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Back To The Negotiating Table?

The Palestinians’ UN bid last month doesn’t seem to have done anything to advance the peace process, much less secure a state. If anything, the UN stunt may have set things back.

The UN announcement was never meant as an exercise in state-building — Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad is the one actually doing that work — but as a PR gambit. Frustrated by slow progress in negotiations — where Palestinian weakness has a hard time offsetting Israeli strength on the ground — the Palestinians sought to transfer the action to the UN forum where the Palestinians have more clout. It’s an understandable response to a very difficult situation, and Palestinian leaders like other people have to take their public opinion into account, but the UN can vote all it wants and it won’t get the Palestinians what they really want and need.

The hard work of peace building, which requires forging a competent government and spurring economic development (as Fayyad has done in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza unequivocally does not) and the grind of compromise, is no fun.  Many Palestinians believe that twenty years of negotiations since the Oslo agreements have brought them no progress.  This is not true: the Palestinian Authority is a proto-state that is steadily achieving attributes of statehood, and the Israelis have made much larger offers than many thought possible when negotiations began.

The road to peace — which will still be winding and long — leads inexorably back to the same negotiating table that the Palestinians walked away from in (again, understandable) frustration.  At that table, Israel is the stronger party and, as has been the case in negotiations through history, the relative strength of the parties will inevitably shape the resulting agreement.  Israel exists because the Palestinians and their allies have been repeatedly defeated in war, and Palestinians, like it or not, are coming to the table to reach an accommodation following strategic defeat.  There is no settlement available on the terms they ‘really’ want; that kind of settlement would only be possible after Israel is defeated by the Palestinians.

The basic Palestinian strategy since 1948 has been to refuse to accept the political consequences of military defeats then and in 1967 while appealing to Arab and world public opinion in the hope that global political pressure will do what more conventional weapons cannot.  The basic Israeli strategy has been to hold on to the “facts on the ground” and use its military superiority to threaten the Palestinians with the prospect of more losses of territory if they do not accept what the Israelis are prepared to put on the table.

Palestinians want the final agreement to be about ‘justice’ — as they see it; Israelis have their own ideas about justice, think the two sides won’t agree on that, and in any case want the settlement to be about ‘facts’.  This has been the basic argument between vanquished and victor in every negotiation for thousands of years; read how the Athenians and the Melians argued during the Peloponnesian War.

Now we see that Israel is welcoming, with the usual frustrating reservations, the international Quartet’s proposal to restart peace talks. From the Washington Post:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office says Israel “welcomes the Quartet’s call for direct negotiations between the parties without preconditions” but said it has unspecified “concerns” about the proposal.

To go back to the table without a settlement freeze means the Palestinians accept another defeat in their strategy of mobilizing the world against Israel’s policy of ‘facts on the ground’.  For many Israelis, to offer a settlement freeze as a precondition for negotiations is to drop what they see as their most effective weapon in getting the Palestinians to negotiate at all.

Both sides have found strategies that inflict significant costs on their opponents.  Israel hates the international isolation that Palestinians have been able to create around it.  Palestinians fear the settlements that the continued negotiating impasse constructs in what remains of their land.  In a sense, both strategies are succeeding and failing at the same time.  Israel is more politically isolated than it used to be; Palestine keeps getting smaller. Each suffers the consequences of the others success — but neither is willing to give up the fight.

Both sides continue to see negotiations as a way of conducting their struggle, rather than as a way to end it.  Neither side at this point thinks the other really believes in or is ready for a peace their opponents can accept; both are trying to make the international community blame the other side for the absence of an agreement.

There is some chance that a lot of maneuvering and fancy dancing by the US and its partners can get both sides back to some kind of table; there is almost no chance that those talks will lead to peace anytime soon.  We can manipulate both sides into pretending to negotiate by finding ways to threaten each side with the appearance of responsibility for continuing conflict; in more than a century the world has not found a way to get these two nations to agree.

Despite the costs, both the Israelis and the Palestinians still seem to believe that they do better sticking to their core strategies than by giving them up.  Until that changes, this conflict won’t end.

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  • Peter

    If there is a Palestinian state, do the world elite expect the U.S. taxpayer to tolerate it becoming yet another welfare client of ours???

    I suppose so for how else can it survive.

  • Moshe Koppel

    Negotiations would have ended successfully long ago if the Palestinians were prepared to make peace with Israel under any terms whatsoever. The Palestinians are frustrated not by the pace of negotiations, but rather by the ostensible purpose of negotiations — making peace.

  • Micha

    “Despite the costs, both the Israelis and the Palestinians still seem to believe that they do better sticking to their core strategies than by giving them up. Until that changes, this conflict won’t end.”

    I don’t know if that’s fair. There were several times during the last 20 years that Israel did change strategy: talking to the PLO; allowing the creation of the Palestinian Authority + withdrawal from parts of the West Bank; Barak’s extensive offers in 2000; the withdrawal from Gaza; Olmert’s very extensive offers. You might say that these offers were insufficient for peace with the Palestinians. But they were definitely massive (and risky) shifts in strategy with actual (not always positive) consequences.

    Moreover, at least some of the Israeli governments who negotiated with the Palestinians were, I believe, sincere in trying to find solutions and reach peace rather than just score PR points in the international arena. Even if we assume that Israeli diplomatic efforts were insufficient, I don’t think you can say they were consistently insincere.

    Right now Netanyahu can sustain a policy based on the (apparently correct) assumption that peace is not possible. He is not pressured to negotiate or even deal with the Palestinians. But the reason for that is that the credibility of Israeli peace efforts and peacemakers was completely lost because of the tangible negative results of these efforts.

  • PetraMB

    “Palestine keeps getting smaller.”

    Please back this up.

    The fact of the matter is you can’t. At the outset of the Annapolis process, Abbas specified exactly how many square kilometers the Jordanian West Bank+East Jerusalem and gyptian Gaza had. Three years ago, in September 2008, Olmert offered Abbas the equivalent of his territorial demands — and Abbas walked away.

  • Gary Goldman

    You conclude: “Despite the costs, both the Israelis and the Palestinians still seem to believe that they do better sticking to their core strategies than by giving them up. Until that changes, this conflict won’t end.

    What core strategy would you advise Israel to give up? More than Olmert offered?

  • nadine

    You conclude: “Despite the costs, both the Israelis and the Palestinians still seem to believe that they do better sticking to their core strategies than by giving them up. Until that changes, this conflict won’t end.”

    Yes, the process is stalemated because the only result satisfactory to the Palestinians, the weaker party, is the complete dissolution of Israel, the stronger party. This goal is openly and routinely discussed among themselves, though they dissemble to the Western press. Israel, after making several serious and painful concessions in an unsuccessful bid for peace, has decided that only an offer entailing national suicide would be acceptable. Unsurprisingly, the Israelis aren’t interested in committing national suicide.

    The only unusual thing about this stalemate is how well-funded, coddled and protected the weaker party feels. In any other conflict, the weaker party would be forced to accept a solution that was in line with its political and military strength. But then, only the Palestinians have the advantage of having the only Jewish state for their adversary.

  • Dubi Yarden

    Good analysis except for the untruth that the Palestinian terrority gets smaller when Israel continues to build settlements. “Settlement” footprints have not grown in 20 years; Israel abandoned its communities in Gaza.

  • Toni

    Dr. Mead, this sounds like a “plague on both their houses” assertion of moral equivalency.

    It was said that Yassar Arafat never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Whatever “accords” he agreed to at peace talks, he afterwards said very very different things in Arabic.

    At one point, Israel once agreed to Palestinian control of its most holy places in Jerusalem. At various points, Israel has agreed to everything the Palestinians ever asked for except the right of return. It’s never enough. Palestinians always want more.

    Note that Israel does its best to avoid Palestinian civilian casualties — while Palestinians deliberately embed their weaponry among civilians to maximize the propaganda value of “those heartless Israelis slaughtering innocent Palestinian women and children.” Note that no matter what restraint Israeli practices, neither Arafar, Abbas nor any other Palestinian leader has renounced attacks on Israeli civilians. None has conceded Israel’s right to exist.

    Look only at what Palestinians say (demands of Israel and claims of victimhood), what they don’t say (renouncing violence) and what they do (attacking Israeli civilians whenever they can while never concluding “peace talks” with actual peace), and the conclusion is clear. To wit:

    Palestinians and their backers in Iran, Syria, and elsewhere in the Arab world don’t want peace. They don’t want a two-state solution. They want one state, Palestine, and annihilation of the other.

    The greatest “diplomatic” achievement of the Arab world is widespread endorsement of the fiction that the Palestinians are a victimized, oppressed people who sincerely want peace, but are stymied by wicked, selfish, genocidal Jews.

  • Nick De Lancie

    Professor Meade:

    My understanding is that, outside Jerusalem, for many years–at least a decade–no new Israeli “settlements” have been built, only in-fill in existing ones, so potential Arab Palestine hasn’t been getting smaller.

    Is my understanding incorrect?

    Further, isn’t it true that on a net basis, since Israel uprooted all its “settlements” in Gaza, even if one counted as “settlements” (which is another discussion) new building in Jerusalem for Jews outside already Jewish parts of that city, potential Arab Palestine has actually grown in area during that time?

    • Walter Russell Mead

      A) Since Palestinians consider Jerusalem part of Palestine, from their point of view any Jewish construction in the eastern part of the city represents a real loss. And the loss of what they regard as their natural and rightful capital city is not a minor issue for them.
      B) Fear of territorial encroachment in Gaza has never been a major issue, and the West Bank, including Jerusalem, is the heart of the real territorial dispute. The PA in particular is West Bank focused and that is historically the base of Palestinians willing to consider a two state solution. Israelis might think Palestinians “should” net out Gaza, but this isn’t about what either side thinks is the appropriate position for the other side to take.

  • PetraMB

    Professor Mead, what I wrote last year in response to one of your essays still remains true:

    The expansion/land grab myth: in the past 10 years, no new settlements were established. In 2002, the Israeli human rights group B’tselem issued a report documenting that the built-up area of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, amounted to less than 2 percent of the territory beyond the “Green Line”, i.e. the pre-1967 border. The settlements have since then not been expanded outward (though there has been construction within the settlements), i.e. not more land has been “grabbed” for construction. Even Palestinian figures from last year put the total of all built-up areas at about 3 percent of the entire Westbank/East Jerusalem territory.

    The mendacious nature of the Palestinian settlement propaganda is nicely illustrated in the Palestinian report from March 2009 to which I refer in this post. Let’s look at it:

    After a lot of huffing and puffing and throwing around a lot of gruesome numbers, we come to Table 1 that records built-up areas in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Again, there is an attempt to be misleading by adding the column about Israeli “Master Plans”, but when you look at the column of “Israeli settlements built-up area”, you’ll get 188.266 square kilometers — out of a total area (Governorate area) of 5661 square kilometers. In other words, even a report that tries mightily hard to push the land-grab myth eventually acknowledges that in more than 40 years of occupation, Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem covers not more than about 189 square kilometers of an area of 5661 square kilometers, i.e. around 3 percent of the land.

  • Marcelo

    Mr. Meade,

    You are usually on point but the comment that “Palestine keeps getting smaller” is far off the mark and your response fails to remedy the matter.

    Since the Oslo Accords were signed, the Palestinians have been given direct control over more and more land (not only in 100% of Gaza, but also in the West Bank, where a small # of settlements were dismantled and the Palestinians have been given more and more security control over time). In addition, Israeli offers of final-status territorial concessions have increased with every round of negotiations, culminating in Olmert’s offer for 100% of the pre-1967 territories (inclusive of one-for-one land swaps). What little settlement construction has taken place during this period has been within the boundaries of existing communities. These facts totally outweigh the construction of a few thousand homes in Jerusalem neighborhoods that are widely expected to remain a part of Israel in a final-status agreement.

    Regarding your comments about Palestinian attitudes towards eastern Jerusalem, you should consult multiple recent polls asking Arabs who actually reside in those areas whether they would prefer that their neighborhoods remain a part of Israel or be transferred to a Palestinian State. You might be surprised by what you’ll find.

    The bigger picture is as follows. Prior to Oslo, each side had a wildly unreasonable demand. For Israelis, it was the notion of a Greater Israel that would encompass all of Gaza, Judea and Samaria. For Palestinians, it was the “right of return” for thousands of Palestinian refugees and millions of their descendants. Over the last 18 years, Israel has both made and offered massive concessions regarding territory, and support for Greater Israel has waned to the point where it is espoused by just the fringes of society. The Palestinian Authority, however, has not budged one iota off of its demand for a “right of return”, a position that unfortunately puts it in complete alignment with the vast majority of its population.

  • Arthur Shelley

    The author states that ‘but the UN can vote all it wants and it won’t get the Palestinians what they really want and need’. However, as the overwhelming majority of Palestinians (see numerous polls and evidence in Arabic)want precisely the elimination of Israel and the formation of a Palestinian state ‘from the river to the sea’, the UN vote, by increasing the demonization, isolation and diplomatic weakening of Israel will definitely contribute to what ‘the Palestinians want’…

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