By Rami G. Khouri
April 19, 2014
Patient, serious diplomacy appears to be bearing fruit in many places simultaneously this week, except in the Israel-Palestine talks that have gone on for two decades since the 1993 Oslo peace accords. It is worth exploring why this is so.
Two agreements announced Thursday comprised an American-Russian-Ukrainian-European Union understanding on how to diffuse the tensions in Ukraine, and a decision by the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council to end the feud between Qatar and other members. In the ongoing talks between Iran and the P5+1 states (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) to resolve tensions over Iran’s nuclear capabilities, the parties continue to reach agreements on some of the key issues while some others remain to be hammered out in coming months.
Why is it that these three difficult situations suddenly showed progress? I do not have inside information on any of them, but my hunch based on close observation and speaking to some of the participants in the Israeli-Palestinian and Iran-P5+1 talks in recent years is simply that some key recurring Rs had a big role to play in the success of some talks and the failure of others. The Rs I refer to are realism, reciprocity, reasonableness and respect. These are largely absent from the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and it is no surprise, therefore, that they continue to flounder.
The factors of realism and reasonableness refer to the fact that negotiators do not demand the maximum that is likely impossible for one side or the other to go along with, and instead seek what is attainable and meaningful for both sides, in a manner that is mutually politically realistic.
The reciprocity and respect factors are more complex, but more important for concluding a meaningful agreement. These refer to the practice of applying the same standard of conduct to both sides in a dispute and requiring them both to make concessions or moves of equal magnitude, and more or less simultaneously. The key here is to avoid any sense of humiliation or capitulation by one side, making it possible for protagonists to preserve their sense of honor and dignity while making the reasonable and realistic moves they agree on.
The Ukraine and GCC-Qatar agreements are very broad and couched in vague language, but they have been reached in an important, symbolic first step because they did not humiliate any one party and gave all parties something of value to them.
The Iran talks, similarly, have progressed rapidly in recent months because both sides took steps that made reasonable suggestions couched in respectful terms. Specifically, Iran achieved its core goals of an acknowledgment of its continued low-level enrichment of uranium for peaceful purposes and an imminent end to sanctions and American threats of regime change. The P5+1 states achieved their goals of enrichment limits and inspections that make it impossible for Iran to surreptitiously build a nuclear bomb.
The real reason why these breakthroughs happened, I suspect, is that both sides started treating the other with more respect and with more reciprocity in the specifics of the measures that both sides would implement in a final agreement. Both sides reached a point where they could agree to the demands of the other, because the same process happened in the other direction.
This is precisely why the Palestine-Israel negotiations fail to make any similar progress. The Israeli demands from the Palestinians in areas like security, refugees and recognizing Israel as a Jewish state are so extreme that they cannot be met without totally humiliating the Palestinians. The Palestinians in turn get little respect from the Israelis or the American mediators even, who effectively ignore the core demand that the Palestinian refugee problem of 1947-1948 be acknowledged and redressed in a mutually agreeable manner.
Israel and the United States basically want to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict on the basis of territorial adjustments related to what happened in 1967. The Palestinians want to resolve the conflict on the basis of demographic and territorial changes from 1947-1948. Israel refuses to address the Zionists’ role in the events of 1947-1948 that shattered Arab-majority Palestine and exiled half its population, and only wants to discuss Israeli security within the June 1967 borders. Palestinians may look forward to some crumbs, but not much more than that. No wonder then that 20 years of negotiations have not achieved any major agreements.
The Americans and Israelis in particular could learn much from analyzing the recent trajectory of the Iran negotiations and why they suddenly achieved progress. The formula for success is very simple and reaffirmed again this week in three different contexts: act with reasonableness, realism, respect and reciprocity and you are likely to achieve the goals of all concerned. Ignore these critical elements, and you will only suffer serial failures, as has happened in the American-mediated Israeli-Palestinian talks.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.