Israeli – Palestinian Negotiations are not Ripe Prime Minister Begin and President Sadat, December 25, 1977, Israeli Government Press Office

Professor Kenneth Stein, Center for Israel Education

Elements previously present in Arab-Israeli negotiation successes 

Nine pre-conditions that enabled Arab-Israeli negotiations to unfold successfully in the 1970s and 1990s are not present today. Egyptian-Israeli and Jordanian-Israeli agreements occurred because the respective sides wanted them and needed them. Then there were no external cheerleaders demanding negotiated outcomes; today, it is the external cheerleaders who avidly hunger for an outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian talks. Former US Ambassador to Israel, Samuel Lewis said it numerous times, “outside parties cannot want an agreement more than the respective sides.”  Why are motivation and “ripeness” absent today?

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Previously, sovereign states negotiated with one another. Now, negotiations are to unfold between unequal parties:  a national liberation movement in transition to state governance is to face a viable state that has century’s worth of experience in self-governance and civic engagements.  Exchanging land for peace then was dramatically different. Sinai’s return to Egypt did not have either the overwhelming strategic or emotional value that the West Bank possesses. Then there were clear delineations of what constituted Jordan, Israel and Egypt; neither Palestinians nor Israelis today are clear about what lands they each do not want ultimately to control. Then there was one domestic power center in Jordan, Egypt and Israel; Palestinians today are physically separated and politically divided into the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jerusalem, and among those in the diaspora that seek a voice. Hamas’s Palestinian rule in the  Gaza Strip absolutely opposes recognition of Zionism and Israel.

Elements of Ripeness

Nine “ripeness” pre-requisites present then are neither evolving nor or on interim horizons.  Neither of the parties today share a common existential threat such as the Soviet Union or regional unrest that will drive them together. Some suggest that Palestinian existence is unbearable. Others fear that Israel cannot be both majority Jewish and democratic. Current conditions are not ideal, but tolerable or bearable. Certainly for Israel, Iran is the existential threat, not it and the Palestinians’ future.  Unilateral actions by both sides restrain engagement in talks. While pre-negotiations have set down the final status issues and many details surrounding each –Jerusalem, settlements, borders, refugees, and prerogatives of a Palestinian state – pre-negotiations have yet unfolded into realistic, serious and implementable outcomes. 

Perhaps private negotiations have ensued between Jerusalem and Ramallah, but they have not yielded either the duration or trust that evolved between Jordan and Israel, or slowly between Egypt and Israel.  Secret Israeli-Jordanian contacts went on for decades before Jordan’s King Hussein and Israel’s Prime Minister Rabin brought their private talks into the open in the early 1990s; each rarely doubted the other’s insincerity to end the state of war between them.

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King Hussein of Jordan and Israeli Prime Minister Rabin, October 1994, Israeli Government Press Office

Both feared political instability emanating from Iraq and, from Iran’s hegemonic Islamic radicalism. Both benefitted from financial rewards from Washington.  Israel’s Prime Minister Begin and Egyptian President Sadat conducted private individual meetings with Rumanian leaders and their emissaries met secretly in Morocco, unbeknownst in detail to the Carter administration and prior to Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem.  Both clearly disliked and feared the intentions of Moscow, a point totally dismissed by the Carter administration when it invited Moscow to be central to convening an international Middle East Peace conference 

Begin and Sadat understood that an agreement between them, exchanging sovereign Egyptian land in Sinai and Jewish settlements for a peace treaty satisfied respective national interests. Each side relinquished something of critical value to the other. Israel traded land for peace. National, rather than ideological interests motivated both countries. 

Though financial, diplomatic, and material incentives exist for Palestinians, it is not clear who will underwrite the annual costs for ten years of $2- $3 billion a year, necessary to undergird a Palestinian economy. A reliable umpire exists, though both Israel and the Palestinians strongly believe that the US as mediator, tilts way too heavily to the other side. While the US has a long term security relationship with Israel, research has shown that the US has spoken more publicly, frequently, and consistently since 1967 on behalf of Palestinian self-determination and statehood than any other country.  In January 2021, the Biden Administration announced its detailed outline for a two-state solution to resolve the conflict.  

Trade-offs present then – truly absent now

Are the two communities truly prepared to make core trade-offs?  Who among the staunch advocates for the two-state solution and now, sometimes in favor of a confederation of three states—Jordan, Israel, and Palestine—honestly believe that the Palestinians would and should give up the dream of 1948 or 1967 Palestinian refugees not returning to what were Israel’s boundaries  between 1949 and 1967?  Israel in order to protect its eastern border must always ask the question:  would a brighter future exist for Jordan, and for itself, if there would be a Palestinian state between Jordan and Israel? Is an independent Palestinian state in the strategic interests of the United States and other countries in a region where states perennially teeter on societal if not political implosion? 

As long as Israel’s political system depends upon a coalition of parties to govern, especially from those that demand Jewish presence in Judea and Samaria, no Israeli parliament will be able to vote to free itself of the West Banks’ encumbrances. And Israel’s Sixth (1980) and Thirteenth Basic Laws (2013) make it rather certain that Israel by its sovereign decisions will retain the integrity and unity of Jerusalem and, will not be giving up Jerusalem lands unless a majority of the Knesset members vote to do so in ratifying a treaty that might demand it. 

As long as critical elements within the Palestinian community articulate virulent anti-Israeli attitudes and call for Israel’s demise in school books, in religious statements, and in media interviews, no Israeli parliamentary majority or leader will embrace serious negotiations.  For Israel it also means a halt to delegitimization of Israel and Israelis in international institutions. 

As long as a unified or a semi-unified Palestinian voice is not heard, and as long Palestinians themselves, through poll after poll by Khalil Shikaki’s Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, believe that they lack representative and trustworthy institutions, Israel will certainly not engage in talks about final status issues, and especially not about their future security requirements. Two prominent Palestinian intellectuals, Hussein Agha and Ahmad Samih Khalidi, in the March/April 2021 edition of Foreign Affairs wrote about the need for a new beginning for the Palestinian Arab National Movement. On the present Fatah/Hamas schism and potentially upcoming elections, they noted that “the schism undermines the legitimacy of the entire Palestinian political system, severely compromising the PLO’s claim to be the sole Palestinian representative. Despite recurrent calls to hold elections and agree on a common national program, neither Hamas nor Fatah, the two dominant Palestinian political forces, has offered a convincing answer as to how to end the rift. And even if elections do take place, as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas recently decreed, they will serve only to legitimize an ailing political system, not to facilitate a genuine transfer of power: neither side is prepared to hand over power to the other, making elections little more than a sham.” Both co-wrote about the decline of the Palestinian National Movement in August 2017 in The New Yorker, noting that neither Fatah or the PLO have a defined and acknowledged leadership with the legitimacy and representative standing that empowers [them] to act in its people’s name.” 

No amount of external cheerleading will generate ripeness for purposeful negotiations, let alone generate workable outlines for a two-state solution. Palestinian voices tell us that the Palestinians themselves need to get their own house in order. A choking presence of untrustworthy intentions cannot coexist with nitty-gritty negotiations.  For negotiations to unfold, they must be scrubbed of hatred, clothed in proven sincerity, and oozing with trust.   Not now.

Professor Kenneth Stein is the Founding President of the Center for Israel Education, www.israeled.org