Ask a 5th grader what the shortest distance is between two points, and she’ll probably tell you – a straight line. Similarly, ask a lover of Israel – right, center or left – what the best path is from the current Israeli-Arab conflict to the goal of peace and, with few exceptions, you’ll hear: “Direct talks between the sides”.
But what happens when the straight line to peace is blocked; when the direct road is indefinitely out of service? Is there a reasonable detour that can still get us, safe and sound, to our destination – “two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security”?
Behind this question, of course, is the central political development of the last few weeks, namely the apparent failure of last-ditch intensive US diplomatic efforts to get Israelis and Palestinians back around the bargaining table.
The peace talks restarted in early September, but quickly broke down by the end of the month, you’ll recall, after Israel decided not to extend its 10-month settlement construction slow-down (it was never a complete freeze). The Palestinians, for their part, insisted that, as opposed to the prevailing norm since 1993, negotiations could no longer continue in good faith alongside rapid settlement expansion.
Since then, the Obama administration has been busy trying to win a 90-day Israeli extension of its settlement moratorium, going so far as to make a desperate “Hail Mary” offer to Prime Minister Netanyahu in November: 20 state-of-the-art F-35 fighters, priced at USD 3 billion, plus other diplomatic incentives, and a promise not to request a further moratorium extension once the 90-day period ended.
Amid Israeli government reticence to compromise further on the settlement principle, efforts to broker a deal collapsed earlier this month, forcing the US to return to a model of indirect, ‘shuttle diplomacy’ that does not seem to offer any immediate prospects for success.
Where do we go from here?
In past years – for example when Mr. Netanyahu was elected to his first term in 1996, just six months after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin – the general strategy, both on the left and in the international community, would have been to ‘grin and bear it’: Accept the token progress and snail’s pace that Netanyahu demanded, prevent a serious blow-up, and then wait and/or work towards Bibi’s unseating at the next election.
But that was over a decade ago, when patience was less thin and trust was greater; when the West Bank had only half as many settlers; and when extremists on both sides were not yet walking the halls of power.
Clearly, with time not on the side of peace, the strategy of the late ‘90s cannot be employed today. But are there any reasonable alternatives to face-to-face negotiations?
Before attempting to answer that, it is only fair to note that the Israeli demand for direct talks is an understandable one. It dates back to the early days of the state, when Arab refusal to negotiate face-to-face was a symbol of the Arab League’s general unwillingness to recognize the fledgling State of Israel.
But with peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan holding stable; with the PLO having, “recognize[d] the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security” as far back as September 1993; with low-level diplomatic ties with Morocco, Tunisia, Mauritania, Oman and Qatar having been established in the 1990s (though mostly suspended at present); and with Israel happily having established itself as a regional power – the direct talks principle, while still noble, no longer possesses the existential implications it once did.
Progressive Zionists must also be aware that, like any tool, “direct talks” can be abused if placed in the wrong hands. One need only recall former Likud PM Yitzhak Shamir’s admission in 1992 that, had he been reelected, he would have dragged out peace talks with the Palestinians for a decade while adding a half-million Jewish settlers in the occupied territories.
In other words: “Direct talks” must not be a mantra that gives each side the power to thwart progress in order to avoid the painful compromises needed to finalize an agreement.
Luckily, several other diplomatic avenues are available that might just allow Israel and the Palestinians to circumvent the obstacles that have consistently stymied the current negotiating model.
These avenues will be examined more closely in a future column. In the meantime, I’ll note a few of them in brief, alongside a number of recommended readings that will allow you to explore further:
- A publicly-declared American peace plan. Read more from Yossi Sarid and Mossi Raz. (J Street’s call for the US to put forward a proposal on borders is similar in tone, though less comprehensive.)
- An Israeli-Palestinian summit conference, secluded and unlimited in time, a la Jimmy Carter’s 1978 Camp David summit, in which the US would set the agenda, mediate between the sides, and then draft the final agreement. This approach has been advocated by Gershon Baskin of IPCRI.
- A unilateral Palestinian move to gain international recognition of a fully sovereign Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with Israel. Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and now Bolivia are on board, and the EU is considering. Ami Kaufman suggests that, if the US joins the effort, it could be the winning way forward.
These are clearly not easy times for the cause of peace. But the breakdown in the negotiations must not cause us to throw up our hands. If we have truly come upon the end of the era of direct talks, we will need to be open to alternatives that can still insure Israel’s continued, secure existence as a democratic state with a stable Jewish majority.
December 17, 2010