Barriers to Peace in Israeli Peacemaking — Process and Substance

Looking primarily at the Israeli side of the conflict, one sees many factors that have contributed to the failure of past peace efforts, most of which may be present or repeated in current (2014) - and possibly future - attempts at peace making.

Clearly domestic politics and spoilers, from the right-wing and its settler supporters, have been and are a significant barrier to peace, though often depending on the stature and style of the Israeli leadership as well as the decision-making process. Still other factors, including public opinion and psychological barriers, as well as the international and regional environment or involvement, may play a role, along with many others. Particularly significant barriers may be found in both the process and the substance of negotiations.

With regard to process, as desirable as transparency may be, secrecy is not necessarily a barrier to success. Dealing with one core issue at a time might well impede possible trade offs and prevent an ultimate package that, according to many opinion polls, would win public approval. Surveys (among others those conducted by Professors Yaacov Shamir and Khalil Shikaki) have shown just this: When the Israeli, or Palestinian, public is asked for its approval regarding a specific issue, inflexibility is the norm, but a "package," that is, a whole agreement, is always accepted, provided it is presented by the government. Similarly, the absence of a track two preliminary negotiation may not be a barrier given past contacts between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, although the absence of even a modicum of a personal relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas renders the mediator's role, that of John Kerry, all the more important and delicate.

Israeli and Palestinian Approaches to Negotiations

There are two problematic elements of the process that were apparent in the past and appear to be present once again. Both revolve around the matter of symmetry and asymmetry. Israeli negotiators have a tendency to approach negotiations as a bargaining match between equals, seeking titfor- tat or give-and-take of compromises, while the Palestinians believe that they compromised as much as they could when, in 1988, they abandoned their goal of a state in all of Palestine in favor of a "mini-state" on 22% of the land (the West Bank and Gaza) and, in the Oslo exchange of letters recognized "Israel's right to exist in secure and recognized borders." As the far less powerful protagonist under occupation, the Palestinians have little if anything to "give."

Yet, there is a different, perhaps psychological aspect of asymmetry as well: Israeli negotiators enter negotiations with the attitude that the land, all of Eretz Israel, is "ours." This attitude has been characteristic of all of Israel's leaders since 1967 as well as before, as evidenced in the earliest government discussions that took place one week after the Six- Day War and as expressed recently in Tzipi Livni's comments during a talk at the Interdisciplinary Center IDC in January 2014. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin also expressed this sentiment, explaining, however, that the difference between Labor and Likud was that, while the Likud said that all the land is "ours," Labor was willing to part with some of it. The result of this attitude is that Israeli negotiators speak of and view their positions as a concession to the Palestinians, virtually a gift, referring to their "generosity." Even Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who went further than any previous leader and strove to develop a relationship of mutual respect with Abbas, nonetheless spoke of his "generous" offer. Such an attitude need not be an insurmountable barrier, although Palestinian negotiators have stated that an approach based on mutual interests and strategic needs might have found a more forthcoming response at Camp David. For example, Samih al Abed later said of this attitude: "If Israel had come and said, 'Perhaps for strategic and future concerns, we need to modify the Green Line, but in the way that will cause minimal damage and will allow both of us to live with,' that would have been an acceptable opening argument. We could have sat down and looked at these areas, examining Israel's interests there. If we could have accommodated the Israelis and if there were no harm to the Palestinians in terms of territorial contiguity, population, natural resources or other issues, then I cannot see any reason why we could not have reached an agreement."1

The Matter of Legitimacy and Security

There are many substantive barriers to successful negotiations, particularly on issues linked to ideology or religion. Without underestimating such factors, a potentially critical barrier revolves around the matter of legitimacy. A demand for recognition of Israel's legitimacy has characterized every negotiation with the exception of Olmert's. Indeed, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat understood this demand and sought to respond to it not only with his visit to Israel's capital, Jerusalem, but also in his speech to the Knesset in which he spoke repeatedly of the acceptance of Israel in the region. The demand is born of Israelis' deep-seated insecurity and sense of victimhood. More specifically, until Olmert, every Israeli leader, before and also after 1967 had been convinced that the Arabs would never make peace with Israel. This was the basic premise that underlined the government's discussion on June 18 and 19, 1967 on what to do with the territories gained during the war. Even Rabin told the Americans in 1975 that "no Arab ruler is prepared to make true peace and normalization of relations with Israel."2 Therefore, it was concluded that Israel needed security arrangements, namely an Israeli presence, or even sovereignty, in the Jordan Rift Valley. Israel believed it needed to control the eastern border of the West Bank, whether the territory inside the West Bank was to be Jordan's again or some sort of Palestinian state. The assumption was that even if there were an agreement it would not last; there was always the danger of an invasion from the east whether by Jordan or a third state. The point is, such concerns led to the demand for Israeli control, and while such control might be considered a precaution, it was a precaution made in the name of security at the price of peace.

This concept of "security" became a deal-breaker when talks began with King Hussein, at his initiative, on July 2, 1967. The same idea of a piece of land, a particular strategic area such as Sharm el Sheikh, to provide security took precedence over peace in 1971 and 1973 in response to Sadat's peace offers. Even allowing that Prime Minister Golda Meir and her associates did not perceive Sadat's 1971 proposal as a peace offer, the comments made by her senior ministers Yisrael Galili and Moshe Dayan in April 1973 referred directly to a "peace offer, with international guarantees," but also an Israeli preference for land.3 While there may have been some justification in 1967 for the Israeli interest in the Jordan Valley, by Rabin's second term it was clear, as Rabin himself admitted to U.S. President Bill Clinton, that this piece of land was of little value in the type of wars one had come to expect after the first Gulf War.4 Nonetheless, in his last speech to the Knesset on October 5, 1995, Rabin said that Israel's security border must be in the Jordan Valley - in the broadest meaning, although he had apparently suggested remaining there for a limited time of 30 years. therefore justifying Israel's presence in the Jordan Rift Valley. While he believed that the Arabs would not make genuine peace with us, he did say that this situation could change, which explains the 30-year time frame and also his idea of "testing," for example the Interim Agreement of Oslo and his suggestion for no more than "an entity less than a state" for the Palestinians.5 Although he did not demand Israeli sovereignty, Prime Minister Ehud Barak too demanded an Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley, suggesting a 10-year period. This was despite the fact that in the preparatory talks, Major-General Shlomo Yanai had noted that expanding the narrow waist of the country was far more important for Israel's security than the Jordan Rift Valley. From a hard security point of view, there was no need for full Israeli control or sovereignty over that area, even if these were desirable. Noting this IDF estimate, negotiator Gilead Sher has explained that in fact the issue of the IDF presence in the Jordan Rift Valley was more of a psychological one than security. Its function was to relieve the anxieties of the Israeli public.6

East Jerusalem

The Israeli positions with regard to East Jerusalem were also linked, at least in part, to this issue of legitimacy. In addition to its religious importance for Jews, the city was of more than symbolic value, for it was the physical, geographic link to our current presence in this particular part of the globe. Indeed, Yasser Arafat made a serious mistake at Camp David when he challenged this link to Jerusalem (claiming that the Temple had not even been in Jerusalem). This occasioned an impassioned quasi-religious diatribe from, at the time, the very secular General Barak, who called the Temple Mount "the anchor of the Zionist endeavor, even though this effort was largely secular."7

Well aware of the fact that the city was de facto divided and that the religious links could be accommodated, Olmert, a former mayor of Jerusalem, was far more pragmatic in his attitude toward Jerusalem. Indeed, Olmert's perception of the threat to Israel lay in the danger of a bi-national state, as a result of changing demographics, if Israel were to continue to hold onto the occupied territories. Thus he was willing to forgo the demand for a military presence (or sovereignty) in the Jordan Rift Valley, acknowledging the advent of rocket warfare and settling for just two warning stations inside the West Bank and an international force (possibly NATO) on the Jordan border. One might say that his perception of what constituted a threat determined his preference for peace as the best guarantor of security, abandoning (both) the deal-breakers of the past.

Netanyahu has returned to these deal-breakers, adding his own relatively new one: the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. There is every reason to believe that he has done this with the clear knowledge and, probably, intention of creating still another barrier to a peace agreement with the Palestinians. However, as an appeal to the insecurity and habitual concern for legitimacy, it resonates well with the Israeli public. Yet the more mundane "deal-breaker" of the military presence in the Jordan Rift Valley may be the more problematic barrier. Netanyahu is also speaking of a test, and it is a test that the Palestinians will fail. Prolonged Israeli military control of the eastern border of Palestine would mean a Palestinian state surrounded on all sides by Israel - just as the government of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol in 1967 briefly considered the possibility of a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank surrounded territorially on all sides by Israel. This would be a continuation of the occupation, and it would be resisted, just as the occupation is resisted today.

1. Cited in Shimon Shamir and Bruce Maddy-Weizman, (eds.), The Camp David Summit - What Went Wrong?, (Sussex: Sussex Academic Press, 2003), 76.
2. Yitzhak Rabin, Pinkas Sherut, (Tel Aviv: Sifriat Maariv, 1979), 263 to President Ford during the reassessment and in response to Ford's comment in favor of an "over-all Middle East settlement" via the Geneva Conference.
3. Yisrael Galili to Golda and her advisors: "All this system [of Egyptian war threats] is the outcome of the fact that we are not ready to return the former [1967] line. Apparently, if you take what Hafiz [Ismail] had said … the starting point is that they are ready for peace and a system of agreements and international guarantees etc. - all these on condition that we fully return to the former border." Bar-Josef, 553 citing a stenographic protocol of a discussion in the Prime Minister's residence on 18 April 1973. Transcript made by Hanoch Bartov at the meeting, published later in Hanoch Bartov, Dado -48 Shana VeOd 20 Yom, (Tel Aviv: Sifriat Maariv, 2002)
4. Bill Clinton, My Life, (New York: Vintage Books, 2005), 545; Dennis Ross, The Missing Peace, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), 545.
5. "Entity less than a state" is what Rabin suggested in his last speech before the assassination (MFA, "PM Rabin in Knesset - Ratification of the Interim Agreement, 5 October 1995.
6. Gilead Sher, The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Negotiations, 1999-2001, (London: Routledge, 2006), 2. Yanai said leasing or sharing protection of the Palestinian- Jordanian border between Israel, Palestine and even a third party would be acceptable in terms of security. He also said that a small Israeli contingent temporarily would do.
7. Cited in Sher, 79.