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The key to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations: More peace, less process

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has already visited the Middle East four times since being named to his new post in February in an attempt to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, meets with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on May 23, 2013. Credit: U.S. State Department.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has already visited the Middle East four times since being named to his new post in February in an attempt to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, meets with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on May 23, 2013. Credit: U.S. State Department.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has already visited the Middle East four times since President Barack Obama named him to the post back in February. Perhaps anticipating the large number of yawns that such a statistic is likely to produce, Kerry directly addressed, during his latest jaunt, the growing number of peace process skeptics on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide.

“There have been bitter years of disappointment. It is our hope that by being methodical, careful, patient, but detailed and tenacious, we can lay out a path ahead that can conceivably surprise people, but certainly exhaust the possibilities of peace,” Kerry told them.

However much Kerry would like us to believe that there are routes to peace that haven’t yet been explored, there is a dreary sense of deja vu about his words. Every day, it seems, an American politician declares that time is running out, that windows of opportunity are closing, that the Israeli-Palestinian dimension of the broader Middle East conflict is propelling the region towards apocalypse. Obama himself comes to mind in this regard. In 2010, he told the United Nations General Assembly, “[W]hen we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations— an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.”

But it’s now 2013, and there is no State of Palestine, only a Palestinian Authority (PA) that shuns direct negotiations in favor of a unilateralist strategy to secure recognition of an independent Palestinian state by everyone except Israel. Moreover, the Palestinians are openly distrustful of U.S. efforts. “I’m hesitant to say we are seeing a miraculous transformation in American policy and its blind strategic alliance with Israel,” said the PLO’s Hanan Ashrawi upon Kerry’s arrival, conveniently regurgitating the widespread myth in the Arab world that American Middle East policy is determined solely by Israeli imperatives.

Nor has Palestinian rhetoric changed for the better. The eliminationist desires of the Palestinian leadership—and I’m not talking here about Hamas, but about our ostensible peace partner, the PA—remain as ingrained as ever. At the end of April, for example, Rabi Khandaqji, the PA governor of the West Bank City of Qalqilya, reaffirmed that the Palestinians would never abandon the so-called “right of return.” Palestinian refugees, Khandaqji declared, would return “to Haifa, Nazareth and Acre”—all cities that lie inside the pre-1967 borders of Israel. This isn’t code for the destruction of Israel. It’s an explicit call for the destruction of Israel.

The traditional approach of American and western negotiators has been to play down this kind of rhetoric as ideological baggage that will disappear once meaningful progress has been made. Time and again, this patronizing, even racist, manner, which treats Arab politicians as tantrum-prone children who say things they don’t really mean, has been proved wrong by events. And yet, the template for peace negotiations has barely been modified during the last 20 years.

Which is why negotiators at the State Department would be wise to consult an important new paper published by two Israeli academics, Joel Fishman and Kobi Michael, in the academic journal, the Jewish Political Studies Review. Introducing the notion of a “positive peace,” Fishman and Michael warn against efforts to create a Palestinian state without worrying about its governance and internal political culture, since this would increase “the chances of bringing into being one more failed and warlike state that would become a destabilizing force in the region.”

Positive peace, the authors assert, is not just the about the absence of war, nor about elevating the right of national self-determination above all other considerations. “The real problem,” they write, “is that, long ago, the would-be peacemakers, in their haste and fear of failure, did not frame the problem correctly. They failed to ask the right question. In order to avoid disagreement, they concentrated on process and postponed the substantive issues of content. They hoped that the dynamic of congenial negotiations would facilitate a favorable outcome. By taking refuge in process and hoping to keep the negotiations ‘on track,’ they neglected the real goal: building a stable and sustainable peace, or positive peace.”

In the Israeli-Palestinian context, a positive peace entails a complete overhaul of the zero-sum attitude toward Israel that has become institutionalized in Palestinian politics. For decades, the Palestinians have regarded negotiations as simply one of several avenues in pursuing their war on Israel’s existence: armed struggle, more accurately defined as terrorism, has been another, while the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign is yet another.

Fishman and Michael cite the pioneering Israeli scholar Yehoshafat Harkabi’s observation that in Arab discourse, the idea of peace with justice is equivalent to the vision of a Middle East without Israel. And in marked contrast to American worries that time is running out, they point out that as far as the Palestinians are concerned, we’ve got all the time in the world. When the late Yasser Arafat spoke, in 1980, about “a war which will last for generations,” he was being sincere. And Arafat’s view persists because, in spite of all the economic incentives waved at the PA, the near-metaphysical belief in a struggle to the death has prevailed over the rational, sensible notion of territorial partition.

Fishman and Michael should consider writing a second paper about how these realizations might guide policymakers, so that the peace process is more about peace and less about process. Though they don’t say it explicitly, there is a strong sense in the paper that negotiations that are not preceded by meaningful, internal political reform in the Palestinian entity will share the miserable fate of the Oslo Agreement. And if that’s correct, then the “path that could conceivably surprise people,” as John Kerry put it, begins not with discussions about settlements, water rights or the size of the Palestinian security forces, but with what the Palestinians themselves believe about the world around them—and whether they are capable of change.

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.

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