We were recently told about the expected renewal of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on the future of a final-status agreement. Even though we are only dealing with proximity talks – a sort of indirect dialogue with US assistance – there is seemingly reason for optimism: After 18 months, the sides are again talking.
However, if we perform in-depth analysis of the interests of the three involved parties, we would reach the conclusion that there aren’t many reasons for celebration.
The first problem stems from deep cultural differences between us, people of the Middle East, and the Americans. For the Americans, if Israeli-Palestinian talks have been going on for 17 years now, the negotiations obviously aim at securing a final-status agreement. On the other hand, Israel and the Palestinians have been engaged in talks for two wholly different goals.
The first objective is maintaining a process for the sake of the process. For Israel, the ongoing process mitigates the international pressure exerted on us; for the Palestinian leadership, the process is the main justification for the continued rule of the veteran leadership. Hence, the very existence of a process is vital for the sake of both sides’ political survival.
The second objective of both Israelis and Palestinians is to ensure that when the current round of talks fails, the other side will be blamed for it.
A useful example of the cultural gap between the Americans and the other two parties occurred when US General Zinni arrived in the region at the beginning of 2002 as President Bush’s envoy, in order to secure a lull in the area. After separately meeting with both sides, Zinni issued a document with 12 tasks – six for Israel and six for the Palestinians. In his view, should both sides make an effort to complete these tasks, a lull would be made possible.
Next, he convened both sides and went straight to the bottom line: He asked the Palestinians to start by explaining how they intend to complete the first task. The senior Palestinian representative, Mohammad Dahlan, was furious. “One moment,” he yelled. “I have to explain something first.” He then launched into a scathing hour-long speech about the injustices of “occupation.” The Israeli side insisted on responding, and as one can guess, both sides were not guided by the desire to resolve problems, but rather, by a strong desire to prove to the Americans that the other side is at fault.
Grave disappointmentWhy can we assume that resumption of negotiations at this time would end up in disappointment for all three parties? For Israel, the process that is getting underway at this time may lead to an American peace initiative. Such proposal would likely be similar to the Clinton Plan from 2000; however, it will not be in the form of “take it or leave it,” but rather, American dictates with broad international backing.
The Palestinians also fear such outcome, as beyond the many concessions they’ll have to accept, topped by renunciation of the right of return, they will have to prove that they are able to form one government that rules both Gaza and the West Bank and endorses the agreement. The result may be a major clash via-s-via Hamas – a clash that would also jeopardize what the Palestinians possess at this time.
The big loser may be Obama. The failure of the process will certainly not boost his status, yet even if success is achieved – it may lead to grave disappointment. Let’s assume that an agreement is reached as result of massive American pressure. The strategic outcome may be greatly disappointed.
The US believes that the Arab world truly wants to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict and would be grateful to America should it be able to force both sides into such deal. Yet the truth is different: The Arab world is uninterested in seeing an end to the conflict. In the view of the Arab Street, a situation that includes recognition of the Jewish state, its sovereignty in the Holy Land, even partial control in the Holy Sites, and renunciation to the right of return would constitute capitulation to American pressure.
The Arab street would be mad at the US and at its own leaders should such agreement be reached.
The American assessment that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would have a powerful positive effect on America’s regional status may prove to be a grave error. The conclusion here is that the two-state solution, which requires so much from the parties involved and so little from the Arab world, will likely not be secured. Yet should it be achieved after all, its implications may be deeply disappointing.