Beyond Negotiation Fetishism

Breaking the Israeli-Palestinian impasse requires challenging the exclusivity of direct, bilateral talks. The fetishism of negotiations must be overcome, keeping in mind that negotiations are but a means to an end.

A joke, which I heard from a Palestinian negotiator, captures the stagnation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Ronald Reagan, Nikita Khrushchev and Yasser Arafat each had an encounter with God before they died. Reagan asked the Almighty, “When will the whole world embrace democracy?” “It will happen, but not in your lifetime,” the Lord replied. Next, Khrushchev asked, “When will capitalism finally collapse?” to which the Divine answered: “It will happen, but not in your lifetime.” Finally, Arafat inquired, “When will the occupation end, and Palestinians will have a state of their own?” After a deep sigh Allah responded, “It will happen, but not in my lifetime.”

This gloomy fatalism is curious for two reasons. First, it is gaining traction just as the contours of a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine are becoming clearer than ever. The prospects of a solution may have appeared dubious twenty or thirty years ago, but decades of negotiations have made the parameters of an agreement well known. Yet, as the solution crystallized, skepticism about its attainability has only intensified.

Second, it is difficult to square this widespread incredulity with the fact that all involved—Palestinians, Israelis, Americans and the international community—are so invested in another round of talks. While all, in their official capacities, remain committed to the peace process, expressing optimism about its prospects, it seems that, unofficially, everyone regards its failure as foretold.

There are many reasons for pessimism about the negotiations. A weak Palestinian leadership sits in a room beside an intransigent Israeli government; the Americans presiding over the talks are timid. Decades of failure certainly warrant doubt. But lessons must be drawn with care. Some observers dismiss the very possibility of dividing the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. The most recent example of this increasingly popular trend is Ian Lustick’s New York Times op-ed, “Two State Illusion.” Lustick spares no insult from the two-state solution, calling it “a fantasy,” “a chimera,” “a mirage,” “a blindfold” and, of course, an “illusion.” His argument: The fact that “the last three decades are littered with the carcasses of failed negotiating projects.” From this he concludes that the solution itself must be unfeasible. But this argument is plainly false.

Doubting the two state solution because the peace process failed is analogous to concluding that New York doesn’t exist because one keeps failing to get there using a map of Canada. It is a confusion of ends with means. The simple fact that the conditions for signing a deal have never materialized in no way means that partition is unattainable, it merely entails that the means employed were inappropriate.

Sadly, this fallacy is committed not only by intellectuals and pundits, but also by the architects of the peace process. Last April U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described President Obama’s vision for ending the conflict as, “two states living side by side in peace and security brought about through direct negotiations between the parties.” Again, an unnecessary wedding of the desired end (two states) with the failed means  (direct, bilateral negotiations).

Direct negotiations have been failing for a long time, but there is a structural reason for their breakdown. A necessary condition for the success of direct negotiations is that both sides desire a settlement. Once the motivation for a settlement is in place, sides can negotiate to bridge gaps on the details. But when one of the sides, especially the stronger side, has no desire to change the status quo, direct negotiations are futile. Given Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ideological commitments, political circumstances, past record and present conduct, there is no reason to believe he wants to settle with the Palestinians.

Yet almost compulsive support for negotiations, and moreover, Netanyahu’s engagement in those negotiations, continues to be widespread both in Israel and abroad. Anything to keep the process alive. But by fetishizing negotiations, proponents of peace get stuck in the past. In the 1980s, when Israeli law still forbade any contact with the Palestine Liberation Organization, the political battle lines were defined by the question of negotiations: whether or not talking to the other side is wise or even legitimate. Then, overcoming the destructive taboo of talks was one of the peace camp’s primary goals, and breaking it was an important achievement of the Oslo process. But while the opponents of peace have been quick to adapt to Oslo’s reality, its supporters have remained stagnant. Even its manifest failure did not liberate them from its flawed logic. Getting the parties into the room is an important step, but it was achieved twenty years ago. Clinging to the negotiation table as the sole aim makes little sense when there is no reason to expect anything to be achieved around it.

It is both sad and telling that some of the architects of Oslo are now advocating an interim agreement, the latest euphemism for the status quo. This obviously destructive idea is the present excuse of Israel’s intransigent leadership. Endorsing it, because any agreement that keeps talks alive is better than none, is throwing out the baby—an end to the Israeli occupation—to protect the dirty bathwater—direct negotiations.

Breaking the current impasse requires challenging the exclusivity of direct, bilateral talks. The fetishism of negotiations must be overcome, keeping in mind that negotiations are but a means to an end. Supporters of peace must keep their eye on the ball—ending the shameful occupation, which is disastrous for Palestinians and for Israelis. Israelis must challenge Netanyahu and not provide him with political cover. The international community must take an active role, laying out clear expectations backed by effective incentives. The Americans in particular cannot remain idle facilitators, whose only role is to get the parties into the room and keep them there as long as possible. Washington must have a role inside the room as well, laying out clear benchmarks and providing credible carrots and sticks. This may mean, for example, that the Americans commit to putting a plan of their own on the table should negotiations prove unsuccessful. If they do not, they risk falling prey to the folly of doing the same thing and expecting different results.

Assaf Sharon is an assistant professor of Philosophy at Tel Aviv University and a co-founder and director of the Jerusalem-based think-tank Molad.