John Kerry's Israel-Palestine Peace Talks Doomed to Fail


Israeli and Palestinian representatives met in Washington last week for the first time in almost three years amid heightened expectations for a deal on a two-state solution. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry engineered the talks, convinced that the 60-year conflict could finally be resolved. Al Jazeera's Rosalind Jordan reported that "there was a real sense of camaraderie" and that "the lead negotiators embraced." The aim of the talks is to discuss what the negotiators refer to as "final status issues": one, the right of return of Palestinian refugees; two, the borders of a sovereign Palestinian state; three, the status of the settlements constructed by Israel in the territories it has occupied since the Six Day War; and four, the fate of Jerusalem. But no one should get carried away.

Despite John Kerry's optimism, when it comes to the tough issues the talks are doomed to fail. Kerry has not learned the most important lesson of previous attempts at resolving seemingly intractable conflicts: they must be conducted in secret, away from the glare of the media and free from the pressures of party and public. The core feature of any settlement of this sort is compromise — no side in the negotiations can expect to get everything they want — but compromises unpalatable to the people back home will not fly. Elected officials are constrained in their decision-making by the need to hold on to power, a theory best explained by Bueno de Mesquito et al in their 2002 book The Logic of Political Survival. In the context of the peace talks, the negotiators will know that every move is being closely watched, and concessions will be almost impossible to justify. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will find that the concessions necessary for a deal risk losing public support and quite possibly electoral defeat.

The model for successful negotiations in the context of nationalist, ethnic, or sectarian conflicts is the Northern Ireland Peace Process, which culminated in the 1998 Belfast ("Good Friday") Agreement. It started with secret talks between the British government and representatives of the IRA, then broadened out into "talks about talks" involving all the main political parties in Northern Ireland and the government of the Republic of Ireland. Substantive talks followed, in which were hammered out the ingredients of a final settlement. All the parties to the talks, including representatives of the paramilitary organisations on both sides such as the IRA, were forced to make compromises.

None of this would have been possible if the parties to the talks were constantly in front of the cameras having to explain each concession they were prepared to make. The key to the success of the Northern Ireland talks was secrecy until a final agreement was reached. Only then was the Belfast Agreement put before the Irish people, north and south, for their approval in public referenda. At this point, it was an all-or-nothing vote: continuing conflict or an agreement built on a package of compromises that promised peace. It was clear that there were gains for both sides, and equally clear that concessions had been made by both sides, but as a package of give and take, it worked.

The lesson for the Israel-Palestine negotiations is that talks constantly subject to public scrutiny will founder on the rock of public opinion on both sides of the conflict. The far right in Israel, vital to maintaining Netanyahu in power, will strongly oppose proposals to cede territory Israel has colonized in the West Bank. Though this is a necessary condition for peace, Tzipi Livni (Israel's lead negotiator) will not agree to it, or at least not to the degree necessary. On the other hand, Abbas will be unable to agree to anything less than the return of most of the land Israel has settled. Both sides want Jerusalem as their capital, but Israel continues to reject proposals to share the city. This poses an insurmountable obstacle to the negotiators; the Israeli negotiators cannot accept sharing it without Netanyahu's coalition losing support from the religious parties, while Abbas could not risk giving up the claim to Jerusalem without losing the support of a great number of Palestinians. A compromise is needed; perhaps a power-sharing arrangement in the city, but this is not likely to come about while both sides are forced to account for every move they make.

Another important lesson from the Northern Ireland peace process is that all parties to a conflict must be involved in the talks and all parties must agree to the final settlement. Officially the British government refuses to negotiate with terrorists, but the Blair government knew that a deal without the IRA would not work. The Israeli government will not negotiate with Hamas, which it describes as a terrorist organisation and blames for repeated rocket attacks on Israel. But Hamas is in control of the Gaza Strip and no peace settlement will work without its support. If Hamas is left on the outside looking in, it will condemn any concession made by the Palestinian delegation it does not approve of. If its disapproval takes the form of more rockets launched into Israel, it will likely derail the talks altogether.

It is going to take hard compromises and the inclusion of Hamas to find peace. The compromises must be packaged as parts of a complete settlement, and this can only be done if the talks are protected from the disapproval of the various constituencies on either side of the conflict. And, just as the IRA possessed a powerful veto on the Northern Ireland peace process, so it must be recognised that without Hamas a final settlement can never be truly final.