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Israel-Palestine Peace Process Will Return From the Dead

The Mideast peace process may appear to be dead, but rest assured it will return, writes Aaron David Miller, former adviser to Republican and Democratic Secretaries of State on Arab-Israeli negotiations. When it does, it will bring back most of the illusions that have helped to prevent a deal. 
Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat (L) speaks during a question-and-answer forum with moderator Aaron David Miller (R) at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, November 4, 2010.    REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst    (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)

A wise Israeli once observed that in Israeli politics, you could be just dead or more permanently dead, and buried.  It’s a useful distinction which also has relevance for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process these days. 

The negotiations are clearly lifeless; but by no means out of life. Rest assured they’ll be back. And when they do return, they’ll appear with most of the same illusions that have long persisted and helped to prevent a deal. While we await the return of the peace process, it might be useful to review several of them.

Everybody Knows the Outcome

This canard emerged in the wake of the July 2000 Camp David summit with its companion, “ we were this close to an agreement” canard.  Neither of these assumptions are correct. We do know that the least bad solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is two states and we do know that there’s been a great deal of work done on the core issues these many years.  But the notion that Israelis and Palestinians have narrowed the gaps on all the issues and can close them is just flat out wrong.

First, which Israelis and Palestinians are we talking about? There are serious divisions within each community on how these issues should be resolved or whether they need to be.

And on every issue — Jerusalem, borders, security, refugees and the newcomer to the neighborhood (recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people) — there are fundamental gaps. Indeed, with regard to this fifth core issue, there’s no agreement by  Arab states, Palestinians and  even some Israelis that it should even be on the list.

By trivializing the differences on both the territorial issues (borders/security); and the identity ones (refugees and Jerusalem) we don’t do ourselves any favors. Indeed, we just set ourselves up for rushing back to the negotiating table without proper preparation, planning,  bridging proposals,  solutions or the kind of conditioning  the parties need in order to grasp what  price they need to pay to reach an agreement.

The Situation Will Blow Up

One of the biggest myths of all is that if we don’t rush back to the negotiations and get a deal, the region will explode. The fact is that without a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem there will be serious and sustained  violence, most likely popular uprisings among Palestinians in the West Bank or perhaps another round of confrontation between Hamas and Israel.

Violence and terror have been the handmaidens of the  Israeli-Palestinian peace process since its inception, when we had negotiations and when we didn’t.  It’s built into the process given the frustrations, grievances and insecurities of both sides, the external actors who want to get involved (Iran and Hezbollah), the Israeli occupation, and the anomalous situation that exists within the Palestinian national movement in which part negotiates with Israel and the other part confronts it.

You just cannot scare or frighten Israelis and Palestinians with talk of war and violence. They are too conditioned to accept it (and to use violence); nor can pain alone induce serious negotiations, let alone an agreement. You need real prospects of gain, too. Indeed, it’s the marriage of incentives and disincentives that produce positive change. If it  were just pain, we’d have settled this conflict long ago.  

We’re Headed for a One-State Solution  

This is one of the greatest illusions or delusions of all. Nobody really believes it; Indeed, it’s useful  for some Palestinians and even some Israelis to vent frustration and threaten the complacent with talk of millions of Palestinians populating the Jewish state. The only problem is that it’s highly unlikely to materialize; and isn’t supported by any reasonable or rational forecast.

The argument seems to be that Palestinians denied a state of their own would demand citizenship in an Israeli one. This just doesn’t add up. What would be the legal or political justification for such a claim be? Why would Israel accept it or the international community, the United States and others, acquiesce to it?  Would it happen through violence or through some yet-to-be-realized Palestinian form of passive resistance? There are too many questions that just don’t add up (good luck getting that one organized).

A million plus Palestinians from Gaza who now exist in their own Hamas controlled mini enclave won’t go that way. As for the 2.8 million Palestinians in the West Bank, more likely the Israelis would draw a boundary and let what was left of the PA function in its own mini-enclave capacity.  It’s messy, if not untenable.  But the notion that the inexorable alternative is one big Israel, West Bank state where millions of Palestinians become citizens is a silly one; and lacks even a compelling rationale as an intended or unintended outcome.

The Americans Will Save the Day

In a recent column in Foreign Policy Magazine, I addressed the notion of the second-term illusion whereby Barack Obama, if re-elected, would launch a bold and risky initiative to save the peace process and take on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, if necessary. Not only is there no precedent for such a second- term bid; no president would want to risk failure as a legacy if there wasn’t some hope of  success of such an initiative. And this, of course, is the key point. Washington can’t save anything unless there’s something to be saved. This requires Israelis, Palestinians and Arabs to invest in negotiations in a way they haven’t yet.

The so-called peace process hasn’t worked because nobody — Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans — are prepared to pay the price to make it work. Until they’re prepared to do that, we’re neither going to have peace nor frankly much of a process either.

Aaron David Miller is a distinguished scholar at the  Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He was formerly an adviser to Republican and Democratic secretaries of State on Arab-Israeli negotiations. His new book, "Can America Have Another Great President?" will be published by Random House this year.

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