Freeing the Process for Mideast Peace Talks

Shibley Telhami holds the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, College Park.

After missing a February deadline for reaching an agreement, Palestinians and Israelis are set to renew their negotiations this month.

But the problem in the negotiations so far is not simply the difficult issues they face but the very structure of the process. Unless this structure is altered, the two sides are unlikely to meet their next important deadline in September.

Two problems stand in the way of a lasting deal: the absence of serious reference points, and the logical constraints of negotiations, which prevent representatives from displaying the kind of good will needed for success. The answer? Empower a group of Israeli and Palestinian nonofficial experts to draw up non-binding proposals that could guide official negotiations.

Unlike Israeli talks with Egypt and Syria, which were based largely on a U.N. resolution, the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations have, in practice, had no such frame of reference. That resolution, 242, entailed Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai and the Golan Heights in exchange for peace and security for Israel.

In principle, the same U.N. resolution is a basis for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. But both dramatic changes in the map of the West Bank since 1967 and Israel’s insistence that 242 does not apply to the West Bank and Gaza in the same way it did to the Sinai and the Golan have reduced its practical relevance.

Thus, the parties are negotiating from different reference points. The negotiating gap is very wide, and the possible solutions too numerous. Israel is working from the status quo, and its aim is to allow the smallest possible territorial change from that. The Palestinians are negotiating with the aim of minimizing deviation from the 1967 line.

This gap is not helped by the asymmetry of leverage in the negotiations. Israel controls most of the disputed territories, and the status quo is more comfortable for Israel than for the Palestinians. The extent that Israel will be willing to provide major concessions on issues such as Jerusalem and Jewish settlements will require good will and a vision that a stable peace and a viable Palestinian state require significant changes in the status quo.

While many in the Israeli mainstream and the government may hold such a vision, daily negotiations, by their logic, focus on short-term interests. A good negotiator seeks to get more and to give less. Vision and good will are not part of a negotiator’s mandate.

What to do? The parties need an external reference point to set their sights on. The United States is reluctant to play that role at this stage because Israel does not want to appear to be accepting American dictates and because the gap remains too wide for successful mediation.

The non-official Palestinian and Israeli experts offer a practical alternative. Such a group could provide joint proposals to resolve the key issues separating the parties. When mainstream Israeli and Palestinian experts and academics meet to address the difficult issues separating both sides, including Jerusalem, bold and useful proposals that meet the interests of both sides often emerge.

In this setting, experts do not have to worry about immediate political consequences, and they pay more reflective attention to long-term interests and to issues of fairness. Good will prevails more easily than in formal negotiations.

The findings of the group would be non-binding. But official sponsorship would give more weight to these recommendations in the public discourse in both communities and would obligate negotiators to put them on the negotiating table, providing new terms of reference that could significantly narrow the gap separating the parties.

Much is at stake in meeting the next negotiating deadline. Both sides have been fortunate in the past few months for the absence of major Palestinian-Israeli violence that can sour the public mood and shift governmental priorities.

Hard-line Palestinians are already drawing an unfortunate conclusion from the recent violence in Lebanon: that Israel is being driven out of Lebanon by the violent acts of a few hundred guerillas. A counter-conclusion is urgently needed: that peace in the Middle East will come, not through violence, but through successful negotiations that address the core interests of both sides.