The peace process’s last hurrah?

Over the past year, the terms of the debate among close observers of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have turned increasingly gloomy: is the peace process dead or merely dying? The U.S. may be about to answer this question: either the peace process will produce an agreement on borders by late February or it will be over.  According to ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Over the past year, the terms of the debate among close observers of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have turned increasingly gloomy: is the peace process dead or merely dying? The U.S. may be about to answer this question: either the peace process will produce an agreement on borders by late February or it will be over.  According to widespread news accounts, that is when the U.S. will agree to drop requests that Israel suspend settlement construction.  We don’t know the fine print of the U.S. pledge — and in fact, the fine print does not seem to have been written. But if the U.S. really does back off any future requests for a settlement freeze, it is engaged in a very high stakes game of chicken with the peace process. The U.S. ploy has been widely described as a gamble, because even if a 90-day settlement works to secure a border agreement, there are many bridges to cross before a full two-state solution is achieved. But I would go farther than calling the U.S. plan a gamble; it may be close to a diplomatic doomsday device that could bring the current peace process to a full stop.

For the peace process to lead to a two-state solution, it must overcome two major obstacles. First, there is a deep division in the Palestinian ranks that makes it difficult for them to negotiate and impossible for them to carry out any agreement. (This fact is not lost on Israeli opponents of the peace process, who point quickly to Palestinian division, quickly passing over the reality that international and Israeli hands joined Palestinian ones in promoting and maintaining the division.) Second, Israel is deeply entrenched in all aspects of the West Bank, making withdrawal politically extremely difficult.

It was the first obstacle — and the conviction that the 2007 split between the West Bank and Gaza had rendered past diplomacy irrelevant — that led me to conclude three years ago that “the peace process has no clothes.”  The Obama offer to take settlements off the table in three months will do the same to the second obstacle.

Before explaining why things could go wrong, it is charitable to consider what could go right. That is not easy, since it is difficult to discern what thinking has gone behind the tactic. The 90-day pledge makes some sense if — and only if — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton very convincing evidence that he can persuade his current cabinet (or compose a new one) that will accept something like the set of borders secretly negotiated between Ehud Olmert, Netanyahu’s predecessor, and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas. Unless such an agreement on borders is already in the bag, the next three months are very unlikely to produce one.

Perhaps the Obama administration intends to parachute in its own proposal on borders if the parties fail to agree to them. But what will the U.S. do to enforce such borders? If it fails to push a moratorium on the Palestinian side of the proposed border, the proposal will come off as meaningless bluster. But if the U.S. intends instead to pressure Israel into agreeing to stop any settlement activity on the far side of the border, Israelis sold on the idea by the U.S. pledge not to ask for a further moratorium will feel duped.

If Netanyahu has (or is about to) agree to such borders, this would be a major turnabout for a figure who has been very consistent in his rejection of previous efforts to sketch them; it would also constitute an unexpected vindication of those on the Israeli left who pushed for such a settlement in the 1990s and those in the center who joined them in the 2000s. What was said in last week’s seven-hour meeting between Clinton and Netanyahu is not clear, but most observers (myself included) would view it as far more likely that Netanyahu indicated open-mindedness and flexibility rather than any full commitment to any specific borders; his goals were likely less an agreement and a quick path to a two-state solution and more securing of concessions from the U.S. and fending off American pressure.

Of course, even if an agreement on borders is reached within 90 days, the path to a two-state solution is hardly assured. The U.S. seems aware of this and therefore has made no promises of an overall agreement in such a short time period. There are still vexatious issues — most notably refugees — that will be difficult to address. The settlement freeze omits Jerusalem, so that flashpoint may be kept out of any border agreement. And Israel has recently elevated a Palestinian recognition of the Jewish nature of the Israeli state to the status of a core demand.

The apparent form of negotiations thus far — bilateral U.S.-Israeli negotiations with the results then presented to Palestinians — has already caused the West Bank Palestinian leadership domestic embarrassment. But if Abbas balks, the Obama administration has shown itself willing to be bare-knuckled in exerting pressure. This past summer widespread and detailed press accounts indicated that the U.S. had broadly hinted that it would cut off support for the Ramallah government if it did not return to the negotiating table.

But even pressure on Ramallah cannot evade the fundamental problem that blocks Palestinian agreement: there is no authoritative Palestinian leadership at present. No U.S. official has ever explained how a signature from Abbas is supposed to translate into an implemented agreement. Indeed, there is no real way even to ratify an agreement, much less put one into effect. With Ramallah only in control of half of the Palestinian Authority, an election politically and logistically impossible, and the PLO — an umbrella organization for Palestinians throughout the world — in a state of advanced decay, the Palestinians suffer from an acute crisis of leadership.  An agreement on borders might very well exacerbate that crisis, with Hamas moving to highlight what it would likely call Abbas’s abandonment of Jerusalem and refugees.

If 90 days elapse and no agreement on borders is secured, the U.S. will have two paths. It might try to find a way to wriggle free from a commitment to drop demands for a settlement freeze, earning deep Israeli mistrust. Or it can honor the pledge. The Obama administration would then rapidly shift from the most pugnacious U.S. leadership on Israeli settlements for three decades into the most pusillanimous. The U.S. has always verbally opposed Israeli settlements in the territories occupied in 1967, but the terms have varied.  For a while the U.S. openly termed such settlements “illegal” but then backed away from that characterization. (The U.S. actively combated efforts to convene the parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention to discuss their applicability to the settlements and when it failed, boycotted the resulting meeting.)  But even after turning against the relevance of legal arguments, U.S. leaders have continuously characterized settlement activity as injurious to peace negotiations. A little more than a year after the Geneva meeting, the U.S. backed the Road Map, a plan (later endorsed by the Security Council) that called for “a freeze of all settlement activity (including “natural growth”).”

Past peace efforts have foundered for all sorts of reasons, but settlement activity has been among them. U.S. negotiators felt they had an agreement on Israel’s part at Camp David in 1978 to suspend settlement activity while the fate of the West Bank and Gaza were negotiated; the Israeli leadership insisted it had agreed only to a three-month freeze. Diplomatic sloppiness here helped doom the ill-fated talks: with Israeli settlement activity actually intensifying after the brief lull, no Palestinians could be coaxed into talks that are barely a historical footnote today. In the Oslo talks the Palestinian side attempted to obtain a settlement freeze but failed to secure anything more than a vague prohibition on either party taking “any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the permanent status negotiations” — negotiations that were to be completed in five years. Again, a boom in Israeli settlement construction and the failure to reach agreement during the specified period undermined the credibility of the peace process and rendered the Palestinian peace negotiators to appear impotent.

Construction of settlements has hardly been the only cause for the continued failure of the peace process, but it is difficult to imagine successful negotiations that occur under their shadow. Not only do settlements increase Palestinian cynicism, they also create a powerful (and thus far almost insurmountable) constituency in Israel that make any move toward a two-state solution politically difficult for any Israeli government. While pro-settlement political forces in Israel are currently very concerned (many members feel that their apparent triumph in the 2009 elections has been betrayed by the current government), they would likely be emboldened by the expiration of a freeze.

If the Obama administration has really agreed to take the settlement issue off the table after three months — and to block Palestinian efforts to go to the United Nations — it will have left the current Ramallah leaders with no viable options to present to their own people. The Ramallah leadership would have reached a dead end with their diplomatic strategy. Reluctant to admit failure, U.S. and Palestinian leaders would likely let the peace process die with a whimper — but one that would not permanently forestall an eventual bang.

Indeed, while there has recently been some international interest in whether Palestinians are turning against a two-state solution, my own impression of internal Palestinian debates is that they focus far more on strategies than on national goals. “Popular resistance,” reconciliation, revival of the PLO, international diplomacy, delegitimation of the occupation — and the best ways to combine them — form the staple of internal debates. But if many ideas are tossed around, few seem promising. The death of the peace process would remove one of these elements from the discussion, but it would not point to any clear alternative. It would, however, have real political effect: the leader who has been unambiguously committed in Palestinian eyes toward the peace process over the past two decades is Mahmoud Abbas.

And that is why what I am describing as the death of the peace process would not be acknowledged by the parties. The current Israeli government would have strong reason to avoid a formal death certificate. The historic U.S. pattern to setbacks is not to walk away but to deny that anything has been lost; U.S. policy owes far more to Scarlett O’Hara (“I’ll go home, and I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day.”) than Rhett Butler (“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”) The current Palestinian leadership, by contrast, can look forward to no Hollywood ending if the Obama gambit fails. It might eventually collapse, sue Hamas for domestic peace, slowly disintegrate, or degenerate into a set of public works projects and pieces of a security state.

Nathan Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, a fellow at the Woodrow Willson International Center for Scholars, and a 2009 Carnegie Scholar for the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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