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.

  • Michael_Greenwald

    FPIF has jumped into the blame game–I guess we should have expected that. And what a fine selection of an author–one clearly biased against Israel–which becomes clearer if his credentials are examined.

    Incredibly, what is really clear is that the whole world wants a settlement, the settlement they envision, a pre-conceived 2-state solution, enhanced by the New York Times, Thomas Friedman and others determined to fit their solution into the bottle of their own design. Unfortunately, there are just TWO groups that DO NOT want that bottle: the Israelis and the Palestinians.

    The Palestinians want Palestine from the desert to the sea and the Israel want peace with security. Neither of these painfully obvious essentials are available so–no settlement. The rest is blame game.

    Furthermore, as a supposedly learned person, and one superficially posing as an “unbiased” commentator, Mr. Pely should at least understand English. The word “occupied” means land taken from a sovereign by another state or group. Since Britain refused to renew its mandate and left the area prior to hostilities, the land of Israel and all parts thereof were not “taken” and are not “occupied”. The author knows this or does not know English and he also knows that the word “occupied” is used by him in a political way. So, his superficial attempt at “neutrality” is not going well. Mr. Pely poses as a “conflict negotiator” but a certain mantle of neutrality is needed for that.

    • Doron Pely

      Dear Mr. Greenwald,

      Since your comment focuses on me and my “credentials”, I will not dignify you with a serious response. If/when you have a substantive argument to make, please make it and I will be glad to read and respond.


      • Michael_Greenwald

        As a negotiator I am sure you understand that the appearance of neutrality is essential. So I do not think the israelis would choose you as a negotiator. Also, in conflict resolution, each side has ‘red lines” that cannot be crossed. In the case of Israel, this is “peace with security.” Gaza was a lesson about giving land and not getting peace.

        During the so-called “negotiation” period, the Palestinians kept up their rocket attacks, rock throwing, demonstrations–every single thing they did before, without the so-called “leadership” doing anything about it. There is a clear message there. Then, treating the released prisoners, many of whom are just common murders as heroes and rewarding them implies that killing any Jew for any reason is good. So, the essential, non-negotiable condition of Israel was not met.

        There are many people who accept the fact that the Palestinians are a sort of “lesser people,” sort of one step above aborigines. I do not. If you cross the river and kill someone the cops come after you. If an aborigine goes across the river and kills someone a commission to study the problem is formed. I do not buy that.

        The Palestinians are adults. They know perfectly well that in order to have peace they have to act like peace partners. Their leadership is expected to act like adults, not leaders of children. When you help negotiate Arab family conflicts it is important to be sensitive to Arab culture. No so in international negotiations.

        When it comes to repetition compulsion which you mention, it is the Palestinians, not Kerry who have that. They keep on using the same old techniques which fail again and again but each time they promise different results, “next time, even if it takes 1,000 years.” It is only when they let the past be past that they will be able to move on and give their children a better future.

        • Doron

          Dear Mr. Greenwald,

          I am not a negotiator; I’m a commentator who’s been researching Muslim/Arab dispute resolution practices for the past decade.

          Re Gaza corollary, I fail to see the relevance. Israel did not negotiate with the authorities in Gaza; it acted unilaterally, and is dealing with the consequences of that decision.

          Achieving “peace and security” is a worthy “red line”. I think that the only way to reach this goal is by reaching a negotiated settlement.

          I disagree with your assertion that “During the so-called “negotiation” period, the Palestinians kept up their rocket attacks, rock throwing, demonstrations–every single thing they did before, without the so-called “leadership” doing anything about it.” Israel is “negotiating” with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. There was not a single “rocket attack” from that area for, well, ever. Since the Palestinians view themselves as living under military occupation – it just looks like this to them when they look out the window – rock throwing and demonstrating seems like a fairly measured reaction.

          The Palestinians have a different perspective regarding their prisoners. You may not like it or agree with it, but you may want to note that the saying about a terrorist for one side who’s a freedom fighter for the other may be relevant in this context.

          Most importantly, as I tried to convey in this oped, the Palestinians view themselves as victims in this conflict. Their evidence is simple: they lost most of the land that they call Palestine, and they are living under occupation. They negotiate from this perspective.

          I never helped negotiate Muslim/Arab family conflicts; I study them. Such practices are ubiquitous and constitute what most Palestinians know about dispute resolution. Therefore, it’s reasonable to assume that they will bring to the negotiating table their familiar cultural perspective on dispute resolution – regardless of the context. This is why I think such knowledge is relevant. Western-style “face-to-face” approaches were tried for the past 40+ years and failed. It may be time to try other tricks – after all, only a successful process will bring peace and security to all parties involved.

  • tabletto68

    Who are the real heirs of Palestine? Amazing story behind the link.