An Israeli-Palestinian Agreement? What's Possible and What Isn't
A panel of speakers discussed their views on previous efforts from Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, along with the possibilities of an agreement in the coming months.
On June 28, the Middle East Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a discussion, "An Israeli Palestinian Agreement? What's Possible and What Isn't" with Shai Feldman, Judith and Sidney Swartz Director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies and Professor of Politics, Brandeis University; Hussein Ibish, Senior Fellow, American Task Force on Palestine; and Aaron David Miller, Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center. Jackson Diehl, Deputy Editorial Page Editor and Columnist for The Washington Post, moderated the event. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, provided opening remarks.
Diehl opened the event with questions that provided context regarding the current situation, including the U.S. role. He asked that the panelists draw emphasis on how close the two sides are to reaching an agreement.
Feldman pointed out that Israeli-Palestinian relations are heading toward a train wreck at the UN General Assembly meeting in September. The wreck will involve two trains heading towards one another -- a Palestinian train traveling at high speed to obtain in September UN recognition of independent statehood, and an Israeli stationary train that seems unable or unwilling to produce a strategy to avoid the collision. Feldman emphasized that his concerns focus not on the direct impact of a UN vote but rather on the vote being seen as a "green light" by tens of thousands of Palestinian youth in the West Bank who would try to emulate the success of the protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square by staging a similar massive march on Jerusalem. In all likelihood, he said, such a demonstration will result in a massive clash with the Israeli Defense Forces even if the protesters will make every effort to keep it peaceful. To avert such an explosion -- which will reverse all the gains made in the West Bank in recent years -- both sides would need to change tracks. One array of hope on the Israeli side was a recent cabinet meeting that focused on the demographic trends in the framework of which Prime Minister Netanyahu admitted his concerns about the impact of these trends on Israel's Arab minority. Feldman noted that in the past, acknowledgment of the negative demographic trends has been a strong indicator of a willingness on the part of Israeli right-wing leaders to reverse course and adopt an accommodating approach.
Ibish indicated that, as demonstrated by the lack of diplomatic progress, there has been a direct clash between policy and politics on all sides. He commented that Netanyahu seems to be doing nothing but perpetuating the status quo because it “works for him politically.” With Palestinian national unity talks also stalled for many weeks, Ibish stated, “There is a Palestinian agreement to make an agreement, but nothing has been agreed on yet.” Throughout the Arab Spring, he noted that countries thus far have been demanding one of two things: reforms or the ousting of the current regime. Palestinians, however, have been asking for national unity in their protests for change. Ibish noted the Palestinians’ desire to become a member state of the UN is a difficult fight, and a U.S. veto in the Security Council makes it virtually impossible. Although there may be hope for a diplomatically useful vote in the UN General Assembly, he said that Palestinians can only gain ground if they receive the support of Spain, Britain, and France, along with other minor players. Ibish said that restarting negotiations is essential to avoiding an unnecessary conflict at the UN in September that is against the interests of all parties. He added that the prospects for this are not as grim as most people think, and there is a real chance the Israelis and the Palestinians will both want a way out of the confrontation and the United States will find a means to revive negotiations before September.
Miller observed that a conflict-ending solution isn't possible now. In addition to the four final status issues that have contributed to the conflict thus far (Jerusalem, borders, refugees, and settlements), Miller pointed to a fifth issue that Netanyahu has contributed – that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Miller indicated that the Arab Spring will continue to shape the region for months and years to come. Some believe this uncertainty promises change, but Miller said he finds it hard to imagine that it has affected the situation in a positive manner. Israeli and Palestinian relations have not recovered from the previous efforts made in at Camp David in July 2000, he noted, and in order to avoid an explosion, two things must be avoided: the re-launching of premature negotiations that end in failure and an explosion that undermines what has been and can be accomplished on the ground – state building and security cooperation.
By Rachel Peterson, Middle East Program
Shai Feldman //Judith and Sidney Swartz Director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies and Professor of Politics, Brandeis University
Senior Fellow, American Task Force on Palestine
Aaron David Miller // Vice President for New Initiatives and Distinguished ScholarHistorian, analyst, negotiator, and former advisor to Republican and Democratic Secretaries of State on Arab-Israeli negotiations, 1978-2003.
Deputy Editorial Page Editor and Columnist for The Washington Post