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[Dehai-WN] Crisisgroup.org: The Emperor Has No Clothes: Palestinians and the End of the Peace Process

From: Berhane Habtemariam <Berhane.Habtemariam_at_gmx.de_at_dehai.org>
Date: Mon, 7 May 2012 21:18:24 +0200

The Emperor Has No Clothes: Palestinians and the End of the Peace Process

Crisis Group Middle East Report N°122 7 May 2012



Does anybody still believe in the Middle East Peace Process? Nineteen years
after Oslo and thirteen years after a final settlement was supposed to be
reached, prospects for a two-state solution are as dim as ever. The
international community mechanically goes through the motions, with as
little energy as conviction. The parties most directly concerned, the
Israeli and Palestinian people, appear long ago to have lost hope.
Substantive gaps are wide, and it has become a challenge to get the sides in
the same room. The bad news is the U.S. presidential campaign, Arab Spring,
Israel’s focus on Iran and European financial woes portend a peacemaking
hiatus. The good news is such a hiatus is badly needed. The expected
diplomatic lull is a chance to reconsider basic pillars of the process – not
to discard the two-state solution, for no other option can possibly attract
mutual assent; nor to give up on negotiations, for no outcome will be
imposed from outside. But to incorporate new issues and constituencies;
rethink Palestinian strategy to alter the balance of power; and put in place
a more effective international architecture.

For all the scepticism surrounding the ways of the past, breaking with them
will not come easily. Few may still believe in the peace process, but many
still see significant utility in it. Ongoing negotiations help Washington
manage its relations with the Arab world and to compensate for close ties to
Israel with ostensible efforts to meet Palestinian aspirations. Europeans
have found a role, bankrolling the Palestinian Authority and, via the
Quartet, earning a seat at one of the most prestigious diplomatic tables – a
satisfaction they share with Russia and the UN Secretary-General. Peace
talks are highly useful to Israel for deflecting international criticism and

Palestinians suffer most from the status quo, yet even they stand to lose if
the comatose process finally were pronounced dead. The Palestinian Authority
(PA) might collapse and with it the economic and political benefits it
generates as well as the assistance it attracts. For the Palestinian elite,
the peace process has meant relative comfort in the West Bank as well as
constant, high-level diplomatic attention. Without negotiations, Fatah would
lose much of what has come to be seen as its raison d’ętre and would be even
more exposed to Hamas’s criticism.

But the reason most often cited for maintaining the existing peace process
is the conviction that halting it risks creating a vacuum that would be
filled with despair and chaos. The end result is that the peace process, for
all its acknowledged shortcomings, over time has become a collective
addiction that serves all manner of needs, reaching an agreement no longer
being the main one. And so the illusion continues, for that largely is what
it is.

More than any others, Palestinians have become aware of this trap, so have
been the first to tinker with different approaches. But tinker is the
appropriate term: their leadership, in its quest to reshuffle the deck, has
flitted from one idea to another and pursued tracks simultaneously without
fully thinking through the alternatives or committing to a single one. For a
time, it seemed that President Mah­moud Abbas’s September 2011 speech at the
UN General Assembly – resolute and assertive – might presage a momentous
shift in strategy. But after the Security Council buried Palestine’s
application for UN membership in committee, the logical follow-up – an
effort to gain support for statehood at the General Assembly – was ignored.
After admittance to one UN agency, the leadership froze further efforts.
After refusing negotiations unless Israel froze settlements and without
clear terms of reference, Abbas consented to talks. After threatening to
dissolve the PA, central figures waved off the idea and declared the PA a
strategic asset. After reaching a reconciliation agreement with Hamas, the
two parties reverted to bickering.

One can fault the Palestinian leadership for lack of vision, yet there is
good reason for its irresoluteness. Whatever it chooses to do would carry a
potentially heavy price and at best uncertain gain. Negotiations are viewed
by a majority of Palestinians as a fool’s errand, so a decision to resume
without fulfilment of Abbas’s demands (settlement freeze and agreed terms of
reference) could be costly for his movement’s future. His hesitation is all
the stronger now that he has persuaded himself that Prime Minister
Netanyahu’s positions are incompatible with a two-state solution. A decisive
Palestinian move at the UN (whether at the General Assembly or in seeking
agency membership) likely would prompt a cut-off in U.S. aid and suspension
of tax clearance revenue transfers by Israel. A joint government with Hamas
could trigger similar consequences without assurance that elections could be
held or territorial unity between the West Bank and Gaza restored. Getting
rid of the PA could backfire badly, leaving many public employees and their
families penniless while also leading to painful Israeli counter-measures.

The trouble with all these domestic and international justifications for not
rocking the boat is that they are less and less convincing and that
perpetuating the status quo is not cost-free. A process that is turning in
circles undermines the credibility of all its advocates. It cannot
effectively shelter the U.S. from criticism or Israel from condemnation.
Europe can fund a PA whose expiration date has passed only for so long. The
Palestinian leadership is facing ever sharpening questioning of its
approach. Most of all, the idea that to end the existing process would
create a dangerous vacuum wildly exaggerates the process’s remaining
credibility and thus assumes it still serves as a substitute for a vacuum –
when in reality it widely is considered vacuous itself.

Finding an alternative approach is no mean feat. Contrary to what some say,
or hope, it is not a one-state solution – which is championed, in very
different versions, by elements of both the Israeli and Palestinian
political spectrums. A one-state reality already is in place, but as a
solution it almost certainly would face insurmountable challenges –
beginning with the fact that it is fiercely opposed by a vast majority of
Jewish Israelis, who view it as antithetical to their basic aspiration. By
the same token, even though alternatives to the current process should be
pursued, a solution ultimately will be found only through negotiations.

What should be explored is a novel approach to a negotiated two-state
solution that seeks to heighten incentives for reaching a deal and
disincentives for sticking with the status quo, while offering a different
type of third-party mediation. In this spirit, four traditionally neglected
areas ought to be addressed:

New issues. At the core of the Oslo process was the notion that a peace
agreement would need to deal with issues emanating from the 1967 War – the
occupation of the West Bank and Gaza – as opposed to those that arose in
1948 from the establishment of Israel, the trauma of the accompanying war
and the displacement of the vast majority of Palestinians. But if that logic
was ever persuasive, it no longer is. On one side, the character of the
State of Israel; recognition of Jewish history; regional security concerns
extending beyond the Jordan River; and the connection with the entire Land
of Israel have been pushed to the fore. On the other, the issue of the right
of return and the Nakba (the “catastrophe” that befell Palestinians in
1948); the place of the Arab minority in Israel; and, more broadly, the
Palestinian connection to Historic Palestine have become more prominent.
Within Jewish and Muslim communities alike, religion has become more
prevalent in political discussions, and its influence on peacemaking looms
larger than before.

As difficult as it is to imagine a solution that addresses these issues, it
is harder still to imagine one that does not. If the two sides are to be
induced to reach agreement, such matters almost certainly need to be
tackled. Israelis and Palestinians, rather than refusing to deal with the
others’ core concerns, both might use them as a springboard to address their

New constituencies. The process for most of the past two decades has been
led by a relatively narrow array of actors. But the interests of those who
have been excluded resonate deeply with their respective mainstreams. In
Israel, this includes the Right, both religious and national, as well as
settlers. Among Palestinians, it includes Islamists, Palestinian citizens of
Israel and the diaspora. That needs to be rectified. A proposed deal that is
attractive to new constituencies would minimise opposition and could attract
support from unexpected quarters.

New Palestinian strategy. The Palestinian leadership has tested various
waters but is apprehensive about taking the plunge. That approach appears
less sustainable by the day, eroding the leadership’s credibility and
international patience. Rather than ad-hoc, shifting tactical moves, the
entire Palestinian national movement needs to think seriously through its
various options – including reconciliation, internationalisation, popular
resistance and fate of the PA – and decide whether it is prepared to pay the
costs for pursuing them fully. If the answer is “no”, then it would be
better to stop the loose talk that has been surrounding them of late.

New international architecture. Palestinian recourse to the UN is a symptom,
at base, of international failure to lead and provide effective mediation.
The body responsible for doing so, the Quartet, has delivered precious
little since its 2002 inception; by creating an international forum whose
survival depends on perpetuation of the process and whose mode of operation
entails silencing individual voices in favour of a mushy,
lowest-common-denominator consensus, it arguably has done more harm than
good. Whether the body should be entirely disbanded or restructured – and if
so, how – is a question with which the international community needs to
grapple. Whatever the form, it ought to address the profound changes taking
place in the Middle East, the opportunities they present and the risks they

The inescapable truth, almost two decades into the peace process, is that
all actors are now engaged in a game of make-believe: that a resumption of
talks in the current context can lead to success; that an agreement can be
reached within a short timeframe; that the Quartet is an effective mediator;
that the Palestinian leadership is serious about reconciliation, or the UN,
or popular resistance, or disbanding the PA. This is not to say that the
process itself has run its course. Continued meetings and even partial
agreements – invariably welcomed as breakthroughs – are possible precisely
because so many have an interest in its perpetuation. But it will not bring
about a durable and lasting peace. The first step in breaking what has
become an injurious addiction to a futile process is to recognise that it is
so – to acknowledge, at long last, that the emperor has no clothes.

Ramallah/Gaza City/Cairo/Jerusalem/Brussels, 7 May 2012


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