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Reviving the Peace Process

Reviving the Peace Process

Mini Teaser: Obama can take credit for several foreign-policy triumphs, but he has failed to revive the moribund Mideast peace process. Arguments for why it can’t be done crumble against the imperative of American presidential leadership.

by Author(s): Daniel Kurtzer

THERE IS no simple answer to the question of why this phase of peacemaking has defied resolution or definitiveness over the years. It has not been for lack of interest. Since 1991, leaders in the region have reiterated time and again their commitment to peace, even if their actions did not measure up to their words. It has not been for lack of vision. Even if policy makers could not reach a negotiated settlement, private individuals showed how it could be done. The Geneva Initiative and the Ayalon-Nusseibeh Agreement demonstrated that reasonable people on both sides could visualize a peace deal.

And failure has not been for lack of imperative. The Arab-Israeli conflict is not the most violent or dangerous conflict globally, perhaps not even in the top tier of dangerous conflicts. But it has become a chronic, enduring and open wound, susceptible to dangerous infection that generates fever throughout the region. On the Arab side, the conflict played no role in the first days of the Arab Spring; since then, it has become a rallying cry for disaffected Arab masses that get no fulfillment of basic needs and thus call on governments to deal with this emotional need at the very least. On the Israeli side, the persistence of the conflict raises the specter of demographic change that could call into question either Israel’s Jewish character or its democratic character if it continues to deny equal rights to a population under occupation.

If we are thus at the cusp of what may be a new stage in the Arab-Israeli conflict—one that turns the page and ends the chapter of negotiations leading to a two-state solution—what might a new phase look like? Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, in a May 2011 op-ed piece in the New York Times, argued that “Palestinian national unity is a key step” in preserving the chance for a just end to the conflict—a reference to the long-sought but elusive goal of reconciliation between the PA and Hamas. He added, “Palestine’s admission to the United Nations would pave the way for the internationalization of the conflict as a legal matter, not only a political one.” Does either element of Abbas’s vision of peacemaking hold out a possibility of success?

I met with senior Hamas officials in Damascus in October 2010, and I heard no flexibility with respect to their stated opposition to any conclusive peace with Israel. Hamas has told many interlocutors that it would accept a state in the West Bank and Gaza provided Israel withdraws from Jerusalem and allows the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Yet, this “acceptance” does not mean that Hamas would recognize Israel or declare an end to the conflict. To be fair, I suppose it should not be expected that Hamas would change its long-standing ideology in a meeting with foreign nonofficials, especially since Western officials refuse even to meet with representatives of the organization. But this stated position belies Abbas’s argument that national unity will help move the peace process forward.

Regarding Abbas’s second point, it is true that membership of Palestine in the United Nations would give the Palestinians standing to bring cases on their own before such global legal organs as the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court. Palestine could tie up Israel constantly with cases involving settlements, occupation practices, unilateral Israeli actions in building infrastructure and roads, and so on. Over time, Palestinian successes in these legal forums would create a presumptive case for a larger political assault on Israel as an apartheid state.

But Palestinian standing as a state is a two-way street, for Israel would also be able to bring Palestinians and the Palestinian state before the bar of international justice regarding ongoing terrorism, rocket fire and the like. While this legal process could achieve some measure of punitive damage, it is hard to see how it moves either party closer to a settlement. Abbas’s emerging vision of this new phase in the peace process is thus not very compelling, for it is a road that leads inexorably to a dead end of mutual recriminations and legal maneuvers.

Although Netanyahu has been somewhat less clear about how he envisages a next phase, the elements of the approach he is following appear equally unconvincing of his ultimate desire for a serious peace process with Palestinians. In a seminal speech at Bar-Ilan University in June 2009, Netanyahu coupled his willingness to accept a demilitarized Palestinian state next to Israel with a key demand: “I have already stressed the first principle—recognition. Palestinians must clearly and unambiguously recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people.”

This is a challenging precondition from the leader of a state that has, until now, been unable to define its own character in a constitution. The creation of Israel surely fulfills the Zionist vision of Jewish self-determination and independence in the historical homeland of the Jewish people, but does that require others to recognize the character of the state as a precondition for negotiations? When I served as U.S. ambassador to Israel, then prime minister Ariel Sharon often expressed the same sentiment as Netanyahu regarding Arab acceptance of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, but he cast it as an outcome of the peace process rather than as a precondition for negotiations.

In the course of just three days this past September, we were given additional insight into how the Palestinian and Israeli leaders see the period ahead. In their speeches to the United Nations General Assembly, Abbas and Netanyahu delivered spirited expositions of their respective positions. Abbas explained why it was time for the United Nations to accept Palestine as a full member state, and Netanyahu explained why Israel rejected this move. The diametrically opposed Palestinian and Israeli narratives of the conflict were on full view. Both sides point to exile from their homeland as refugees. Both are victims who have suffered at the hands of the other. Both seek recognition of the legitimacy of their historical experience. Both place a high value on the justice of their cause. Both are acutely insecure and have deep security needs. Both are attached to the (same) land. Both see themselves as nations with ties to ethnic brethren internationally. And both place a high value on the concept of national unity, although both are anything but unified internally.

In exposing their competing and complementary narratives so clearly, the two protagonists set aside any pretense of trying to rebuild the bridges of dialogue and understanding that had been constructed during two decades of face-to-face Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Reflecting how far apart these parties had grown, that same week the international quartet limited itself to calling for “a preparatory meeting between the parties to agree [to] an agenda and method of proceeding in the negotiation”—in other words, a meeting to produce agreement on how to hold another meeting.

If anyone expected the United States to reassert the centrality of the two-state solution and of direct negotiations as the means to achieve that outcome, President Obama’s UN speech was something else entirely. He delivered a spirited defense of Israel, and he spared no words in defining the security and legitimacy dilemmas that Israel faces. After a tour d’horizon of many conflict environments, Obama stressed that “peace is hard. Peace is hard.” Peace, he said, will not come through UN resolutions. But in a twist away from the expected insistence on resumption of talks based, for example, on the agenda he set forth last May—starting with borders and security—Obama said: “Deadlock will only be broken when each side learns to stand in the other’s shoes; each side can see the world through the other’s eyes. That’s what we should be encouraging. That’s what we should be promoting.”

In other words, the president was saying that the future of this conflict will be defined by the ability of the two sides to cope with their national narratives. It is unclear what happens when Israelis understand how Palestinians see the world and vice versa. The question is whether, by that time, there will be anything left to negotiate.

YOGI BERRA once advised, sagaciously, that when you arrive at a fork in the road, take it. For the United States, the policy choice ahead is binary: Do we pull the plug on the life-support system of the peace process that we constructed in 1991, let this phase of Arab-Israeli interaction die a peaceful death, and try to develop a different paradigm for resolving the conflict? Or do we persist, maintaining the same goal of a two-state solution and essentially the same process of arriving at peace through bilateral negotiations? I don’t see merit in a third option of waiting it out, living with the status quo, allowing the conflict to “ripen” and choosing a different time for negotiations. There is no such thing as a status quo in conflict situations: things either improve or get worse. This conflict—if left to develop on its own and subject to the machinations of those on both sides who are intent upon disrupting any resolution effort—will get much worse, much faster than anyone can anticipate.

Image: Pullquote: The Arab-Israeli conflict has become a chronic, enduring and open wound, susceptible to dangerous infection that generates fever throughout the region.Essay Types: Essay