Why Did the Palestinian-Israeli Negotiations Collapse?

Diplomats extraordinaire Kim Jong Un and Dennis Rodman

Diplomats extraordinaire Kim Jong Un and Dennis Rodman

Rivers of commentary and analysis will flow on every conceivable media platform over the coming days, featuring experts, “Arabists,” politicians and other pundits. They will spend hours grinding their way around one essential question: Why did the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations collapse?

Well, there are several answers to this question:

The first reason, and the one directly responsible for the current crisis, is that the Israelis reneged on their obligation to release Arab prisoners from Israeli prisons on March 28. This was part of the agreement that launched the current process eight months ago. The Israelis were supposed to release Palestinian prisoners in four installments; they carried out three installments and reneged on the last installment.

This reneging signaled a major insult to the Palestinian side, an insult they could not let slide under any circumstance if they wanted to maintain any semblance of their battered sense of honor in this drama – in their own eyes and in the eyes of the Arab/Muslim world – their community of reference.

As if this was not enough, Israeli Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel rushed in to deliver the coup de gras on Palestinian’s battered honor by re-issuing housing tenders for 708 homes in Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood – an area that was annexed to Israel after the 1967 war – winning scorn even from his cabinet colleague, Justice Minister and head of the Israeli peace negotiations team, Ms. Tzipi Livni, who accused Arieli of “deliberately…torpedoing” peace efforts.”

There is no way in the world the Palestinians could have accommodated such a double punch to the chin. Maintaining honor may seem to the Western observer like a flimsy pretext for breaking bilateral negotiations. But anyone who knows the first thing about the way Muslims/Arabs manage disputes knows that honor is one of the core elements of Muslim/Arab identity, and that in the conflict with Israel the Palestinians view themselves as dishonored victims. As it is, the Palestinian perception of their honor is already at rock bottom – and they have quite a few reasons to feel so, including being under military occupation for more than 40 years, being treated like scum by most Israelis (and much of the rest of the Western world), and having to survive mostly on the uncertain financial and economic largesse of Western (and some Arab) donors.

Of course, Israel views itself also as victims in this conflict, which is one of the main reasons this conflict goes nowhere and will probably continue in that direction for the foreseeable future. This is because, in Muslim/Arab dispute resolution, there must be a victim-perpetrator pairing – one of the sides has to own up to a responsibility for the conflict, while the other side takes the victim’s side. A conflict with two victim sides is like a car with two engines – one at each end – both pulling like mad in the opposite direction. Not much chance for movement with such a contraption.

There are other, no less important, reasons for the collapse of the current (and former) rounds of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. For example: both sides are unwilling and unable to undertake the compromises required to move the conflict into an area of possible agreement.

For the Palestinians, such compromises include the abandonment – in anything but symbolic format – of their demand for a “right of return” (of millions of Palestinian refugees to their former towns, villages and homes), and an agreement to the end of the conflict. Lately, Prime Minister Netanyahu added a demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish State” – a demand that Israel has never posed to (and have received from) any other state.

For the Israelis, such compromises include an agreement to dismantle dozens of settlements across the West Bank, agree to some accommodation for Palestinian refugees, and cede parts of East Jerusalem to Palestinian sovereignty – all moves that no current (and probably future) Israeli government will receive a popular mandate to undertake.

Had the American interveners understood how Muslim/Arab dispute resolution mechanisms work (a mixture of mediation and arbitration practices), they would have understood that their role in such a process is to drag the disputing sides – probably kicking and screaming – across these areas of “stuckness.” Absent an understanding of and a willingness to undertake such a role, the process is futile.

Albert Einstein defined insanity as: “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Having spent decades repeating the same “peace process” rituals in the Middle East, and getting the same result (nothing), maybe it is time for the Americans to start taking different advice on Muslim/Arab dispute resolution. If not, they might as well put in a call for Dennis Rodman.

Doron Pely is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus, a Ph.D. candidate at Kings College London, and the executive director of the Sulha Research Center in Shefar’am Israel. His research focuses on Muslim dispute resolution.