For some, the failure of the last round of Israeli-Palestinian talks was the chronicle of a death foretold. Neither of the regional leaders had the political capacity or will to concede on key issues, and Mahmoud Abbas’ minimum demands came nowhere close to meeting Benjamin Netanyahu’s maximum positions. John Kerry’s ambitious commitment and conviction couldn’t bridge the gaps in a conflict that’s national, territorial, religious and cultural.
What’s left is a deadlock that serves neither side and that, in an increasingly volatile region, carries a dangerous potential for friction and violence. In an effort to overcome the gap, new terminology and ideas are being revived. This has happened every time there’s been a crisis in talks and the notion of a comprehensive, final-status agreement seems farther away.
None of the options below can meet the needs for end of conflict and end of claims that will give Israel the security assurances and regional acceptance it desires and requires. So, by definition, anything short of a comprehensive agreement is seriously lacking and its pros and cons need to be seriously analyzed. Still, if approached right, some interim and unilateral approaches are better than others.
One thing is clear: the growing Israeli inclination to do nothing is not in its interest. Being in a reactive position is a disadvantage – and perpetuation of the status quo will invariably lead to one territorial swath between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.
Even if left as a de facto situation, this will erode the principle of two states based on self-determination for two peoples, which is at the heart of Israel’s legitimacy. The proximity of hostile populations with unresolved borders underpins events like the recent kidnapping of three Israeli Jewish youths by Palestinian terrorists. And it further underscores the explosive nature of what seems like a containable status quo. In this scenario, the only winners are extremists on either side.
The revived lexicon includes terms like partial agreement, interim agreement and unilateral steps. In a partial agreement, the goal would be to agree on one or two key issues in a way that would help manage the conflict, while others would await resolution in more conducive circumstances. Kerry tried to get such an agreement on borders – unsuccessfully. The price for either side was too great too early in the game. With zero trust and no shared vision, a partial deal will inevitably disintegrate.
An interim agreement would serve a similar purpose, allowing for solutions to pressing problems while enabling more secure conditions for both Israelis and Palestinians. But again, interim steps would likely lack the envelope of hard- clad international guarantees that Israel needs and a secure promise to the Palestinians about their future borders.
Unilateral steps on either side can be highly problematic – but may end up as the default option. The term resonates negatively in Israel since the unilateral and unco-ordinated disengagement from Gaza in 2005, which led to destruction of physical and agricultural assets left behind, the Hamas takeover of Gaza and a shower of rockets on Israeli towns.
Unilateral Israeli steps now being floated are annexation of parts of the West Bank heavily populated by Israeli Jews or a handover of small percentages of land heavily populated by Palestinians – neither with reciprocal Palestinian measures. Palestinians, in turn, could upgrade their UN-based recognition campaign, which might include an approach to the International Criminal Court.
The way to at least partially contain damage in this approach is co-ordination rather than bald unilateralism. In the bottom line, both Abbas and Netanyahu are acting rationally to defend their respective interests and protect their political backs. Neither wants the area to implode, and any actions taken have to leave open options for a different time that might allow for a final-status agreement. The new lexicon carries little hope, but reflects the current reality.
Shira Herzog is an analyst of Israel affairs and spent 25 years in community development work in Israel and Canada.