The American Interest
The Middle East & Beyond
Published on July 25, 2013
Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations: Déjà-vu All Over Again?

It looks as though direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will begin again after a three-year-plus hiatus, probably in Washington, sometime during the next week or so. What does it all mean, for the protagonists, for the wider region and for U.S. foreign policy?

For starters, it means John Kerry has landed on the map of history. No one disputes that the announcement of direct negotiations is the signal achievement of Secretary of State Kerry. He has been dogged on the Arab-Israeli portfolio—for some, he’s been too dogged, given the “smart money” consensus that this effort is a born-again loser, and for others, his doggedness has come at the expense of more important problems, left inadequately attended, both in and beyond the Middle East. Some critics have uncharitably focused on Kerry’s alleged selfish quest for a Noble Peace Prize. Others have been even more uncharitable, if not necessarily inaccurate, in claiming that the Arab-Israeli sandbox is one of the few that a control-freaky White House will let him play in—so no wonder he perseverates on it.

Charitable or not, the Secretary has managed to herd the cats through the first hoop, a deed many thought out of reach. And he has achieved something remarkable in the process: Very uncharacteristically, the Americans, Israelis, Palestinians and other Arabs who have been taken into Kerry’s confidence have kept their mouths firmly shut. There’ve been no leaks, even from the notoriously porous Israeli side. This is unheard of (no pun intended, but what’s life without a little wit, huh?). This novel multilateral discipline in quietude may mean that something significant is brewing, or it may not. It’s sort of in the nature of the observation, you will understand, that we can’t know.

Be that as it may (or may not), Secretary Kerry has thus already reversed one of the signal embarrassments of the Obama Administration’s first term—for those who can remember that far back in this Warhol-prophesied cybertronic age of present-oriented near-instant amnesia most of us now inhabit. The early first-term Obama guys (a phrase crafted neither to exclude nor to exaggerate the President’s role) screwed up the Arab-Israeli diplomatic portfolio big time by making strident public demands on Israel that exceeded those coming from the Palestinian side—mainly about housing developments in East Jerusalem. These rookie mistakes pushed the Palestinians further up the demand ladder than they wanted to go, effectively putting them out of reach of agreeable connectivity with Israel. The result was a first-term track record, measured conventionally by success at nurturing the peace process via direct diplomacy, that was the worst of any American administration since the October 1973 War.

So, so far so good for Kerry at getting the negotiating train back on the track, but how far can it go toward a desirable destination? Nobody knows. The bad news is that all the reasons for doubting the possibility of sustainable success remain unchanged. The good news is that low expectations provide a formula for surprising progress if something significant beyond those old reasons has changed—in other words, if the enfolding context of the conflict has changed or is about to change or can be made to change. In the past, such changes have often been characterized by what one observer used to call “clarifying acts of violence.” We return to this notion below.

With that in mind, the situation looking ahead can be captured by a discussion of five intertwined lessons learned from past Arab-Israeli diplomacy. Here are the lessons together, thereafter unpacked one by one:

  • Progress toward peace between Israelis and Palestinians is possible, but only when the discomforts of the status quo for both sides exceed the imaginable risks of change.
  • Progress toward peace is possible only when the United States acts to reduce the risks of change to the status quo for both sides.
  • It is a mistake to think that diplomacy can do no harm if it fails, but it is also a mistake to think that diplomacy can do no good even if it fails.
  • Diplomacy has an autonomous dynamic that, once set in motion, cannot be known in advance, but so also do the wider social and political contexts exert a not-wholly-predictable influence on ratifying and implementing any agreement that might be reached.
  • Linkage between Israeli-Palestinian issues and wider regional and global ones is overblown, and what linkage there is tends to work from outside the conflict upon it rather than the other way around.

Now first: Progress toward peace (or what I prefer to call a higher-quality level of belligerence) is possible. We know this because Israel has reached peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, fairly normal albeit informal relations with several other Arab countries, and even an extensive agreement with the Palestinians in negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization. Each of these achievements has tended to reinforce the others over time, even in cases where peace has remained either “cold”, as with Egypt, or, as with the Oslo Accords of 1993, frustratingly and protractedly incomplete. With each agreement, the Arab-Israeli conflict writ large became smaller and less dangerous for the world as a whole, for the region, and even, to some extent, for its most intimate antagonists. This progress is not necessarily irreversible, but any honest and objective assessment of the problem must conclude that, despite serious problems remaining, things are vastly different and better today than they were, say, sixty years ago. True, the Eeyores on both sides are popular within their own little blood-on-the-saddle circles, where faux-heroes endlessly compete to be the most zealously pure and pessimistic of their ilk. But these people are indeed asses.

The point worth remembering is that these advances all became possible only when the discomforts of the status quo for both sides exceeded the imaginable risks of more or less coordinated change. Put a bit differently, leaders on both sides of a prospective deal have only determined to make a move when not doing so promised even more pain, since no status quo beyond the grave is ever entirely static. That calculation has applied both to leaders’ considerations of national interests and to their own political circumstances; it is impossible to separate policy from politics in this or any other negotiating adventure.

The reason for this is that Israeli and Palestinian leaders alike operate on the basis of a belief that existential issues are at play: If they screw up, all could be lost, forever. (The leaders of the Arab states are less deeply invested, but not much less so to the extent that these states are near to the core of the conflict, weak, and needy.) The existential quality of the conflict tends to narrow a leader’s communal maneuvering room, making them very conservative decision-makers. That, in turn, leads to a mutual capacity to endure circumstances that often appear horrendous and virtually unimaginable to many interested outsiders, often persuading them that positive change is easier to mediate than it really is.

Implicit here is that leaders on both sides simultaneously have had to possess enough political clout to bring their minions along, and that has not always been the case. It was true for Begin and Sadat, for Arafat and Rabin, and then for King Hussein and Rabin. It is not the case now. The Palestinian leadership is divided ideologically and geographically between Gaza and the West Bank, and Mahmud Abbas is not a strong leader as head of the Palestinian Authority. The Israeli government today is a more motley coalition even than usual. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s own party contains important members who oppose the minimal necessary to achieve any progress with the Palestinians.

This means that even if the current Palestinian and Israeli leaderships reach a final status agreement in private around a table, both broader political constellations will have to change to get an agreement to stick. In Israel’s case, this may mean dissolving the government, having an election, and bringing into being a new coalition—this is, after all, what has happened before under similar circumstances. For the Palestinians, however, it’s not so easy. Any deal that the Fatah/PLO/PA complex reaches will face layers of resistance that cannot be easily resolved through existing institutions. Here is where a clarifying act of violence may become necessary.

The young process Secretary Kerry has started has not faced such challenges thus far. He has achieved success not at mediating negotiations but only at mediating negotiations about negotiations. He has gotten the parties to and perhaps just past the “shape of the table” phase, to invoke an old Vietnam War-era phrase, because the confidence-building concessions both sides have made to get to the table may “lean” toward future, more substantive bargaining propositions. The heavy lifting, however, has not yet begun to begin—a strange sentence, yes, but one that perfectly captures the state of play, which in turn tells you something about how convoluted this whole business is.

Now second: To say that progress toward peace is possible only when the United States acts to reduce the risks of change is to say that the parties are too far apart on basic issues to reach agreement by themselves. So conservative and risk-averse are they that they are unwilling to assume that what appears from a distance to be a bridge may not instead just be a pier. The role of the United States, therefore, is to supply the scaffolding for a bridge that ultimately, hopefully, will come into being. The United States essentially issues insurance policies to both sides that say, in essence: If things don’t work out as we hope, you will not be hung out to dry, because we promise to prevent harm or compensate for it in some other way to make your odds more appealing.

The bridging, risk-reduction role the United States plays can come in many forms. It can involve simply stating facts of life about the negotiations that the protagonists privately recognize but either cannot say or do not wish to say first. And of course it can take the form of side agreements involving security pledges, arms sales, loans and grant aid, and the like.

Two ancillary points about the U.S. role. First, America as risk-reducer is not the same as America as “honest broker.” This hoary and misleading phrase is usually bandied about to suggest that U.S. mediation should be disinterested in the sense of being evenly balanced as to the desiderata of both sides. But in none of the successes to date has that been the case: The U.S. administration of the day, whether Democratic or Republican, has always been closer to Israel than to any Arab party, and that is why the diplomacy succeeded.

Now please pay attention, because what you are about to learn flies counter-intuitively in the face of simpleminded but popular do-gooder “getting to yes” pablum. Since 1967, Israel has been the stronger party in all negotiations with Arab interlocutors, and the Arab parties who have sought changes in the status quo for one painful reason or another have realized that to get what they need from Israel they have to go through the United States. U.S. negotiators win concessions from Israel based ultimately on an underlying trust in the relationship; so good relations are an asset to both parties in attracting Arab principals first to the table and then to an agreement. If U.S.-Israeli relations are too bad—and there have been times since June 1967 when they were pretty bad—the Arab side loses confidence in the U.S. ability to deliver Israeli concessions. If relations are too good—if no blue sky at all can be discerned between Washington and Jerusalem—the Arab side tends to conclude that it cannot afford to offer enough to sufficiently lubricate the U.S.-Israeli connection to service its interests. So it then sometimes turns to other methods—including the aforementioned clarifying acts of violence—to reshuffle the deck. That’s where both the 1973 war and the second Palestinian uprising of 2000 came from.

Second, for America to be a successful risk-reducing mediator it has to bring a certain reputation for power and success to the table. U.S. promises have to be worth something to Israelis and Arabs alike in the coinage of credibility. Not just American strength but confidence in America’s sound judgment are crucial to the United States being able to play this role. And the possessor of these assets ultimately, but never prematurely, has to be the President, not the Secretary of State or Defense or a special envoy or anyone else.

Now, consider: The United States today has suffered what it is fair to call a strategic defeat in the greater Middle East over the past dozen years. It has come in pieces and it has been gradual, but it adds to a strategic defeat in the eyes of Middle Easterners. We did not achieve our stated aims in Iraq and will not achieve them in Afghanistan. We rode the backseat in Libya and failed to plan for a Phase-IV, post-regime environment. Many Americans may be confused about what got Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans killed in Benghazi, but few Arabs and Israelis are. We have been signal-mixing and passive in crises in both Egypt and Syria, even amid pleas from allies to be more assertive. We are lead by a President whose “pivot” away from the region is a matter of public record, and therefore whose future engagement at critical moments cannot be counted upon. Does the current Israeli or PA leadership trust this Secretary and this President? Do they think we have the crucial ability to collect and deliver the Arab states to support any agreement in light of the American record of resolve on the issue they care most about: Iran? The strongest answer one can give to all these questions is “maybe”, so you see the problem.

Third: It is certainly a mistake to think that diplomacy can do no harm if it fails. Several times in the past great expectations in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have led not to classic literature but to collective depressions—that was true in the two years after Oslo and it was certainly true after Camp David at the end of the second Clinton Administration. High-profile failures aid all the wrong parties on both sides. They change domestic politics for the worse, even in the case at hand in such a way as to stimulate apocalyptical religious extremism on both sides. They harm the credentials of those who stuck out their necks and tried. They make U.S. mediation look less appealing the next time around.

That’s why the best thing the current effort has going for it is low expectations. Secretary Kerry has been smart, too, not to involve the President prematurely, and to let the Israeli and Palestinian sides send lower-level Sherpas to handle the shape-of-the-table phase. He has also avoided the truly terrible idea of presenting an “American plan”, something that would raise the stakes and profile of the negotiation without advancing the prospect of an agreement one iota.

But it’s also a mistake to think that diplomacy can do no good even if it fails. It can educate both sides as to what is and isn’t likely to be possible and so help coordinate expectations. It can establish trust between key individuals, or it can establish that the other side isn’t serious—as the case may be. But that’s a lot to know, and it’s something that has to become known before more reputational capital is wisely invested into a negotiation. It can establish or refine lines of communication, enabling day-by-day cooperation when interests coincide even in the absence of peace, and even in the future absence of negotiations. It can mobilize support in society for peace and reconciliation. It can establish benchmarks of partial agreement so that subsequent efforts do not have to rediscover the wheel to get anywhere.

In other words, one can fail intelligently or stupidly. But how is one to know when a negotiation destined to fail is liable to do more harm than good, or more good than harm? It’s tricky, but it’s not rocket science either—and there are at least two things engaged parties can do to tilt an unrequited outcome in a positive direction.

First, they can shut up. Leaders should not make promises that raise expectations but that they can’t keep, and they should avoid playing to domestic audiences by bad-mouthing their opposites in public. U.S. mediation can reinforce this good sense.

Second, the principals can systematically mobilize the broader social base that has to support any eventual deal. It’s too easy to keep the action inside a closed room, and let strategic leaking go forward as the only preparatory effort made in case the negotiations succeed. One of the reasons earlier efforts failed is that the negotiators were too isolated from their respective social contexts. If you want broad buy-in for changes to the status quo, you need to do some bringing-in along the way. That is particularly so in Israeli-Palestinian relations, where many on both sides still see the problem as zero-sum, so that their polled support for peace diminishes with each successive revelation of detail as to what it will actually take to seal a deal.

On to the fourth lesson: the truth that not only does diplomacy have an autonomous dynamic that cannot be known in advance, so too does the wider social and political context. As just suggested, pollsters can wrack up optimistic numbers when they ask Palestinians and Israelis broad questions about the desirability of peace. But once it dawns on people what will have to happen to the right of return or to the status of Jerusalem and so on to get to a mutual “yes”, the numbers plummet. Even in the best of circumstances, there’s a limit to what leaderships can do to backstop this dynamic. But the limits grow very large very fast when leaderships do nothing.

Just as publics can get frightened, expert participants can get jaded. They think they know all there is to know about a situation, to the point where they become blind to parameter changes churning beneath their feet. Context is crucial, and sometimes only by entering a negotiation can the parties discern that something has changed. What could not happen while Nasser ruled Egypt could happen while Sadat did. What happened at Oslo could not have happened during the Cold War, but it could afterwards. And what then happened between Israel and Jordan could not have happened, in turn, without Oslo. The question today is: Can something good between Israelis and Palestinians happen after the so-called Arab Spring that could not have happened before it?

Alas, we don’t know, and we don’t agree. Some think that Israel’s feeling less secure about the region, and about possibly losing Jordan and maybe Egypt as strategic partners, will persuade its leaders to clean up the Palestinian portfolio faster and with fewer demands so as to be able to handle and perhaps diffuse larger challenges. Others reason the other way around: A less benign and predictable regional environment will lead Israelis to cling to every territorial buffer it has against worst-case scenarios. My hunch is that Secretary Kerry leans to the former interpretation. I am not sure that Prime Minister Netanyahu agrees, however, despite recent rhetoric about peace being in Israel’s vital national interest.

There are several game-changers in context that one can imagine happening over the next half dozen years beyond the general rubric of the Arab Spring. Either an Iranian nuclear breakout or the collapse of the Islamic regime would count as a game-changer. So would the collapse of the region into an all-out sectarian war between Sunnis and Shi‘a. The destruction of the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan as a result of the collapse of the Syrian state counts. A vast and quick expansion of fracking outside the Middle East that seriously undermines the power and stability of the Arab Gulf oil states counts, too. The rise of an independent Kurdish state out of pieces of Iraq, Syria and perhaps Iran might or might not meet the threshold of game-changer. The same goes, depending on circumstances, for the collapse of Pakistan, especially if attended by a major interstate war. None of these developments are imminent enough to affect Secretary Kerry’s project, but it’s worth listing them, if only to illustrate the fact that necessarily vague speculations about the impact of the Arab Spring are not likely to be conclusive, one way or another, to what happens in the coming negotiations.

Fifth and finally: Linkage between Israeli-Palestinian issues and wider regional and global ones is vastly overblown. Many otherwise serious observers and practitioners have for years exaggerated the importance of the Palestinian issue and the Arab-Israeli conflict in general on regional and global affairs. (I spent an entire chapter in Jewcentricity explain this: “The (Non)-Centrality of the Arab-Israeli Conflict”).

On the other hand, the contention that there is no connection at all between Israel/Palestine and other regional issues is also an exaggeration, if only because mass-scale perceptions, however squirrelly their origins, have an autonomous influence of their own. It is because of those perceptions, in part, that U.S. efforts in the peace process can have uses unrelated to the negotiations. For example, just trying, and being seen to try, helps some of our Arab associates to cooperate with us in ways—say, on dealing with Iran or partnering in counter-terror operations—that would otherwise be harder to justify to domestic constituencies.

The historical case for linkage is one that heads in the other direction. Solving the Palestinian conundrum or the wider the Arab-Israeli conflict, while justified on its own terms, will not make much difference with regard to U.S. dilemmas afield in Iran or Egypt or Syria. But U.S. successes at large bolster U.S. prestige and efficacy at mediating the conflict. Hence victory in the 1991 Gulf War proved instrumental in arranging the Madrid Conference, which changed perceptions in the region forever and for the better. Linkage can work from the outside in, rarely from the inside out.

Not all U.S. achievements have happened this way, however. Camp David and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in the 1978-79 period did not benefit from any major U.S. success in the world in the preceding few years. On the contrary: South Vietnam fell just three years earlier. So outside-in linkage is useful, but not obligatory.

If we take these five lessons together and assess current circumstances in their light, we would probably come up with a red or yellow light. John Kerry’s light, however, is bright green. He may know something the rest of us don’t—or not.

In any event, his success—however that gets retrospectively defined—would be useful as a general fillip to a U.S. foreign policy that has become a confused, passive, credibility eroded mess. Only under such circumstances can inside-out linkage be credited. But if Kerry (and by indirection the President) fiddles with Palestine while the rest of the region burns to the ground, the United States will forfeit what’s left of the benefit of the doubt as to whether we know what the hell we’re doing.

So we’ll see what happens. Maybe a success in Arab-Israeli peace negotiations will rescue the reputation of the Obama foreign policy in much the same way that Camp David rescued the reputation of an otherwise botched Carter foreign policy. Or maybe, should we witness a less intelligent version of failure, some wag will re-coin a phrase: “Yes, we can make a complete hash of things.”

  • Eric

    I do wish Sec. Kerry the best in his efforts.

    Unfortunately the evidence seems to me that all three sides in the recent shuttle diplomacy have domestic reasons to agree to talk about talks, but no more than that.

    Mr Kerry and the Obama Administration is under pressure to do something about the bloodletting in the Middle East. There is nothing that the US can do in Syria, Libya and Egypt to stop the bloodshed, so Israel-Palestinian negotiations fulfil a useful and relatively harmless alternative.

    Mr Abbas on the other hand has to maintain funding from the US, EU and NGO’s. If he stonewalls he could lose this funding or have it cut back, which would be disastrous for the PA and PLO.

    Mr Netanyahu, who likewise has to keep the US more or less on side, also has domestic considerations: he has to keep the centrists in his coalition happy, and one of the demands of Tzipi Livni was to negotiate with the Palestinians. Netanyahu knows that nothing will come of it though, so he can afford to offer to negotiate. And indeed Mr Erekat said last week that no talks can happen until settlement construction stops: ie not much change from before Kerry’s initiative.

    It would be marvelous if Mr Kerry could crack this conundrum, but I think it will not happen this time. Sadly for both the Israeli and Palestinian governments the domestic downside is too politically dangerous for them to attempt anything real.

    • Nathan

      That sounds about right to me, but I’d also reinforce it with one of Mr. Garfinkle’s bullet points: the fact that nothing *real* is likely to be accomplished doesn’t mean that talks (or talks about talks) can’t result in something positive. I think there’s enough reason to support cautious diplomacy here.

  • Brian

    Can you point me to some more reading on how stronger US ties to Israel are the most effective way of advancing the negotiations? I think I agree with you about this point, but I’d like to learn more about the arguments. In my own view, Israel wouldn’t particularly care if they became an international pariah at this stage of the game, simply because they’re by and far the most powerful force in the region. Therefore all the “realists” and “do-gooders” out there who advocate threatening to cut them loose are overstating the amount of influence the US can have by threatening them. Thus, the best way to get Israel to negotiate is to bend over backwards for their sincere trust.