Several Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center research associates agree that an interim accord or unilateral Israeli moves would be a mistake, and would only teach the Palestinians not to compromise.
The experts convened recently to discuss the fortunes and pitfalls of the newly reignited Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic talks. Among the points of debate: What brought about the talks, after so many years of deadlock, and what kind of agreement is feasible? What should Israel’s red lines be, and what should Israel do if the talks fail?
The panel included:
Prof. Eytan Gilboa, an expert on American-Israeli relations, U.S. policy in the Middle East, American and Israeli politics, public opinion, international communication, and public diplomacy.
Prof. Joshua Teitelbaum, an expert on Islamism, Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Arab economies and pan-Arab issues.
Prof. Shmuel Sandler, an expert on Israeli electoral politics, Israeli foreign policy and national security, U.S.-Israel relations, U.S. foreign policy, and Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy.
Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Mordechai Kedar, who served for 25 years in IDF military intelligence specializing in Syria, Arab political discourse, Arab mass media, Islamic groups, and Israeli Arabs. He is an expert on the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups.
Dr. Jonathan Rynhold, who specializes in Israeli diplomacy, U.S.-Israel relations, U.S. public opinion, Middle East-Far East relations, European Middle East policy, humanitarian issues such as warfare and human rights, international law, NGOs and BDS.
Dr. Max Singer, co-founder of the Washington-based Hudson Institute. An expert on U.S. defense policy, U.S.-Israel relations, and long-term strategic planning.
Prof. Efraim Karsh, who specializes in Middle Eastern history and politics, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, superpower involvement in the Middle East, and Islamic movements. He is editor of the Middle East Quarterly and Israel Affairs academic journals.
Prof. Efraim Inbar, Director of the BESA Center. A veteran authority on the Arab-Israeli conflict and strategic developments in the Mideast. Expert on Israeli strategic doctrine, public opinion on national security issues, nuclear matters, U.S. Middle East policy, U.S.-Israel relations, Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, and Israel-Turkey relations.
Why were negotiations re-started now after so many years of deadlock?
Prof. Eytan Gilboa: Several successive American administrations have been obsessive with Israeli-Palestinian peace, believing it is a key for solving all the problems of the Middle East, especially US relations with the Arab and Muslim world. Although, this belief has been wrong from the beginning, part of it still drives US policy. Given the upheavals in the Middle East, the administration believes that an Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough is more important than ever.
Prof. Joshua Teitelbaum: There are important members of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition who seek to push the political process forward: Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party. Netanyahu needs to demonstrate that he is responsive to their concerns. But his actual main goal in these negotiations is to avoid being blamed by the Americans for their failure. For Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, progress is the only way to stay in power in light of his waning popularity. The release of Palestinian terrorists by Israel is a major achievement for him in these talks. Like Netanyahu, his main goal is to avoid being blamed by the Americans for the failure of the talks.
Prof. Shmuel Sandler: Netanyahu is going through the same syndrome as did Begin, Rabin, Sharon, and Olmert. He wants to stake a place for himself in the chronicles of the Jewish state as a contributor to a peace process.
Dr. Mordechai Kedar: I think that the whole thing is not about the Palestinians, but about the Iranian nuclear program. Obama, with absolutely no reasonable basis, combines the Israeli-Palestinian issue with the American-Iranian file. I suspect that he said to Netanyahu something like this: “If you want me to take care of the Iranian nuclear problem, you give me something real on the Palestinian issue.” This way Obama can show his face in public as someone who had at least one success in the Mideast, after his failures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, and more. Netanyahu seeks to placate Obama, so that Obama has no excuses for failing to deal with Iran. Netanyahu does not believe there is any connection between the two issues, but he has failed in convincing Obama and Kerry to separate between them.
What kind or scope of an agreement is feasible, and what should Israel’s red lines be?
Gilboa: Since Oslo, the Palestinians have demonstrated several times that they are not ready or willing to make peace with Israel. The maximum Israel is prepared to concede doesn’t meet the minimum the Palestinians demand. Thus, the best outcome could be an interim agreement for a period of at least five years. The long term solution should be found within a Jordanian context.
Dr. Jonathan Rynhold: A permanent status agreement is impossible, for known reasons: the internal Palestinian division between Hamas and Fatah, and the large gap between the parties on the core final status issue. This gap is not primarily a function of the Netanyahu government’s positions, because Ehud Olmert was also unable to reach an agreement with Abbas.
Teitelbaum: The best that can be hoped for is a long-term interim agreement (although even achieving that is unlikely). This means a long-term Israeli military presence on the Jordan River, Israeli development of the settlement blocs, and Israeli control over Jerusalem, but does not require Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state or an end-of-conflict declaration.
Kedar: The only agreement possible is a long-term interim understanding on security and economy. There is no possibility for an accord on the core problems of settlements, borders, Jerusalem, and refugees. Israel should reject any talk of a Palestinian state with territorial contiguity, since such contiguity will enable the PA or Hamas to turn the entire space into a terror state, reaching from Beersheba in the south to Afula in the north.
Dr. Max Singer: There should be no Israeli concessions without a quid pro quo. Israel should insist that Palestinian refugee resettlement be the first issue of discussion, because that is the key to real peace.
Sandler: In light of what is happening in the Arab world, I am not sure that Mahmoud Abbas truly wants an independent Palestinian state.
Prof. Efraim Karsh: The Palestinians never truly wanted the constrained mini-state in the West Bank and Gaza that Israel can give them. They are simply not ready for full peace with Israel that ends all claims, which is why the current round of talks makes little sense. Albert Einstein once said: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
What alternative diplomatic directions might Israel take?
Teitelbaum: Netanyahu should propose an Israel Peace Initiative that would include and acknowledge the aspects of the Arab Peace Initiative, which Israel views favorably, and there are several of those.
Rynhold: The Palestinians oppose an interim agreement. But if Israel decides to take the initiative and propose a move which involves handing over a significant amount of territory, the international community will adopt it on the basis that something is better than nothing and the Palestinians will not be able to insert a different agenda. If Netanyahu decides to move in this direction it will be because he accepts that Israel has a core long-term strategic interest in partition of the Land of Israel, and that secondarily, demonstrating this commitment will improve Israel’s international standing. However, Netanyahu may feel that the region is simply too volatile right now and that he needs to focus on the Iranian challenge.
Karsh: An interim accord or unilateral Israeli moves would be the worst possible way to proceed. All this teaches the Palestinians is not to compromise, and to simply wait for Israel to tear itself out of the West Bank without real security or any Palestinian concessions.
Prof. Efraim Inbar: In the absence of a partial agreement, which is unlikely due to Palestinian demands, the best option is conflict management.
Kedar: The only real, long-term solution that can be realistically implemented is what I call the “eight-state solution.” This involves the establishment of a council of Palestinian “emirates” or mini-states based on the sociology of the different clans and tribes in Gaza, Judea, and Samaria. This will give Arab leadership a firm local base with a traditional and homogenous sociological foundation.
Singer: Israel shouldn’t negotiate terms with itself. Israel should argue that “occupation” is a choice made by the Palestinians themselves, unless and until they are willing to sue for full peace on reasonable terms. As I say, the first subject to settled has to be “refugees,” because they are the Palestinian weapons for the destruction of Israel.
Gilboa: Israel needs to launch a well-organized global public diplomacy campaign to explain Palestinian inability and unwillingness to sign a peace accord with Israel.
Is time on Israel’s side, or working against Israel?
Teitelbaum: Time is working against Israel, since the lack of a two-state solution undermines Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish and democratic state. Israel’s legitimacy is a strategic asset. It is getting harder and harder to convince even Israel’s supporters of the legitimacy of expanded Jewish settlement in areas that are still under negotiation for the establishment of a possible Palestinian state.
Inbar: Time is on Israel’s side. Israel is not nearly as isolated as the Left claims. The power differential between Israel and its regional adversaries is growing in military and economic terms. In addition, Israeli society has evinced great resilience, as it understands that the Palestinians are responsible for the stalemate. The threat of international isolation and declining legitimacy is grossly overstated, purposefully so by Israel’s Left for political reasons.
Kedar: Time is definitely on Israel’s side for many reasons. The Palestinian refugee issue is dissipating. More than 350,000 Palestinian refugees already have fled Syria to Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, and many other states, and will not return to Syria in the foreseeable future. Therefore they do not exist anymore as a group. Many of the 400,000 refugees in Lebanon may yet flee too to other countries. This weakens the Palestinian demand for “right of return,” since the two big refugee groups are disintegrating. Every refugee will solve his own problem wherever he will be. Furthermore, Arab states are too busy with their own problems, and they already abandoned the Palestinian issue. Thirdly, the Arab world is losing its ability to maintain pressure on Israel or threaten her, since the most radical anti-Israeli actors have been weakened by the war in Syria.