Best of Luck to the Kerry Talks between Israelis and Palestinians: But There Is Not yet Enough Pain
The fact that Secretary of State John Kerry has organized talks between the Israelis and Palestinians is noteworthy for two reasons – it’s a positive anytime you can bring these two sides together, and the world has issued a collective shrug. Israelis are generally bored with the Palestinians and don’t believe there is anyone really to talk to. The cynicism over the possibility of anything actually coming of these talks is extensive. Few people are even paying attention because they are so sure that this will all be an empty exercise. Even President Obama seems distant from the process.
But we should avoid cynicism and I am all for any sort of engagement and it can be anytime, anyplace, and even under less than ideal conditions. There are numerous posts on this blog at various points in time explaining the advantages of communicative contact (e.g. see July 8th 2013). There are good reasons to have talks all of which are pertinent to unpacking this complex conflict and repackaging it into something sustainable. Let’s look at a few of them, but first a little context.
The Unique Nature of the Talks
The Kerry Talks are supposed to focus on final status issues; that is, the crucial six issues which are the status of Jerusalem, refugees, borders, Israeli security, settlements, and the Palestinian right of return. These issues have been ignored in the past and sometimes defined as too difficult and hence put off for a future date. Read some background on final status issues here . Barak and Arafat made some attempts at a final status agreement as did Olmert at Annapolis. These efforts failed and the explanation always was that the two sides were still too far apart. But it is also the case that both sides simply cannot imagine themselves settling on the decision. Conservative political blocs in Israel oppose the creation of a Palestinian state, and Palestinian leadership is a proxy for the larger Arab world and feels very uncomfortable giving up anything or recognizing Israel.
The divisions that separate these two groups run deep especially when it comes to the special status of Jerusalem and refugees. Jerusalem just may be the most intractable problem because of its sanctity. The Palestinians, on the other hand, choke on the possibility of any recognition of Israel and will not accept their presence as a Jewish state. Gritty and thorny as these issues are talk is all the two sides have and there are reasons to engage it.
The Palestinians have been frustrated and thus decided to go around the Israelis through, for example, their petition to the United Nations as a basis for claiming statehood. Any final agreements must be and should be the result of negotiation between the two principal sides, and the Palestinian petition to the United Nations was counterproductive and responsible for the deterioration of the process. Israel and the United States opposed the Palestinian petition to the United Nations and threatened financial pressures. The proposed talks can help repair the damage to the relationship between the three parties (the US, Israel, and the Palestinians) and move the center of discussion back to the principals.
Secondly, the United States does not have the luxury of waiting around. Even though the conflict has been with us for decades and seems to be a constant on the political playing field, one in which the issues are fixed in people’s minds and will not change much, it remains a powerful symbol of difficult ethnopolitical conflict and the “clash of civilizations.” Moreover, the US has practical “on the ground” concerns with respect to terrorism, balanced international relations, oil, democracy development, and national security. Although the claim that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the cause of so much international tension is simply unjustified, it is a combustible political symbol that arouses ethnopolitical passions around the world.
The settlement issue must be solved. Israel will have difficulty moving settlers and the Palestinians have stated that they want no Israeli presence in the future state of Palestine. A Palestinian state must be negotiated by the two sides and cannot come into being otherwise. The two-state solution is the only way that Israel remains Jewish and democratic and there is considerable work to be completed before the contours of this potential state are fashioned.
Finally, talking to one another is the only way that compromises and adjustments will be made. Both sides have powerful positions that control aspects of the discussion and direct communicative encounters are the only way these compromises and adjustments will come into being.
My guess is that these talks will fail but at least represent a step in a long journey. It’s possible that both sides believe the other will be the cause of the failure and have agreed to enter into the discussions for that reason alone. Sadly enough, I’m still of the opinion that there is insufficient pain. In other words, if conflicting parties have to wait until they are at a “hurting stalemate” before they get serious than these two parties simply aren’t hurting enough yet.