Direct talks and their potential consequences

by Alon Ben-Meir Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. Email: ; Web: www.alonben-meir.com 23.08.2010

The Obama administration's success in moving the Israeli-Palestinian talks from proximity to direct negotiations is an important achievement for making real progress. However, direct talks will not produce substantive results unless the United States takes a number of pivotal steps to insure that the progress made in the negotiations is irreversible, and will eventually lead to a final agreement. This is the only way the United States can avoid the pitfalls of past bilateral negotiations, so that if-for whatever reasons-the negotiations stall or break down, they can be resumed from where they were left off. Moreover, the United States must remain directly and actively involved in the negotiations, serving as the 'depository' of any incremental agreement achieved, while delinking progress on any particular issue from the remaining unresolved issues. To that end, the Obama administration ought to focus on four different steps:

First, the Obama administration must persuade Israel to start the direct negotiations with the Palestinians by focusing on the issue of borders. Addressing the final borders would first and foremost signal to the Palestinians that an issue at the core of the conflict-the parameters of a two-state solution-is to be negotiated in earnest, something that will dramatically strengthen Abbas' position. This will also have a tremendous psychological and practical impact on the Palestinians as it will inadvertently address the status of the majority of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Delineating the borders will allow both sides to determine through negotiations which of the settlements will be incorporated into Israel proper through a land swap of equal size and quality, which settlements will be turned over to the Palestinians, and which will be dismantled. As a result, settlement construction should no longer be a point of contention, as Israel would build only inside the settlements that are determined to be part of Israel proper. Borders have been comprehensively discussed twice before-in 2000 at Camp David and in 2008 between the Olmert Government and the Palestinian Authority, with general agreement achieved in both sets of the negotiations. Utilizing this experience, it is conceivable that an agreement on borders could be achieved within six months. The critical point here is that once there is an agreement on borders, it should be 'banked' by the United States and delinked from any other issue, including the Palestinian refugees and the future of East Jerusalem. Moreover, the Palestinians in particular will develop a vested interest in continuing the negotiating process and will be far more inclined to negotiate to the finish line as the vision of their own state will be in sight.

Second, the United States must expand the negotiations beyond the scope of the Quartet and the Roadmap by officially embracing the Arab Peace Initiative as the central framework for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace accord, with the objective of changing the dynamic of the negotiations. Such a step is critical at this juncture for five reasons: 1) it would give the Arab states confidence that the United States is committed to a comprehensive solution, and therefore they would be more inclined to invest greater political capital in the process; 2) it would allow the Obama administration to insist that some of the leading Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf and North African states make certain concessions to Israel in return, including goodwill gestures such as over flights and opening trade. Such measures would go a long way toward ameliorating the attitude of many Israelis who oppose the Arab Initiative, and disabuse many others who do not believe that the Arab states intend on making peace. In addition, it would strengthen Prime Minister Netanyahu's hand with his coalition partners by providing him with the necessary political cover to make concessions as negotiations are advanced; 3) it would increase the stakes of the Arab states in the peace process and strengthen their resolve to deal with any rejectionist groups such as Hamas, by bringing them back to the Arab fold in one form or another, including coercive diplomacy; 4) representatives of leading Arab states should continue to be present as observers at the negotiating table beyond the first session in the White House on September 2nd. Their participation will bolster Mahmoud Abbas' position, serving as a political shield that will provide Abbas with the backing he needs from the Arab world to make difficult decisions in the negotiations; 5) embracing the Arab Peace Initiative would also provide a useful and necessary context with which to try to co-opt Hamas into the political process as well as advance Israel-Syria talks. Notwithstanding Hamas' extreme positions, it would be wise for the United States, the Palestinian Authority, and Egypt to encourage Hamas to accept the principle of the Arab Peace Initiative in order to become part of the process, as long as it also maintains its current non-violent posture. If Hamas is ignored, it will stop short of nothing to undermine the peace negotiations. Similarly, the Obama administration must prepare the groundwork to reopen the Israeli-Syrian negotiations. Peace between Israel and Syria remains central to achieving regional stability. Finally, throughout these efforts, the United States must remain directly and actively involved, advancing new ideas, bridging differing positions, and inducing collaborative approaches to get results.

Third, it is extremely important that President Obama address the Israeli public directly, preferably by visiting Israel or, at a minimum, by dedicating an exclusive press conference on the heels of the resumption of direct talks at the beginning of September. Although Mr. Obama has repeatedly stated America's unshakable commitment to Israel's national security, there is still considerable consternation among Israelis about the President's personal commitment. The bilateral American-Israeli relations during the first 18 months of his presidency were rocky for a variety of reasons, including the conflict over a settlement freeze. Now it appears that President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu have reached a much better understanding about the requisites for conducting meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians, particularly following Netanyahu's visit to the White House on July 6th. Going forward, it is critical that the President demonstrate to Israelis not only America's non-negotiable commitment to their national security, but that pursuing peace with the Palestinians based on a two-state solution offers Israel long-term security guarantees, and that it remains the only viable option to resolve the conflict. Indeed, the President must emphasize that America's strategic interests in the Middle East are intertwined with Israel's national security interests. Our shared interests in security and stability throughout the region would significantly be advanced by a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab states. Moreover, Israelis must understand that dealing with any threat emanating from Iran or its surrogates, Hamas, Hezbollah and others, requires an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the full backing of the U.S. and the Arab states.

A visit by the President to Israel at this particular time may evoke criticism from some who may accuse the President of political pandering in an election year. Conversely, a visit at this time could blunt the impact of the Obama administration's critics who have begun to use the past friction between the Obama White House and Israel as a political tool during this election season. Putting such cynicism aside, there is nothing more powerful than the presence of the President of the United States in a country which is eagerly seeking to restore the unflinching bond that has symbolized the relations between the two nations. Furthermore, only when the Israelis are confident in the state of U.S.-Israel relations, will they be more likely to make the kind of meaningful concessions needed to conclude a peace agreement. Only under such circumstances will the Israeli public demand from its own government to make the necessary concessions to achieve peace with security.

Finally, the President should use his visit to Israel to reassure Israelis that the United States is committed to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Israelis are terrified of the prospect that, if not stopped, Iran will eventually acquire nuclear weapons and Israel will face an existential threat. The President's spelling out the United States' commitment to avert such a scenario-in unequivocal terms-will send an important message not only to the Israeli people, but to Iran as well. Delivering this point from Israel will clearly signal where the United States stands on Iran's nuclear program while making a compelling case to the Israelis that America stands shoulder-to-shoulder with their country. The President does not need to threaten the Iranian regime with military force to show solidarity with Israel. However, such a message would be particularly important because if force is ultimately used as a last resort against Iran's nuclear facilities by either country, both the United States and Israel would be implicated.

President Obama has already invested substantial political capital in trying to resume meaningful negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and must now invest even more to bring an end to the decades long, debilitating conflict. The resumption of direct negotiations gives the President his first chance since he came to office to meaningfully pursue an Israeli-Palestinian peace through a two-state solution. It most likely will be his last chance. A failure to achieve a breakthrough this time around will not simply delay a peace agreement or restore the status quo ante; it will seriously erode the President's credibility, and could usher in a period of intense violence and instability-if not all out war-setting back the prospect for a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict by a whole generation, with potentially terrifying consequences. Neither Israel, the United States nor the Arab states can afford such a breakdown at this particular juncture, especially when the war in Afghanistan continues to rage, violence is still inflicting Iraq, tension between Israel and Lebanon is simmering and Iran is racing toward acquiring nuclear weapons.

The experiences from former negotiations strongly suggest that the measures stipulated here must be carefully considered in order to avoid the pitfalls of the past. In particular, the United States must become the 'depository' and final arbiter of all interim agreements achieved-such as borders-and must commit both sides to honor these agreements in the future should the negotiations falter at any stage and for whatever reason, including a change of government. To be sure, the United States must insist that future talks resume from where current negotiations leave off, otherwise they could be used as a tool to stall from reaching an agreement rather than achieving a permanent solution.

This is the time when the United States must insist that all the parties to the conflict put their cards on the table and demonstrate once and for all that their protestations to seek peace are genuine. By demonstrating leadership, the United States can insure that the parties no longer claim to seek 'peace' without making the difficult decisions necessary to achieve it.

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