The Delusion of Peace Initiatives

By April 14, 2011

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 136

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Israel is under pressure to present a new “peace initiative,” but the wisdom of such a move is not self-evident. While a peace initiative may deflect some of the international criticism, it is unlikely to bring about conflict resolution – it will hardly meet the approval of the Palestinians or even the Americans. Moreover, it will propagate the fallacy of a two-state solution, which until now has totally failed.

The Israeli government seems to be under great international pressure to come up with a peace initiative. The politically discredited Israeli “peace camp” has also joined the fray and is pushing again for an almost total withdrawal to the 1967 lines, the partition of Jerusalem and limited land swaps.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been partly responsive to the international atmosphere and has indicated that he is preparing some kind of initiative, although its specifics are still under internal discussion. Another “Bar-Ilan speech” seems to be in the offing for sometime in May, during a planned visit to the US. It is not entirely clear, however, that accommodating the wishful thinking of the international community is wise.

The fact that the Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership refuses to sit and negotiate with the Israelis leaves much of the world unperturbed, continuously evoking Pavlovian responses about the need to pursue peace negotiations while there is a “window of opportunity” (whatever that means). The fact that the PA is very weak, hardly rules over the West Bank and failed to hold onto Gaza – which shows its unreliability as a partner able to implement an agreement with Israel – is ignored. A large part of the world instead deludes itself in believing that an understanding between the Israelis and Palestinians is within easy reach. The bad news, which is that the differences between Israelis and Palestinians are unbridgeable in this generation and that the two societies are not yet tired of fighting for what is important to them, seems to be extremely hard to digest. While protracted conflict is a well understood feature that characterizes ethno-religious disputes in such places as Kashmir and Nagorno-Karabakh, the difficulties in solving such conflicts do not register in the minds of many contemporary politicians and diplomats.

Ironically, the protagonists in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are more mature and understand their predicament. All polls show that large majorities of Israelis and Palestinians do not expect conflict resolution any time soon and are fully aware that peace is not around the corner.

If this tragic prognosis of the conflict is any indication, how can an Israeli “peace initiative” do any good? Most members of the current Israeli government agree with the prognosis, but some believe that it is up to Israel to show additional flexibility in order to fend off international criticism, particularly from Washington. Moreover, an Israeli “peace initiative” will preempt initiatives by other actors that would otherwise be unlikely to accommodate Israel’s best interests, and will give the international community something to chew on in the meantime, enabling Israel to have some added breathing space. This strategy of gaining time, in the hope that the world will eventually develop a better understanding of the situation and/or that the Arabs will become less intransigent, has always been a central part of Israeli policy.

The first problem with this approach is that Israel is unable to offer anything acceptable to the Palestinians. Whatever Netanyahu comes up with, it will not satisfy Palestinian appetites. Even the so-called moderates are unlikely to accept a generous Israeli offer, as the 2000 Ehud Barak and 2008 Ehud Olmert overtures proved. The recent responses to Wikileaks by the Palestinian “moderates,” who showed some flexibility on their part in the secret negotiations with Israel, are indicative of the reluctance to prepare their people for concessions toward Israel. Instead of capitalizing on the opportunity to tell their people that some concessions are needed to reach a historic agreement with the Zionist national movement, they cowardly denied that any concessions had been agreed upon. This starkly contrasts with the behavior of Barak and Olmert, who never denied that they had gone beyond the preferences of their constituency.

The second problem with this approach is that a new “peace initiative” is likely to be based upon the already prevailing paradigm – the two-state solution – which simply does not work. The world, including Israel, continues to adhere to a plan that has failed to materialize in the past and has little chance of fruition in the near future. Actually, much of the international community understands that a potential Palestinian state requires much outside support and has been pouring great amounts of money into such a state-building project. Moreover, part of the international community, including the Palestinians, are suggesting the establishment of a UN mandate or an international trusteeship, based on the realization that the maturity needed for effective self-rule is absent in Palestinian polity. Nowadays, when most Arab states, which have been in existence for decades, are in turmoil and facing acute socio-political crisis, it is very hard to believe that the Palestinians are going to do any better. The likelihood of a failed Palestinian state, like many others in the Arab world, is much higher than that of a stable, prospering and peaceful neighbor of Israel. Thus, an Israeli “peace initiative” will only further entrench the fallacy of the two-state solution within the agenda of the international community, rather than encourage realistic and creative thinking about more useful plans and strategies.

Finally, telling the truth has a certain appeal despite widespread international ignorance, cynicism and hypocrisy. Therefore, Netanyahu may be well advised to try, for once, telling Israel’s friends – and there are still many around – that while peace with the Palestinians is not a realistic goal, Israel can still take certain measures to ameliorate the situation. Therefore, what Israel needs is not to pursue an elusive peace but to develop a coherent conflict management strategy that will minimize the suffering on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide. It is worth remembering that politics is the art of the possible. Mission: Impossible was an attractive TV show, but reality is much more complex.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

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(Photo Credit: Michael Gross)

Prof. Efraim Inbar
Prof. Efraim Inbar

Prof. Efraim Inbar is professor emeritus of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.