The large majorities for peace that existed in the past on both sides of the conflict in support of a two-state solution have considerably dwindled with the continued failure of the Oslo process. Politicians on both sides are very cautious about committing themselves to a genuine peace process, knowing that any possible agreement will involve considerable concessions that they fear their political coalitions and parties will not accept.
I am often asked in my lectures in Israel and around the world “how could a public consensus possibly be built around a peace agreement with the Palestinians – surely it’s impossible?” There is no doubt that this is of great concern for the politicians themselves, but also for diplomats and leaders outside of Palestine and Israel. I have repeatedly been asked by foreign leaders how any Israeli leader could have the support of their coalition for a real deal with the Palestinians. Surely, the deal has to be de-risked for the leaders as well.
There are about 30 percent of Jewish Israelis who are likely to vote against any peace agreement with the Palestinians. These include almost all of the settlers – even those who will remain in their homes under Israeli sovereignty as part of a deal. It also includes a majority of the national-religious camp inside of Israel proper, and the traditional, more secular hard Right. That still leaves 70% of Jewish Israelis and probably at least 80% of the Palestinian citizens of Israel who would most likely vote “yes” to a peace agreement.
Any peace deal will be brought to a referendum in Israel or to new elections. The people of Israel will vote on whether or not to support a peace agreement. Any prime minister that agrees to a deal will likely only do so with the backing of the national security establishment – including the chief of staff and a majority of the generals, the head of the Mossad, the head of the Shin Bet (Israeli Security Agency) and other senior national security experts and officials. It is unlikely that any prime minister would arrive at an agreement on all of the core issues without the core of the security establishment being involved in the negotiations and without their support. Assuming such support, it is highly unlikely that a referendum or elections would bring about negative results.
The majority of Israelis will support any peace agreement brought to them by the prime minister.
This is why I believe that the distance between where we are and an agreement with the Palestinians is leadership.
The very best negotiations that have ever taken place between Israelis and Palestinians have been when they were alone in the room.
This is what happened in Oslo, in Taba, and between prime minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
The worst negotiations have been when there was an American mediator in the room – Camp David, Senator Mitchell and John Kerry. The tendency of Israelis and Palestinians when the American mediator is there is for them both to talk to the American and not each other. But the conflict is between Israel and Palestine and must be resolved by them. It is time to stop waiting for others to come to the rescue – we must rescue ourselves from ourselves.
The parties should agree on Terms of Reference (ToR) for negotiations because without agreed ToR failure is almost guaranteed. It would be best if the parties could agree on ToR by themselves but, if not, the international community could be helpful, as it is now trying to be. The ToR should be general and something along the lines of: direct bilateral Israeli- Palestinian negotiations will be conducted for the purpose of reaching a permanent-status agreement between the State of Israel and the to-be-recognized State of Palestine. The negotiations will cover all of the permanent-status core issues including borders, Jerusalem, refugees and security. The negotiations will also cover issues concerning economic and trade relations, border management, natural resources including water, and means to foster a culture of peace.
The negotiations should not be open ended and should have a target date for their conclusion, however, this too is problematic because the tendency in difficult negotiations with a deadline is to wait and leave the tough decisions to the very end. This usually ends up creating bad agreements that continue conflicts rather than resolving them. Instead, the parties should commit to allocate the necessary time for intensive negotiating sessions last three to four days each time with no more than two weeks between sessions. They should commit to remaining in negotiations until all of the issues in conflict are resolved.
Another important element which should be integrated into the negotiations is the principle that what is agreed is agreed and can and should be implemented even before full agreement is reached. Previous negotiations have failed because (among other reasons) of the idea that nothing is agreed until all is agreed.
Each small agreement, successfully implemented, assists in reaching larger and more difficult agreements.
The author is co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His book Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew and as The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas by The Toby Press.