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.

Establishing a Culture of Peace

This appeared on Times of Israel and Matav Blog

As with any insider view, Michael Herzog’s eye opening account of what happened during the last round of Israeli Palestinian negotiations contains fascinating details.

There is a confirmed backchannel of Dennis Ross, Isaac Molho and Hussein Agha. We learn of what turned out to be a confusing shuttle diplomacy strategy by the Americans. The timeline of the collapse is clarified and the internal discussions of the Israeli side are revealed in greater depth.

As commentators and analysts go through the details, deducing lessons for future efforts, much attention will be paid to the mistakes in process and the reality of the gaps in the positions.

In the zone of possible agreement section, Herzog gives the readers a glimpse of where the parties were on key issues. Much was already suspected. He goes through the question of Jewish State, something that Kerry would later publicly pick up in his last speech on the issue, telling the world that there had been progress made on a regional level on this issue. He details the security work that General Allen’s team undertook, something that the Commanders for Israel’s Security and the Center for a New American Security later spelled out in greater detail. The refugee question got updated to include the plight of Jews from Arab lands (though the conversations were never concluded) and Jerusalem was punted.

All of this was pretty much suspected if not known by the end of the Obama administration. Yet Herzog finishes his account of the possible agreement with a surprising final line.

“Finally, a new section initiated by Tzipi Livni on the “Culture of Peace” was introduced.”

Herzog offers no analysis or explanation but a footnote to an interview that Livni held with David Horowitz, the editor of the Times of Israel, in September 2014.

Towards the end of the interview Livni revealed that there was agreed text of what a culture of peace should look like. Below is the full part of the interview.

That’s not my point. What I’m asking is why you haven’t focused on the centrality of the need to put an end to the incitement against Israel, and to create a more honest narrative?

You’re wrong. I suggested at the start of the negotiations (in 2013) that we finalize the clause relating to the so-called “Culture of Peace” in the future agreement. First of all, implementing that clause need not wait for a full agreement. Let me see if I can find you the text. (Livni searches in her i-Pad.) It has been a while. I’m not talking here about the bilateral committees on incitement, where each side ran to complain about the other. This is something (we worked on) with Abu Mazen, which did not get implemented but which I really think has to be done.

We also need to look at ourselves. I’m Israeli. I want to protect Israel. That’s my chief interest. But to say that our texts…

… and our maps that don’t show the West Bank. No, we’re not perfect.

Or describing the Palestinians as “shrapnel in the butt” (a reference to Economy Minister Naftali Bennett’s likening of the Palestinian conflict last year to shrapnel in the rear end — DH).

So, I’m very much in favor of the Palestinians being okay, but we should be too. And one doesn’t contradict the other. Both sides have to be okay. (Livni finds a document and shows it to me on her i-Pad.) This was a text on civil society and the culture of peace. It was meant to be part of any agreement. Here we set out…

Can I have a copy of this?

 No, there’s a limit. (She laughs.) But you can look. You can see there are clauses against “supporting incitement.” A whole section… (The section of the document Livni shows me deals with preventing racism and discrimination, and features language highlighting the imperative to “promote mutual understanding, tolerance and respect.”)

If you implement steps like these, it might be gradually possible to help create a different atmosphere.

I wanted to do it simultaneously. Not to halt everything. I thought it could be implemented. That didn’t happen. 

Again, surely he should have an interest in implementing this.

Who do you mean by “he”? 

The leader you’re not representing in this interview.

(Livni laughs.) And you’re assuming that he’s the one who refused? Look, it didn’t happen. You know what, it didn’t happen. We immediately also got into the core issues. I suggested it to the Americans.

This “Culture of Peace” proposal also included clauses relating to incitement by religious leaders, media…?

Everything. Everything. Actually, I think we had an agreed text. I’ll check again. Had we extended the talks (last spring), I think we were going to implement it during the extended negotiations. But we didn’t reach an agreement to extend the negotiations.

I think it’s something that should be implemented anyway. I’m telling you, I suggested it at the very beginning.”

One of the challenges of the negotiations between Israel and the PLO has always been that ‘nothing is agreed upon until everything is agreed upon’. The linkage means that incremental process is invalidated unless a final deal is achieved. This keeps key concessions locked away until every part of the deal is worked out so it can be sold to both populations as a package deal.

Yet the problems that a deal will solve metastasize in its absence, making compromises harder and harder to reach. The most obvious and well known is that of settlements. The longer there is no agreement on borders the more that settlements grow, making it harder to generate the political will to pull back by creating new facts on the ground.

While the settlements are a physical manifestation of a barrier to progress, no less significant is the fear, mistrust and hate that the conflict has generated between the populations. While the power balance between Israelis and Palestinians is asymmetric, the mistrust and fear is equal. If political will is needed to open the space to get to an agreement between the parties, then the agreement of creating a culture of peace cannot wait until a full agreement is signed. It is needed as a necessary precondition.

Livni in her interview recognizes this, stating that this clause should be implemented anyway.

With the collapse of the negotiations, the Quartet report of July 2016 became the next key document to lay out a way forward. The final recommendation of the report requested that,

“Both parties should foster a climate of tolerance, including through increasing interaction and cooperation in a variety of fields – economic, professional, educational, cultural – that strengthen the foundations for peace and countering extremism.”

Since then legislators in the US and UK have advanced a concept of an International Fund for Israeli Palestinian Peace, whose aim would be to actualize a strategic, scalable attempt to create a culture of peace through dedicated funding. It is based off the successful International Fund for Ireland. Later this month the United States Institute of Peace is holding a half-day conference on the lessons that can be learnt between the two funds. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who oversaw the Good Friday agreement and was the Quartet representative for many years, has endorsed this idea.

What these efforts toward the fund realize is that one of the consequences from previous failures has been an incredulity gap that now exists between the two peoples. If this cannot be bridged, Israelis and Palestinians will continue to drift further apart, making any deal politically impossible for the parties to sign. The ‘culture of peace’ work is needed to ensure that the populations move their leaders closer together, rather than drive them further apart.

With the revelation that there is agreed upon text out there, it should be released and form the basis for the proposed fund to sit upon. While borders, Jerusalem, security, refugees and the other final status suffer from a linkage that makes them rise and fall together, it is never too early to start the excruciating, necessary work of trying to break the barriers of mistrust and hate. While a culture of peace cannot survive in the absence of a political horizon, a political horizon cannot be created without a population who believes that peace is possible.

Is a peace deal possible if Israelis and Palestinians simply don’t trust each other?

This piece is coauthored with Sarah Yerkes and was published by Brookings on Jan 4th

 Much has been written about Secretary of State John Kerry’s parting remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But while most of the analysis has focused on whether the speech was too harsh on Israel or how well Kerry defended the U.S. abstention in the United Nations, one theme of the speech has been overlooked: the idea that the two-state solution’s cause of death is not likely to be settlements or incitement, but rather the total lack of trust between Israelis and Palestinians. As Kerry said:

“In the end, I believe the negotiations did not fail because the gaps were too wide, but because the level of trust was too low. Both sides were concerned that any concessions would not be reciprocated and would come at too great a political cost. And the deep public skepticism only made it more difficult for them to be able to take risks.”

That line is important for multiple reasons. First, it underscores that the belief gap between the Israeli and Palestinian leadership today is so wide that even if they agree completely on all of the final status issues—borders, Jerusalem, refugees, security arrangements—they are incapable of making a deal. Second, the leaders on both sides will never take the necessary risks for an agreement without overwhelming public support. That is, while public trust and support may not be a sufficient condition for a just and lasting peace, it is a necessary one. And third, the innovation that is needed to get to a deal is not finding ever-new bridging formulas on the final status issues, of which the Kerry principles are just the latest iteration, but rather a focus on how to start traversing the incredulity gap that divides the people.

Mind the gap

Secretary Kerry is correct that nothing expands the belief gap more than continued settlement building on the Israeli side and glorification of violence on the Palestinian side. The crux of the quest for peace has been the concept of land for peace, and both parties seem incapable of giving the other side what they need to believe. Israelis may talk a good game, but Netanyahu’s statements about his willingness to negotiate land fall on deaf ears while settlement outposts continue to grow. The Palestinian security cooperation might keep the worst of the violence off the streets of Israel, but no level of coordination will be enough while stabbers and shooters of Israeli civilians are lionized by Fatah and monuments are dedicated to them.

Building trust between the populations requires different strategies than those for building track-one negotiations. It requires a systematic outreach approach to civil society, both in attention and, when appropriate, funding. At best, the U.S. government, alongside the other interested nations, aided civil society work in episodic bursts. At worst, they saw it as irrelevant while negotiations were ongoing.

We have both worked for years—one of us within the U.S. government, the other with Israeli, Palestinian, and American NGOs—to make the case that any peace process will fail without public support. Thus, we agree with Kerry’s comments that focusing solely on the Israeli and Palestinian leadership and ignoring the people will only perpetuate this situation of total distrust. Yet it is frustrating that it took Kerry four years to understand this point.

To be clear, the civil society track is an “and” rather than an “or.” It buttresses other strategies and enables their successes, rather than stands alone. While it is not sufficient, it is necessary for any initiative to be successful.

Unlike settlements and incitement, which are driven far more by Israeli and Palestinian domestic considerations than international policy, engagement with the Israeli and Palestinian publics is one area where the U.S. negotiating team could have played a positive and effective role. Had Secretary Kerry realized in 2012 the importance of encouraging the public to push their leaders to stay at the negotiating table, he would have likely invested more time and money in supporting the efforts of civil society groups dedicated to preserving the two-state solution. Instead, the State Department largely ignored civil society, remaining laser-focused on the top leaders.

There is one important exception to this point. The U.S. government has repeatedly and strongly defended Israeli civil society in the face of an increasing attack by the Israeli government. During Kerry’s tenure as Secretary, the United States forcefully pushed back against different iterations of a harsh NGO law that particularly targeted foreign funding of human rights organizations.

However, during the 2013-2014 negotiations, Kerry made over three dozen trips to Israel and the West Bank. Yet despite the millions of miles flown and the tremendous amount of time that the secretary spent in the region, he never found a moment to meet with civil society. These were the groups, the people, whose expectations were raised when President Obama said in his 2013 speech in Jerusalem:

“And let me say this as a politician—I can promise you this, political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks. You must create the change that you want to see. Ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things.”

Civil societies were expected to market the negotiations to their skeptical people, knowing that their governments were pouring cold water on them. Throughout the 14 months of negotiations, no senior member of the negotiating team held a town hall or public meeting with those who were expected to sell the process—either to hear their concerns or to give them the necessary boost to build domestic support for their efforts. And while there were some private attempts at outreach to civil society, they were insufficient and lacked the necessary high-level support to move the dial. When even the negotiators don’t take the efforts of those supporting them seriously, it is hard for them to be taken seriously within their own societies and by their own leadership.

Throughout the Obama administration, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) provided $10 million a year in funding reconciliation programs between Arabs and Jews, Israelis and Palestinians. Not once did this line item make it into the Obama administration’s budget. Each year it was added to the federal budget after considerable effort on the congressional level in an ever-more difficult fiscal environment. When compared to how much the United States spends on military assistance to Israel and paying down the debts of the Palestinian Authority, it is a fraction of the resource to something that the administration only now recognizes as the underlying foundation to move forward.

Ball in Trump’s court

The next administration, whose dedication to the two-state solution is questionable, might look for some out-of-the-box ideas to try and unstick the parties and move the situation to a more stable setting. If we have any advice for them it is this, it starts with hope and change. It might seem odd that the Obama slogan needs to the be organizing philosophy for their approach to the Israeli Palestinian conflict, but without hope, the parties will never move beyond their retrenchment. The key to hope is change, that the status quo can be different, that people do have agency.

To help each society recognize this potential, all the tools in the foreign policy toolkit must be used, including working with civil society groups. That’s essential for delivering that message and demonstrating to skeptical people that we are in a new era with new opportunities.

This should include:

  • Senior level advisors, including the new advisor for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt, meeting with not just the parties, but civil society groups privately as well publically;
  • Inclusion of the USAID people-to-people reconciliation grant program into the federal budget; and
  • Leveraging U.S. dollars off those of the rest of the international community in the creation of an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, which currently enjoys bipartisan support, that can provide the necessary bandwidth and budget for a systemic approach to the trust deficit.

We are glad Secretary Kerry understands how important it is to establish trust and confidence among the leaders in order to preserving the two-state solution. And we are glad he made a strong case for why the Israeli and Palestinian people must push their leaders to take political risks.

With the Paris peace conference on the horizon, a new U.S. administration being sworn in, and the parties jockeying for position in the new environment we hope that the lessons that took four years for Secretary Kerry to learn can be remembered and reflected on as seriously as the principles that he presented.