The peace process machine, it would seem, is cranking back into gear. Over the past weeks, there’s been a French peace conference in Paris and talk of reviving the 2002 Arab peace initiative.
Neither has gained much traction.
Israel is opposed to the internationalization of mediation that the French plan entails and the Palestine Liberation Organization has long sought. Tel Aviv also wants to see better relations with Arab countries before discussing the initiative, essentially turning the proposal on its head and provoking the inevitable rejection by the Arab League in early June.
With other parts of the region in flames, an uncompromising Israeli ultra-right coalition holding power, continued Palestinian division and US efforts suspended pending presidential elections in November — before which Barack Obama has said a deal is “not going to happen” — the timing is all off.
The efforts already look moribund and the reasons are familiar. In neither substance nor process do they offer anything new.
Revival of failure
Both the French and Arab plans offer the usual vision of a two-state solution based on the 1949 armistice lines marking the boundaries between Israel and the West Bank and Gaza, an equal-in-size land swap for settlements and a “just … and agreed upon” — in the phrasing of the Arab peace initiative — solution to the Palestinian refugee issue.
They both foresee a division of Jerusalem into a capital for both an Israeli and Palestinian state. The French plan proposes negotiated security arrangements to guarantee Palestinian statehood and Israeli security. The Arab initiative addresses that issue implicitly by holding out the promise of “comprehensive peace” with all Arab states.
The revival of the Arab initiative is mostly due to the efforts of Tony Blair, the former British prime minister and Middle East peace envoy, who has been ghosting around the region on everybody’s favorite path to a Nobel Peace Prize.
Blair has been cultivating contacts with Saudi Arabia, which authored the Arab initiative, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, where head of state Abdulfattah al-Sisi in May said he was ready to support peace efforts by mediating between Palestinian factions and promising warmer ties with Israel.
Blair considers the Arab initiative a “landmark event” but essentially shares the Israeli view that “[o]f course it needs revision.”
He has specifically sought to play up what he sees as shared interests between Arab countries and Israel, specifically what he calls “the same threats of extremism,” both Sunni and Shiite, where the latter is shorthand for Iran.
His gambit, if it can be called that, appears to be that a shared fear of Iran leaves the door open to improve or even formalize ties between Israel and some Arab countries, especially in the Gulf.
He appears to believe that such improvement could happen before, and not after, a peace agreement with the Palestinians. But this is directly contrary to the Arab initiative, and has been publicly rejected by the Arab League, whatever the backroom discussions.
“Provided the Israeli government is ready to commit to a discussion around the Arab peace initiative,” Blair said at a conference in London in May, “… it would be possible to have some steps of normalization along the way to give confidence to this process.”
Little wonder then that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sounded more cautiously optimistic about the Arab track than the French initiative, which he rejected out of hand.
Concessions to Israel
The French initiative — which Saeb Erekat, the perennial Palestinian chief negotiator, called a “very significant step” — involves an internationalization of mediation that Israel has long sought to avoid. Israel prefers to focus its efforts on influencing a single broker, up until now the sole preserve of the US, which to Israeli politicians is familiar and friendly terrain.
More appealing to Israel, at least as mediated by Blair, the Arab initiative holds out the promise of potential concessions to Israel before a single coffee cup has been placed on any negotiating table.
“The Arab peace initiative includes positive elements that can help revive constructive negotiations with the Palestinians,” Netanyahu said at the end of May, flanked by Avigdor Lieberman, the hardline settler leader, then just appointed minister of defense.
He then added that Israel was prepared to negotiate “revisions to that initiative” with Arab countries before negotiations with the Palestinians. This is a huge caveat for a proposal that was clear that peace with Arab countries was consequent to an Israeli agreement to the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state and a full withdrawal from “the territories” Israel has occupied since 1967: the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Syrian Golan Heights.
That Israel should wish to maximize conditions for itself before any negotiations start is not in itself remarkable. What is remarkable is that after 25 years of trying, international mediators appear to have learned precious little from previous failures.
Notably absent from both these efforts is an attempt to address past failings by incorporating punitive measures for noncompliance; a stick to complement the carrots of peace and normalization.
Daniel Levy, a former Israeli negotiator and now head of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, pointed out in June to the Tablet magazine that for any initiative to work, “disincentives will have to feature in the toolkit and be used in relation to the stronger and recalcitrant party, the occupying power Israel.”
International mediators have failed repeatedly to recognize that, as the powerful party — and there is nothing resembling parity in the balance of power between Israel and the Palestinians — the onus is on Israel to take the necessary steps to ensure progress in any process. If Tel Aviv proves recalcitrant to implement agreed commitments, it falls to mediators to find a way to force the issue.
Optimum outcome for Israel
Yet international mediation, notably as practiced by the US, has traditionally offered Israel incentives to engage in negotiations, mostly in terms of military aid. And when peace talks collapsed, the reaction has been to offer more incentives.
Thus the 10-year military aid deal reached with the George W. Bush administration in 2007. So, too, Blair’s attempt to forge closer ties with Arab countries before negotiations with Palestinians even started.
And despite what are widely seen as frosty relations between Obama and Netanyahu, US aid now stands at record levels, and is about to reach even higher.
Indeed, failure to reach agreement could even be seen as an optimum outcome for Israel in those circumstances: not only can it continue building settlements, it gets rewarded along the way.
Failing to recognize this and take the necessary steps — or scrap the whole enterprise and pursue a one-state solution, an option Obama explicitly ruled out in March for the time being — means recent efforts will go the way of past efforts.
French diplomats and their international counterparts will assemble again sometime in the latter half of the year and make diplomatic noises. Blair will undoubtedly — and doggedly — continue to pursue his own shadowy diplomacy with utmost conviction.
Ultimately, lessons unlearned, they simply and neatly embody what is popularly known as Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result.
Omar Karmi is a former Jerusalem and Washington, DC, correspondent for The National newspaper.