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Middle East and North Africa

Clock ticking for Israeli-Palestinian talks

Last week, American Secretary of State John Kerry announced that Israeli and Palestinian leaders had “reached an agreement that establishes a basis for resuming direct final status negotiations,” leading the three countries back to the peacemaking position put on hiatus in 2010, and opening them up to resume talks. Of course, Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are never inherently a bad thing, but many are feeling skeptical of Kerry’s ability to facilitate a fair, lasting agreement where even someone as savvy as former American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton failed.

Obviously, it is not enough for Kerry to get a grudging agreement from Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to resume talks. In order for peace to stick for any period of time, talks need to fall well away from election periods in both countries, be reinforced by cross-national institutions strengthening Israeli-Palestinian relations, and carry a concrete plan of action with benefits for both sides. Of course, these three may be necessary but not sufficient conditions, but without the three conditions, talks will likely not stick with either government. 

Kerry has struck at precisely the right point for the first condition. Israel held elections earlier this year, and the Palestinian National Authority last held elections last year. The reason why elections are bad for the peace process is empirical. Since the 1993 Oslo Accords, when Palestine started holding regular elections, both countries have experienced a definite shift to the hawkish side of politics, with the right-wing Likud party taking control from the liberal Kadima party in Israel, and Hamas gaining a legislative victory over Fatah in Palestine. Clearly, there is something in a hawkish message that appeals to both the Israeli and the Palestinian voter.

This (to an outsider) illogical disinclination towards peace is likely a result of an information problem, which may be a result of a lack of the second condition for successful peace talks—cross-national institutions. According to scholars Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder, in incompletely transitioned democracies, as both Israel and Palestine can be described, leaders will often employ hypernationalist and bellicose rhetoric in order to drum up popular support because of the lack of well-developed institutions such as parties, courts, and news media that could help citizens parse out these hawkish policies.

The institutions that both Israel and Palestine need to develop during the process of their talks are not intrastate institutions like parties and courts, but rather interstate institutions like trade blocs. Institutions to bridge gaps between two societies are extremely important, because as scholar Ashutosh Varshney wrote, if you are interdependent with outgroup members as business associates, you will want peaceful relations with the outgroup. With Israel’s blockade and sanctions on many areas of Palestine, it is in fact going in about as far of an opposite direction from a trade bloc as it can go, and talks will suffer because of it if economic roadblocks are not reversed. Kerry will need to press for interdependent institutional strength for the talks to stick.

The final thing Kerry needs to keep in mind when resuming peace talks is concrete action. Without concrete action behind them, agreements cannot be expected to take root. The reason why the Oslo Accords worked in 1993 was because of the creation of an internationally legitimate self-government in Palestine, the Palestinian National Authority. The reason why the Camp David Accords worked in 1978 was because Israel concretely established good faith by withdrawing from the Sinai Peninsula and accepted the movement towards the full autonomy of the Palestinian people (and those talks did not even involve the Palestinian Liberation Organization or any other governing body).

But the countless talks started by seemingly every American secretary of state who wants to leave his or her mark on history have not stuck if they merely promise the Palestinian people “movement” towards fuller autonomy or Israeli troop withdrawal, or if they merely promise the Israeli people “movement” towards cracking down on violent movements within Palestine.

Of course, Kerry could pursue all of these things, and peace could still fall through, or be disappointingly short-lived. This does not mean that resuming talks is not worth it. After all, come the next elections in three or four years, peace talks will not be on as many Israeli or Palestinian minds. Kerry, and presumably Netanyahu and Abbas as well, are striking at the correct time. The actors in these debates just need to remember that it is not enough to simply sit down with one another, but there need to be concrete outcomes promised, and they need to be supplemented by interstate unity in civil society.

By Laura Gates 

Source: Foreign Policy, International Organization, World Politics

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