Despite reasonable scepticism at the resumption of talks between Israel and the Palestinians, the chances for a successful negotiation process could be better this time round.
There are leaders on both sides in stable political positions, each with teams of experienced negotiators. Hamas and Hezbollah are on the back foot, and Arab regional players have given their backing. The EU and Britain need to help ensure that making a deal is better than the alternatives for both sets of leaders.
In the last fifteen years there have been three attempts to broker what is known as a “final status agreement.” To get Israeli and Palestinian leaders to sign the same piece of paper in nine months’ time, two sets of hurdles need to be cleared. The first is the nitty gritty of bridging significant gaps on issues that are both complicated and emotive: borders, Jerusalem, refugees and security arrangements.
The lead negotiators, Saeb Erekat for the Palestinians, and Israel’s Tzipi Livni, spent many hours on the issues in 2008. As Livni said directly to Erekat during Tuesday’s Washington press conference, “We didn’t reach dead end in the past, but we didn’t complete our mission.” Also on the Israeli side will be Yitzhak Molcho. He can claim, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s negotiator in the Hebron agreement and Wye River Memorandum in the 1990s, to be one of the few Israelis to have negotiated agreements with the Palestinians that were signed and implemented.
Netanyahu appears in no immediate political danger. Furthermore the Palestinians have apparently committed now to a sustained nine-month negotiating period.
But this leads us to the second set of hurdles. Whatever the skills and experience of the negotiators, both sides have to believe that the compromises necessary to reach agreement are preferable to the alternatives. Emphasis is often placed on whether Israel is prepared to make territorial compromises on the West Bank, with all its historical and strategic significance. Distrust for Netanyahu’s intentions has been one of the drivers for Palestinians to avoid talks in recent years.
But this narrow focus on the Israeli side of the equation is misleading. While there is a strong Israeli constituency opposed to territorial compromise, there is a shifting tone amongst Israel’s political and business elites, concerned about the threat posed to Israel’s future legitimacy as a democratic, Jewish state.
There are questions over the Palestinian Authority’s interest in a deal—with Hamas looking over its shoulder. They are the ones that had to be cajoled and induced to re-enter talks with prisoner releases and other Israeli gestures.
The Palestinians see Israel paying an increasing diplomatic cost for the status quo, as they strengthen their hand with diplomatic victories such as UN recognition. Meanwhile, talk of a “one-state solution” has gained ground among Palestinian elites and some on the European left, creating the misguided impression that there is an alternative to two-states for two peoples.
The international community should ensure that both Palestinian and Israeli leaders see their national interests best served by reaching a deal. Just putting pressure on Israel, as the EU has recently tried to do, will not be enough.
In that respect, Kerry has made some smart moves. He has encouraged the PA by coupling diplomatic progress with the promise of much needed transformational investment in the ailing Palestinian economy. He has garnered Arab regional support for the process, providing President Abbas with political cover.
At the same time he sent an unequivocal message in Washington this week, that “there is no other alternative” to a conflict-ending agreement. The Palestinians should not feel that their interests would be better served by the breakup of talks and a return to pressuring Israel through international forums.