The idea that “direct, bilateral negotiations are the only viable path to achieve an enduring peace,” is repeated often in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The truth of it is obvious; any
lasting agreement will require the full buy-in from both Israelis and Palestinians, and it is unlikely that an imposed settlement of the conflict would hold. The frequency with which this axiom is repeated suggests that an imposition of an agreement by outside actors such as the United Nations, the European Union or even the United States is a real possibility. In fact, virtually no one seriously suggests that an agreement simply be imposed on Israelis and Palestinians.
The real issue is how the statement is defined. In general terms, supporters of Israeli policies take this rule to mean that no pressure should be brought upon Israel, as any such pressure is seen as undermining bilateral negotiations. Opponents of Israel’s occupation, on the other hand, tend to see outside pressure, in the form of international diplomacy or economic pressure, as crucial to incentivizing both sides into serious negotiations and toward making the difficult compromises necessary to achieve a final agreement.
As the administration of President Barack Obama enters its final months, there has been a good deal of speculation about what, if anything, the outgoing president will do about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Relatively free of political pressure, it seems to make sense that Obama would not want to leave this conflict as it stands, with a peace process in shambles, an increasingly isolated but aggressive Israel and a Palestinian population in deep despair and seeing violence as the only available, albeit futile, route open to them.
According to reports, the administration is considering several options: a United Nations Security Council resolution on the two-state solution, a resolution on the settlements or some combination of the two, either at the UN or in a statement of final status parameters by Obama. Any of these alternatives are staunchly opposed by Prime Minister Netanyahu and his supporters in the United States.
In order to counter such measures, the argument being made is that only bi-lateral talks can resolve the conflict, and therefore no outside pressures can be brought, in accordance with the Netanyahu government’s view that outside pressure is incompatible with direct negotiations.
In fact, outside pressure does not interfere with bilateral talks, it facilitates them. One example would be last year’s completion of the agreement to halt potential military aspects of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. The United States and Iran were the key players, but the involvement of the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany – countries that had a variety of views of and interests in the agreement – clearly helped keep negotiations on track and helped both sides to make difficult compromises.
When dealing with a conflict between two peoples that are equally passionate about their nationalism, rights, fears and historical claims, but far from equal in terms of negotiating strength, outside influence is indispensable. The compromises both Israel and the Palestinians would need to make to come to a final agreement will be difficult and will face strong domestic opposition. As with Iran, international advocacy for compromise will be indispensable for embattled leaders in both sides.
But external pressure would serve a more direct purpose in the case of Israelis and Palestinians. Israel currently has a government that, despite its Prime Minister giving lip service to a two-state solution, has worked hard to prevent one from ever coming about. Israelis who voted for Likud, the Jewish Home and other right wing parties, by and large, oppose the creation of a Palestinian state. Most Israelis see a Palestinian state as a huge risk, even if they support the creation of one. Meanwhile, Israel is an economic and political oasis in an unstable region, with the majority of its citizens enjoying a standard of living comparable to most Western countries. Without outside pressure, any Israeli leader, much less a right wing one, has no reason to take the tough, politically risky decisions that ending the occupation would entail.
On the Palestinian side, a fractured and divided leadership makes any political progress difficult. This is compounded by the loss of confidence among the Palestinian populace in both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, and the failure of two decades of negotiations to free Palestinians from the occupation. The reality that any agreement will require compromise on both sides is complicated for Palestinians by their view that they have already sacrificed 78% of their homeland for the possibility of a sovereign homeland on the remaining 22%.
The political will required for an agreement with Israel is unlikely to be forthcoming from a Palestinian leadership that is perceived as corrupt and comfortable in positions of relative wealth and power in Ramallah. Only external pressure can push that leadership to make these decisions. The alternative is political chaos and an unknown future leadership that will almost certainly have to show more steadfastness than willingness to compromise, at least in the short run.
It is, of course, conceivable that the two sides might eventually talk again even without any outside pressure. But, as has been the case for over twenty years, talking does not lead to results by itself. The international community, especially the United States, is not merely justified in putting expectations on both sides and creating consequences for failing to meet those expectations; doing so is a requirement if there is ever to be a diplomatic resolution to this conflict.
The claim that outside pressure is the same as dictating a solution is simply false. Those making such a claim must be asked why. Opposing outside influence on both Israel and the Palestinians, and claiming that any pressure is the same as imposing a solution, is a sure way to block peace, to keep Israel and the Palestinians locked in conflict, and to prevent the realization of a two-state solution.