Editor’s note: “Final status” refers to the last step toward completing a full peace agreement between Israel and the state of Palestine.
For decades the international community — led by the United States — has been stuck on the notion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can only be resolved through a long, drawn-out negotiation process culminating in a comprehensive agreement to settle the full range of final status issues. This idea has become so ingrained in the way the conflict is discussed, that the process itself is now considered something inherently valuable and worth fighting for, rather than just a means to an end.
Secretary of State John Kerry ― the latest in a long line of able but ill-fated brokers ― thinks the answer may be a “framework” peace agreement. According to US officials, he hopes to achieve consensus on core issues ― including security, borders, Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees ― so progress could be made towards signing a comprehensive treaty by April 2014. With confidence low, and the usual cast of spoilers waiting in the wings, there is little reason to be optimistic about such an ambitious plan.
For more than forty years, every conceivable point of contention between the two parties has been discussed within the framework of a comprehensive agreement to resolve the full set of issues. In a perpetual climate of suspicion and mistrust, this formula has consistently failed. The Oslo Accords led to important progress on establishing Palestinian self-rule, but because subsequent negotiations on issues like Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, security and borders were left to be settled during an envisioned five-year interim period, it was all too easy for extremists on both sides to derail the process and destroy public confidence. The open-ended nature of Oslo made it almost inevitable that both Israeli and Palestinian enthusiasm would fade after an initial burst of optimism.
Rather than persist with this fixation on a grand agreement, a more incremental approach should be considered. By focusing on discrete issues, the parties would have the opportunity to achieve something tangible and build a small amount of trust. The main impediment to peace in the Middle East is not actually the status of Jerusalem, or the settlements, or the refugee problem. These issues are all important, but it is the ingrained hatred and mistrust incubated through decades of fighting that lies at the heart of the conflict. Both sides are prisoners to their shared history, but the only way to marginalize the extremists on either side is to show that something tangible can be accomplished.
This can be done by putting aside the final status issues and starting with a less daunting challenge. Take, for example, the Palestinian bid for UNESCO membership in 2011. This was an issue that could have been negotiated separately to the benefit of both parties while serving as a trust-building measure. Not to mention to the benefit of UNESCO, which lost its biggest financial contributor as a result of the fiasco, and the United States, which lost its voting rights in the organization. Israeli acquiescence to Palestinian membership of UNESCO would have been a minor concession if it came about through a negotiated agreement rather than as a unilateral move.
Instead of seizing the opportunity, the U.S. reacted with typical rigid deference to the sanctity of the process, characterizing the move as, “a misguided attempt to bypass the two-decade old peace process. [O]nly a resumption of peace talks ending in a treaty with Israel can result in Palestinian statehood.” Even now it’s not too late to negotiate the issue. Israel could regain its UNESCO voting rights and negotiate an acceptable way for the Palestinians to retain their membership. Meanwhile each party would gain a small amount of confidence in their counterpart’s willingness to negotiate ― a valuable momentum-booster on the path toward the resolution of more difficult issues.
If the U.S. is to remain the primary mediator of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, then it must consider a more creative approach than a periodic push to bring both sides to the negotiating table for comprehensive talks to resolve all of the final status issues. Unfortunately, as things stand, the administration looks once again poised to achieve nothing because it cannot achieve everything.