Look at alternatives

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The consequences of failed Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations can be discussed in two contexts: impending talks that seem likely to fail, and past negotiations that did fail. Reviewing past experience would appear to be the best way to start. Overall, the picture is not a positive one.

In the mid-1990s, extreme violence punctuated what were considered at the time successful negotiations aimed at implementing the Oslo agreement. Prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres just kept negotiating in 1995-96, with only the right-wing opposition arguing that Palestinian suicide bombings mandated a halt. In retrospect, knowing what we now know about Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the right was right.

The political damage was extensive. It brought Binyamin Netanyahu to power. He and Arafat successfully negotiated two interim agreements during Netanyahu’s earlier term in office (1996-1999). Netanyahu’s governing coalition fell over the second agreement. But violence remained minimal, enabling Ehud Barak to execute a smooth takeover and continue the process.

Prime Minister Barak and Arafat went to Camp David with Arafat confidently predicting the failure of those talks. In retrospect, all sides were so poorly prepared and the gaps separating the two sides so glaringly wide, that failure was guaranteed. Moreover, neither had sufficient political support–Barak from his failing coalition, Arafat from the Arab world–to risk a deal. The outcome was the second intifada, which broke out even as post-Camp David talks continued.

Ariel Sharon’s refusal to negotiate offers a different instance. As prime minister in the first half of this decade, Sharon was convinced negotiations would fail, hence avoided them. Instead, when pressured to register progress, he withdrew unilaterally from the Gaza Strip. The outcome of that non-negotiated withdrawal was prolonged violence and political disruption.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas entered the year-long Annapolis talks in 2008 with little chance of success, if only because both leaders were patently too weak politically to "deliver" their respective establishments. In the end, their negotiations also failed, but without the spectacular negative results of 2000. Indeed, the public was not even aware of the substance of the failure until Abbas revealed it almost a year later. On the other hand, once it was revealed just how far-reaching an offer Olmert made and Abbas rejected, many Israeli supporters of a negotiated two-state solution concluded that Abbas would never be a candidate for peace.

Against the backdrop of these failures and their ramifications, we approach the prospect of yet another round of talks, this time between Abbas and Netanyahu.

Leaving aside for the moment Netanyahu’s lukewarm peace rhetoric and self-imposed coalition constraints and Abbas’ ongoing preconditions, let’s assume negotiations do get under way. Like most preceding rounds, this one too seems likely to fail due to both the substantive gaps between the two sides on issues like Jerusalem, and their political weakness. Note that the current point of departure for negotiations is relative quiet on both sides–or rather on all three sides, including Hamas in Gaza.

If the negotiations register significant progress, Netanyahu’s coalition is likely to collapse, precipitating political crisis in Israel with an end result no one can predict. Abbas, too, is likely to be under heavy pressure from his Fateh supporters to avoid making concessions. Moreover, progress could impel Hamas in Gaza to initiate violence in order to thwart a Fateh achievement in the West Bank. Israeli retaliation against Hamas might also torpedo anything achieved. Hamas’ escalation of violence in late 2008 and the Olmert government’s response are a case-in-point.

On the other hand, the Obama administration’s efforts to renew negotiations are apparently motivated at least in part by the belief that the very existence of talks could prevent violence in our part of the region and would make it easier for the US to deal with other crises in the Middle East. The past offers little evidence to support these suppositions: the 1995 suicide bombings and the second intifada broke out while talks were going on; an Iranian regime friendly to the US fell at the height of the first Camp David process. At least, if the next round of talks is indirect, its failure might be less significant, hence portend fewer risks.

Yet again, one could argue that the specter of a right-wing Israeli government negotiating a two-state solution, however unsuccessfully, is good for the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace and that it conditions an ever-growing portion of the Israeli public to territorial compromise. Netanyahu’s previous tenure and his current embrace of the two-state solution could be seen as bearing out this point. Then too, final status talks, however uninspiring, could provide useful "cover" for positive unilateral moves by both sides.

Obviously, peace talks are best held between strong and cohesive governments that are in full control of their territory. But that is not the case at present on either side, and is not likely to be in the near future. Yet abandoning any and all prospect of a solution due to the fear of failure and its consequences is hardly the answer.

That’s why alternative roads to progress should receive greater attention. One is Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s successful unilateral state-building enterprise in the West Bank. Another is the need to learn from the failure of the Gaza blockade and seek an alternative strategy for stabilizing the Strip so it can’t interfere with a peace process. Yet a third is negotiations with Syria, which have a better chance of success and could positively influence the Palestinian track. Why is the Obama administration devoting so much of its prestige to renewing West Bank negotiations that are doomed to failure and not dealing more aggressively with these additional prospects?

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