Thinking about the nine months of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations ahead, the instinctive tendency is to view them as a game in which each side will try to lay the blame for failure on the other. Except for very few observers - and for the obstinately optimistic like Tzipi Livni- most people, myself included, don't really see a peace deal as something feasible. This is too bad, of course, but it makes the two parties focused on one thing only: being on the winning side when the talks reach a dead end and the American mediator – forget the "world", the US is what's important in this case - has to declare whose fault it was.
In Israel you're going to hear that this was the reason why Netanyahu decided to discard his old formula of no-free-lunches and agreed to a release of prisoners of the kind you wouldn't expect from someone like him. Of course, no one will go on record saying this, but when Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon was talking about "strategic interests" leading to his support for the release, he was talking about Israel's interest in having strong relations with the US. In order to have such strong relations, Israel is at times required to accommodate the wishes of US secretaries like John Kerry. If it isn't essential for Israel to reject an American demand- if Israel can accommodate it without paying a price that is too heavy – the price should be paid. This time it was paid in prisoners.
On the Palestinian side you hear a similar tune. President Abbas long ago stated that the Palestinians will not be going back to negotiations if Israel doesn't freeze all settlement construction. Well, they did. No freeze. To make it a notable achievement the Israeli government even shifted its priorities this week to give settlements some more money. The Palestinians are far from happy about all this – understandably – but had to swallow this bitter pill and get to the negotiating table. Like Israel, they too are skeptical about the prospects of reaching a peace deal, but, like Israel, being the guilty side is not what they have in mind.
So, many pundits will tell you that the blame game is the only game in this round of negotiations, and they might be right. But there is another layer through which we could look at the sides' objectives and with which we could analyze the sides' maneuvering and manipulation. This is the "who has more to lose" layer.
For Netanyahu, it is essential to make the case that if the talks fail the Palestinians will be the losing party. It is important for him because of the suspicion – a well established and well documented suspicion – that for the Palestinian side seeing Israel lose it is often more important than winning. If the Palestinian side believes it will be the losing party in case there's a failure, they'll be more willing to compromise and less insistent on getting every item on their long list of demands.
Naturally, for the Palestinian side it is no less important that Israel will be seen as the losing party in case of failure. And right now it seems as if there are more observers on all sides who believe that Israel is the one that has to worry about the consequences of failure. There are many Israelis who adhere to the notion that time-is-on-their-side-and-not-on-ours, and they are helping the Palestinians win this beauty contest of losers.
There are also many Americans who buy into the Israel-has-more-to-lose rhetoric, and are in fact making negotiations more complicated as they convince the Palestinians that it is better for them to wait. The core argument for many of them is as follows: If there's no peace now, there will be more settlements and more Jews on the ground. With more settlements, a Palestinian state will become unrealistic. And if a Palestinian state can't be established, the ultimate solution would have to be a one state solution – meaning the end of Israel as a Jewish state.
David Ignatius wrote last week that "If [talks] fail this time, it will cost the parties dearly, probably Israel most of all. That provides a harsh leverage for Washington". Yes and no: it provides Washington with leverage with which to pressure Israel, but it might make the Palestinians pause and wait. Moreover, convincing the Palestinians that they are the losing party might not be easy. Three years ago, they were warned (by The Washington Post among others) that they have "the most to lose" if they walk out on the negotiations. They did it anyway, and three years later their situation is not better materially but seems better politically.
So what can Israel do if it wants to reject this damaging view of 'compromise or lose'? One thing only: make sure it doesn't get blamed for the ultimate failure of the talks. If John Kerry is convinced that peace can't be achieved because of Palestinian rejectionism, the Palestinians lose. In other words: For Kerry to have the leverage he needs with both sides, he must not publicly adhere to the belief that Israel has more to lose. But there's one problem with such a strategy: By stating that "time is running out" he already kind of did.
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