Geneva Initiative Conference: Israel and the Palestinians – Decision Time, Part 1


Yom Kippur ended here in Israel on Saturday evening, and we were already back to business as usual the next day. Cramming in a quick, high-profile event between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, on Sunday the Geneva Initiative hosted a conference in Tel Aviv entitled “Israel and the Palestinians: Decision Time.”

Featured speakers included Dr. Matti Steinberg, a former senior government security advisor, Dr. Tal Becker, a former member of Israel’s negotiating team with the Palestinians, and Professor Tamar Hermann, co-director of the “Peace Index”. The closing address was given by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who walked right past me as he headed up to the stage. This is the closest I have ever been to a former head of state; it was kind of cool. More academically productive, I am now in touch with his spokesperson and am attempting to arrange an interview with Mr. Olmert in the near future.

The conference was attended by members of the foreign and domestic press, many representatives of the left-wing political establishment, at least a few Palestinian dignitaries, and a smattering of students and other curious onlookers. It met in a packed hall at the Eretz Yisrael Museum in Ramat Aviv, a northern suburb of Tel Aviv close to Tel Aviv University. All the addresses were given in Hebrew but headsets with English translations were made available. Rather than take the chance of missing a critical piece of information, I opted for the headset.

The first speaker, Matti Steinberg, focused on his interpretation of the Palestinian Authority’s position vis-a-vis the peace process. He noted that there is a significant gap between the majority of Palestinians who apparently support a peace agreement with Israel and the self-same majority who does not see a peace agreement as possible. This disjuncture highlights that there is little hope among the Palestinians, as with the Israelis, that an end to the conflict is on the horizon no matter how much either side may want it.

In terms of the PA leadership, he asserted that there has been a crystallization of the idea that the Palestinians must make concessions to Israel if they want a state in part of what they see as their homeland. For this state to be established as a political reality, they have already “foregone 80% of Palestine” as as such believe they have already acceded considerable concessions to Israel. Therefore, if Israel wants to keep any land outside of its pre-1967 borders, it must be prepared to do so on the basis of 1-to-1 land swaps with a future Palestinian state.

More critical, he insisted, is the strategic and diplomatic shift which has occurred in the Middle East as indicated by the Saudi Peace Initiative of 2002. Ostensibly offering full recognition for the state of Israel within its pre-1967 boundaries on the condition that the rest be granted to a Palestinian state, the speaker argued that Israel has denied the legitimacy offered by the Arab world by not responding to this settlement. As such, Israel should not complain that there are efforts to delegitimize it if it does not grasp the opportunities presented to achieve regional legitimacy.

For the PA, the settlement freeze and the status of East Jerusalem are the most important issues, and by refusing to cede ground on either issue, Israel is missing an important opportunity to empower Palestinian and Arab “moderates” and weaken the radical axis of Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran. Indeed, he asserted that Hamas is against the Saudi Initiative because it would result in a Palestinian state which would could include territory beyond the 1967 lines and would close the door to the threat of a massive influx of refugees into Israel proper.

But if the freeze is so important to the PA, why didn’t they insist upon this in the past? It is difficult, he argued, to deny the contradiction between the demand by Israel to expand settlements but not to define precisely the areas into which they will expand. By asserting that the settlements are a “marginal issue” which should not prejudice the progress of negotiations, why not agree to a continued building moratorium? For the Palestinians, they have learned that settlement building will continue despite the progress of negotiations. Moreover, he asserted, when the whole world is against the expansion of settlements, “it is not logical for the Palestinians to take a moderate stand.” They need to know with some certainty that if there will be a Palestinian state, where it will be. Refusing to negotiate over the settlements only perpetuates this ambiguity.

However, the speaker insisted that the PA would accept any kind of freeze, even one which is not announced publically. What is most important for them is to demonstrate progress to their people with regard to negotiations and be able to show that they have achieved real political gains. Such developments would arguably help delegitimize Hamas and strengthen the hand of “moderates.” Referring to PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s plan which has thus far focused on economic development in the West Bank, he asserted that this alone is insufficient. If the PA is unable to demonstrate real political gains, they will lose all legitimacy to Hamas.

In the end, Steinberg argued that the need for an agreement comes down to assuring the Israeli domestic interests. The question of where Israel has come from and where it is headed comes down to two fundamental concerns: demography and democracy. It is possible to have a division into two states, one for the Palestinians and one for Israelis, Democratic and Jewish in character. Or there are a range of one-state options, each of which he believes would negate one of these two critical elements for Israelis. Those who are against a continuation of the freeze are only moving Israel toward the reality of a bi-national state. Israel, he argued, is a dove on the precipice, and it should not think that it can freeze reality on the tumultuous ocean of the status quo and expect that stability will result.

Next on the program was Tal Becker who focused on the role of the United States and other international players in the peace process. From his time involved in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, he pointed out that many states have an active interest in being involved in the process, but not necessarily to productive ends. States like to be seen as doing good but do not necessarily want to actually do good. When asking if someone would be willing to host a ceremony for the signing of an agreement, representatives of many countries were more than happy to offer assistance, but when dealing with the hard issues, voices fell silent.

From the international community, he asserted that Israel really needs assistance with four issues: spoilers, ensuring centralization of negotiations, making use of other countries’ specialized experiences and resources, and active post-conflict involvement. In terms of spoilers, Israel and even the United States cannot independently change the cost/benefit calculations of the most problematic parties in the conflict, namely Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas. To achieve this, other countries must too be willing to take risks and exert diplomatic capital.

With regard to negotiations, he insisted that it can be very easy for those in negotiations to believe they can find a better deal at another table and choose instead to take an alternative track on the sidelines. Such moves distract from negotiations and fail to keep all people and ideas in the same room and ate unrealistic expectations about what each party can and should offer one another. Of course, it with some irony that this was the nature and origin of the Geneva Initiative, track-two diplomacy outside the scope of official negotiations for which it was roundly condemned by the Israeli government at the time of its signing.

As for resource sharing both in management of the conflict and post-conflict stabilization, Becker believes that other countries can and must offer their expertise in managing their own domestic conflicts and their experience in peacemaking and peacekeeping to ensure a final settlement. On these matters, he was considerably less detailed. He did say, however, that Israel must avoid the “if only the US would do such and such” approach. Israel needs the US as a third party to push them to agree to a settlement, but it cannot be dependent upon US pressure to come to an agreement. If the Israeli and Palestinian sides are dragged to the table (as many would argue both have been in this current round of negotiations), nothing productive will come of it. Nothing can replace a leadership that truly seeks peace.

The most interesting aspect of what he had to say was about the language that Israeli politicians and diplomats use to “sell” peace to the Israeli public. When they discuss peace as “a bitter pill” or in terms of “painful concessions” through which Israel must “forgo the dream” of Jewish sovereignty in the whole of the land (here strongly implied but not directly stated), peace can only be seen as something which is not desirable. In the Middle East, “concessions” are essentially synonymous with “betrayal”. As such, rather than framing peace making as a series of concessions, it must be termed as a plan to implement and preserve Israeli interests, goals, and desires. There is clearly a role for the international community in these negotiations, but they cannot replace Israeli promotion of its own interests and reality with or without a settlement.

The third speaker, Tamar Hermann, spoke more or less on the topic of Israeli public opinion. She began her talk with a discussion of the principles of game theory and the difference between one-off games in which players interact but a single time and expect an immediate outcome and those repeated games in which players interact again and again over time, build reputations, and begin to act in response to those reputations developed through interaction. Among such iterated games, the players can believe that the current turn is an end game, or merely one more step in an ongoing and potentially endless set of interactions.

On the Israeli side of the equation, she asserted, there are two principle players, the public and the prime minister. From what we know of PM Netanyahu, it would seem that he sees himself as being in an iterated game with no end in sight, therefore he can be expected to play in a way to maximize his advantages for the next round demanding wide security margins in negotiations. In this context, his demand that the PA recognize Israel as a Jewish state is a trump card, because, she argued, the Palestinians cannot agree to it, ensuring that the game will continue.

But even under such modeled conditions, there is space for an agreement. Focusing on what is most important to the Prime Minister, which she believes is economic and diplomatic legitimacy in the international community at large, the threat of delegitimization on either of these fronts might be enough to push him toward substantial compromise. Moreover, none of the partners in his coalition have an interest in defecting such that there is a slim chance of political collapse. This might therefore allow Bibi broader room to offer concessions rather than less as might be expected under the veto players approach (for instance see Tsebelis and Spruyt).

She then related a story about a group of apparently prominent right-wing rabbis who came together for a meeting which she attended. They had gathered to discuss what they would do “when” the government decided to implement another massive withdrawal from the settlements in order to ensure that their followers would not react violently. They asserted that if the government was planning the “ceremony of our burial, allow us to decide what form it will take.” She took the belief of these rabbis that another withdrawal was not only possible but likely as a source of “hope” both for Israeli support for such a withdrawal and that it might actually occur.

As for public opinion at large, she referenced the recent cover story in Time Magazine, “Why Israel Doesn’t Care About Peace,” which she claimed to have had a significant behind-the-scenes hand in crafting. Surveys conducted by her organization have found that the issue of a peace agreement is not a top priority for Israelis nor is there a strong belief that a third intifada is likely or even particularly problematic for Israeli security (By contrast, Iran continues to be seen as a major strategic threat). This is juxtaposed to the finding that 65% of Israelis believe that the whole world is against Israel and the 77% who believe that no matter what Israel does with regard to the peace process, the world will still be overly critical of it.

Such conditions of overt skepticism regarding the potential international gains in legitimacy in return for progress towards and agreement coupled with a low prioritization of talks themselves contribute to a picture of Israeli society as increasingly disinterested in engaging with the Palestinians or global opinion. It also seems to indicate that Israelis have very low expectations as to the positive gains that such engagement might produce. Under these terms, it has become very hard to actively rally Israelis either in protest or support of diplomatic initiatives. One might draw the ostensibly positive conclusion that political leaders actually have greater latitude to engage in deep and costly negotiations not having the expectation of punishment by domestic constituencies.

In my next post, I will write about Ehud Olmert’s address. This has already gotten far too long to read in one sitting, and the speech of a former Prime Minister certainly deserves its own article. For a summary of his major talking points, check out the recent article on YNet from which I pulled the picture at the top of this point. Stay tuned.

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