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Spring is here, where is the peace agreement?

It still remains to be seen if this administration can exert a final push in the next few weeks to bring about what most would consider as a miracle

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

Negotiation deadlines are notoriously elusive and on many occasions weigh very heavily on the shoulders of the negotiators, rather than serving as an incentive for reaching a successful conclusion. The alternative danger is negotiating without a deadline, which might allow for negotiations to drag on aimlessly, in search of the illusive optimal agreement, as has happened so many times between Israel and the Palestinians in the past.

Last July, the U.S. administration led by Secretary of State John Kerry, leaned on the Israelis and the Palestinians to set a deadline for the end of April for a comprehensive peace framework. April is here and there is no agreement in sight. Unless both sides are cunningly using the deadline to extract more concessions from each other or from the United States, there is no more than a flicker of hope that both sides will reach a peace agreement.

U.S. responsibility

One might argue that it was extremely naïve of the American administration, considering the history of negotiations between these two interlocutors and the current political environment, to genuinely believe that it could succeed where all of its predecessors failed.

It still remains to be seen if this administration can exert a final push in the next few weeks to bring about what most would consider as a miracle, and produce a peace agreement. Most would argue that the odds are stacked against reaching a deal.

If negotiations fail, no doubt the Americans will have to take considerable responsibility for this. Not only were the U.S.’s negotiation tactics wrong, but it could also be blamed for not acting as an honest broker and for being reluctant to exert pressure to ensure that the negotiations remained on track.

In typical Obama fashion, good intentions and inspiring speeches were superseded by unwillingness to mobilize the country’s leverages of power in order to make a peace agreement a reality.

Yossi Mekelberg

Yet, Obama in his second term, and especially his Secretary of State, cannot be blamed for a lack of effort. However, in typical Obama fashion, good intentions and inspiring speeches were superseded by unwillingness to mobilize the country’s leverages of power in order to make a peace agreement a reality.

The current phase of negotiations was side-tracked every step of the way from the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Worse, Kerry’s full support, at least until recently, of Israel’s demands for Palestinian recognition of her as a Jewish state, and preference to Israeli security arrangements along the Jordan River, added to Palestinian suspicion about the U.S.’s real motivations as a peace broker.

Saddling the United States with the entire blame, if the negotiations come to a complete standstill, is almost too convenient. Above all, the current process suffers from the combination of inability, reluctance and incompetence of two fragmented political systems to shoulder such an intricate process of colossal importance for their own future, for the region, and probably for the rest of the world.

Israel's culpability

Israel has to bear more of the responsibility for the current impasse primarily because it is the occupying force, which deprives millions of Palestinians of their political and human rights. In addition, she is the stronger power in an extremely asymmetric conflict and continues her relentless expansion of settlements, making a two state solution a remote possibility.

The demand to be recognized as a Jewish state, which is almost impossible for the Palestinian leadership to accept, is a deliberate act of sabotage against the peace process. This does not exonerate the Palestinians from ignoring Israeli sensitivities and needs in terms of security, or stopping incitement in order to establish at least some level of trust.

Many Palestinians share a strong sentiment that being occupied exempts them from any obligation to reassure the side depriving them of their basic political and human rights. However, if they want peace, they need to accept their fair share of the burden in building trust with their enemy.

The current state of mind on both sides has allowed for much time to be wasted on symbolic issues rather than addressing the issues that will determine the future of both nations. One can sympathize with Palestinian outrage at the expansion of Israeli settlements. An expansion which changes the landscape of the occupied West Bank makes a mockery of the idea of an independent Palestinian state.

However, as infuriating as Israeli settlements policies may be, especially at this sensitive stage of the negotiations, it would have been more useful to negotiate the dismantlement of the settlements which are located in areas that part of the future Palestinian state.

The state of affairs

Last week’s clamour regarding the fourth ‘beat’ of the release of Palestinian prisoners is indicative of the state of the negotiations. Israel is using the release of these prisoners to pressure the Palestinian leadership to continue negotiations and extend them by six months. For the Palestinians, the release of the prisoners is crucial for their credibility among their own people. It empowers them to make concessions on other issues.

However, as important as this issue is, it diverts the attention from the necessity of addressing the core issues that will shape the relationship between the two sides. If a deal is to be reached, these prisoners would be released as part of it. In the meantime, the delegations are shying away from negotiating on issues that determine what peace between the sides would look like, including secure borders for both people, Jerusalem as the capital of both Israel and Palestine, a just and fair solution for the Palestinians refugees, economic development and of course the future of the Israeli settlements.

Instead we keep hearing the constant wrangling on issues that divert attention from the core issues of the conflict. The only conclusion which seems plausible is that this round of negotiations is limping because both sides have no appetite to make the painful historical compromises needed for such a complex agreement.

And in the absence of an international community, which is ready to wield her will on both sides to move forward, this conflict can linger on for many more years. No one can or should be more interested in a solution for this conflict than the Israelis and Palestinians themselves.

Consequences of failure

Israel might feel that the occupation bears very little cost, but in reality it erodes its democracy beyond repair and will destroy the Zionist dream of having a Jewish and democratic state. The Palestinians might give up on a two state solution, believing that the realities on the ground and demography will tilt the balance towards a one state solution with a Palestinian majority.

If this is right, it will take decades of conflict which will deprive the Palestinians the opportunity of building their own state and identity.

If by the end of the month no framework for peace is reached, the sides will most probably look for another extension of negotiations. It will be mainly out of fear of the consequences of a complete breakdown in the process than a genuine belief that an agreement can be achieved. This, however, is likely to make a mockery of the entire process.

Instead, the international community and especially President Obama should be crystal clear that time and patience are running out, and whoever they deem responsible for obstructing a peace agreement will be publicly named and shamed with tangible consequences.

The alternative is another American failure and further erosion in her international integrity. The United States cannot afford another foreign policy failure, as it will project further weakness, inviting challenges in other parts of the world. For the sake of the Israelis the Palestinians and for its own interests, the U.S. must act decisively in the few weeks remaining before the deadline it set for a peace deal in the Middle East expires.

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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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