Direct Talks and their Potential Consequences

By Alon Ben-Meir

The Obama administration’s success in moving the Israeli-Palestinian talks to direct negotiations is an important achievement. However, direct talks will not produce substantive results unless the United States takes steps to insure that the progress made is irreversible, and will lead to a final agreement and that if—for whatever reasons—the negotiations break down, they will be resumed from where they were left off. Moreover, the United States must remain actively involved in the negotiations, serving as the “depository” of any incremental agreement achieved, while de-linking progress on any particular issue from the remaining unresolved issues.

What Obama Can Do

To that end, the Obama administration ought to focus on four different steps. First, Obama must persuade Israel to start the direct negotiations by focusing on the issue of borders. Addressing the final borders would signal to the Palestinians that an issue at the core of the conflict is to be negotiated in earnest, which will dramatically strengthen Abbas’s position. This will have a tremendous impact on the Palestinians, as it will inadvertently address the status of the majority of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Delineating the borders will determine through negotiations which of the settlements will be incorporated into Israel proper through a land swap of equal size and quality, which settlements will be turned over to the Palestinians, and which will be dismantled. As a result, settlement construction should no longer be a point of contention, as Israel would build only inside settlements that are part of Israel proper. Borders have been discussed twice before—in 2000 at Camp David and in 2008 between the Olmert Government and the Palestinian Authority, with general agreement achieved in both sets of the negotiations. Using this experience, it is conceivable that an agreement on borders could be achieved within six months.

Once there is an agreement on borders, it should be “banked” and de-linked from any other issue, including the Palestinian refugees and the future of East Jerusalem. Moreover, the Palestinians will be more inclined to negotiate to the finish line, as the vision of their own state will be in sight.

Second, the United States must expand the negotiations beyond the scope of the Quartet and the Roadmap by officially embracing the Arab Peace Initiative as the central framework for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace accord, to change the dynamic of the negotiations. Such a step is critical for five reasons:

a) It would give the Arab states confidence that the United States is committed to a comprehensive solution, so they would be more inclined to invest greater political capital in the process;

b) It would allow the Obama administration to insist that some leading Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf and North African states make concessions to Israel in return, including goodwill gestures such as overflights and opening trade. Such measures would ameliorate the attitude of Israelis who oppose the Arab Initiative, and disabuse others who do not believe that the Arab states intend on making peace. In addition, it would strengthen Prime Minister Netanyahu’s hand with his coalition partners by providing him with the necessary political cover to make concessions as negotiations advance;

c) It would increase the stakes of the Arab states in the peace process and strengthen their resolve to deal with such rejectionist groups as Hamas, by bringing them back to the Arab fold, even by coercive diplomacy;

d) Representatives of leading Arab states should continue as observers at the negotiating table beyond the first session in the White House on September 2nd. Their participation will bolster Mahmoud Abbas’s position, serving as a political shield that will provide Abbas with the backing he needs from the Arab world to make difficult decisions in the negotiations;

e) Embracing the Arab Peace Initiative would also provide a context with which to co-opt Hamas into the political process as well as advance Israel-Syria talks. Notwithstanding Hamas’s extreme positions, it would be wise for the United States, the Palestinian Authority, and Egypt to encourage Hamas to accept the Arab Peace Initiative in order to become part of the process, as long as it also maintains its current non-violent posture. If Hamas is ignored, it will stop short of nothing to undermine the peace negotiations. Similarly, the Obama administration must prepare the groundwork to reopen the Israeli-Syrian negotiations. Peace between Israel and Syria remains central to achieving regional stability. Finally, throughout these efforts, the United States must remain involved, bridging differing positions.

Third, President Obama should address the Israeli public directly by visiting Israel or by dedicating an exclusive press conference after resumption of direct talks. Although Mr. Obama has repeatedly stated America’s commitment to Israel’s national security, there is still consternation among Israelis about his personal commitment. American-Israeli relations during the first 18 months of his presidency were rocky for several reasons, including the conflict over a settlement freeze. Now it appears that President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu have reached an understanding about the requisites for negotiating with the Palestinians, particularly following Netanyahu’s visit to the White House on July 6th.

Fourth, the President needs to show Israelis that a two-state solution offers Israel security guarantees, and is the only way to resolve the conflict. Indeed, he must emphasize that America’s and Israel’s shared interests in security and stability would be advanced by a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab states. Moreover, Israelis must understand that dealing with any threat from Iran or its surrogates, Hamas, Hezbollah and others, requires an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A visit by the President to Israel at this particular time could blunt the impact of the critics who use the past friction between the Obama White House and Israel as a political tool during the US election season. Anyway, nothing is more powerful than the presence of the President of the United States in a country that is seeking to restore the symbolic bond between the two nations. Furthermore, only when the Israelis are confident about US-Israel relations will they make the kind of concessions required for a peace agreement.

Finally, the President should reassure Israelis that the United States is committed to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Israelis are terrified of the prospect that, if not stopped, Iran will eventually acquire nuclear weapons and Israel will face an existential threat.

Obama is following the same policy as all his predecessors since Nixon: refraining from commenting on the Israeli nuclear arsenal. Presumably the Israeli government is also following the same policy as its own predecessors: willingness to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty only after a peace agreement has been reached in the Middle East. It is not obvious how these two countries’ policies can be reconciled with the recent call of the NPT Review Conference promptly to negotiate a Middle East Nuclear Weapon Free Zone covering both Israel and Iran. However, there are advantages in the President’s spelling out the United States’ commitment to avert Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. It will send an important message not only to the Israeli people, but to Iran as well. Delivering this point from Israel will show the Israelis that America stands shoulder-to-shoulder with their country. The President does not need to threaten the Iranian regime with military force to show solidarity with Israel. However, if force is ultimately used as a last resort against Iran’s nuclear facilities by either country, both the United States and Israel would be implicated.

Obama’s Political Capital

President Obama has already invested substantial political capital in trying to resume meaningful negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and must now invest even more to bring an end to the decades long, debilitating conflict. The new direct negotiations give the President his first chance since he came to office to promote a two-state solution—and probably his last chance. Failure to achieve a breakthrough this time will erode the President’s credibility, and could usher in violence, setting back a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict by a whole generation. Neither Israel, the United States nor the Arab states can afford such a breakdown, especially when the war in Afghanistan continues to rage, violence is still afflicting Iraq, tension between Israel and Lebanon is simmering, and Iran is racing to get nuclear weapons.

The measures stipulated here may help avoid previous pitfalls. In particular, the United States must become the “depository” and arbiter of all interim agreements achieved (such as borders) and must commit both sides to honor these agreements in the future, should the negotiations falter at any stage and for whatever reason, including a change of government. The United States must insist that future talks resume from where current negotiations leave off, lest they be used as a tool to stall rather than achieving a permanent solution.

Now is the time to insist that all the parties to the conflict put their cards on the table. The United States can insure that the parties no longer claim to seek peace without making the difficult decisions necessary to achieve it.

Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. http://www.alonben-meir.com

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2010

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2010, page 20. Some rights reserved.

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