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Israel and Palestine: Changing the Terms of Agreement

By Andrew Wilson

How can the continuing impasse in the Middle East be broken, with the Palestinians demanding a settlement freeze in the West Bank and East Jerusalem while Israel insists on negotiations without preconditions? Generally in conflict resolution, when the issues have been articulated to death, a door can be opened by changing the language. Accordingly, let me offer a new proposal: a settlement “lull.”

Now may be a good time for Israel to consider such a conciliatory move. With Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas having failed to gain international recognition of Palestine statehood at the UN Security Council, he has indicated that he will suspend any unilateral steps at the UN until January 26, 2012—this according to a December 1 report in Haaretz. The previous day, Israel announced that it was releasing tax funds to the Palestinian Authority that had been embargoed. However, "If the Palestinian Authority takes unilateral steps again, the transfer of funds will be reconsidered" according to a statement from the prime minister's office.

Thus, both sides have halted their unilateral actions and tit-for-tat around the UN issue. Reports indicate that Tony Blair, representing the Quartet (the U.S., EU, Russia, and the UN), welcomed Israel’s move.

Can the same be done to restart actual negotiations under the auspices of the Quartet? The Quartet had suggested a timeline calling for the Palestinians and Israelis to submit proposals on borders and security issues by January 26 of next year. These should serve as opening positions for subsequent direct negotiations. The Palestinians have already complied, having presented their proposals on November 14. Their document lays out the borders of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines with a willingness to swap 1.9 percent of West Bank territory with that of Israel. 

But Netanyahu has balked. According to Haaretz, his representative, Isaac Molho, said that Israel would not cooperate with the Quartet’s approach, preferring instead a return to direct talks with the Palestinians. European diplomats see Netanyahu's response to the Quartet as recalcitrant, while the Palestinians appear to be the party taking the initiative and interested in advancing the peace process. 

Israel wants direct negotiations, but this brings us back to the Palestinian precondition to negotiations that Israel must halt the construction of settlements. But to require Israel to halt, or freeze, settlement building as a precondition is something that the Netanyahu government is not willing to do, because it considers that in any final agreement many of those settlements (Gilo, for example) will remain within Israel. To “freeze” settlement construction would be tantamount to admitting that they are on the table to fall within any future Palestinian state. Netanyahu’s government argues that Israel should not have to be bound in advance to a position that should be worked out in the course of negotiations.

Yet despite having laid out this precondition, Abbas is seen to be complying with the Quartet while Israel is not. Hence, he has diplomatic justification for standing pat. If Abbas were to retreat from his conditions, he would run considerable domestic political risk. He is already weakened by the apparent failure of his UN venture, and he looks weak by comparison to Hamas which can crow about its success in the Shalit affair. The Arab street roundly condemned Abbas when his moderate positions in the 2008 negotiations were exposed by Al-Jazeera earlier this year in the “Palestine Papers.” Hence, he may not be at all confident that his government could survive if he enters into negotiations from the position of having to concede on settlements.

Nevertheless, as the Quartet insists, negotiations are essential. The two sides need to begin talking to one another, regardless of what the other party is doing. It is the responsibility of each party to work for its goals by winning the assent of the other. This is what can lead to cooperation, trust, and a lasting durable peace.

Apparently Israel agrees, having refused to cooperate with the Quartet’s indirect diplomacy. But stalling the process in an argument over preconditions in order to seek a more advantageous starting-point is not helpful. Continued delays by Israel will not necessarily improve its position. Meanwhile, the rhetoric of “occupation” and the construction of settlements have become weapons in a low-grade conflict that, if prolonged, may once again lead to unwanted escalation.

It is in Israel's best interests to begin negotiations with Abbas. Indeed, commencing negotiations will benefit both communities. The alternatives for Israel are not pleasant: international isolation and even possibly a Hamas victory in the upcoming Palestinian elections. Furthermore, Israel has the means to provide Abbas with a face-saving measure that would afford him the dignity he needs to come to the negotiating table—while not compromising its own position.

I propose that Israel announce a unilateral “lull” in settlement construction. In diplomacy, where words are important, the word “lull” could be employed to soften the impasse that currently exists.

Language is important here. The word “lull” has quite different connotations from the word “freeze.” The noun “freeze”  connotes a “fact on the ground” that settlement construction has stopped. Israel should not have to put a new fact on the ground that favors the Palestinians. A “lull,” on the other hand, connotes a temporary cessation of an activity that has been undertaken.

For Israel to announce a “lull” would mean that its policy on settlements has not necessarily changed, only that there is a temporary cessation of that activity. Israel can announce a lull with the understanding that it is free to consider a resumption of settlement construction at any time, remaining in control of when to end the lull. Affirming that a lull is not a full-blown concession on settlement construction should make the idea more palatable to Israel’s supporters on the right.

On the other hand, the Palestinians can characterize the lull as outright abandonment of settlement construction, since construction activity will have in fact stopped. This will allow Abbas to state, or overstate at his discretion, what his people will understand as a victory: that he has secured an end to Israeli settlement building.

Meanwhile, there could be an understanding between Israel and the Quartet that such utterances from either party are to be allowed to pass without objection in order for all sides to move forward, save face, and commence face-to-face negotiations.

A “lull” will change the terms of the dispute, as it changes the terms for engagement just enough to open the door to negotiations under the auspices of the Quartet. It is designed to enable the two parties, now at an impasse, to move beyond that impasse without requiring either party to back down from its position.

Now that both sides are showing some flexibility, it is an opportune time for Israel to take such a step.

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Andrew Wilson is co-author of the Citizens Proposal for a Border between Israel and Palestine, an independent initiative to draw a map based on the principles of fairness, contiguity, access, minimizing dislocation of the population, and enhancing conditions for economic development.

[Photo courtesy of Rusty Stewart]

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