Mideast Peace Talks Chance for Peace or Just Talk?

By Dr Richard L Benkin

Will the eleventh major set of Middle East Peace talks since 1991 make the conflict more intractable or bring the region closer to peace than it was before the first? Will they ratify the status quo rather than changing it?

In October 2011, I posed the following to a panel of Middle East experts and diplomats in Chicago: “A peace process is only relevant if it leads to peace and not a mere cessation of hostilities … and I can tell you from first-hand experience that the signs do not point toward peace. Given the fact that by your own admission, you have been at this for a generation — and where has that brought us — and that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results, do you think it is time to scrap the very notion of a peace process and instead focus on pragmatic options that parties can take that would qualify them at some point to engage in a real peace process?”

The panel uncomfortably avoided answering – understandably. The question challenged their ideological and career commitment to a failed process and demanded creative thought over knee-jerk, politically-driven reactions. Middle East Peace talks, like those set to begin, make the conflict more intractable, not less. They ratify the status quo rather than changing it.

Expectations from Eleventh Peace Talks

This will be the eleventh major set of talks since 1991, and the region is no closer to peace than it was before the first. US Secretary of State John Kerry, who is driving the effort, said the parties “… can make peace for one simple reason: because they must.” Middle East expert David Ignatius, who favours the talks, calls that the key element in Kerry’s strategy; but it was not enough in the past and is still not enough. The core differences separating the two sides have not changed. These talks are likely to end in one of the following, all-too-familiar ways: The Palestinians will break them off.

There will be a statement about “progress” and future talks at some unspecified date; answers to questions about what that progress is will be insubstantial.

There will be a face-saving “agreement” that leaves core issues unresolved and the Middle East no closer to peace.

Talks with no agreement are worse than no talks because they emphasise the gulf that separates the parties and the difficulty of bridging it. The only outcome worse than no peace agreement is a bad one: one that forces the parties to sign documents without resolving the issues that led to war or that contain untenable conditions. The Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I, for example, imposed draconian conditions on Germany in an effort by external powers to remake and punish that nation; its results were Adolf Hitler and World War II. Pakistan’s 2009 peace agreement ceding the Swat Valley to the Taliban brought ethnic cleansing to Hindus and oppression to women, but not peace. Worse, despite initial western statements of “shock,” it became the template for US President Barak Obama’s current negotiations with Afghan Taliban and his curious search for “moderate Taliban.”

Can Peace Reign Supreme?

People who believe the Mideast conflict is about real estate, miss the point. In a true peace agreement, the parties accept each other’s states fully, end the strife between them, and relinquish all further claims on territory and individual property. A two-state solution might be part of any final agreement, but it is not its sine qua non. If a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip with Jerusalem as its capital was really what the Arabs wanted, they could have had one any time before June 1967. Prior to Israel’s Six-Day War victory that year, Egypt controlled Gaza, and Jordan controlled eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank. It even gave us the name, West Bank; the historical names are Judea and Samaria. The Palestinian Liberation Organisation, which later morphed into the Palestinian Authority, formed in 1964 when Egypt and Jordan — not Israel — were the occupying powers. Yet the group’s charter called for Israel’s destruction and did not appeal to either Arab state. It did not even mention Jerusalem. Palestinians could have had even more by accepting the UN’s 1947 Partition Plan as Israelis did; they did not. That was also before there were Arab or Jewish refugees in the region. Imagine the loss of life that could have been avoided if this is really what Palestinians wanted. Imagine where both states and peoples would be now if they spent the last six decades on development. Palestinians never demanded a state on the West Bank or Gaza Strip until Arabs realised that their decades-old demands for Israel’s destruction would never win them support among the wealthy and influential Western powers.

I was in Israel during the 2000 Camp David talks. There was a great deal of outcry over what then Prime Minister Ehud Barak was willing to cede. Opponents were giving out leaflets on street corners and road intersections, declaring “Barak is a traitor to the nation.” Yet, at the same time, there was a quiet understanding that if Barak and Arafat signed the agreement, the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) would ratify it, and the nation would enforce it. And that is the key to peace.

Negotiations mean that the end is not pre-determined before they begin; it means that both parties will leave the table with less than they want; it means that they pledge to enforce all tenets. Defining borders and territory is not the issue; people pretty much know what that will look like. Even the issue of Jerusalem, while more complicated, is not without multiple formulae for resolution. Settlements? They never stopped peace talks until Obama declared them obstacles. Access to holy sites, the status of refugees, water; none of these issues defy resolution as long as there are two parties willing to negotiate and live with the results; and for the past six decades, Israel has been the only party prepared to do that.

The flagship article for the pro-Palestinian version of what happened at Camp David notes that current Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas “… made clear to the Americans that the Palestinian side is unable to make concessions on anything.” As the 2010 talks began, he said, “If they (Israelis) demand concessions on the rights of the refugees or the 1967 borders, I will quit. I can’t allow myself to make even one concession.”

Nor is the problem a “right-wing” Netanyahu government in Israel. There was international hand wringing when Israel elected its first Likud Prime Minister, Menachem Begin; and it was he who ceded the entire Sinai and made peace with Egypt. Similarly, former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, vilified as a “butcher” by the same crowd, unilaterally handed Gaza to the Arabs. Netanyahu has gotten his coalition allies to cross numerous red lines: releasing terrorists with blood on their hands, freezing settlement construction, and accepting a Palestinian State.

Abbas has acknowledged that Netanyahu’s liberal predecessor, Ehud Olmert, proposed a Palestinian state on 97 percent of the West Bank, accepted the principle of the right of return of Palestinian refugees, and offered to resettle thousands in Israel. Abbas turned it down saying “the gaps were wide.” It is almost impossible to imagine any Israeli government going further.

William B Quandt knows what a peace agreement looks like. He helped broker the Israel-Egypt peace treaty that has survived major upheavals for over 30 years. On current efforts he wrote, the US “… has provided both a sense of direction and a mechanism. That, at its best, is what the peace process has been about. At worst, it has been little more than a slogan used to mask the marking of time.”

Even if the parties signed an agreement, would Arabs enforce it when rejectionists like Hamas violate it? In 1994, Baruch Goldstein walked into a mosque, opened fire, and killed 29 worshipers before the survivors killed him. The Israeli government condemned the massacre, arrested others with similar positions, and forbade certain settlers from entering Arab towns. Jews and Jewish leaders worldwide condemned Goldstein unequivocally; the Israeli Prime Minister described the act as “loathsome.” Five years later, when some people made a shrine out of Goldstein’s gravesite, the Israeli army dismantled it. No one watered down their criticism by saying we should “understand” Goldstein’s anger; or by generally condemning all terrorists. Criticism was unequivocal and specific.

In contrast, the Palestinian Authority and all its agencies glorify Arab terrorists, build monuments; and continue to do so as talks are about to begin. Its schoolbooks teach children that their goal is all of Israel, and their media and leaders congratulate terrorists like Samir Kuntar whose “heroism” included killing a four-year old girl with a rifle butt. That sort of thing makes it hard for me — as a Jew and a human rights activist — to walk in Palestinians’ shoes. If they stopped referring to my people as apes and pigs, celebrating terrorists like Kuntar, and denying our rights to live in our ancestral land; empathy might be possible; and that would have a chance of bringing peace.

Editor’s note: Since Dr Benkin wrote this article, Palestinians have broken off the peace talks. Despite denials from US Secretary of State Kerry’s office, the Palestinian decision was widely reported and confirmed by Palestinian spokespersons, one of whom also said that the talks had gotten off to a “rocky start,” with the two sides unable even to agree on an agenda. It is not clear at this point if the Palestinian pullout is permanent halt or a temporary protest. The action indicates frailty of the talks and the lack of commitment to see them through to an agreement.

Go to Content Page

Dr Richard L Benkin is a Chicago-based human rights activist. His latest book is A Quiet Case of Ethnic Cleansing: The Murder of Bangladesh’s Hindus. Visit his website