Gideon Lichfield
The Economist
October 17, 2011 - 12:00am

"Insanity", goes a motto* much quoted by jaded Jerusalem-based diplomats on their second gin-and-tonic, "is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results." Next month marks the 20th anniversary of the first public Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in Madrid. At each step since then—in Oslo, Wye River, Camp David, Taba, Sharm el-Sheikh and Washington, DC—the negotiators, like Achilles approaching the tortoise in Zeno's famous paradox, have seemed to close one more fraction of the gap between them. Yet a gap always remains. And while the air thickens in the smoke-filled rooms, the deadly, paralysing "facts on the ground" thicken also—Israeli settlements, Palestinian political decay, radicalisation and distrust on both sides.

So is it madness to continue talking? That is the question before this house. The past couple of years have been pretty bad even by the low standards that peace-process watchers have come to expect. Israel's prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, leading the most hardline government coalition in recent memory, has thumbed his nose at American mediation and refused to renew a freeze (little more than a chill, in reality) on settlement-building. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, refuses to restart talks without one. But in any case his legitimacy among Palestinians is waning and his writ is limited; Hamas, which controls Gaza, has tried to disrupt what talks there were with terrorist attacks. Last month Mr Abbas, in desperation and to Israel's fury, asked the United Nations to recognise Palestinian statehood unilaterally.

Daniel Levy thinks it is time to stop trying to talk—at least for now. As a former Israeli negotiator who also co-wrote (with a Palestinian colleague) an influential informal peace plan, the Geneva Accord, he saw the peace process from the inside in its heyday. Now, he says, Mr Abbas and Mr Netanyahu have "little that they might conceivably agree on". But, he adds, this is more than just a matter of finding more congenial leaders. There is also a basic asymmetry of power between the Israelis and the Palestinians that makes negotiations doomed to fail.

Yet maybe talks of any kind, no matter how doomed, are better than no talks at all. That is the view of David Makovsky, who spent 11 years covering the conflict for both Israeli and American media in Jerusalem before becoming one of the leading policy scholars on the topic in Washington. When talks have stopped in the past, he points out, the result has been a vacuum that is usually filled by violence. What's more, he argues, Mr Abbas, who has frequently claimed that Israel does not want peace, has a golden opportunity to prove it if he agrees to a framework for talks proposed recently by the Quartet, the international supervisor of the peace process, which demands "comprehensive proposals" on the key issues within a short period.

In their next statements our speakers will take their arguments further. But by now you may well be asking why we have two foreign-born Jews debating this issue, rather than a Jew and a Palestinian, and preferably native ones.

That was actually an accident of logistics rather than an ideological choice, but the fact is that on this particular question, national identity counts for little. This is not a clash between Israeli and Palestinian views (which range widely, in any case) on what is just; it is a much more pragmatic argument, reflecting the disputes in international policy circles, where both men now work, about how to get things moving. There are Palestinians who will take Mr Makovsky's side, and Israelis who will find even Mr Levy's cautious hope that peace talks can one day resume too optimistic.

You may also wonder why we restricted the debate to a fairly narrow spectrum of opinion. Mr Levy and Mr Makovsky differ mainly on how to get to two states, and some will say that is the wrong question to ask. We could have invited a "one-stater" who believes that Israel's occupation is too entrenched to undo, and that the only solution is to create a single country with equal rights for all Jews and Palestinians. At the other extreme, we could have asked an Israeli right-winger to argue that the Palestinians must remain in stateless limbo to ensure Israeli security. But it would have been an unedifying shouting match—hence the narrow framing. Where the Middle East is concerned, it is hard enough just getting people to agree on what to disagree on.

We will, however, broaden the conversation with two guest contributors, one Israeli and one Palestinian, who will each add a different perspective. And, of course, you, the audience, can broaden it further by adding your own views. Please weigh in. As long as you do it clearly, calmly and without insulting anyone, we'll welcome whatever you have to say.

Could anything be more reasonable, obvious and uncontroversial than resuming bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in order to resolve this conflict? It is the Israelis and Palestinians themselves who will have to live with the outcome of any deal, so surely there is no substitute for their negotiating directly.

What could be the harm in pursuing bilateral negotiations? The Middle East Quartet (the United States, UN, EU and Russia) Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (with caveats) are in favour. Debate over. Not so fast. Eighteen years after after the Oslo peace accords and over a decade since the Camp David talks, can the repeated failure of negotiations to deliver be ascribed simply to circumstantial bad luck? If we just keep trying, give it another sporting best shot, will the stars not finally align?

That might be a dangerous illusion to entertain—wasting time, diverting attention from daily human suffering and avoiding the very real flaws in the existing negotiating process. Does anyone seriously believe that if Mahmoud Abbas and Binyamin Netanyahu were to be held captive on a desert island, white smoke would eventually emerge?

One would not be unfairly maligning the current Israeli leadership to suggest that the positions of the government led by Binyamin Netanyahu and his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, contain an intransigence incompatible with productive negotiations. On just about every issue Mr Netanyahu's parameters for a two-state solution have significantly shifted the goalposts away from what might be considered reasonable to any fair-minded neutral observer, let alone any Palestinian. The Palestinian negotiators themselves now speak for a largely dysfunctional national movement.

It is tempting to make this entire debate about the pointlessness of negotiations in the Netanyahu-Lieberman era—tempting but too easy. The harder yet necessary case to make is that the flaw in relying on direct negotiations runs far deeper.

At the start of Oslo, it might have seemed plausible that the following formula could deliver: take Israeli rational self-interest in a viable two-state solution (as something that could preserve Israel's self-defined Jewish and democratic character); add Palestinian pragmatism, acceptance of Israel and emphasis on reclaiming only the land occupied by Israel in 1967; and mix together with determined American mediation. Bingo. But in practice the equation was found seriously wanting.

The parties do not share a common set of core assumptions (settlement expansion in particular raises red flags as to the sincerity of Israel's commitment to a viable two-state outcome). Unsurprisingly, negotiations have ended up being about power—who has it and who does not. There is a basic and undeniable asymmetry between an occupying power and an occupied people. The American role serves to exacerbate that asymmetry rather than defuse it. Given the Palestinians' lack of leverage and Israel's impunity, only two rational outcomes can be anticipated: Palestinian capitulation, or deadlock based on Palestinian refusal to capitulate—which is indeed a rather accurate potted history of the negotiations.

Hardly surprising, then, that many view the negotiations as a convenient exercise in letting the clock run while Israel gobbles up the very land supposedly under discussion. If negotiations are so unlikely to deliver results, why this insistence on pursuing direct talks from so many quarters?

Some undoubtedly insist on negotiations mainly as a propaganda ruse. To negotiate sounds so reasonable that Palestinians must be rejectionists to oppose "unconditional" talks. (This is not, however, a motivation I attribute to David Makovsky.) For others the status quo of negotiations is convenient. It provides a semblance of peacemaking while allowing the avoidance of hard choices or taking sides. That is a comfortable parking space for much of the international community. Even some in Palestinian circles prefer the status quo, which allows aid money to continue flowing to the Palestinian Authority.

Finally, there are some well-intentioned believers in a two-state outcome who might lack the imagination or stomach to think beyond negotiations-dependency. But the key variable for advancing peace right now is unlikely to be whether or not the parties are talking to each other. There is a time and a place for negotiations—there was in the past and may be in the future. Opposing the centrality of negotiations is not a principle but a pragmatic reading of current reality. What most matters now is to keep the hope of a solution alive and to offer a workable path to greater freedoms, rights and security for all those caught up in this conflict.

What is that alternative way forward, especially one that addresses the crucial missing ingredient, political will? That is something to be explored later in this debate. But the motion before us is about bilateral negotiations, and surely under existing conditions little is achieved by trying to get two men—who have little that they might conceivably agree on—into a room together.

Slavish devotion to direct negotiations is the victory of rhetorical simplicity over common sense.

On the very day in September that the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, appeared at the United Nations to apply for UN membership as a Palestinian state, the Middle East Quartet—comprising the United States, the European Union, Russia and the secretary general of the United Nations—issued a statement calling for the unconditional resumption of talks. Given the repeated past violence over a small patch of territory, neither side will accept a deal imposed by outside parties that they think will leave them more vulnerable rather than more secure. America's president, Barack Obama, is correct in saying that the road to Palestinian statehood and a two-state solution must emerge from peace negotiations.

Can negotiations succeed today? There are reasons to try them, even if they ultimately fail. Israel has agreed to resume talks, but Mr Abbas has not. He continues to argue that they are futile. However, if Mr Abbas truly doubts the commitment by Israel's prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, to peace, why not challenge him? If Mr Netanyahu cannot provide a proposal within three months on territory and security, as per the explicit timetable in the Quartet statement, Mr Abbas's argument will be vindicated in the eyes of the international community, and perhaps even among many Israelis. If Mr Abbas is right that Israel is not serious about peace, what are the odds that Mr Netanyahu will propose a map for the partition of the West Bank? He will either put forward a serious proposal, or his coalition government will break apart over the differences of its members and a different coalition will converge. Why not force his hand?

Alternatively, if Mr Abbas refuses to return to the negotiating table for even the minimum of three months, this raises profound questions about his own commitment to peace. He will have directly defied the Quartet's reasonable demands, all the while giving more credence to the Israeli narrative that the Palestinians—and Mr Abbas in particular—do not truly want peace. It will deepen doubts which developed when Mr Abbas rejected a 2008 peace deal, in which Mr Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, agreed to put Jerusalem's holiest sites under international supervision.

What Mr Abbas cannot do is continue to free ride on his accusations that Israel is simply not interested in peace. Neither Mr Abbas nor Mr Netanyahu has succeeded in rebuilding the pro-peace constituencies that Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who signed the Oslo peace accords, created in the 1990s. However, whatever criticism Mr Netanyahu's government has earned, it is undeniable that he has deviated from the traditional position of his Likud party by supporting a two-state solution, agreeing to a ten-month settlement freeze in 2010 (beyond what had been agreed to by the more moderate Labor party), and lifting almost all the major manned checkpoints in the West Bank, which facilitated its 9.3% economic growth last year. In May 2011, Mr Netanyahu stated that Israel's demands to retain certain "blocks" of settlements in peace negotiations would be based on an Israeli (not Likud) consensus, which usually defines areas such as the border adjustments adjacent to the pre-1967 boundary. Any reasonable definition of these "blocks" cannot constitute more than 10% of West Bank territory—a far cry from where Likud was in the past. Of course, the Palestinians want 100% and not 90% of the West Bank. Yet, this is the start of the talks, not the conclusion.

Judging by his public statements, the old Mr Abbas felt it was a mistake to make talks contingent on a settlement freeze since the goal was to cure a problem and not debate its symptoms. The new Mr Abbas cites the non-extension of the freeze as explaining why he has been willing to negotiate for only two weeks with Mr Netanyahu. (He had a ten-month freeze, but utilised a fraction of it.) Mr Abbas was right then and wrong now. Paradoxically, peacemakers like Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon felt it was easier to take down a settlement than freeze construction there. Moreover, Palestinians as well as Israelis agree that there would need to be territorial swaps, trading Israeli control of the "blocks" in return for Palestinian control over equivalent areas inside pre-1967 Israel. I am not a fan of settlements, but one must admit that construction now is mostly—albeit not exclusively—located within this narrow swathe of land that will inevitably be part of such a territorial swap anyway. While it understandably causes angst, this construction does not skewer negotiations over a two-state solution.

Although some argue that negotiations are unlikely to succeed at this point in time, is their absence preferable? Neither side has the luxury of deferring negotiations, since an absence of talks leads to radicalisation. History has shown that the lack of negotiations tends to produce a vacuum, making bloodshed inevitable. During the last such vacuum in 2001-04, over 4,000 Palestinians and Israelis were killed in what became known as the Second Intifada. If there is no negotiation and an imposed solution will not work, the alternative is either violence or stasis.

The Quartet has put forward a reasonable proposal. Mr Abbas should say yes. He has little to lose and much to gain.


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