Getting to Yes

This appeared in the Jerusalem Post July 11th 2017

Many in the pundit world are scoffing at Jared Kushner’s brief trip to the region to meet with President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu. Thinking that the administration is on a fool’s errand they have mocked them for their perceived naivety in wading into a perilous conflict.

They ridicule their lack of plan or progress and roll their eyes at the official readouts of the meetings with the leaders.

It’s important to remember that the President does not need to spend time or political capital doing this.  Mr. Trump can make a difference in the lives of millions scarred by decades of conflict. It serves no one to mock him or his team in their efforts. Looking at the outcomes of the latest trip, Mr. Kushner and Greenblatt did not leave empty handed. In each official account there exists the same operative statement:

“The United States officials and (Israeli/Palestinian) Leadership underscored that forging peace will take time and stressed the importance of doing everything possible to create an environment conducive to peacemaking.”

Both parties agreed publically to do everything possible to create an environment conducive to peacemaking. Since the collapse of the previous rounds of talks, the effort of both leaderships has been to find reasons why the other is undermining the environment to peace building rather then trying to build such an environment themselves.

The Palestinians point to the creation of a new settlement deep in the West Bank and the continued growth of existing settlements. The Israelis point to the new dedication of a square in Jenin named for martyrs who killed Israeli civilians and the continuation of the incentives offered to those who attack Israelis through the martyrs fund.

Each claim to be held hostage by their political realities and the Americans get lost in the minute details trying to find wins amongst the ongoing wreckage.

Rather then going down the rabbit hole of previous efforts, the Trump administration should utilize the love for the President in Israel, and the curiosity of him in Palestine to find positive ways to lessen the incredulity of the average Israeli and Palestinian to the peace process itself. People simply don’t believe its possible, so there is no pressure on their leaderships to step outside of their comfort zone.

Belief is created through a change of facts on the ground and by shifting attitudes.  The fault line in the land for peace formula is that each side gives the other what they don’t want. While Israel’s leaders have spoken about their desire for peace, no land has been transferred from Israeli to Palestinian control in the West Bank since before 2000. While the Palestinian security cooperation has lessened violence, a culture of peace has not followed in the way that many Israelis believe necessary for a true peace to come.

The US Administration managed to get the Israeli cabinet to agree to some transfers of area C to PA control, and should continue focusing on getting real wins for those on the ground who believe land for peace is just a mirage. Simultaneously, a process needs to start that goes further then just a tri-lateral committee against incitement, where each side goes to the referee if they believe they have been maligned. A culture of peace is something that both sides want, and know is essential if they are not to bequeath this conflict to their grandchildren.

In other successfully resolved conflicts success can be seen not just through the reduction of violence, but from how optimistic the younger generation are about their attitudes to the other. Despite the stereotypes of the Oslo years, there was never a serious attempt on the civic side of the peace building equation, for each people to get to know the other and build a different reality together. As the populations got younger, they have become more distant and more distrustful of each other.

If Mr. Kushner and Greenblatt are serious about getting the parties to yes they need to create the political space for the leadership to take risks. Creating positive facts on the ground while draining the swamp of hate should be the twin pillars of their strategy.

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Are Economics the Best Way to Get the Israelis to the Table?

Pieria 5/7/13

As Secretary of State John Kerry continues to pull rabbits out of his hat and get headlines in his attempt to get the Middle East Peace Process back on track, the parties involved seem less keen.

As predicted, the Palestinians did not react well to the economic levers that Kerry announced, seeing it as another attempt to trade Palestinian political rights for an economic peace. A question that needs to be answered is: does the use of economic levers in Israel/Palestine negotiations help or hinder their progress?

Linkage theory

While the Palestinian side of this dynamic has been well explored, for the Israelis there are still some false assumptions. In order to discover them, first we need to understand how the Israelis see the conflict.

The Israelis are keen to stress that the conflicts in Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East, demonstrate that the so-called ‘linkage’ theory is disproven. ‘Linkage’ is the concept that by solving the Israeli Palestinian conflict you would create stability in the region and it is at the root cause of the majority of the problems the Middle East faces.

Many, including the Israeli government, dispute this analysis and instead point to the general instability in the Middle East as their main concern of making peace agreements with parties whose own political future is in question.

What the Israelis will point to, however, is that allowing daylight between the West and Israel on any issue in the diplomatic arena is a green light to Israel’s enemies. So while the Israelis will decry linkage as a reason to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they do maintain that a diplomatic sanction aimed at their behavior towards the Palestinians directly affects all other parts of their security dynamic.

This complexity of the security picture that the Israelis face in a regional context is often forgotten due to the focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For the majority of the world, the frame of reference for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of an asymmetric occupation. For the Israelis the frame is the Israeli-Arab conflict that puts Israel against almost all the countries of the Middle East.

These frames of reference matter. The tools available to those attempting to press Israel towards substantive negotiations depend to a large extent on which of these perspectives is adopted.

Falling value of economic leverage

It is in this light that we should view the common assumption within much of Europe that if the US put on the economic squeeze on the Israelis, they could get them to do what they wanted. Many point to the 90s, where the first President Bush suspended loan guarantees to push Israel into the Madrid Peace Conference.

Economic pressure has, over the past few years, been the favored tool of civil society that is critical of Israel and her actions towards the Palestinians. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign is a non-violent strategy to change the status quo vis-a-vis Israel and the Palestinians. Various groups have different goals in their campaigns – but share the belief that economic pressure can force the Israelis to change their policies.

One of the major problems with this approach is that the country is not the same as it was in the early 90s. Israel is now a member of the OECD and has turned into a high tech powerhouse. The ‘start-up nation’ continues to be a magnet for direct foreign investment from huge multi-nationals and celebrity investors.  Add to this the new natural gas and potential tight oil finds and Israel’s economic future looks anything but bleak.

Yet with all this private sector success, Israel is still the largest recipient of foreign aid from the USA running at just over $3 billion a year. If only the US would put policy riders on this aid, the argument goes, then Israel could be forced into a more pro-peace position.

While this huge amount of aid may look like the perfect leverage, the current US and geo-political realities have made this far less clear.

Much of the aid is supplied in order to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region at large. For the majority of the supporters of this aid package, Israel is viewed in the context of the entire region.

Moreover even if John Kerry wanted to add conditions to the aid, it is not in his power to do so. It is up to the US Congress to allocate aid and at present it would be almost unthinkable for Congress to change its mind, given current events in the Middle East.

For the vast majority of Congress, the aid is an easy way to make sure that a nation that shared the vast majority of its foreign policy objectives, as well as many of its overall values, can do so without US troops. As Israel has shown in Syria, it is happy to take the lead if it feels it needs to. In a rapidly changing strategically important region, a war weary US population may balk at withdrawing money from an ally who is willing to fight on the front lines.

A diplomatic approach

Given this, is there anything left in John Kerry’s bag of tricks to get the Peace Process rolling again?

To my mind the answer is not to focus on economic levers but to look at diplomatic ones instead. If Israel is keen on denying that ‘linkage’ exists, then Kerry’s team should detach their support for Israel in the context of the region as a whole from their support of Israel with regard to the Palestinians. By making it clear that the US will not have Israel’s back in the UN Security Council when it comes to settlement expansion they can demonstrate a clear stick within the Israeli-Palestinian frame of reference to Israel’s non-compliance.

This way they can maintain their support for Israel’s role within the wider Middle East, if they so wish, yet still create pressure within the narrower sphere of negotiations with the Palestinians.

Israel’s Achilles heel has morphed from economic to diplomatic dependency. With this being the case, Kerry’s team needs to adopt a complex view to its diplomatic relations with its number one ally in the region. Having Israel’s back in a hostile neighborhood is different from enabling it diplomatically to entrench its occupation of the Palestinians.

Kerry has set up the carrot of the Arab Peace Initiative, he now needs a diplomatic stick to help him guide the peace process back on track.

Why Economic Incentives are not Enough for Israel/Palestine

Pieria 16/4/13

There is a tendency to think that there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to the Middle East Peace Process. A new secretary of state but the same old shuttle diplomacy with the stated goals of getting the parties back to the negotiating table. If this was a film, someone somewhere would be charged with copywrite theft.

The ‘Groundhogs’ day phenomenon, however, is mistaken. Though the political situation has remained stagnant, the attitude of the populations has developed over the past twenty years, as have the facts on the ground. Peacemakers are faced with two populations who still agree in principle on the final outcome but who are incredulous on the ability to get there in their lifetime.

The basis of this lack of belief is a legitimate lack of trust both on a people to people level in addition to their leadership. Though the Israelis might at times make the correct noises, the settlements continue to grow. Security cooperation with the Palestinians might be the best they have ever been; yet there has been no preparation of the population for the compromises that will be necessary for a peace deal.

In order to coax the parties back to the table John Kerry and his team have been experimenting with different options. The most reported ‘confidence building measure’ has been a pledge to support the Palestinian economy, continuing the Salam Fayyad, the former Palestinian Prime Minster, paradigm of building Palestine despite the occupation.

Given that these measures have the ability to help the daily lives of Palestinians living in the West Bank, some observers have been surprised at the Palestinian pushback to these incentives.

The reason the Palestinians are not thrilled with a state building effort is due to the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s concept of economic peace. Never a fan of the peace process, Netanyahu has long been the champion of replacing political rights in the West Bank with economic incentives.

While economics are a necessary factor to create a sustainable two-state solution, they are not sufficient. Through Netanyahu’s support for economic measures but opposition to political rights, the economic state building efforts themselves have become unpatriotic within Palestine. As long as it is perceived that the economics come as a replacement, rather then a supplement, to resistance to the occupation – economic incentives will not help bridge the gap to get the parties back to the table.

I was happy therefore to hear John Kerry’s joint press conference with Netanyahu after his recent visit to the region. Kerry opened his remarks stating that he had discussed many different options with Netanyahu including some economic ones. Netanyahu followed stressing that there were some good economic projects that he could support to improve the lives of the Palestinians. Kerry then went off script, and protocol, to put in a final word where he stressed that economic moves are no replacement for the political process. It was a message that he stressed again in his final remarks before he left the region.

Kerry’s early highlighting of this understanding provides a solid grounding for him to mount his effort. With the resignation of Prime Minster Fayyad and the Israelis apparent rejection of the majority of his suggested bridging proposals, a solid footing is about the most he can hope for at this early stage.