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May 28, 2013 1:27 am

More Peace, Less Process: The Key to Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations

avatar by Ben Cohen / JNS.org

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has already visited the Middle East four times since being named his new post in February, meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on May 23, 2013. Photo: State Department.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has already visited the Middle East four times since President Barack Obama named him to the post back in February. Perhaps anticipating the large number of yawns that such a statistic is likely to produce, Kerry directly addressed, during his latest jaunt, the growing number of peace process skeptics on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide.

“There have been bitter years of disappointment. It is our hope that by being methodical, careful, patient, but detailed and tenacious, we can lay out a path ahead that can conceivably surprise people, but certainly exhaust the possibilities of peace,” Kerry told them.

However much Kerry would like us to believe that there are routes to peace that haven’t yet been explored, there is a dreary sense of deja vu about his words. Every day, it seems, an American politician declares that time is running out, that windows of opportunity are closing, that the Israeli-Palestinian dimension of the broader Middle East conflict is propelling the region towards apocalypse. Obama himself comes to mind in this regard. In 2010, he told the United Nations General Assembly, “[W]hen we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations— an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.”

But it’s now 2013, and there is no State of Palestine, only a Palestinian Authority (PA) that shuns direct negotiations in favor of a unilateralist strategy to secure recognition of an independent Palestinian state by everyone except Israel. Moreover, the Palestinians are openly distrustful of U.S. efforts. “I’m hesitant to say we are seeing a miraculous transformation in American policy and its blind strategic alliance with Israel,” said the PLO’s Hanan Ashrawi upon Kerry’s arrival, conveniently regurgitating the widespread myth in the Arab world that American Middle East policy is determined solely by Israeli imperatives.

Nor has Palestinian rhetoric changed for the better. The eliminationist desires of the Palestinian leadership—and I’m not talking here about Hamas, but about our ostensible peace partner, the PA—remain as ingrained as ever. At the end of April, for example, Rabi Khandaqji, the PA governor of the West Bank City of Qalqilya, reaffirmed that the Palestinians would never abandon the so-called “right of return.” Palestinian refugees, Khandaqji declared, would return “to Haifa, Nazareth and Acre”—all cities that lie inside the pre-1967 borders of Israel. This isn’t code for the destruction of Israel. It’s an explicit call for the destruction of Israel.

The traditional approach of American and western negotiators has been to play down this kind of rhetoric as ideological baggage that will disappear once meaningful progress has been made. Time and again, this patronizing, even racist, manner, which treats Arab politicians as tantrum-prone children who say things they don’t really mean, has been proved wrong by events. And yet, the template for peace negotiations has barely been modified during the last 20 years.

Which is why negotiators at the State Department would be wise to consult an important new paper published by two Israeli academics, Joel Fishman and Kobi Michael, in the academic journal, the Jewish Political Studies Review. Introducing the notion of a “positive peace,” Fishman and Michael warn against efforts to create a Palestinian state without worrying about its governance and internal political culture, since this would increase “the chances of bringing into being one more failed and warlike state that would become a destabilizing force in the region.”

Positive peace, the authors assert, is not just the about the absence of war, nor about elevating the right of national self-determination above all other considerations. “The real problem,” they write, “is that, long ago, the would-be peacemakers, in their haste and fear of failure, did not frame the problem correctly. They failed to ask the right question. In order to avoid disagreement, they concentrated on process and postponed the substantive issues of content. They hoped that the dynamic of congenial negotiations would facilitate a favorable outcome. By taking refuge in process and hoping to keep the negotiations ‘on track,’ they neglected the real goal: building a stable and sustainable peace, or positive peace.”

In the Israeli-Palestinian context, a positive peace entails a complete overhaul of the zero-sum attitude toward Israel that has become institutionalized in Palestinian politics. For decades, the Palestinians have regarded negotiations as simply one of several avenues in pursuing their war on Israel’s existence: armed struggle, more accurately defined as terrorism, has been another, while the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign is yet another.

Fishman and Michael cite the pioneering Israeli scholar Yehoshafat Harkabi’s observation that in Arab discourse, the idea of peace with justice is equivalent to the vision of a Middle East without Israel. And in marked contrast to American worries that time is running out, they point out that as far as the Palestinians are concerned, we’ve got all the time in the world. When the late Yasser Arafat spoke, in 1980, about “a war which will last for generations,” he was being sincere. And Arafat’s view persists because, in spite of all the economic incentives waved at the PA, the near-metaphysical belief in a struggle to the death has prevailed over the rational, sensible notion of territorial partition.

Fishman and Michael should consider writing a second paper about how these realizations might guide policymakers, so that the peace process is more about peace and less about process. Though they don’t say it explicitly, there is a strong sense in the paper that negotiations that are not preceded by meaningful, internal political reform in the Palestinian entity will share the miserable fate of the Oslo Agreement. And if that’s correct, then the “path that could conceivably surprise people,” as John Kerry put it, begins not with discussions about settlements, water rights or the size of the Palestinian security forces, but with what the Palestinians themselves believe about the world around them—and whether they are capable of change.

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.

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  • E.S.Lombard

    To maintain the rage of the Palestinian street, its leaders, not unlike football cheerleaders, have to whoop up the mobs’ fanatical passions. This makes any solution altogether impossible and any Arab leaders who agreed to any peace with Israel that did not include ALL the fanatical promises would mean the leaders’ instant death and revolution in the streets. No agreement is remotely possible until the promises begin to approach reality. That would take generations to achieve. Better begin now.

  • Mr.Cohen and all of Jewish descent. Please forgive John Kerry’s comment regarding the peace process between the PA and Israel. Obviously for an educated man he is ignorant when it comes to topics like this. Even the average person in America is tired of the “process” because we know it has not worked and will never work as long as the PA has anything to say about the conditions for peace. All the PA is interested in is what they can get for free without realizing the West Bank belongs to Israel. It always has and always will and who are they to dictate any terms for peace. Israeli government will be smart by ignoring the group of madmen.

  • Nadene van Staden

    I have read this article and agree with the author,I am not being negative but there will never be peace in the Middle East as it is a mindset that no politician will ever be able to change.I will say it again pray for the peace of Jerusalem.There will never be a division of Jerusalem.Only when man acknowledges that there is a God in heaven who says what he means and means what he says
    will there be a change in the Middle East.

  • Len

    I would say that the first step to achieving peace is to agree on the GOAL of the process. If the goal of two states for two peoples is not agreed upon, then no other questions of process, or content, will matter. What has gone on for the past 20 plus years can be compared to a child practicing a piece of music from the start over and over again without mastering the hard part at the end, instead of focusing on the hard part alone for a time without repeating the whole process from the start.

  • Seina Owen

    Yes I agree entirely with the statement made above with emphasis on the Palestinian’s inability to change. Their ideology of destroying Israel remains intack. They are not ready for change: change that would enhance their hope for an independence state. They remain internelly and politically devided. The Bible says a false peace agreement will be signed for seven years and in the middle of the seven years there is going to be sudden distruction. The Bible says, the peace agreement will be signed by many: and this is the international community that Abas had mobalise to back up Palestine for their state. The fulfillment of Daniel 9:27 is being prepared right now before our very eyes. Your chance for salvation is in the Lord Jesus Christ. Receive him today and ask him to cleans and purify your heart. Don’t delay cos tomorrow might be too late.