Should ‘Coordinated Unilateralism’ Replace the Mideast Peace Process?
The latest round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, held in Amman, have ended in mutual recrimination. For two decades, participants have gone in search of a permanent status agreement that would solve all issues and end all claims. They have told themselves that such a deal would be supported by virtually “all reasonable people.” But with no final agreement after years of trying, might it be the very search for a comprehensive and negotiated deal that is the problem?
The obstacles have less to do with bad faith and more to do with certain intractable characteristics of the conflict.
One, there are significant gaps between the parties on the major issues, and it is a bit of a myth that “everyone knows” the shape of the final agreement. As Czech Ambassador Michael Zantovky observes in his recent World Affairs article, “The minimum Palestinian position on refugees does not come near the maximum Israeli concessions on the subject. The minimum Israeli position on security does not come near the maximum Palestinian concessions on demilitarization or the Jordan Valley.” (Although Zantovsky is too pessimistic here: Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat told his aides, according to the leaked “Palestine papers,” that “the deal is there” on refugees. Mahmoud Abbas did not reject Ehud Olmert’s offer when he received it. So, the gaps are real but not necessarily unbridgeable.)
Two, because the gaps are significant, the parties often enter talks not because they think a deal is possible but because they are fearful of being blamed by the international community for staying out. “Such fear is enough for negotiations to take place, but not enough for them to succeed,” Zantovsky notes.
Three, the ambition to strike a comprehensive and negotiated and final deal ignores a series of obstacles, among which we can include the following: the irresolvable split (for now, at least) in the Palestinian camp between Hamas’s Islamism and Fatah’s nationalism (after the Amman breakdown, an Israeli official told Haaretz, “We will not enter negotiations with any government that Hamas takes part in, or that its members are appointed by Hamas”); the lack of trust between parties; the belief, on both sides, that negotiations cannot deliver what they want; and the fear both parties hold of damaging what they already have (from economic growth to improved security, from the relative absence of violence to the preservation of fragile governing coalitions).
The price we pay for the paralysis of the peace process is high. Influential commentator Ehud Ya’ari recently argued that continued failure to bring any progress could lead to a Palestinian abandonment of the two-state solution. The global creative class is beginning to trend the same way and to flirt with (frankly, nonexistent) one-state solutions. In the meantime, as Ya’ari puts it, “the diplomatic stalemate discredits moderates and plays into the hands of extremists on both sides who refuse to make the concessions that any viable peace treaty will require.”
Reacting to this stasis, some seek an alternative in “coordinated unilateralism.” In other words, each party would make moves that the other accepts to be part of any final-status agreement (“coordinated”). However, given the paralysis in the negotiating process, they would do so with only the tacit approval of the other party (“unilateral”).