The train wreck of the Palestinian request for recognition as a state at last year’s meeting of the United Nations, which could have been seen coming for at least the whole of last summer, laid bare the total vacuity of the term “Middle East Peace Process” and the impotence of the international diplomacy surrounding it. Such a disaster often occurs when process takes over substance and justifies its own existence by belated and ultimately unsuccessful attempts at remedy. Some of it is a matter of physics—when the train sets out it is relatively easy to stop with a timely application of the brakes. When, on the other hand, it is allowed to gain full speed because of arguments among the engineers, idle hopes that the train will run out of steam, or the simple refusal to acknowledge that it is even moving, the only thing left to do is to lie down on the floor and pray.
There are no innocent parties here. The Palestinians may have initially thought of the move as a pressure device to get the peace process restarted under favorable terms, but they predictably became prisoners of their own rhetoric and boxed themselves into a position from which the only way out was forward. The Israelis may have decided to call the Palestinians’ bluff, thus making certain that what may have been a bluff originally would change into the real thing. The Quartet (the UN, the EU, the US, and Russia) vacillated between hopes that the specter of Palestinian recognition would make the Israelis more willing to make concessions and that the specter of the failure of the effort would make the Palestinians more amenable to talk. The United States relied on the threat of its veto to make the Palestinians avoid the Security Council while visibly doing their best to avoid using the veto. The Palestinians were choosing between losing face among their constituents, a fatal weakness in the ruthless world of Middle East politics, and losing any realistic chance at moving ahead in the negotiations. The Israelis were choosing between accepting the Palestinian preconditions for the restart of the negotiations, which they believed would lead to the collapse of the government coalition, and seeing their international position undermined and weakened. Obama was choosing between alienating much of the Middle East by exercising the veto and possibly losing the presidential election the following year. The Europeans were choosing between demonstrating the real differences of point of view among the EU member countries and demonstating unity in helplessness. As often happens lately, only the Russians and the Chinese were the conceivable beneficiaries, although it is hard to tell of what.
A failure of this scope and predictability is not often seen, even in the failure-prone business of conflict resolution. The positions will now inevitably harden, the tensions will increase, and the risks will multiply. Yet the whole thing should have never happened. The reason for this is not that there should not be a Palestinian state. A majority of countries, a majority of people, and even a majority of Israelis believe that there ought to be such a state. The reason is that even if the resolution passes in the UN General Assembly, it will not bring such a state an inch closer to being and might even lead to a new confrontation. And yet, for all the protestations to the contrary by all involved, this problematic move by the Palestinian Authority is a proper reflection of the hopelessness of the negotiation track in the current conflict.
Fareed Zakaria, an astute observer of foreign policy, recently quoted a source close to Palestinian-Israeli negotiations as saying, “It’s not that there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. Everybody sees the light at the end of the tunnel. The light at the end of the tunnel is blindingly clear and obvious. The problem is there’s no tunnel. There is no actual concrete path to getting to that light.”
This is the heart of the Middle East problem. It is of small comfort that most reasonable people agree what things should look like at the end of the day if the end of the day never arrives.
Of course, it is not popular or fashionable to cast doubt on the wisdom of negotiating to the bitter end. Even some friends are prone to sermonizing that “we should question the motivations of those who insist so vehemently that negotiations are useless.” A persuasive argument is therefore needed to be able to claim, sadly rather than vehemently, that negotiations between the two parties are, if not useless, then likely to be unproductive and to remain so for the foreseeable future.
Starting with the obvious, for a negotiation to succeed, some ambition to reach a solution is needed on both sides of the conflict. This is conspicuously missing in the current situation. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians believe that negotiations will get them anywhere. Naturally, they will not say it, instead inventing preconditions, which they say are not really preconditions. It is perfectly understandable why continuing expansion of the settlements in the West Bank is an anathema to the Palestinians. But in a true negotiating spirit, there could always be a formula that would provide for adding buildings to existing settlements, particularly those that will remain part of Israel in any conceivable agreement, in exchange for parts of Israeli territory that will go to the Palestinians. It is equally understandable why the recognition of the Jewish character of the state of Israel is of crucial importance to the Israelis. But in a true negotiating spirit, language could surely be found to acknowledge the Jewish history, origin, prevailing culture, and majority language of Israel without prejudicing the rights of the non-Jewish minority.
Second, and equally obvious, for a negotiation to succeed, there must be an intersection of the negotiating positions of the two sides, which can be built upon and expanded into a viable solution. Little of that exists here. The minimum Palestinian position on refugees does not come near the maximum Israeli concessions on the subject. The minimum Israeli position on security does not come near the maximum Palestinian concessions on demilitarization or the Jordan Valley.
Third, if a negotiated solution could be reached, it would almost certainly have been reached already. Conflicts tend to be resolved quickly or, save a new and often violent confrontation, not at all. This is how frozen conflicts become frozen—in Kashmir, in Cyprus, or in Bosnia. When equilibrium, however unsatisfactory, is reached at a certain level, the chances of finding a new, hopefully more just and satisfactory balance will always be measured against the risk of new instability and chaos.
The history of past Israeli-Palestinian negotiations provides ample evidence of these old verities. They have invariably ended in failing to find the grand settlement of the conflict, regardless of the personalities involved and their motives, and regardless of the external support (or the lack thereof) by various third parties. The tireless efforts of Shimon Peres and the ultimate sacrifice of Yitzhak Rabin opened the way for Camp David, yet Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat could not arrive at an agreement there, or in Taba and Sharm el-Sheikh a few months later. The 2003 “Road Map for Peace,” forced by President Bush on reluctant Ariel Sharon and Yasir Arafat, did not lead anywhere. The 2007 Annapolis Conference led to protracted and ultimately fruitless secret negotiations between President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
It is true but completely misleading to point out how close—ninety percent, ninety-five percent, a hairbreadth away—the two sides were to an agreement at various times because it obscures the fundamentally nonlinear character of any negotiation. Since both sides invariably work on the easiest issues first in order to create trust, build momentum, and demonstrate progress to their publics, the time needed to resolve half of the total issues might be needed again only to resolve one half of the second half, or one half of the remaining quarter, and so forth. The resulting exponential curve, y = ½x, in which x is a time period and y is the proportion of the problem resolved within that period, means that talks can go on for any length of time without producing any signatures on the dotted line. The accounts of various participants in such negotiations over the years differ in how close the two sides really came to consensus, but they all agree that it was simply not close enough.
In any negotiation, there are in fact always at least two negotiating processes going on—one around the table, i.e., negotiations between the two sides, and one behind the table, i.e., negotiations within each side (a colleague of mine recently spoke about a third negotiating process taking place within each negotiator, which is also relevant to the Middle East). The unknown thing about the outlines of both the Barak-Arafat potential deal of 2000 and the Olmert-Abbas deal of 2009 is whether they would pass muster with the Palestinian and Israeli political establishments, and even more questionably with Palestinian and Israeli public opinion. In fact, Arafat seemed to be so assured of the reaction that he rejected the deal in 2000 with the explicit argument he would not survive long if he signed it. (If he was right, he extended his life by all of four years.) On the Israeli side, many people seriously doubted that the aspects of the deal concerning Jerusalem and refugees would make it through the Knesset or a popular vote.
All in all, depending on how you count it, there have been five or six or seven separate attempts at negotiations to attain a grand solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and about twice as many lapsed proposals, since the Madrid Conference twenty years ago. The circumstances kept changing, as did the protagonists. The only thing that remained the same was the ultimate failure of the talks. Eventually it is almost impossible not to think of Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity—continuing to do the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Yet after every summit, every meeting of the Quartet, we want to believe that now, finally, the time has come for the real negotiation that, unlike all that came before, will be crowned by success.
It is right and noble that we believe this. It is in the spirit of good leadership to transcend past failures, and at unique moments in history it can lead to unexpected and revolutionary breakthroughs disproving popular wisdom. The problem is that a belief accomplishes little so long as it is not shared by the two parties in question. And it is more than evident that today the two parties believe less in attaining their goals through negotiation than ever before. Worse still, though rarely admitted, the two parties never put much store in negotiations. At each point, at the Wye plantation, at Camp David, in Taba, with the Road Map, or at Annapolis, one or both had to be cajoled, pressured, and sometimes dragged screaming to the conference table. In the end it was invariably the fear of being blamed for their own intransigence rather than hope of reaching a breakthrough that got them there. Such fear is enough for negotiations to take place, but not enough for them to succeed. The one notable exception to this rule was Oslo, which started as a back-channel process brought about by the two parties themselves, with little in the way of external supporting infrastructure, and which in its early phase produced a considerable amount of progress and good will on both sides. Camp David put an end to the progress, and the second intifada put end to the good will. These days, the two parties would rather not even see each other.
The stalemate, as both sides are no doubt aware, is not only deeply unsatisfactory but brings about its own risks, that of a new outburst of violence first and foremost. War is after all a continuation of diplomacy through other means. Still, war is not currently a preferred means of action for either side, for it cannot bring the Palestinians their state and it cannot bring the Israelis peace. And perhaps for the first time in the post-1967 history of the conflict both sides have something to lose. The Palestinian security has much improved, at least in the West Bank, and as a result the Israeli security has improved as well. The Israeli economic miracle has proved surprisingly durable in spite of the ongoing conflict, financial crises, and regional unrest. Under the able premiership of Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian economy has been growing steadily for the last five years. Neither side wants to see these achievements evaporate in another round of ultimately senseless violence.
Is it any wonder, then, that at different moments one or both sides see unilateral action as a possible, if not the only, way forward? It would be somewhat hypocritical to condemn the Palestinians for their latest diplomatic offensive, aimed at winning unilaterally the recognition of the Palestinian state in the United Nations and other UN-affiliated organizations. True, the Palestinian initiative will not bring the final settlement of the conflict closer. Equally true, diplomatic recognition of the Palestinian state would do little to create such a state on the ground. Attempts by radical pro-Palestinian groups to use and often abuse instruments of universal jurisdiction against Israeli politicians and military personnel would get a boost through the Palestinian access to the ICC. And, what is worse, there is a strong innuendo of delegitimization of the state of Israel behind the initiative, which purports to secure recognition for the Palestinians without their having to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Still, a resolution by the UN General Assembly giving the Palestinians the status of an observer state, something which is still not unlikely to materialize, would have to be seen, at least from the Palestinian perspective, as an important symbolic victory for Palestinian national goals.
The Israelis will argue, quite rightly, that the unilateral move by the Palestinians constitutes a violation of the Oslo Accords, which explicitly bar the two sides from taking unilateral steps, and provides yet another proof of the lack of good will on the Palestinian side and of the futility of negotiations. It would be difficult, however, to argue that unilateralism is a Palestinian invention. The strategy of unilateralism became the official Israeli doctrine in the last two years of the government of Prime Minister Sharon and was demonstrated in practice by the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank in 2005. Its justification was the same as the justification of the latest Palestinian move: Since the chances of reaching a solution of the conflict through negotiations were nil, it was incumbent upon the government to take such unilateral steps as would provide for the future and security of the country. The other side’s interests were not a part of the equation. Harsh as the doctrine was, especially in the less than diplomatic pronouncements of Sharon’s then adviser and former chief of staff Dov Weisglass, it recognized two essential facts about the conflict: First, that the end of occupation was not a concession by Israel to Palestinian interests, but rather that it was an essential Israeli interest to enable the Palestinians to rule themselves; and second, since it was impossible to secure this interest through negotiations, Israel itself needed to take active steps in this direction.
Although the disengagement plan, as it was called, was first met with open distrust by the international community precisely because of its unilateral nature, in the end it was accepted, indeed endorsed, by the Quartet and the prevailing international opinion, and today represents the only permanent and, for most practical purposes, irreversible change on the ground in the forty-five-year history of the conflict since the Six-Day War. And in spite of the protests of the Israeli right wing and the passive physical resistance of the settlers themselves at the time, it is today an accepted and internalized fact of Israeli public opinion that Gaza is not, nor for all the heroics of Samson has it ever been, a part of Eretz Yisrael.
The disengagement doctrine itself, however, did not survive the onslaught of revisionist thinking. Determined opposition of the settlers to the continuing evacuation of illegal outposts persisted, and political problems of his own making showed up Ehud Olmert as no Sharon and forced him to retreat from a revised “convergence“ plan (later revised again as a “realignment“ plan). The distaste of Olmert’s successor, Prime Minister Netanyahu, for unilateral recipes came as no surprise—after all, in 1995 he resigned from the Sharon government in protest against the disengagement plan as an alleged threat to Israel’s security.
Nevertheless, the Palestinians themselves provided far weightier arguments for the rejection of the disengagement strategy. The nihilistic fashion with which they treated the economic infrastructure left by the Israelis in Gaza, the murderous internal coup by Hamas in 1997, and the seven-year-long missile barrage fired at random at Israeli villages and cities provided seemingly incontrovertible arguments for many Israeli politicians against the wisdom of unilateral concessions. Although the more than eighty-six hundred missiles fired from Gaza between 2001 and 2008 led to only twenty-eight deaths, roughly the number of victims of traffic accidents on a bad Israeli holiday weekend, the psychological costs have been much higher, making most Israelis turn away from disengagement.
The combination of disdain for negotiations on the one hand and unilateral moves on the other has turned Israel into a sitting duck. Sharon had the instincts of a warrior. Both as a general and as a politician he knew, and practically demonstrated, that wars are won by taking initiative and outmaneuvering your opponent. By the time a stroke in January 2006 proved to be one opponent too many, he had transformed himself from the bête noire of the Middle East into a statesman and an advocate of the two-state solution, albeit on his own terms.
Under Netanyahu’s reign, though, Israel’s foreign policy has become purely reactive. The initiative has been taken over by the Palestinians. It may sound ironic, but it is in fact absolutely logical, that the determined effort of the Abbas and Fayyad government to build Palestinian institutions and economy, and to secure some measure of international acknowledgment of their ambitions, has taken not one, but several pages from the Jewish state-founding endeavors during the time of the Yishuv.
It is mistaken to think that Palestinians will be dissuaded from pursuing this strategy by punitive measures such as withholding their tax and customs receipts or by more building in Jerusalem. It is more likely to backfire and intensify attempts at further isolating and delegitimizing Israel. What Israel needs to counterbalance the Palestinian offensive is an initiative of its own. In the absence of negotiations, to which Palestinians will apparently not consent without preconditions, such an initiative would have to be unilateral.
It is difficult to think of a harder sell than unilateralism as a way of conducting policy in general, and foreign policy in particular. The reasons for this, all legitimate, are at least three. First, unilateralism is strewn with problems of perception, psychology, and morality. By definition, it does not take into account the interests, views, and narratives of at least one and often more interested parties, who will often feel not simply ignored but also insulted and humiliated in the process. Unilateralism will be thus always exposed to charges of dictate, betrayal, or aggression. It will almost never be the popular choice. Second, as an assertion of the will of just one actor in a field of two or more, it is a method of problem solving with significant risks compared to an agreed-upon solution. The other side does not have to accept the unilateral measures lying down. It can, and probably will, think of unilateral steps of its own to neutralize, offset, or negate the original action. Third, unilateralism is not conducive to broader international stability. It is primarily a negative precedent. If one player can resort to it, others may as well. The body of best international practices, sometimes called the international law, is heavily biased toward accords, treaties, and conventions, expressing bilateral or multilateral agreements reached after a protracted period of negotiations and conforming to generally accepted principles of international behavior. It abhors unilateralist approaches, which cannot be codified, harmonized, jointly implemented, and internationally approved.
For all the reasons above, and perhaps others, unilateralism is a method of last resort, rarely tried and often unsuccessful. It comes, if at all, into consideration only when the bilateral and multilateral approaches have demonstrably failed. Even that may not be a sufficient reason. Many international problems resistant to a solution are often best left alone if the choice is between an unsatisfactory but bearable status quo and a near certainty of an acute crisis. It is perhaps only when the chances at an agreed-upon solution are close to nil, when the status quo is intolerable, and when there are sufficient reasons to think it will further deteriorate that unilateralism comes into play.
But let us imagine that Ariel Sharon showed a little more understanding of the Palestinian needs and of the future risks for Israel at the time of Gaza disengagement and used back channels to buttress the security arrangements in the Strip. It is possible, although far from certain, that in such a case Palestinians could have spared themselves a bloody feud, Israel could have spared itself years of missile attacks, and both sides could have avoided the 2009 conflict. And imagine that Palestinians could have sought UN membership with the tacit understanding of Israel, in exchange for the international endorsement of the solution of the refugee problem based on the return of refugees to the Palestinian state combined with elements of material compensation. Further unilateral withdrawals of Israel from the West Bank could follow, combined with unilateral Palestinian restraint in building its own security forces. Israel could begin to unilaterally dismantle settlements inside the West Bank while the Palestinians could close their eyes to the continuing construction in, say, Ramat Eshkol. Neither side would be forced to withdraw from its own red lines, and yet with each coordinated unilateral move the conflict would be one step closer to a solution.
All that is needed for this kind of coordinated unilateralism to work is for the two sides to take into tacit account the legitimate needs and goals of the other side while pursuing its own, and a well-organized back channel anchored by an honest broker of a country or a group of countries instead of a prescriptive posse largely ignored by both sides. At the end of the day, we might not see a solution to the conflict but “only” an uneasy coexistence of an Israeli state without universally recognized borders with a Palestinian state in the kind of provisional borders envisaged by Phase II of the Road Map. Israelis would be free to attend to their legitimate security needs, and Palestinians would be free to build the institutions of their state. Hardly an ideal solution, but looking around us we can see a number of similar arrangements of frozen conflicts, in which people are allowed to live their lives and for the most part prosper. In the end, diplomacy, like politics, is an art of the possible.
Michael Zantovsky is the Czech ambassador to the Court of St. James’s.
Photo Credit: World Economic Forum