Rethinking Israeli-Palestinian Talks

Watching the direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians fizzle out over the last week, I was reminded of Conor Cruise O'Brien's observation that "conflicts don't have solutions -- they have outcomes." For nearly two decades, the contours of a final compromise that would enable the State of Israel to live alongside a new State of Palestine have been known, yet an actual agreement has remained elusive.

The current hiatus in the talks, if the Palestinian Authority and the Arab League are to be believed, stems from Israel's decision not to renew its ten month moratorium on building in existing West Bank settlements. A combination of media shorthand and anti-Israel sniping distorts this as "new settlement building." It isn't, because there is a long-established Israeli-Palestinian understanding that these settlements will be incorporated into Israel in any Final Agreement. This is not, as large parts of the media imply, a new "land grab."

The Palestinians and their Arab allies have given the United States one month to get the talks restarted, hoping that the Obama Administration will cajole Israel into renewing the moratorium. Barely ten months ago, the Palestinians dismissed the moratorium as a PR measure, as it did not cover the entire West Bank and eastern Jerusalem. Suddenly, last year's publicity stunt has become a test of Israeli sincerity.

There's nothing new in such spoiler tactics. Invariably, they begin with PA President Mahmoud Abbas reminding the world, "après moi, le déluge." Fearful negotiators then focus on the settlements as the primary, even sole, obstacle to peace. Israel disagrees and highlights other issues, like continuing antisemitic incitement in PA-financed media. In response, Abbas, wearing a wounded look, threatens to resign. Predictably, he doesn't. Talks resume, stall, and the Palestinians then blame Israeli intransigence with the Arab League dutifully providing the PA with diplomatic cover.

Why, then, is the international community so keen to retrace its steps toward such a familiar dead end? In part, because politicians, like athletes, seek glory -- securing an Israeli-Palestinian agreement is the grand prize which Bill Clinton grasped for, only to see it slip through his fingers when Yasser Arafat launched the second intifada in 2000.

And why is it a grand prize? Because of the prevailing myth that an Israeli-Palestinian agreement is the key to global stability. Once justice is secured for the Palestinians, the conventional wisdom goes, the anger of the Islamic world toward the west will be assuaged. The former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, neatly summarized this view upon leaving office: "We may wish to think of the Arab-Israeli conflict as just one regional conflict amongst many. It is not. No other conflict carries such a powerful symbolic and emotional charge among people far removed from the battlefield."

Eloquent, perhaps, but wrong-headed, as many seasoned policy analysts have since realized. "None of us is going to recommend, and, in fact, all us will recommend against, rushing towards a grand, comprehensive, end-of-conflict deal between Israelis and Palestinians," said Robert Malley, a former Clinton negotiator who has often counseled the Palestinian side, at a seminar in February 2009. Another veteran negotiator, Aaron David Miller, argued for "transactional" as opposed to "transformative" diplomacy -- small, incremental steps on specific issues like the Gaza blockade, instead of a Middle Eastern version of the Congress of Vienna.

Despite such caution, the Obama Administration nonetheless opted for the grand approach -- an Israeli-Palestinian agreement that would strongly counter Iran's regional influence, explained State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley -- with the aim of resolving the conflict within one year. Only the most churlish would wish Obama failure in this endeavor -- at the same time, the historical precedents are hardly encouraging.

Even if the direct talks are rescued again, final status issues could scupper them. Israel will never agree to the physical division of its capital, Jerusalem, even if it might not discount a creative proposal on shared sovereignty. When the Palestinians insist on the so-called "right of return" for the descendants of the 1948 refugees, Israel asks for recognition of its character as the state of the Jewish people. Max Weber famously defined a state as an entity with a monopoly on the "means of violence," but it is implausible to envision Israel accepting a fully militarized Palestine a short drive from Tel Aviv. As for incitement, neither Abbas nor his congenial Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, have much incentive to stamp on it, loathsome as the rhetoric is.

There is a more basic question. Does it matter if the talks are regularly frustrated, when so little is expected of them anyway? After all, as Elliot Abrams recently observed, the West Bank is one of the few places on earth where the economy is booming, with growth at 8 percent and tax revenues up by 50 percent over last year. For all of Abbas's dire warnings, West Bank Palestinians, much as they may resent Israel, won't risk his resignation being followed by the kind of Hamas regime that has brought so much devastation to Gaza.

As for the U.S. Administration, it needs to exercise care that disillusionment with the peace process doesn't spill over into hostility. The record is unsettling enough: among Israelis, President Obama's policies have been viewed with distrust for some time. Among American Jews, according to the latest survey conducted by my organization, the American Jewish Committee , 45 percent disapprove of Obama's handling of U.S.-Israel relations, while 62 percent approve of Benjamin Netanyahu's. Even in the Arab world, the President's reputation is suffering ("President Obama has not translated his Cairo speech and all these good intentions into a coherent program and that is why his credibility among the Arab public has declined," a former Jordanian Foreign Minister, Marwan Muasher, told CNN.)

There is therefore every reason to work for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, within a framework of modest ambitions. Equally, there is scant reason to believe that the lack of a peace agreement will plunge the region into war, especially when there are more obvious triggers, such as Iran's nuclear ambitions and Hezbollah's military build-up in southern Lebanon. Would an agreement restrain these belligerents? Perhaps, but the logic goes both ways. A two-state agreement could also be a powerful boost to the rejectionist camp in its struggle against the United States and Israel.

In such a situation, the best strategy is to assert control of those elements which you can make your own. Do not build up expectations. Do not allow apocalyptic prophecies to become self-fulfilling. And do not collapse into despair when what appears to be a solution turns out to be just one more outcome.