Posted by on December 11, 2013 in Blog

By Marc Sabbagh
Fall Intern, 2013

Last weekend, both U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke at the Brookings Institution’s 2013 Saban Forum, which discussed “Power Shifts: U.S.-Israel Relations in a Dynamic Middle East.” Here are the most important quotes on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process from both leaders and their implications for future negotiations. You can read President Obama’s full remarks here and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s here.

“Out of all this uncertainty, one thing has become absolutely clear: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the source of the region’s problems. Today, for all but a few diehards, that reality has finally debunked that myth. The tragedy in Syria, the terrorism in Iraq, the nuclear weapons program in Iran, the instability in North Africa, the Shi’ite-Sunni conflict, the scourge of violent Islamic radicalism – none of these is rooted in our dispute with the Palestinians.” –Prime Minister Netanyahu

While this is a common narrative for many policymakers and practitioners on all sides, it is undoubtedly clear that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict exacerbates regional issues and adds unnecessary uncertainty to conflicts in the broader Middle East, at a minimum. Solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not end all issues in the Arab world and lead to instant stability, but peace between Israelis and Palestinians would remove a roadblock to other regional concerns, help reduce tensions in the Arab world, and undermine those who perpetuate violence and extremism in the name of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In any event, creating a hierarchy of Middle East issues is not helpful.

“This is not to say that peace with the Palestinians is not important. It’s vital – first and foremost for Israel and the Palestinians. Achieving a genuine and enduring peace between us is a strategic goal of the State of Israel and of my government. I’ve made hard decisions to further peace negotiations. I’m willing to make even harder decisions to achieve peace.” –Prime Minister Netanyahu

This point is very important going forward and Secretary of State John Kerry should hold Netanyahu to his self-imposed standards. It is unclear if these hard decisions are currently being made: “no news” on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process does not necessarily mean “bad news” at the moment, since Kerry has held the two parties to secrecy and his focus the past few months has been on Iran and Syria, often appearing to sideline the peace process. However, Netanyahu (and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas) can succeed in a peace framework or deal only if both commit to this idea of making hard and unpopular decisions to achieve peace.

“I hope President Abbas also is willing to do so because peace can only be and must be a two-way street. I am ready for a historic compromise that ends the conflict between us once and for all. My willingness to make peace flies in the face of a second persistent myth – that peace has eluded us because Israel is not willing to demonstrate the necessary flexibility. That is not true. Under successive governments, Israel has demonstrated the flexibility and the willingness to make painful concessions. These will require discussing the issues of territory and settlements.” –Prime Minister Netanyahu

Peace is a two way street. Territory and settlements are vital issues for any final-status agreement and cannot be neglected, especially at the expense of Israel’s security concerns. Both security and territorial integrity are the most pressing issues for Israelis and Palestinians, respectively. Secretary Kerry has already repeated Netanyahu’s claim that he is ready for a “historic compromise” and should hold the Israeli negotiating team to the comments made by their head of government. Both sides face “painful” consequences for compromise.

“But the core of this conflict has never been borders and settlements. It is about one thing: The persistent refusal to accept the Jewish State in any border.” –Prime Minister Netanyahu

Netanyahu threw this into his speech for domestic reasons, and while rhetoric cannot always be linked to policy outcomes, it is an incredibly dangerous statement. This rhetoric is unnecessary and only undermines the current peace process, as regional peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan have recognized Israel’s right to exist and current negotiations are based on that principle. Hamas and militant groups like Hezbollah remain the most pressing obstacle, but these security concerns should not become existential concerns. Ultimately, a peace agreement will be the best way to challenge Hamas and Hezbollah’s argument for militarism and force the parties to reevaluate and garner support on their political positions.

“Our best efforts to reach Palestinian-Israeli peace will come to nothing if Iran succeeds in building atomic bombs. A nuclear-armed Iran would give even greater backing to the radical and terrorist elements in the region. It would undermine the chances of arriving at a negotiated peace. I would say it would undermine those peace agreements that we have already reached with two of our neighbors.” –Prime Minister Netanyahu

Netanyahu overtly linked the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to Iran, something the United States has avoided doing publicly. This establishes an unhelpful precedent because it provides an excuse to stall on peace if a nuclear deal with Iran goes sour. U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro already rejected the “linkage” of the two issues. Secretary Kerry should keep note of this argument in negotiations and continue to place the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in a separate category and argue why the Iran deal should not influence, hinder or invalidate negotiations.

“And what I've consistently said is that the only way this is going to be resolved is if the people of Israel and the Palestinian people make a determination that their futures and the futures of their children and grandchildren will be better off with peace than with conflict. The United States can be an effective facilitator of that negotiation and dialogue; we can help to bridge differences and bridge gaps. But both sides have to want to get there.” –President Obama

The United States cannot want peace more than the parties themselves, but President Obama is making an important case for peace here and has established America as a vital mediator to facilitate dialogue between parties in order to come to an agreement. However, this statement shows that the President doesn’t necessarily favor any active mediation strategies to push or pressure the parties more than they are willing to go themselves. History has demonstrated that while facilitation is a vital component of U.S. mediation, bringing regional parties to negotiate seriously and make progress involves considerate commitment and guidance – think Secretary of State James Baker’s diplomatic pressure and shuttle diplomacy before the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference or President Carter’s forceful mediation leading up to the 1978 Camp David Accords.

“And so if, in fact, we can create a pathway to peace, even if initially it’s restricted to the West Bank, if there is a model where young Palestinians in Gaza are looking and seeing that in the West Bank Palestinians are able to live in dignity, with self-determination, and suddenly their economy is booming and trade is taking place because they have created an environment in which Israel is confident about its security and a lot of the old barriers to commerce and educational exchange and all that has begun to break down, that’s something that the young people of Gaza are going to want.” –President Obama

Here, President Obama made a claim for a potential piecemeal framework deal that would be effective and defensible in the West Bank, but may not address or solve issues in Gaza. This would certainly be a game changer, and as the president hinted, US special envoy on security, General John Allen, has been reviewing Israel’s security concerns and considerations and believed there were guarantees that could be made, potentially involving a coordinated effort by third parties to make sure security and territorial integrity are maintained after any deal. Third-party involvement is a position Israel does not accept, and the Palestinian negotiators, on the other hand, already voiced disapproval of Obama's decision to publicly prioritize security over territorial contiguity by proposing the piecemeal deal this past weekend. This potential framework has the potential to further split and separate Gaza and the West Bank, a significant move which denies Palestinian territorial integrity and contiguity.

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