What Do We Learn from 45 Years of Negotiations?

Watching Monday night’s resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations in Washington, D.C., I thought back to the last 45 years during which I have closely following Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, and have personally known many of the main negotiators and aides on all sides. So here is what I suggest we keep in mind as this process resumes.

Watching Monday night’s resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations in Washington, D.C., I thought back to the last 45 years during which I have closely following Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, and have personally known many of the main negotiators and aides on all sides. So here is what I suggest we keep in mind as this process resumes.

  1. Watch for hints from the American mediators about whether this process is heading for serious, historic deal-making or is simply another cosmetic diplomatic diversion. The positions of the two Israeli and Palestinian protagonists are well known and will not evolve very much, especially given the domestic constraints on both sides. This resumed negotiation is very much an American product, and therefore Washington’s position will drive events to a great extent. The three principal actors on the American side—Barack Obama, John Kerry and Martin Indyk—have no significant successes in this realm, and many failures. They must indicate very soon whether, in public or in private, they plan to replay the failed old mediating methods of the past or try a new approach that holds out more chances for success.
  2. The initial comments by Secretary of State John Kerry Monday were understandably soft, given the delicate stage of this process. His call for both sides to make “reasonable compromises on tough, complicated, emotional and symbolic issues” disappointed me a bit, for it sounded more like a high school guidance counselor speaking to teenagers who had an argument. But this was his Monday night opening comment, so let’s wait and see what follows. I would rather have heard the United States emphatically come out fully supporting the equal and simultaneous rights of both sides to live in peace and security, based on full implementation of UN resolutions and prevailing international law and conventions, with details to be negotiated and agreed by both sides.
  3. Ignore everything you hear or read from public figures in Israel and Palestine in the months ahead, because any progress that will be made will occur in the privacy of the negotiations. Until now, these discussions have been well guarded and little of substance has been leaked. That is a good sign, assuming that the negotiators will be addressing substantive issues very quickly, rather than skirting around them as has happened so many times in the past. There is a seriousness and a secrecy to this American effort that are intriguing, but their meaning remains unclear.
  4. History remains a compelling teacher, so we should assess chances for success on the basis of comparisons to previous negotiations. Many failures are well documented, but successful ones also teach us much. The failed “peace process” initiatives started in early 1968, in the wake of the 1967 war, when the UN Security Council named Swedish diplomat Gunnar Jarring to try and implement UN Security Council Resolution 242. The next year, U.S. Secretary of State William Rogers, formally launched his plan for a Middle East peace settlement, based on Resolution 242. The Jarring and Rodgers Plans both failed to gain traction, due to objections by both Arabs and Israelis. Ever since we have witnessed scores of failed attempts to negotiate Arab-Israeli peace agreements, most of them unsuccessfully mediated by the United States. We should keep in mind the reasons for the failures, and make sure they are not repeated now.
  5. The four successful peace processes that come to mind and are very pertinent to these resumed talks are Northern Ireland, South Africa, and the Egypt-Israel and Jordan-Israel peace agreements. What was the central principle that caused them to succeed and to persist to this day? I would identify three key elements:
    a) Both sides were treated as having equal rights that needed to be implemented simultaneously (i.e., security for both was critical, and nobody had a greater claim to the land.
    b) The third party mediators were fair, persistent and substantively involved in bridging differences, and pushed both parties equally hard.
    c) The talks grasped the tough heart of each conflict and resolved it by crafting solutions that gave each side their minimum, but critical and existential, demands.

The last two decades of talks since the Madrid negotiations have outlined where agreements can be reached on core issues like security, settlements, sharing Jerusalem and borders. I would watch for indications of a serious commitment to address the two remaining big issues that are the heart of this conflict now: Are the Israelis prepared to address and share in resolving the central Palestinian issue, which is refugeehood, and all the rights that this issue raises? Are the Palestinians prepared to address the Israeli demand for recognition and full, normal relations with a Jewish-majority state?

Addressing these two central demands will certainly require “reasonable compromises” from the principals, but also much more than that from statesmen and women prepared to make history, rather than just mark time.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.

 Copyright © 2013 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global

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