Peace will take more than trust and hope

For the first time in three years, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are in the same room to talk about peace under American tutelage. The agreement to negotiate has been trumpeted as a breakthrough, but most Israelis and Palestinians remain skeptical. They know that while U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry repeats the mantras of trust, faith and hope, the reality is far more complex.

To go beyond the rhetoric, a wider geographic and historical perspective is necessary. From the ancient Middle East to Greece, Rome, China and India, the results of negotiations between warring nations, tribes and religions have been determined by power and interests, not amorphous psychology. Although Kerry and U.S. President Barack Obama emphasize the need for faith and trust between Israelis and Palestinians, these terms disappear in their conflicts and discussions with China, North Korea or Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The American leaders and their opposite numbers focus on power and deterrence in protecting their own interests. 

Similarly, there’s no sense in asking whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will ever trust each other, “feel each other’s pain,” empathize or apologize for past actions. These concepts, taken from interpersonal conflict resolution, are irrelevant in politics, in which the fates of nations in a violent anarchic world are determined.

But this doesn’t mean that careful negotiations and power considerations can’t lead to lasting and beneficial agreements. In November 1977, Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat began negotiations leading to a treaty that has prevented war for more than three decades. Begin and Sadat didn’t trust each other and knew that psychology was irrelevant. Instead, they recognized that after many destructive wars, particularly the 1973 Yom Kippur “earthquake,” both countries needed peace. Difficult compromises were necessary, and in bringing their countries to accept these, both Begin and Sadat demonstrated uncommon leadership.

Similarly, in the current situation, Netanyahu and Abbas will only make progress if the tangible benefits outweigh the costs and risks, and if they can sell this to their constituencies.

For Israel, this means security, first and foremost. The Oslo process that began with the 1993 Declaration of Principles ended in heinous terrorism directed by former PA president Yasser Arafat. Israelis won’t tolerate a repetition. In 2005, the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was followed by accelerated rocket and mortar attacks. So before Israelis agree to transfer more territory, realistic security arrangements – in contrast to the façade provided by UN, European or other foreign forces – are necessary. In this process, terms such as trust, faith and hope are entirely irrelevant.

At the same time, the Palestinian Authority and whatever remains of the Arab League will need to end the incitement to violence and clearly accept the permanence and legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state. They will have to relinquish the mythical “right of return” for Arab refugees, which is a code for denying the Jewish people national sovereignty. UN agencies that perpetuate this myth must be dismantled, and leaders must stop all references to “apartheid” and other forms of demonization. On Jerusalem, no peace agreement will last without explicit public recognition of the legitimacy of Jewish historical claims.

In this process, as in other political negotiations, third parties with their own interests in stability can play constructive roles. But the even-handed “honest broker” that builds trust and understanding is another myth. The Americans have power to force concessions, particularly on Israel, which relies on U.S. weapons and co-operation. And to the degree that Abbas and the Palestinian Authority are dependent on economic aid in order to prevent a Hamas takeover, pressure for territorial compromise and ending political warfare can work. In the Israeli-Egyptian peace talks, the Americans provided important glue in the form of economic and security assistance. 

After Oslo and other failures, both Israelis and Palestinians are understandably skeptical. But if instead of repeating simple mantras of trust and hope negotiators can find ways to meet the fundamental interests of both sides, a workable agreement may eventually become possible.