Insights and opportunities in Middle East
The Middle East peace talks have just been revived and all the stakeholders are jockeying to improve their positions.
Israel’s reluctance to relate in earnest to the Arab Peace Initiative (which started as the Saudi Initiative) as a basis for negotiations helps all those trying to delegitimize Israel, since the initiative, in addition to providing a blueprint, however imperfect, for peace, legitimizes Israel in the Arab world.
Israel’s claim that construction in the settlements is a marginal issue over which the Palestinians should not threaten to withdraw from the talks, is not genuine.
If indeed it was a marginal issue, why should Israel not continue the freeze? The Palestinian authority has plenty of reason to insist on the freeze, having learned from previous rounds of negotiations during which realities on the ground kept changing to their disadvantage.
Any insistence on the resolution of the internal Palestinian conflict between Fatah and Hamas as a precondition for an agreement is a prescription for failure, working into Hamas’ hands. What should be done is to create a situation where Fatah and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank are the beneficiaries of the agreement leaving Gaza in the lurch and its population wanting to do just as well.
Nevertheless, there appears to be some reason for mild optimism based on a game-theory analysis of the conflict: A stage game involves two players, a beginning and an end, a finite process.
A repeated game involves two players who know each other, can predict to some extent each other’s reactions, and have clear expectations with regard to the outcome. We are in a repeated game.
There are two possibilities for the outcome — a finite outcome and an infinite outcome. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, based on his ideology and his perception that Israel is under constant threat, is likely to view the present negotiations as a game with an infinite outcome (no full resolution) — he will, therefore, try to keep very wide margins of safety.
The Palestinians, on the other hand, are looking for a finite outcome but may be forced into an infinite outcome (an interim solution) because of some of Netanyahu’s demands (e.g., recognition of Israel as a Jewish State). What may, nevertheless, bring Netanyahu to an agreement at all is the fact that he is a globalist. He is aware that a continuing impasse has a serious effect on Israel’s international standing politically and economically. Moral aspects are of lesser concern to him.
Another reason for optimism is the fact that distinguished rabbis and religious leaders from the far right of the political spectrum have initiated a dialogue with experts and academics, to ensure that any peace agreement that could result in a large-scale removal of settlers from the occupied West Bank will have a maximum of public and political legitimacy. This in order to make it difficult for radicals to get public support for violent resistance to an impending agreement.
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert outlined the positions that Israel and the Palestinians had arrived at in negotiations when he resigned from office in late 2008.
The positions are remarkable, because they indicate to what extent Netanyahu’s hands are really tied: no Palestinian leader will likely go back on any of these (Israeli) positions. Olmert also insisted that the outlines of the agreement, meaning the main items of contention, should be addressed first and all technical details later.
This means first deal with borders, Jerusalem and the refugee issue. More detailed arrangements, water distribution and the environment can wait for later.
With regard to the borders, Olmert’s government consented to the 1967 borders as a basis for negotiations with agreed-upon exchanges of territory. Olmert indicated that the differences between the positions of the two parties were exceedingly small at the time.
Olmert suggested to Netanyahu to openly declare that an agreement would be based on the 1967 borders, a declaration that would give Israel worldwide support.
It is difficult to understand why the Palestinians, at that time, did not come back to the government of Israel with clear answers or counter proposals. They didn’t and one can only surmise that they are exceedingly sorry about their missed opportunity, since they are now dealing with Netanyahu whose positions appear a lot tougher.
It remains to be seen if new opportunities can not only be generated but also realized in this round of negotiations or if the latter will crash, come Sept. 26 when the settlement freeze is scheduled to end.
The writer is a retired Israeli diplomat who served in Southeast Asia from 2000-2003.