It's already time to start planning for what happens if the Middle East peace talks fall apart.
- By Natan B. Sachs<p> Natan B. Sachs is a research fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He is writing a book on the domestic politics behind Israel's foreign policy. On Twitter: @natansachs. </p>
Last month in Jerusalem, I sat in on a small conference organized by the Yesha Council, the central organization of Israeli settlers in the West Bank. A featured speaker was Naftali Bennett, leader of the far-right Jewish Home party and minister of economy, who made a simple point: The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not solvable.
To underline his point, Bennett spoke of a friend from military service who suffered a shrapnel wound close to his spine — "near his backside," Bennett said, in a line that immediately made headlines. The doctors told his friend that they could operate, but he’d run a serious risk of paralysis to his lower limbs. Alternatively, the friend could learn to live with an unpleasant but manageable problem.
The medical choice was clear, Bennett said. And the choice facing Israel was clear as well: Rather than try to solve an unsolvable conflict with the Palestinians and risk catastrophe, Israel should opt for limited and practical measures to manage the reality in the West Bank. The death of the two-state solution may be unpleasant for can-do Westerners to acknowledge, he argued, but the depth of the conflict and the number of settlers now living in the West Bank precludes a peace agreement.
It’s a good story, but Bennett’s parallel is, in fact, wrong. And yet Secretary of State John Kerry’s motivation for pushing to revive Middle East peace negotiations was actually similar. Kerry reasoned that if the two-state solution is not achieved soon — perhaps in the coming two years — it might never be possible. Soon, in other words, Bennett and others who make the same point would be right.
While hoping for the best, and striving to make it reality, we should also prepare for the worst. While Kerry must lay the groundwork for giving the resumed peace talks the best chance of success, he must also plan for their failure. If the negotiations collapse, there is a danger that people will take the secretary of state at his word and conclude that the door to peace is finally shut. Whatever happens at the negotiating table, Kerry must ensure that he doesn’t help convince people that Bennett, after all, was correct.
The risk of failure is real. The Israelis and Palestinians are far apart on the most important issues and, moreover, each of the sides suspects the other has entered the talks with bad intentions. Trust is hard to come by these days in the Holy Land: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas fears that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is only interested in talks for the sake of talks, in order to ease international pressure on Israel. Netanyahu suspects that Abbas, faced with a Palestinian society where most oppose a return to the negotiating table, has entered the talks just to avoid blame for Kerry’s failure, and will continue to play the blame game during the negotiations.
The bad news is that they may both be right. Kerry’s creative ambiguity, which was necessary to get the talks off the ground, will apparently entail him enunciating terms of reference — notably referring to the 1967 borders as a starting point for negotiations. This will permit each side to voice its reservations about these parameters before entering into negotiations. The sides have agreed to disagree, in other words, but they have agreed to do so in the same room.
To avoid the blame game, Kerry seems to have wisely insisted on the secrecy of the talks. Maintaining the discreet nature of the negotiations throughout their duration — and even if and when they stall — will help prevent the parties from backsliding into blame attribution. In general, the less hype there is around the talks, the less media frenzy is likely to emerge around their conclusion. The less the United States apportions failure or blame, the less credible the sides’ accusations will be.
If the talks do collapse, will Kerry find the peace process back to where it started — or could the situation be even worse? Many fear that unmet expectations may lead to an outbreak of violence, and point to the outbreak of the Second Intifada in the wake of the much-hyped 2000 Camp David summit as evidence. In the ensuing bloodshed, more than 4,000 people lost their lives over the next four years.
But those drawing parallels between today and the Second Intifada risk learning the wrong lessons from history. Much of the events of 2000 had to do with internal dynamics and decisions of both parties before the collapse of peace talks. The Palestinian organizations — including the grassroots militia of Yasir Arafat’s Fatah Movement — were preparing for violence long before the disappointment of Camp David. And the Israelis were already preparing a forceful response to Palestinian violence — a response that may have helped turn the conflict into a full blown and horrifically violent intifada.
Today, the circumstances are different. Abbas is not Arafat, and the Palestinian security organizations have been thoroughly reformed under the leadership of former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. At present, military cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank is good, and is supported by an ongoing U.S. effort to maintain security. On the Israeli side, too, responsible and cool-headed generals now command the forces in the West Bank — men who are well aware of the dangers of over-reaction.
Yet even if a failure of negotiations does not lead to an outbreak of violence, it could lead to renewed demands on the Palestinian side for dissolving the Palestinian Authority. Palestinians are weary of the peace process, and there is real risk that they will increasingly prefer dangerous (and unrealistic) aspirations for a one state "solution." There is also the risk of growing demands in Israel to annex less inhabited parts of the West Bank to Israel proper: Naftali Bennett, for example, has called for annexation of "Area C," which includes all the Israeli settlements. Most in the Israeli political system still oppose a move along these lines.
Staving off worst-case scenarios is possible, but requires close attention — even as Kerry’s energy is devoted to giving his effort the best chance of success. The secretary of state will also have to lay the groundwork for keeping the possibility of future negotiations alive, even if this round of talks stalls. To do so, Washington should prepare steps that fall short of a final-status agreement. The United States, and even Israel, may, for example, recognize the state of Palestine even before agreement on its borders or its relations to Israel is finalized. This suggestion is less outlandish then it might seem: Several Israeli politicians, including the hawkish former Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, suggested doing just that. Doing so would help protect some degree of Palestinian self-rule from rash steps in the wake of failure.
Further interim steps, while undoubtedly difficult, would go a long way for providing the peace process with a safety net. Israel, for example, may return to the idea of limited disengagement in the West Bank. Under such plans, Israel would pull out of most of the West Bank without a final status agreement, shaping its own eastern border. The authority in the vacated area would then presumably fall to the Palestinian Authority, just as it did in the Gaza Strip did when Israel evacuated in 2005. It is important that such steps be coordinated with the Palestinians as much as possible — rather than unilaterally implemented, as they were in 2005 — so that they encourage rather than preclude future negotiation.
Skeptics (like me) have been wrong before. This round of peace talks may succeed, and we should wish wholeheartedly for their success. Netanyahu has the political backing — from opposition parties, if necessary — to make bold, historic decisions. Abbas may prove skeptics wrong and demonstrate courageous leadership in the face of difficult circumstances.
And yet, even while wishing the parties Godspeed, we should also think seriously about the possibility that the talks may fail. Washington should make sure that the ultimate winners of this peace effort are not those who oppose peace.