Overcoming the Sisyphus Syndrome

The song remains the same on the Mideast peace talks and it's one of futility. There's no quick fix, but America can still help.

As the parties embark on yet another effort to reach a permanent peace agreement, they face any number of almost insurmountable obstacles. Obviously some are substance-related: most prominently the issues of refugees and Jerusalem. But there are process-related problems that are equally challenging: finding ways to avoid enlarging the size of the problem while seeking to resolve it; to make diplomacy viable by reducing incentives to resort to violence and make violence irrelevant; and to transform the process from a one-time deal into a cumulative one, with progress recorded and preserved.

The unwillingness to compromise on key substantive issues is the largest challenge. While a majority of Israelis and Palestinians support a two-state solution and while the main elements of any future agreement have become well known since 2000, Netanyahu has been reluctant to endorse the two-state goal and refused to accept any meaningful parameters as a frame for the current talks. As the leader of a coalition dominated by the right wing, he may well prefer winning elections to making painful concessions, concessions that he, for ideological and historical reasons, may well not support. Moreover, surveys among the publics of the two sides show no feasible solution to the most sensitive issues. This leads to a vicious circle—attempts to create facts on the ground by those in power (think settlement construction) to shape favorable parameters for a future agreement and in turn attempts to weaken or undo such efforts by the other side (think resorting to violence).

Settlement expansion is a problem magnifier. Israeli negotiators find it easy to give in to the demands of greedy settlers whose intentions are in direct violation of the goals of the peace process. If you are a settler, significant economic benefits provided by Israeli governments are the icing on the cake that makes the settlers dig in deeper and deeper taking away more and more land from Palestinians. But by giving in to settlers, and indeed encouraging their demands, Israeli negotiators tie their own hands in making the inevitable compromises. In game theory, such measures coerce an opponent, one that believes it has no viable alternative to negotiations, to make concessions quickly. In the Palestinian case, settlement expansion leads to a different outcome: to the conclusion that violence is the only means of ending occupation and building a state. A supply-and-demand dynamic ensues. Settlement construction leads to an increase in Palestinian public demand for violence. Hamas supplies the violence and gains public support while Abbas and Fatah are seen as gullible—even as America’s lackeys.

Violence can indeed provide an alternative to negotiations. Israel went to war twice, in 2006 and 2009 against Hezbollah and Hamas, rather than negotiate with them. Hamas resorted to violence against the Palestinian Authority and Abbas in the Gaza Strip in June 2007 rather than accept a less-than-optimum power-sharing deal. In response, Fatah did the same to Hamas in the West Bank. Resorting to violence eliminates or at least weakens the viability of alternatives such as negotiations. As negotiators are ready to meet in Washington during this current round of negotiations, Hamas unleashed violent attacks in the West Bank in a bid to undermine negotiations. While it is certain that the PA will now crackdown harder on Hamas, lack of real progress in negotiations only helps Hamas frame such PA steps as collaboration with the enemy—and worse, with the settlers. Without legitimacy, the PA cannot sustain a continued and forceful crackdown for long.

And the peace process is faced with yet another obstacle. Palestinian negotiators have essentially remained the same set of characters with consistent positions. When they do manage to move towards compromise, those compromises are internalized. On the other hand, Israel has had more than half a dozen prime ministers, each wanting to start from scratch. Naturally, a newly elected leader wants to leave his or her mark on the process, sometimes even wishing to reshape it in its entirety. By the time progress is made, Israel finds itself ready for new elections that bring new leaders, new negotiators. Palestinians have to contend with a long or a short wait until the “process” begins anew, one more time.

Today, a sense of futility—the expectation of inevitable failure prevails: a kind of a Sisyphus syndrome. In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was punished by the gods, who force him to eternally roll a big rock up to the top of a mountain only to have it return the minute he arrives at the summit. For many it is a fitting metaphor as they witness the unfolding of yet another episode in a process that started in the early 1990s with little to show for a decades-long back-and-forth.

While failure of the current effort is not inevitable, the unwillingness to compromise on the main issues of the conflict due to ideological, historical and domestic factors might well eliminate the option of a quick fix. Given the absence of U.S. leadership in the substance of negotiations, the process of learning to compromise is time consuming, time the two sides do not have. Assuming they can manage to find ways to deal with settlements and violence, overcoming the Sisyphus syndrome becomes imperative. Perhaps it is here, keeping a record of progress, that the United States might find a more modest and productive role for itself.