When Ambiguity is Destructive

After six months of negotiations and nearly two dozen trips to the region by Secretary of State John Kerry, there is a growing sense that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations may soon bear fruit. While the parties remain far apart on core issues like borders, Jerusalem, security and refugees, Kerry and his team are determined to come out of the current round of talks with an agreement at all costs.

Indeed, the focus of the talks has shifted from achieving a comprehensive, conflict-ending peace deal by the April 29, 2014, deadline to a far more modest “framework agreement,” which would lay out the broad outlines of a final agreement while leaving the details of the actual treaty to be worked out later. Despite protests by U.S. officials that they are not pursuing another interim agreement like the Oslo Accords, the current plan rests on the same type of “constructive ambiguity” that prolonged—and ultimately doomed—the Oslo process for more than twenty years.

For those unfamiliar with the term, “constructive ambiguity” is a negotiation technique first employed in the 1970s by Henry Kissinger, the godfather of American diplomacy (as well as the chief architect of today’s Middle East peace process); it is premised on the belief that ambiguously worded text can create opportunities for advancing the interests of both parties to a negotiation. This concept became the hallmark of the Oslo Accords, along with the numerous protocols, memorandums and other micro-initiatives derived from it.

Whatever its virtues in other settings, in the context of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, “constructive ambiguity” has succeeded only in producing confusion and eroding trust between the parties. Throughout the Oslo process of 1990s, disagreements over how to interpret various provisions led to endless delays as well as the renegotiation and outright lack of implementation of signed agreements.

In light of the disastrous experience of Oslo, administration officials are keen to emphasize that they have no intention of pursuing another interim accord. Unlike an interim agreement, they insist, the proposed framework is concerned solely with the endgame and will address all of the core issues of the conflict—territory, Jerusalem, refugees, security as well as an end of claims. In reality, however, the current U.S. proposal represents neither a framework nor an agreement.

Perhaps the most famous framework agreements were the Camp David Accords brokered by U.S. President Jimmy Carter between former Egyptian and Israeli leaders Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin in 1978: the A Framework for Middle East Peace and the A Framework for the Conclusion of a Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel. The latter became the basis of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty concluded the following year while the former (which dealt primarily with the Palestinian issue) was simply never implemented. A new Israeli-Palestinian framework could well meet the same fate.

Although U.S., Israeli and Palestinian negotiators remain tight-lipped about the substance of their discussions, components of the U.S. plan have made their way into the public domain. The proposed framework would consist of an American proposal that addresses all of the core issues of the conflict, which each side would then sign on to with unspecified “reservations.” While some issues are dealt with in great detail, such as an American initiative allowing Israel to maintain a long-term security presence in the Jordan Valley, other issues that are more problematic for Israel, such as Jerusalem, would be left vague.

Thus, in light of Israel’s insistence that Jerusalem remain undivided and under its control forever, U.S. officials are considering referring only to “Palestinian aspirations in Jerusalem.” Not because U.S. policymakers think a Palestinian state that lacked sovereignty in East Jerusalem is possible—no serious observer of the issue believes this—but because saying so would entail a domestic political cost in Israel and most likely at home. Meanwhile, the “reservations” provision offers a convenient fallback for any remaining issues that the parties cannot agree on.

All of this suggests something more like the broad negotiating guidelines, or “parameters,” put forth by President Clinton in December 2000 than an actual framework agreement. Nor is it clear how allowing the parties to opt out of various provisions would in any meaningful sense constitute an agreement.

The focus on obtaining an agreement at any cost, regardless of whether it actually brings the parties closer to a settlement, seems deeply misguided. For one, it suggests that U.S. officials (still) place greater value on process over substance. More importantly, non-binding, or at least non-actionable, agreements could end up strengthening the cynicism that exists on both sides toward the diplomatic process. Indeed, allowing the parties to effectively opt out of the proposal would only highlight the gaps between them while divesting them of any stake in the “agreement.” Whatever the terms of the agreement, both sides are sure to make their reservations known. Faced with the inevitable outcry from skeptics and political opponents on both sides, Israeli and Palestinian leaders would have more incentive to disown the document than to embrace it.

For a framework agreement to be credible, it must not only mention the core issues but actually identify how each issue is to be resolved. For example, had the 1978 Egyptian-Israeli framework not specified a clear vision of the end game—namely a full Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula and its return to full Egyptian sovereignty in exchange for key security provisions for Israelis—the agreement would never have materialized. This is all the more true for Palestinians and Israelis.

However tempting it may be to settle on vaguely worded “frameworks,” the Israeli and Palestinian publics are unlikely to be fooled. The expectation that difficult issues will somehow get easier with time has been shown time and time again to be little more than fantasy. Indeed, the opposite has been true. Two decades of negotiating failure against the backdrop of ever expanding Israeli settlements and other “facts on the ground” have all but destroyed chances for a viable two-state solution.

While it may not be possible to avert failure altogether, the United States should resist the urge to adopt vague and imbalanced initiatives that only raise more questions than they answer. This does not necessarily mean putting forth a more detailed U.S. proposal—which would almost certainly come at the expense of Palestinian interests, and hence undermine the ability of their leaders to remain in the process—but a more honest one.

If U.S. officials hope to salvage what prospects remain for a two-state solution, they should be prepared to paint a clear picture of the endgame based on what is minimally required to preserve the possibility of a two-state solution and for achieving a just and lasting resolution between Israelis and Palestinians, even if it means paying a political prices back home or in Israel. In negotiations, as in life, the old adage applies: if one cannot find something constructive to say, sometimes it is better to say nothing at all.

This piece was published originally in
The Cairo Review of Global Affairs