John Kerry, a man not known for his flashiness or charm, has managed to revive long-lapsed peace talks in the Middle East. A window of nine months has been set for Israelis and Palestinians to reach a “final status agreement”.
This news should be greeted with cautious optimism.
On the one hand, the strange truth is that the majority of those involved have already reached a tacit consensus about what such an agreement might look like. All will agree with Tony Blair and Douglas Alexander that a single unified state is a “fantasy”. Most will start from the premise that any workable solution will be based on the separation of Israel and Palestine into two sovereign states, divided roughly along Israel’s pre-1967 borders.
On the other hand, there remain formidable obstacles to agreement. Tense uncertainty surrounds the future status of Jerusalem, Palestinian claims to a “right of return” to their ancestors’ homes, and Israeli fears over the protection of vital security interests, such as Ben-Gurion Airport, under redrawn borders.
In light of these obstacles, and in the spirit of cautious optimism, we should bear in mind three things about the current round of talks.
1. Only politicians have the power to make peace
Speaking about the future of the Middle East at his conference in Jerusalem last month, Shimon Peres told his audience that, “[t]he squares are stronger than the parliaments.” By this he meant that political change is now more likely to come from mass popular action, of the kind seen in the Arab Spring uprisings and the Israeli social justice protests, than from politicians cutting deals in smoke-filled rooms.
In respect of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, however, President Peres’ thesis does not hold true. This is for four reasons.
First, while it looks like Israelis and Palestinians will retain the power to say “no” to any proposed deal in a referendum, only Binyamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas have the power to say “yes” in the first instance. It is necessary, if not sufficient, for these politicians to reach agreement and shake hands.
Second, the dealmaking process will encompass thousands of small details, from the highly technical (how can we possibly pump fresh water from A to B?) to the highly emotive (should village X fall within Israel or Palestine?). These matters cannot effectively be crowdsourced, and are best made as part of a quiet and structured programme of backroom negotiation. This is not the politics of the “square”. It remains an arena where only elected representatives and small teams of experts can succeed.
Third, there is in any event no real or virtual “square” where Israelis and Palestinians gather in large numbers to demand peace, either separately or together. The peace movement itself is chronically divided. And abroad, far more energy is devoted to demonizing and stigmatizing Israelis and Palestinians than to searching for lasting peace. It will need a small group of focused and single-minded individuals to cut through this cacophony of voices and thrash out a durable settlement. This is the role of the political leader.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, any provisional deal is likely to be met with ferocious criticism from certain camps on both sides. While most people in the region would quietly and reluctantly accept peace on the terms described above, many would not. A small number would resist violently.
Consequently, if a provisional deal is agreed it will not necessarily be easy for Netanyahu and Abbas to persuade their peoples to endorse it. Indeed, in the past, efforts such as these have demanded extraordinary personal sacrifice. When F W De Klerk took steps to end apartheid, it finished his political career. When Yitzchak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords in 1993, he did so despite vociferous opposition from within Israel – and he eventually paid with his life, assassinated by a right-wing Israeli extremist.
De Klerk and Rabin were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Both stand as symbols of what individual politicians can do to change their country. This time round, Abbas’ rivals in Gaza will pose the sternest challenge to his authority as a state-builder. For Netanyahu, the opposition will include members of his own right-wing governing coalition.
Is it undemocratic to turn away from the “square” and into the diplomatic backroom? I don’t believe so. Sometimes mass direct action is called for, but at other times citizens have to trust their democratically-elected representatives to do the right thing. This is the essence of representative democracy.
These talks, therefore, present the ultimate test for these leaders. Will they rise to the challenge? Truly, as Tony Blair has observed, “this is a time for statesmen, not politicians”.
2. The aim of negotiations is to make peace, not to find truth
Most of us have been involved in a conversation about the Middle East which began with good intentions but descended into ferocious argument relating to events in the past. What happened? Who started it? Who was to blame? In my experience, this kind of conversation rarely allows serious discussion of the more pressing question: how best can we end the conflict?
Much journalistic commentary falls into the same trap.
When the negotiations get tough, Saeb Erekat and Tzipi Livni will have to resist the urge to rehash their side’s narrative, or make arguments based on their interpretation of historical events. Yes, to shed light on the future it is sometimes helpful to look to the past. But these negotiations are not the place for settling historical scores or dredging up old arguments. The Israeli and Palestinian accounts of the same events are simply too different. They will never reach agreement on those terms.
Instead, negotiations must focus squarely about what is workable in the future, not what is “just” in light of the past.
This is easier said than done. These representatives have built political careers around their talent for telling and retelling the story of their people’s struggle, and their place in it. But they will have to hold their tongues this time. Jonathan Powell’s account of making peace in Northern Ireland is filled with accounts of shutting down conversations which had strayed into unhelpful historical debate. Similarly, in discussing Rwanda Bill Clinton frequently observes, “how important it is…to forget yesterday and embrace tomorrow.”
The idea is not that the Jews should forget centuries of oppression, or that the Palestinians should forget the hurt and humiliation of occupation and displacement. These collective memories are precious and must be guarded as such. But the ghosts of the past should have no seat at the negotiating table. Recall that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established after the end of apartheid. The Bloody Sunday Inquiry into British Army abuses in Northern Ireland came after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.
There will be time for sombre (and perhaps even joint) retrospection when Israelis and Palestinians are living separately and in peace. Until then, the negotiators – and commentators – who insist on dwelling on the past are prisoners of their history and not its guardians. To borrow a phrase: they cannot walk backwards into the future.
3. Perspective matters
Many observers find the conflict baffling and even contemptible. It is easy to understand why. Both parties have made some truly horrendous choices in the past. Both nations have, on balance, been badly served by their leaders, allies, and neighbours. Though it has largely taken place in an area roughly the size of Wales, the pain of the Middle East conflict has always been felt across the globe.
As a result, the discourse surrounding the issues is largely poisonous. A stroll through Twitter’s byways reveals a swamp of accusations, counter-accusations, vile innuendo and fatalism.
In the coming months, be wary of anyone who claims to have all the answers, or presents issues as black-or-white. Avoid in particular those who assert that unless you have “lived” the conflict on the ground you are not allowed to comment on it. A well-informed but foreign perspective can offer exactly the kind of objectivity that the discourse in the region lacks. Too much local knowledge can be a dangerous thing.
Every effort must be made to engage constructively with both sides throughout the process. For example, at this incredibly sensitive time there is no merit in “BDS” (boycott, divestment, sanctions) campaigns which harm and isolate ordinary Israelis. Making Israelis feel alone and abandoned is the surest way to prevent them from taking a leap of faith into a new and unsettling peace.
It is worth remembering, moreover, that we in Europe cannot exactly boast a clean record when it comes to avoiding conflict. Humility is in order. The Israeli author and peace activist Amos Oz makes the point well:
“Of one thing I can assure Europeans: our conflict in the Middle East is indeed painful and bloody and cruel and stupid, but it’s not going to take us a thousand years to produce our equivalent of the Euro currency of the Middle East; we will be faster than you were, and shed less blood than you did. So before you people look down at us, Jewish idiots, Arab idiots, cruel people, fanatical people, extremist people, violent people, be a little more careful in wagging your fingers at all of us…I can stick my neck out and say we are not going to spend hundreds of years butchering one another in the time honoured European tradition. We will be quicker than that. How much quicker? I wish I could say.”
As Oz observes, this conflict is a tragedy in the ancient and precise meaning of the word: between right and right, between two powerful and convincing claims. In June I was privileged to speak to the Palestinian peace activist Ali Abu Awwad, who echoed the words of his Israeli counterpart: “I don’t want to be right any more. I want to succeed.”
Let’s hope the peace talks are conducted in the same spirit.
Jamie Susskind currently lives and works in Tel Aviv. He has worked for Tony Blair, Ed Miliband, and the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy. In September he will begin training as a barrister in London.