This article was previously published on The Huffington Post.
By Alon Ben-Meir
The international conference that was convened by France on June 3 in Paris to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process ended up without concretely establishing specific measures that would persuade both parties to resume negotiations in order to reach a peace agreement. The joint communiqué issued following the conference stated “The participants discussed possible ways in which the international community could help advance the prospects for peace, including by providing meaningful incentives to the parties to make peace.”
Although the conferees agreed to reconvene again later this year and offer some incentives to both sides to restart the negotiations in earnest, I maintain that no incentives, however extensive and compelling, will succeed unless preceded by a period of reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians. In fact, if Netanyahu or Abbas refuse to engage in a process of reconciliation, this would strongly suggest that they are not interested in reaching a peace agreement, let alone making the major concessions necessary to achieve peace.
While incentives will eventually become necessary to lock in an agreement, there are three essential impediments that must first be mitigated in order to change the Israelis’ and Palestinians’ perception of each other to enable them to negotiate in good faith.
The three elements are: the embedded distrust between the two sides; concern over national security; and the illusions that significant constituencies on both sides continue to entertain, which ultimately deny each other’s right to an independent state of their own.
Distrust: The pervasive and mutual distrust cannot be mitigated through negotiation nor dispelled by simply agreeing to begin to trust one another—it is a process that must be nurtured over a period of time. According to the philosopher Jay Bernstein, “trust relations provide the ethical substance of everyday living … Trust relations are relations of mutual recognition in which we acknowledge our mutual standing and vulnerability with respect to one another.”
Distrust remains one of the most daunting problems that continues to haunt both sides and has become engrained in the minds of nearly every Israeli and Palestinian, as neither has made any effort to mitigate it. On the contrary, they have and continue to take demonstrable actions on the ground in ways that only deepen distrust.
By way of example, Israel continued building and expanding settlements, Hamas constructed tunnels in Gaza for offensive purposes, certain Palestinians and settlers engaged in wanton violence, and leaders on both sides displayed public acrimony. Moreover, personal chemistry and communication between the Israeli and Palestinian leadership was and still is completely absent.
Continuing distrust has automatically created a dogmatic attitude of stubbornness and reinforced assumptions about each other’s true intentions. Moreover, the absence of trust leads to social paralysis and the loss of hope while evoking fear, a deep sense of uncertainty, and the inability to foster social bonds. As a result, both sides became suspicious of every action taken by the other regardless of how well-intended they were, as mutual skepticism led to the sense of futility in making any concessions.
To be sure, little effort was made to engage one another through mutual conciliatory interactions to cultivate trust. Instead, they used the public stage to malign the other, further deepening hatred and distrust rather than building new bridges. As a result, the absence of trust has sunk too deep to be simply rectified at the negotiating table. It must thus be nurtured to allow both sides to view one another as a potential partner worthy of being trusted.
In the final analysis, distrust can be mitigated only through people-to-people interactions. Both sides need to take confidence-building measures to faithfully demonstrate they can, in fact, begin the process of learning to trust one another and commit to reaching mutually agreed-upon terms of engagement that will pave the way for a durable peace. Some of these measures could include but are certainly not limited to the following:
Israel can stop or at the very least slow the expansion of settlements during this period. It should bring an end to collective punishment and night raids, and work closely with Palestinian internal security to prevent extremists on either side from undermining this process. Another measure is releasing nonviolent Palestinian prisoners, or allowing them increased visitation rights so families can regularly visit.
The Palestinians can also take certain measures, beginning with stopping all public incitement, working closely with Israel in pursuit of extremists within the territories, engaging regularly in a positive public narrative, openly talking about the need to reconcile with Israel, and stressing the inevitability of coexistence between both peoples. To be sure, people-to-people interactions over a period of at least 18 months will be necessary to cultivate a degree of trust that would allow both sides to view the other through a more positive lens.
National security: There is a current state of fear and anxiety for the future experienced by both sides, which is constantly fed by a deep sense of national insecurity. This concern is largely informed by past experiences, as both can in fact make a strong case as to why they are troubled by national security concerns. For the Israelis, these experiences include random shelling, acts of extreme violence like the multiple stabbing incidents over the last eight months, car bombings, and existential threats emanating from Iran and groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. By constantly invoking a sense of insecurity, it became the state’s mantra, often prompting Israel to take uncalled for measures to presumably enhance its security while further aggravating the Palestinians’ sense of insecurity.
In regard to the Palestinians, their constant and overarching fear is related to their understanding that Israel is and will always remain the most powerful state in the region, and that under no circumstances can they ever overwhelm Israel through force. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, Israel’s absolute security renders the Palestinians absolutely insecure. That sense of insecurity fosters a constant concern often reinforced by fear of night raids, home demolitions, loss of territory, and administrative detention, among others. The fact that Israel can take, at any time, measures deemed necessary under the guise of protecting its own national security has created a deep sense of vulnerability among the Palestinians.
In addition, regional volatility and the development of events over which neither side has complete control do not allow them to take security for granted. The sweeping regional upheaval, including the civil war in Syria, the rise of the Islamic State, and the impact of the violent Sunni-Shiite conflict, has a direct and indirect effect on the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians and creates heightened anxiety, which inhibits making any concession that might affect their national and individual security.
Even if both sides are persuaded to stop all activities that promote or instigate concerns over national security, it will still take time to fully collaborate and regularly take consistent and mutually complementary practical steps of reconciliation to allay some of these national security concerns.
Dr. Alon Ben Meir is a professor and senior fellow at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and senior fellow at the World Policy Institute. Dr. Ben-Meir is an expert on Middle East politics and affairs, specializing in international negotiations and conflict resolution.
[Photo courtesy of Elliott Brown]