predominant telling of that era is that violence killed the two-state solution. But support for peace talks was greater at the height of the Second Intifada — between 2002 and 2004 as hundreds of Jewish Israelis were killed in the streets — than it was a decade later in 2012-2014, despite the fact that 2012 was the only year since the 1967 war in which not a single Jew was killed in the West Bank. The political discourse was also different. The “Courage to Refuse” movement, which called on Israeli soldiers to refuse to serve in the occupied territories in 2002-2003, enjoyed far more public legitimacy than Breaking the Silence does today, despite the latter’s far more modest goals.

Of course, there have been other variables over the years — the effect of the Gaza withdrawal, the Second Lebanon War, and the Arab Spring. But the idea that Palestinian nonviolence and diplomacy might make the Jewish Israeli public more willing to compromise has never been proven. In actuality, the opposite occurred.

None of that is easy to digest, but it’s important to recognize. Recognizing that truth does not mean supporting violence itself, of course. As an Israeli, the possibility of other Israelis being harmed is truly terrifying for me: not as an abstract idea but rather a real fear for the lives of people — among them my family and friends — who might be at the wrong place at the wrong time when a terrorist attack occurs, or who are serving in the Israeli army. Violence is a crappy political tool — it begets militaristic and uncompromising societies, and lays mines beneath the path to any breakthrough that might come in its wake.

The Israeli Left needs to promote an alternative to violence, and to encourage the Israeli public to end the occupation here and now, even when it is not interested in listening.

File photo of Israeli anti-occupation activists protesting in front of the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem. (Maya Levin/Flash90)
Israeli anti-occupation activists protesting in front of the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem. (Maya Levin/Flash90)

The paradox of ripeness for resolution

President Donald Trump’s peace initiative will likely fail for the same reasons that every previous peace initiative failed. As long as the Israelis, or at least the majority of them, don’t see the end of the occupation as an immediate necessity, and as long as nobody can convince them that it is (and nobody is interested in that thankless task — not the current nor the previous administration, nor the EU nor the UN), any peace process will only strengthen the status quo in a best case scenario; in the worst case scenario it could lead to a serious deterioration on the ground like those which followed the Camp David Summit and the Kerry Initiative. Even minor tangible changes are difficult to achieve because of Israel’s insistence on an end to all claims and its unwillingness to relinquish sovereignty over any of the land.

We are deep in the paradox of ripeness for resolution. Theoretically, this is the right moment for an agreement from Israel’s perspective. There is no army that presents a threat to its existence, the Arab world is weak and crumbling, and the Palestinians are in a particularly desperate place. Under those circumstances, Israel could attain a relatively comfortable agreement: it could choose the resolution that best serves its interests, and shoulder the costs that may surface down the road. The only problem is that because of those very same circumstances, the Israeli public doesn’t see any self-interest in resolving the conflict at the moment. When will Israel want to end the occupation? Only when the Palestinians grow stronger, the pressure on Israel rises significantly, and the price of continuing it becomes too great.

This article also appears in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

(Top photo by GPO)