by Ephraim Lavie
The possibility of the Israelis and the Palestinians returning to the negotiating table based on Road Map acceptance requires an in-depth analysis of the reasons for the failure of the previous permanent status talks. Such an analysis could turn over a new leaf for the talks, which came to a standstill in January 2001.
The complexity involved in bridging both peoples’ clashing national narratives has existed since 1948, and is the basis of the profound Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to the Palestinian national narrative, 1948 symbolizes an historic injustice - deportation and loss of native land - whose solution will be brought about only by restoring this land to its rightful owners. In the Israeli-Zionist narrative, 1948 affirms the resurrection of the Jewish people in their homeland. Each of these narratives engenders an “Either Us or Them” approach, thus turning the conflict into a “zero sum game”. The 1993 Oslo Accords provided both sides with a first significant attempt at solving the conflict on the political, rather than on the national narrative basis, thereby trying to reach a “win-win” result.
Ever since the negotiations for a permanent agreement ceased, one basic question remains: What actually brought the two sides, which had made such great advances in the negotiations, to instead deviate from political negotiation and deal with the impossible-to-bridge national narratives, thus leading to a result contrary to the one they appeared to aspire to? It is clear that when trying to analyze the entire picture, there are many components, some exposed, some hidden. Some must be understood, apparently, by psychological and cultural analysis, and some by analyzing the leaders of both sides concerning their political situation, their ability to make historic decisions, their personalities and their very motivation to arrive at an agreement. All these components have meaning in relation to the public positions that each side presents in the course of negotiations, though they also reflect hidden elements that have tactical and even manipulative significance.
The interesting fact is that, following the great effort that both sides invested in the negotiations to arrive at a solution of “two states for two peoples”, they found themselves, quite surprisingly, taking more extreme positions. They returned to the difficult questions raised in the beginning of the conflict in 1948 that related to the fixed national narratives of each side. This analysis deals with two aspects of the problem:
l. The nature of the strategic decision taken by the leaders of both sides in relation to arriving at an agreement;
2. The assumption that behind the tough positions they presented following the negotiations - when they had previously been more flexible - lies in not an overt but a hidden content.
The Palestinian Position: A Viable State within the 1967 Borders
The Palestinian leadership believes that the difficult political decisions in the conflict with Israel were already taken at the Palestinian National Council meeting in 1988. At that meeting the PLO accepted UN Resolution 242, relating to the ban on acquiring territory through war, after rejecting it for years, because it ignored the basic questions connected to the 1948 war. Despite this, the resolution was accepted, along with other UN resolutions on the question of Palestine, and the PLO formulated a political position that made a clear distinction between the question of a state within the 1967 borders, the refugee problem and the “historical injustice of 1948”:
* Two states based on the 1947 UN Partition Plan.
* A state within the 1967 borders, including Arab Jerusalem, based on UN Resolution 242 and upon the evacuation of settlements and the return of those Palestinians who were uprooted from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
* A closing of the 1948 file based on UN Resolution 194 concerning the return of refugees or resettlement, with financial compensation for their property.
The main significance of the 1988 resolutions lies in the fact that, for the first time, the PLO accepted UN Resolution 242, indicating its recognition of the State of Israel, thus differentiating between “Homeland” (al-Wattan, Palestine) and “State” (Dowla, within the 1967 borders). The practical significance was that by accepting UN Resolution 242, the 1967 problems would be solved, an historic national decision to accept a relatively small area of Palestine (about 22 percent) in comparison to what they were offered in the 1947 UN Partition Plan. These decisions were, and still are, under attack by the Palestinian national and religious oppositions.
These decisions have been considered binding since 1988, and will remain so as long as the PLO institutions do not change them. The Palestinians presented them during the Madrid Conference (1991), the Oslo negotiations (1993) and again during the negotiations for a permanent status agreement (1999-2001). They continue to obligate Arafat and the Palestinian leadership, and apparently will not change when both sides reach the third stage of the Road Map.
Before the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian leadership assumed it would be possible to reach an agreement with Israel concerning the first two components - a state and the 1967 borders. They were aware that there was no possibility that Israel would agree to accept the right of return. After the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian position towards a permanent agreement was defined as follows: the establishment of a sovereign state within the 1967 borders based on Resolution 242; sovereignty over Arab Jerusalem, including the Haram Al Sharif/Temple Mount; “a satisfactory answer” to the refugee problem - including recognition of the “right of return” principle, with only a limited application, with Israel’s agreement. The Beilin-Abu-Mazen Document (1995) reinforced this position and it remained unchanged until the advanced stages of negotiations for a permanent agreement. This created a feeling, or an illusion, on the Israeli side that it would be possible to arrive at a comprehensive solution to the 1967 problems without having to deal with a solution for the 1948 problems.
“International Legitimacy” or “Fair Compromise”
When the permanent agreement negotiations began, it soon became clear that an agreed-upon basis for the negotiations was lacking. Were the UN resolutions the sole basis for the negotiations, as the Palestinians demanded, or would compromise and “a fair solution” - based on the existing situation and on security and settlement interests - be the negotiations’ starting point, as Israel proposed? The Palestinian approach showed that the negotiations were meant to lead towards a realization of rights objectively stemming from what is called “international legitimacy”, not a product of the asymmetry that exists vis-ŕ-vis Israel. On the other hand, the Israeli approach was based on the creation of a balance of interests that would make acceptance of the agreement worthwhile to both sides.
These were two opposing approaches, which created a “communications failure” and a substantive difficulty in the negotiations. This, in turn, prevented a bridging of the remaining gaps - even though progress had been made. For example: it was never understood why the Palestinians never accepted proposals that were considered “fair” or “generous” by Israel, and why they never made any proposals of their own. The explanation is simple: from the Palestinian point of view, a “good proposal” could only be one that corresponds with Palestinian rights based on the UN resolutions. This position also explains why they had rejected the idea of formulating a framework agreement, since, from their point of view, the UN resolutions themselves provide such a framework agreement. Nonetheless, they were willing to make adjustments stemming from current reality; for example: 1967 border corrections, including settlement blocs; agreeing to the division of Jerusalem on a demographic - not a geographic - basis; willingness to become a demilitarized state; flexibility in assessing and solving the refugee problem.
The Quality of the Strategic Decisions made by the Leaders towards a Final Agreement
The inherent meaning in the leaders’ strategic choice concerning each side’s basis for the negotiations (“international legitimacy” vs. “fair compromise”) was a conscious ignoring of the 1978 Camp David Summit source-of-reference as the basis for resolving Israeli-Arab conflicts: UN Resolutions 242, 338 and the principle of “land for peace”. This choice expressed the lack of a fundamental decision on the part of both sides concerning a basic question: Do they really intend to arrive at an agreement that will deal with the results of the Six Day War and pay the price demanded of each of them? From the Palestinians - to forego the 1948 problems, and from Israel - to give up the 1967 territories; from both - not to demand a national narrative victory over the opposite side.
This lack of decision on the part of both sides was expressed in various failures and actions during both the interim period and the negotiations on the permanent agreement, in a manner that generated a lack of trust and led to difficulties in all issue-related negotiations. As a result, the motivation to pay the necessary price decreased even further. At a crucial point in the 2000 Camp David Summit, the negotiations shifted from the political to the narrative level, thus altering the balance and changing the emphasis once again from the 1967 issues back to the 1948 ones. Examples of this lie in the territorial and refugee questions, but the same analysis can be applied to the other issues as well.
The Territorial Question
Israel did not respond favorably to the Palestinian position to recognize in advance their full right to the complete territory of the West Bank and Gaza. Instead, it tried to arrive at an agreement based upon a “fair compromise”, while settlement construction continued to an extent that the Palestinians perceived it as a lack of ability or readiness on the part of Israel to make a decision on the matter. The third phase of the withdrawal that had been set by the interim agreement was not carried out. And in the negotiations for a permanent agreement, Israel presented the position that UN Resolution 242 could not be applied in the same manner as it had been vis-ŕ-vis the Arab states, based on the argument that the resolution was relevant only for states that had mutual borders. The inherent meaning of this position was a clear lack of decision by Israel to depart from the territories.
The Refugee Question
During the discussions preceding the Camp David Summit it appeared that the general direction of the solution to the refugee problem would be provided by an alternative to the “right of return” and /or compensation, while a small number of refugees would be allowed to return to Israel under certain definitions. Both sides also understood that the “right of return” narrative should be revised in such a manner that would be acceptable to both sides. But Israel viewed the Camp David Summit as a summit of decision, and its message to Arafat was clear-cut: “It’s now or never”. It pushed him towards accepting the end of the conflict and essentially foregoing the “right of return” - something that the PLO institutions never confirmed in the past and never authorized Arafat to accept. This demand, if accepted by the Palestinians, would signify their agreement to giving up their national narrative, which of course was inconceivable.
Israel interpreted this position as stemming from Arafat’s unwillingness to make an historic decision to forfeit the “right of return”. Formal Israeli explanation presented Arafat’s position as intending to undermine Israel’s existence, and abandoning the “two states for two peoples” solution.
The resulting impression was that the hardening of the positions in the decisive stage of the negotiations, concerning the “right of return” and “the end of the conflict” (and other matters), was mainly a tactical expression of the difficult process both sides had undergone, in which they were exposed to concepts and approaches contradictory to their own. In the final analysis, they understood that it apparently would not be possible to reach an agreement, due to the lack of mutual trust which had ensued. Each side concluded that the other side had reached the point of inability to make a decision on the issues remaining under dispute, as a result of each side’s internal political situations. Both sides had reached a dead end that reflected a “closed circle” between Israel’s wish for an “end of the conflict”, and the “source of the conflict” linked by the Palestinians only by removing 1948’s unjust results and an acceptance of the “right of return”, and which, from Israel’s point of view, contradicted its very existence as a Jewish state. At this stage each side wanted to relieve itself of the responsibility for the failure. They each presented substantial positions that were impossible to resolve, and in actuality contained the hidden tactics of placing the responsibility for the anticipated failure of the negotiations on the other side.
A straight line can be drawn between: a) the mutual attempt of each side to place responsibility for failure on the other side as the negotiations were about to end, and b) their failure in the beginning of the negotiations to agree that the peace treaty would deal only with the results of the Six Day War, including paying the necessary price. From this point of view, the process was doomed to failure from the very beginning.
The second Intifada, which broke out in September 2000, and the anger that was aroused against Israel, were expressions of frustration within the Palestinian society about both its political and social leadership policies. However, Arafat, in a mistaken judgment, believed that a limited confrontation might work in his favor by pressuring Israel to continue the negotiations. As time went on, he refrained from applying his full weight to end the confrontation, due to a desire to bring about an internationalization of the conflict, with the objective of creating an alternative to the political process that had come to a halt. It is worth contemplating how things might have developed if both sides had accepted the 1978 Camp David guidelines, and had not become trapped in the questions of 1948 at the Camp David 2000 summit.
Looking Towards the Future
As in a game of chess, both sides have reached a stalemate. But unlike in chess, they must take a step backwards, and from there move forward again. The “closed circle” that has been created between the beginning and the end of the conflict, will open only when both sides recognize that a lack of an agreement is a worst-case alternative for them. This is not only due to the harsh results of the violent conflict between them - which cannot bring about a fundamental change in the basic positions of either side - but also because it severely limits their ability to work towards an agreement in the foreseeable future. The Intifada leaves behind it many long-term scars, and the Palestinian leadership will have to justify the large number of victims on their side. Therefore, it will obstinately continue to support its basic positions, while Israel will want to offer less and less, particularly on the subject of the refugees, but also in the territorial sphere. Israel, in the wake of the Intifada, will undoubtedly want to use security arguments to reduce the degree of independence of a future Palestinian state. It is also understood that the continued growth of extremist Islamic fundamentalism among the Palestinians will make it even more difficult to arrive at such an agreement as time passes.
In my view, the time factor is working against Israel. Waiting for a new Palestinian leadership to emerge from the Territories rather than from Tunis - a leadership that will prefer an agenda of establishing a state rather than demanding the “right of return” - may take a very long time, and it is doubtful whether it will ever materialize. Meanwhile, the demographic process is progressing with no connection to Arafat’s positions, and a possibility exists that, with time, a movement will evolve (we can see its first buds already), which will demand a reversion to the original idea of one state for two peoples. The immediate significance of this could be that the Palestinian motivation to arrive at an agreement with Israel might decrease markedly in the near future.
From the Palestinian point of view it should be clear that another opportune time has arrived via the Road Map, and the American government is ready to help the current leadership rehabilitate itself and arrive at a political settlement. The Palestinians will have to seriously consider the value of continuing their reliance on the Arab world and the continued uncompromising adherence to “international legitimacy.” The Palestinians will also have to acknowledge the fact that it was a tragic mistake to continue riding the wave of the Intifada. Despite the heavy price, the international community did not rally to apply pressure on Israel and it did not send forces to the region, while the Israeli society’s ability to endure terror attacks was not impaired. There are signs that existing elements within the Palestinian leadership understand the significance of the new situation - that to miss this opportunity may result in another historical error. This could lead the international community to abandon them to Israel’s will; for example: to a unilateral act such as establishing a separating fence which could become a default option, or, in Israel’s point of view, even a desirable one. The possibility of breaking through the “closed circle” containing both the end and the beginning of the conflict will require geo-political, circumstantial and other conditions. It will also require national leadership ability on both sides, and the public support to make the historic decisions needed to reach a “two state solution” without considering it a “zero sum game.”
This leadership will be required to recognize the fact that the negotiations should deal with political issues, not national narratives. It must adopt a solution approach, whose comprehensive outcome will outweigh the sum of its individual parts. This means ending the territorial conflict by drawing a mutually agreed-upon political border with security arrangements and conflict-settling apparatuses; solving the refugee problem by compensation and alternatives for the “right of return”; and settling the Haram Al Sharif/Temple Mount question by establishing a special regime. This must be a peace treaty that will last for generations, even though there will always be Palestinians who continue to dream of Greater Palestine, as there will always be Israelis who continue to long for the Land of Israel.
The practical conclusion must be that the leaders of both sides be required to make decisions, not only in accordance with the immediate security challenges that they are facing, such as the confrontation with terror, but mainly on the basis of understanding the entire political, demographic and historic process.