The real problem with the new Israeli-Palestinian peace talks

The Palestinians should insist on several major concessions before upcoming peace talks.

Palestinians without permits to enter Israel during Ramadan use a ladder to climb over the Israeli wall in a bid to attend Friday prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque
Some Palestinians denied entry to Israel during Ramadan decided simply to scale the wall [Oren Ziv/Active Stills]

With Israeli and Palestinian negotiators meeting in Jerusalem tomorrow, the renewed peace talks, or perhaps they are “pre-talks”, already seem to be off to a wobbly start.

All three parties – US, Israeli and Palestinian – are falling into predictably familiar patterns of behaviour. Israel is welcoming in the talks with a new wave of settlement construction, while squeezing out maximum credit for a staggered and limited Palestinian prisoner release and demanding rewards – in the shape of a softening of the newly announced policies on settlements – from Europe for even entering talks. The Palestinian leadership is busy whinging and bemoaning its fate, while the US is characteristically stoic in its attempt to balance unflinching support for Israel with its desire to finally be rid of this troublesome conflict. These roles make sense from the perspective of two of the three protagonists; just not for the Palestinians.

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Israel’s government is better off pursuing its extremist policies with a peace process than without one – whether those be endless settlement entrenchment, torpedoing diplomacy with the new Iranian presidency or carrying out barely concealed military strikes in neighbouring Egypt and Syria. There is nothing like a good veneer of peace process varnish to soften the image of even the most hard-line of governments. Israel is continuing to make the most of its massive balance of power advantage over the Palestinians.

Any government would prefer that balance to be in its favour, and would be reluctant to give that up. But a far-sighted Israeli leadership would understand that magnanimity – as Stephen Walt argues – would better serve Israel’s strategic self-interest, that less can be more and that Israel’s current path is self-destructive. The beginnings of a more strategic and magnanimous posture could perhaps be detected in the premierships of Yitzhak Rabin and even Ehud Olmert. But no such thinking appears to have even the remotest of purchase on today’s decision makers in Israel. 

US Secretary of State Kerry cannot be expected to bridge that power imbalance. At best, he can minimise Washington’s contribution to exacerbating that asymmetry and wisely navigate between the rock of US national security interests and the hard place of domestic political realities. America cannot apply the power and leverage it has over Israel and, absent this alternative, Washington is left with two options: to support Israel without trying to nudge it towards peace, or to support Israel while nudging it towards peace.

Kerry deserves credit, not condemnation, for pursing the latter option – and for dedicating so much of his early period as Secretary of State to the pursuit of this goal. In under half a year, Kerry has visited Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories the same number of times – five – as Hillary Clinton did in her entire four years in that office. 

Palestinians get the short-end

It is the Palestinian leadership’s participation in talks under these conditions that would appear to make the least sense, as evidenced by them now having to digest Israel’s new settlement announcements. Only if the Palestinians at least start to address the asymmetry could they gain from being in negotiations. Indeed, the only chance that the talks themselves will produce anything positive is if the Israeli/Palestinian power imbalance begins to shift.

So it is actually a shared interest for anyone, on any side, desiring a dignified and therefore sustainable peace – be they American, Israeli, or Palestinian – for the Palestinians to reclaim some leverage. By now it should be clear enough that the US cannot help in this respect, and that complaining to the US is a futile exercise, especially when the PLO itself did not stick to its position of conditioning talks on a settlement freeze. Perhaps when the US-PLO formal dialogue began in 1988, or at Madrid, or in the early years of Oslo, a PLO expectation of the US to play a balancing role was less outlandish.

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Bush 41’s administration did, after all, stand up to then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir over loan guarantees, and even President Clinton held more face-to-face meetings with PLO leader Yasser Arafat than any other world leader during his two terms in office – and stared down a first-term Netanyahu in the late 1990s. But that is all a long time ago. Both US and Israeli politics have moved on since then, and not in a good way.  

Nevertheless, the Palestinians do have options for reclaiming leverage that are not dependent on a political revolution in Washington. Realistically, some key options will have to remain theoretical for now, for reasons to do both with the nature of the current Palestinian leadership and the objective circumstances which they are in. Reconstituting a unified Palestinian national movement and overcoming Palestinian division would be a crucial step in reasserting effective Palestinian agency. But neither side of the Palestinian divide is ready to reconcile, nor are the regional circumstances propitious.

A popular civil disobedience and rights struggle against the occupation would significantly threaten Israel’s status quo comfort zone, but that is something that needs further nurturing in Palestinian society and very probably a different Palestinian leadership. And the Arab world is even less ready today than it has been for the past few decades to create leverage vis-a-vis Israel on the Palestinian question, especially with Egypt’s coup’ist Generals reportedly promoting popular anti-Palestinian sentiment.

Possible routes

Still, there are things that can be done, even today – and even under current Palestinian circumstances – to begin to chip away at the power imbalance, and to therefore give peace more of a chance. Here are five to begin with: two are more symbolic; two are more practical; and the final one more future orientated.

First, the Palestinians should not agree to hold talks hosted by Israel in West Jerusalem unless and until Israel is willing to reciprocate and attend Palestinian-hosted talks in East Jerusalem. The old school approach of Israel hosts in Jerusalem while the Palestinians host in Jericho represents the continuation of a defeatist mind-set.

Second, the Palestinians should announce that they will no longer be willing to discuss land swaps and any Israeli retention of settlements unless and until Israel acknowledges the 1967 borders as the basis for talks and that any swaps will be equal in size. If Israel insists on continuing to claim settlement blocs without even acknowledging the 1967 borders – and to claim this as a legitimate position – then it is for the Palestinians to expose the unreasonableness of this, by raising the prospect of an equivalent claim to historically Palestinian areas within Green Line Israel, such as Bir Saba (Beersheba), Sheikh Muwannis (Ramat Aviv), and al-Naqab (the Negev).

Third, the Palestinians could continue to pursue recognition at the UN and in other international fora while peace talks are ongoing, in response to any new Israeli settlement announcement. The difference between these two actions is that the Palestinians would be taking action in multilateral fora and in accordance with international law, while Israel is taking unilateral action and in violation of international law.

Fourth, the Palestinians could actively lobby in Europe for the bloc to continue moves to make the implementation of existing policy that distinguishes between EU dealings with Israel proper and with the Israeli occupation more rigorous. Europe should be continuing those moves anyway to fulfil its own obligations. But if Israel challenges Europe, as it has started to do, and especially by using the argument that Europe would be undermining peace talks, then the Palestinians should make clear that if neither Israel nor America will respect international legality then at least Europe must. And that any European foot-dragging would trigger a Palestinian withdrawal from the negotiations.

Finally, and alongside a commitment to the peace talks (if there is an Israeli partner), the Palestinians should also be preparing their Plan B.

Peace cannot be served by placing all of one’s eggs in the Oslo basket after twenty years of failure. And it is the Palestinians, as the most aggrieved party, who will have to take responsibility in breaking with this paradigm.

Daniel Levy is the Director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). He is also a Senior Research Fellow at the New America Foundation.