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“No third-grader who has read about this place in an encyclopedia would have made any one of the countless mistakes Kerry made.” Many in the Israeli peace camp share this harsh judgment, which a former top ranking Israeli politician and seasoned negotiator conveyed to me recently. Nine months of American-brokered negotiations have brought dozens of meetings, numerous press conferences and countless photo-ops, commentaries and leaks, but no progress. Secretary Kerry’s commendable efforts managed to bring the parties into the room, but not to change the dynamic inside it. “The idea that an agreement is attainable under the current conditions is so patently absurd,” another prominent politician said when the talks began, “that they must have a truly brilliant plan.” Sadly, it now appears that they didn’t.
Technically, talks broke down after Israel reneged on its commitment to release a fourth batch of Palestinian prisoners. The Palestinians reacted by signing requests to join fifteen international human rights conventions to which Israel responded by announcing new settlement tenders. Days later the Palestinians signed a reconciliation agreement with Hamas, and Israel announced the suspension of talks. Postmortem analyses focus on the details of these events: who did what, when, and why. But these are of little consequence; the unfolding of these events is just the particular form for an inevitable breakdown. It could have taken various other forms, but the failure of the paralyzed negotiations would not change. In fact, there had been no actual negotiations between the sides since December, by which time irreconcilable differences had once again crystalized. What matters are the deep, structural causes of the failure, not the mechanics of its manifestation. I believe that three false assumptions are responsible for the mistaken assessment of the talks’ potential and their eventual collapse.
The first assumption concerns the process. Negotiations started without clear terms of reference as if Israelis and Palestinians were negotiating for the first time. This undermined the progress that had been achieved in previous rounds and the very objective of the talks. It has become fashionable among intellectuals, pundits and peace-industry professionals to disparage the two state solution and to devise “novel” proposals, finding solace from political frustration in the more pliable realm of theoretical musings. But the novelty of these proposals is usually in the wrapping, not in substance. Ultimately, all of the proposals come to either repackaging the two-state solution, or starry-eyed one-statist fantasies. This is anything but surprising. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been analyzed, scrutinized, theorized, criticized, and moralized from every possible angle. After more than two decades of negotiations, nothing, it seems, remains unsaid. The zone of possible agreement on almost all of the issues has been defined, but the agreement has not been realized.
This is similar to what psychologist Daniel Kahneman called “substitution”—the human tendency, when faced with a difficult problem, to substitute an easier one. Substitution can be helpful, but it can also serve to dodge the problem. Between Israelis and Palestinians the problem is not finding the formula, but creating the political will to implement it. When the parties involved lack a desire to succeed, negotiations merely create opportunities for introducing new conditions or stepping backward—they become a substitute for action, hindering progress and draining energy on all sides. To avoid this, negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians must focus on implementation. The challenge is not to discover some magic formula, but to realize the one that has been around for decades. What the process needs is contractors, not more architects.
The second assumption is that Netanyahu can be that contractor. At the start of negotiations Kerry was optimistic that an agreement could be reached under the current political conditions:
We’re here today because the Israeli people and the Palestinian people both have leaders willing to heed the call of history, leaders who will stand strong in the face of criticism. . . . Their commitment to make tough choices, frankly, should give all of us hope that these negotiations actually have a chance to accomplish something.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who negotiated with Palestinian President Abbas in 2008, also claimed that Abbas is “a real partner for peace.” Indeed, since he took office in 2005, Palestinian security forces under Abbas’s command have strengthened collaboration with the Israeli Defense Forces, preempting numerous terror attacks. Abbas himself repeatedly expressed his acceptance of the State of Israel in its internationally recognized 1967 borders, unequivocally renounced terrorism, and even professed on Israeli TV that he has no intention of returning to his native town Safed, today’s Israeli city Tzfat.
But when it comes to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Kerry’s optimistic assumption has less to rely on. Since his youth Netanyahu has been a fierce opponent of Palestinian statehood. He has consistently opposed every peace initiative, from Oslo in the nineties to Olmert’s efforts in 2008. Since taking office in 2009, Netanyahu has repeatedly expressed his commitment to the settlements. As late as January of this year, he asserted that he has no intention of leaving Hebron and Beit El, settlements deep in the West Bank whose existence is irreconcilable with a Palestinian state. Under his leadership, settlement construction has increased dramatically, a move senior American officials now say ”effectively sabotaged the success of the talks” (shockingly admitting they “didn’t realize” this in time). This week he told settler leaders “you have no shield greater than I. I fight for you.” Netanyahu chose as histwo principle coalition partners the militant hawk Avigdor Lieberman and the settler “Jewish Home” party. His own party is dominated by staunch opponents of partition, and there is no sign that he is contemplating breaking with it (as Sharon did in 2005). Netanyahu is both politically and ideologically committed to the status quo. Counting on Netanyahu to end the occupation and dismantle settlements is like relying on Ted Cruz to spearhead gun control.
And yet, on May 8, in a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, special envoy to the negotiations, Martin Indyk, said they had Netanyahu “in the zone of possible agreement.” Though he admitted that settlement activity had ”damaging effect” on the negotiations, Indyk did not blame Netanyahu, but his coalition. This account raises serious concerns about the administration's understanding of Israeli politics. Settlement planning and construction obviously do not proceed behind the Prime Minister’s back. Kerry and his advisors were apparently encouraged by some Israeli moderates, who unthinkingly became Netanyahu's cheerleaders, to believe that the Prime Minister is merely grudgingly acquiescing at a coalition he cannot control. But Netanyahu is no Obama, and his coalition is not a Republican congress. Settlement activity could not have continued without his willing, if silent, consent. Whether driven by fanciful wishful thinking or by cynical political opportunism, it is time to dispense with the indolent, baseless belief in Netanyahu’s good faith negotiation.
Kerry’s third assumption concerns the goal of the process. In a press conference last July, Kerry set “one simple goal: a view to ending the conflict, ending the claims.” Yet these are in fact two very different, possibly incompatible, goals. Ending the violent conflict between Israelis and Palestinians means ending Israeli domination over Palestinians: terminating Israel’s military control over the West Bank and Gaza and erecting a Palestinian state in its stead. Ending the claims is a different story altogether. Ending all claims brings in issues of historical narrative, recognition and identity, and mutual grievances about past violence, and opens the door to the contrived demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. A century of bloodshed and hatred cannot be undone by resolutions and agreements. It requires a long process of reconciliation, one that may take a generation, possibly more. But for this to even begin, the political reality of domination must first end. Holding the liberation of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza hostage to the resolution of the historical conflict is playing into the hands of those who wish to prolong it.
Even if American diplomats find a way to bring the belligerent sides back to the table, talks will always break down. Unless, that is, the mistakes responsible for the previous failures are understood and corrected.
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