One American’s view

The conclusion of the Geneva accord once again hammers home the agonizing truth about Israeli-Palestinian negotiations: the main challenge is not the absence of clever diplomatic solutions by well-intentioned Israelis and Palestinians to the core problems of permanent status, but the absence of political leadership and public support required to make them work. Whatever the accomplishments of the Geneva negotiators (and there are many), the prospects and possibilities for implementation under current circumstances are bleak. Indeed, there is simply no way to negotiate the agreement, impose it from the outside, or appeal to publics to embrace it over the heads of politicians.

During the period between the Camp David summit of July 2000 and the Taba talks in early 2001, Israelis, Palestinians and American negotiators ably demonstrated their ability to take a serious crack at breaking the genetic code on most–if not all–of the core issues that defined the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No agreements were achieved, yet creative and imaginative fixes emerged on borders, Jerusalem, settlements, refugees and security. At least on substance, these negotiations demonstrated that the keys to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement on these issues were not locked up in metaphysical mysteries of the East but might be attained through logical, rational and creative diplomacy. Indeed, an array of broad parameters emerged based on the efforts of three major sets of negotiations: the July 2000 Camp David summit; the December 2000 Clinton parameters; and the January 2001 talks at Taba. Subsequently, two other initiatives joined the club: the one page set of principles of Sari Nusseibeh and Ami Ayalon, and the Geneva accord.

All of these efforts tend to reaffirm the so-called “everyone knows what it takes to conclude an agreement” observation. And the Geneva accord is the latest, if not the most detailed, of these efforts. That well intended, knowledgeable and committed Israelis and Palestinians could come up with such an accord, particularly in this environment, is a stunning accomplishment. Indeed the Geneva accord represents an important psychological counterpoint–at a critical time in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship–to the now conventional wisdom that there are no serious partners for negotiations and nothing to negotiate about. If in fact Israelis and Palestinians are to end their conflict, two main presumptions must be maintained: first, that there exists an equitable and durable solution for the core issues that divide them; and second, that only serious negotiations can bring it about. On the face of it, the Geneva accord does both.

At the same time, the Geneva accomplishment is deceptively alluring–which is why veterans of the Arab-Israel peace process have managed to keep their enthusiasm under control. Simply put, to make Geneva a reality, you would need political leaders as well as publics willing and able to overcome their current anger, cynicism and despair. Unfortunately, right now, and probably for the foreseeable future, both are lacking.

Even under the best of circumstances, Arab-Israel peacemaking is an excruciatingly painful and difficult task. Consider this: even with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s stunning visit to Jerusalem and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s strong leadership and political skills, it took two years to negotiate an Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty and another three to fully implement it. Along the way, the effort required constant management by a third party and a high risk presidential summit; and this effort involved issues not nearly as complex as Jerusalem and refugees.

The fact is that without leaders willing to look at peacemaking as a strategic national interest rather than as a series of tactical maneuvers to avoid internal and external pressure, only “process” is possible, and sometimes not even that. Whether it was Begin and Sadat; Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein; or even Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasir Arafat (in his first incarnation), a sustained search for common ground and considerable trust and confidence–if only sometimes as temporary coincidence of national interests–is required. Instead, at the moment, a zero-sum game mentality applies.

In short, whatever the benefits of the Geneva accord, there is no political leader empowered or interested in pulling the train, nor is there much prospect–right now–of an emerging political grassroots movement to energize the elites and public on either the Israeli or Palestinian side.

This brings us to the second major obstacle confronting the Geneva accord: the slim possibilities of bypassing the political establishment and appealing to publics to create momentum or pressure for change.

The historical track record for such efforts is not terribly encouraging. And while it would be irresponsible to become a prisoner of the past, frankly the odds against success are formidable. The fact is that over the past three decades when breakthroughs in the Arab-Israel arena have occurred, they evolved not through dramatic demonstrations of public pressure, but by leaders negotiating secretly and then, through dramatic gestures, selling these agreements to their constituencies. All successful (and in the case of Oslo unsuccessful) agreements between Israelis and Egyptians, Palestinians, and Jordanians developed this way. Why the Israeli and Palestinian publics have been so passive in pursuit of peace is itself worthy of serious study. Suffice it to say, on the Palestinian side, given the existing realities of the occupation, when publics mobilize they usually do so in defiance or in resistance to Israel rather than to pressure their own leaders. With regard to Israeli society, perhaps part of the answer to passivity lies in the public’s willingness to defer to the government and the state’s judgment on issues relating to national security. In any event, despite increasing disaffection on both sides with the current circumstances, it’s hard to imagine a surge of public pressure to change them.

And so, the Geneva accord–like its official antecedents during the dramatic period July 2000 to early 2001–will likely become an important part of the parameters of creative and imaginative diplomacy that will define the possibilities for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations once they begin. But they will probably not be a catalyst to trigger those negotiations. Nonetheless, when that moment comes (and it will come) those who worked boldly and courageously to produce the Geneva effort will have reason to be proud of what they have done.