The Success or Failure of the Peace Talks is not Contingent on the Outcome of the Current Election Campaign

I have been studying Israel and the Middle East and Israel in detail for almost fifty years, and I have come to one irrefutable conclusion. Modern Israel has produced almost as much as and maybe even more mythology than did ancient Greece.


In most places, myths are used to try to explain things that are inexplicable using the information and the intellectual tools that are available to that society. Israel, though, is a different case. Most of the information and all the intellectual tools needed to discover the truth are available. But for any number of reasons, people refuse to use the assets at their disposal. Instead, all too often, they take a few, highly-selective facts and then mold those facts in such a way that they then reinforce these individuals’ existing personal ideologies or prejudices, or their belief in where their own interests lie. From my experience, almost never is an attempt made to examine the raw data available, get inside Israelis’ heads or ask even the simplest, most obvious questions about what makes Israelis tick, and therefore why they act as they do.


Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in the peace process. So what I want to do in the rest of my remarks is to separate the facts about the peace process from some of the myths that surround it.


In order to do so, I have to start with the basics. I’ll begin with a short description of the protagonists.


Much of Israel’s image abroad, and much of the mythology about Israel, has been fashioned by the spinmeisters for those who have tried to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and have come away frustrated and angry that their efforts have come to naught.


Most of those mediators have been American diplomats. These diplomats have one basic mandate: to foster American commercial and political interests abroad. In order to pursue that objective they are trained to maintain contacts with foreign countries’ elites, to provide humanitarian aid to those in distress, and to mediate disputes. When they try to mediate quarrels, they invariably use the doctrine formulated by the Harvard team on negotiating. That doctrine states that there are two ways to negotiate—Track I, by elites talking to elites and Track II, through small group decision-making. Although the Americans profess to believe in democracy, their diplomats are therefore snobs who have consistently shown themselves to be totally uninterested in mobilizing popular support abroad for their efforts.


The media too have played a major role in fashioning Israel’s image. They have done so largely by refusing to investigate or to even mention many of the subtleties and nuances that are an integral part of the ongoing conflict. Worse still, though, in their search for simplicity, they ignore many of the most fundamental realities and huge processes that shape Israelis’ thought and actions.


For example, pundits of all descriptions make great hay about the splits in Israeli society—between the religious and secular, between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, between the left and the so-called “right.” The list of these divisions seems endless. But one division—to my mind the most important one—almost never gets any play in the media. It is the fact that, since it was founded, the Zionist movement has been divided most clearly between what I call “true believers” and rationalists. Israel could not and would not have been founded, and could not and would not have survived, without both dreamy romantics and hard-nosed realists. The romantics were willing to undergo great hardship including draining the swamps and settling in often inhospitable places. But the realists too made their contribution by, among other things, agreeing to the UN partition resolution, despite strong domestic opposition.


Regrettably, in the past few years, those thoughtful rationalists in Israel who are not on the journalists’ list of elite interviewees have been largely ignored because they do not produce the sound bites and the kind of drama that the media craves.


Recently, for example, more than a hundred top generals, former heads of the Shin Bet and the Mossad published an ad in Israeli newspapers demanding that, since the talks with the Palestinians have failed, the government should try to negotiate a deal not just with the Palestinians, but also with the whole Arab world.


Their joint effort was more than just a statement of ideology. It was the product of an attempt by top security professionals by to clarify some of the most basic issues preventing the crafting of a peace agreement.


The ad was duly reported in some foreign newspapers, but then, was just as quickly forgotten.


I don’t have access to the state secrets that led this particular group of security experts to come to the conclusions that they have reached. However, what I can do is to put their effort into perspective. In particular, what I would like to do is to use the data available from open sources, in order to explain how their appeal fits into the overall approach to peacemaking being taken by Israeli rationalists.


In order to do so, however, I first have to debunk one of the most pervasive myths of all—that a shift to the right by Israelis has made peacemaking more difficult.


In order to do so, I first have to provide you with some basic information, some of which has rarely if ever seen mentioned in the media.


First, all the public opinion polls taken over the past half century indicate that more than half of the Israeli public takes rational, centrist positions on most matters. For all the yelling and screaming that goes on there, the fact is that most Israelis actually exhibit considerable probity and a capacity to prioritize issues.


In general, those polls that are mentioned in the media consistently show that Israeli Jews are hawkish on security matters. What the media too often fail to report, though, is that these same Israelis are also more dovish than is generally believed when it comes to issues related to the peace process.


The internal intellectual and emotional conflict that this ambivalence produces, has then led a majority of Israelis to reach many conclusions that myth-makers prefer to ignore.


For example, contrary to conventional wisdom, Israeli Jews, in general, have, in fact, become more dovish over the years. For example, most people don’t recognize that public support for the establishment of a Palestinian state tripled between 1987 and 2006 from 21 percent of the Jewish populace to 61 percent.


There has been somewhat of a drop in that level of support, by about 8 percentage points, in recent years. But it’s not that Israelis have shifted decisively to the ultra-nationalist camp, it’s that, as the peace-making process proceeded, the Israeli public lost faith in the Palestinian leadership, which came to be viewed as weak, rigid, and unwilling or unable to compromise.


Today, only 44 percent of Israelis believe that the Palestinians want peace; and only 31 percent believe that a peace agreement is achievable under current circumstances. For example, 89 percent of Israelis believe that there is little or no chance that Hamas will ever recognize Israel’s right to exist.


Nonetheless, even now, 58 percent of Israeli Jews support the evacuation of settlements in the occupied territories as part of a peace settlement. That is an important figure because the polls also show that only 42 percent of Israelis oppose expanding settlements now.


The reason for this seeming contradiction, readiness to accept foreign criticism about settlement construction, and willingness to waste resources and money is that the majority feels that an open conflict with the settlers at this time would not be worth the effort and the social cost. That cost would only become bearable if and when the Palestinians publicly agree to concessions that the Israeli public deems important.


It is noteworthy that 91 percent of the public believes that if a true peace settlement were signed the country could cope with the domestic upheaval that an evacuation of settlements would probably entail. Israelis, though, don’t want to even think about dealing with the issue until they have something more concrete in hand.


Significantly, despite the current high level of pessimism, the vast majority of Israelis do want the peace talks to be renewed no matter what. Only 19 percent of the public oppose such talks. Moreover, 53 percent say that the negotiations should be directed at establishing a Palestinian state. That bare majority, though, rises to a non-ignorable national consensus level of 64 percent when the process is worded as establishing “two states for two peoples.”


According to the staffers of the National Institute for Strategic Studies who gathered these data, the number of supporters for establishing a Palestinian state is fluid and could rise quickly if current circumstances change. That is because the so-called “right” of the political spectrum is not as strong as it has been made out to be by its friends and foes alike.


I can make that claim because, unlike many pundits, I have carefully examined the country’s voting patterns.


Over the past decade and a half, participation in Israeli elections has fallen from an average of 80-85 percent to 62-65 percent. This has led to a dramatic increase in the number of ultra-Orthodox and extremist, neo-nationalist Knesset members for the following reasons:


First, there has been a massive change in voting patterns by the country’s Arab citizens, who make up about 20 percent of the population. Up to the turn of the millennium, about 85 percent of Israeli Arabs voted in general elections. About half of those votes went to left-wing Zionist parties. However, in October 2000, rioting and demonstrations broke out in Israeli Arab towns. Thirteen Arabs were killed by Israeli police gunfire. Young Israeli Arabs became disillusioned that they would ever be able to influence Israeli politics, and so stopped voting in national elections. By 2013, overall Arab participation in national elections had fallen to 53 percent. A bout half of the Arabs’ votes had gone to left-wing, Jewish-led parties, and so it was they who were hurt the most by the Arabs’ abstention from voting.


Second, an analysis of the raw data shows that the fall in the number of Jews voting in general elections is not as great as is currently believed. The raw data show that 73 percent of those Jews actually present in the country continue to vote in national elections.


However, the electoral base of the Likud and the right is made up disproportionately of lower middle class and lower class citizens. Therefore, unlike the centrists and those on the left, a greater proportion of those who oppose the peace process tend not to be absent from the country on election day because they usually do not work abroad, tend not to take sabbaticals, and don’t take long treks to India or South America after their army service.


In addition, pundits make the mistake of lumping the ultra-Orthodox into the so-called “right-wing” camp. The ultra-Orthodox parties do support Likud-led coalition, but for reasons that have nothing to do with the neo-nationalists’ stance on the peace process. They join Likud-led coalitions because they have found the Likud to be more willing than other parties to fund ultra-Orthodox institutions and social programmes.


It is true that the ultra-Orthodox are becoming more intemperate when it comes to issues related to the Arabs. The NISS estimated that today only a quarter of the ultra-Orthodox take centrist positions on relations with the Arabs, while half now support the agenda of the extreme nationalists.


Parenthetically, this movement to the extreme nationalist side can be explained in large part by the fact that those who support dovish positions tend to be better educated, wealthier and have served in the army. As well, a Haifa University study has found that, in general, those who serve as army conscripts finish their military service more sensitive to minority interests, more committed to democracy and minority rights, and more dovish. Not only are the ultra-Orthodox the least educated, the most sequestered, and the poorest members of Jewish society, they do the least army service. (Less than a quarter have ever donned an army uniform, and the vast majority of those who did, became religious only at a later stage in their lives).


The ultra-Orthodox also do not watch the television news and do not read popular, secular newspapers that feature debates on the relative merits of peace-related issues.


Therefore, when pollsters interview ultra-Orthodox Jews and then aggregate their findings with the rest of the data that they have assembled, the resulting statistics show a real and significant growth in support for the neo-nationalist camp.


However it is also important to recognize that this shift in personal opinions will have almost no effect on support for a peace agreement if one is eventually negotiated. That is because almost all the ultra-Orthodox rabbis remain committed to the belief that a peace agreement is necessary to save lives.


Therefore, because of the hierarchical nature of their societies, the ultra-Orthodox masses will, in the end, support their rabbi’s positions rather than abide by their own consciences and prejudices.


However, these are not the only explanations why popular perceptions about the neo-nationalists’ strength are incorrect. Another important reason for this widespread misperception is that there has been a significant change in support for the most raucous, verbose and colourful political fringes; and it is they who invariably get the most media and therefore the most world public attention.


In the past ten years, the extreme left has been eviscerated. Its popular support fell from 10.5 percent in 2005 to 3.6 percent in 2009. By contrast, the extreme nationalist camp’s popular support went up…by two thirds…from 13.6 percent to 20.1 percent—largely at the expense of the centrist moderate right. This then made it appear that Israelis were shifting to the right at the expense of the centre, which was not true. In terms of pure size, the rational Israeli political centre has remained solid over decades.


Overall, an NISS poll that I have never seen reported in the media has found that 37 percent of the national religious camp, 51 percent of non-Orthodox but traditional Jews and 69 percent of the secular support the establishment of a Palestinian state. I personally found the fact that 37 percent of the religious nationalist camp supports the establishment of a Palestinian state even before serious talks get underway again to be a particularly striking figure.



When all these factors are taken into consideration, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that if a peace agreement with the Palestinians is finally negotiated, not only would a majority of the public support it if a referendum were held—as the neo-nationalists are now demanding—support for such a treaty would likely be so great that it would be able to be called a “consensus.”


At this point, I should explain what I mean by a consensus, and why reaching a consensus, rather than relying only on majority support is so important in Israel.


History has shown that, in Israel, even majority public support for a particular issue has often been insufficient to overcome the influence and myth-making capacity of sectoral lobbyists. For that reason, over the years, the most formidable force in Israeli democratic politics has become not elections, but the construction of a national consensus. Every prime minister who has defied a national consensus has been defeated at the next election. Those prime ministers who have been able to build a consensus or those who have followed the dictates of an existing one have been able to withstand all domestic and foreign pressures.


Because of the numerous clefts in Israeli society, all national consensuses have to be constructed from scratch. Inevitably, they are the product of ad hoc coalitions that are formed to support a particular issue, which then needs to gain the backing of 61-67 percent of the public for a period of six months or more. Why 61 and 67 percent? It’s simple. The minorities who actually control matters in Israel because they hold the balance of power in the Knesset—such as the various religious parties—are always happy to press their agendas when they have only a bare plurality of support, not even a majority. But when the public unites behind an issue that is opposed by one or more of these minorities, these extremely vocal groups demand that the decision be made by what they call an “absolute majority (which is 60 percent of the population), or what they call “an overwhelming majority” (which is two-thirds of the population).

Therefore, before even beginning to launch a peace-making effort, a mediator should ask one question that, to the best of my knowledge, no mediator has asked: What would it take to gain the overwhelming support of the Israeli public?


Clearly, the first step should be to set a popularly-accepted objective for the peace talks. Here a bit of simple arithmetic comes in handy. The NISS poll showed that 38 percent of Israelis believe that the most important national value should be to preserve the Jewish majority in the country, while 37 percent said that creating a condition of peace should be the highest value. Both groups put “preserving democracy,” as their second most important priority. Bingo! By combining all three phrases together—peace for a Jewish and democratic state you can to assure a potentially huge majority of public support…75 percent of the Jewish public.


American would-be mediators have done just that. But just stating this goal has obviously been insufficient to get the talks going again. That is because, at the moment, there is no real domestic pressure on the Israeli government to do so. Threats from the US and Europe to apply sanctions, and efforts by non-governmental groups such as the BDS (boycott, divestment sanctions) movement to punish Israel have had no effect.


I would like to suggest that they have all failed to influence the Israeli public because they remain too ignorant about Israeli society…or have refused to accept the fact that Israelis have a very different way of going about decision-making than almost everyone else.


One of the most important aspects of Israeli public discourse—and one that divides the rationalists from the romantics, the messianists and the redemptionists—is also one that international mediators have consistently ignored. The messianists and the redemptionists claims are invariably based on a set of beliefs. The rationalists’ on the other hand, usually demand that the debaters arrive at agreed criteria for judging a situation before they reach a conclusion so that the conclusion can be judged on its worth as defined by those agreed criteria.


One thing that I have consistently found is that foreigners are almost totally ignorant of just how pervasive this contest between belief-driven policy-making and the demand for criteria-based decision-making is in Israel.


For example, to use a non-peace-related case in point, it is not unusual for the Supreme Court, before publishing a ruling on whether a particular law is constitutional or not, for the Court to demand that the government explain in detail what will be the criteria used if and when the law is implemented.


Thus, when the government announced that it would be building the new city of Harish in central Israel, the Court demanded to know what would be the criteria for selling flats and land in the area. When the government’s response showed that the ultra-Orthodox would be heavily favoured, the Court demanded that either the criteria be changed or the law would be declared unconstitutional because the criteria gave unequal, and therefore constitutionally unacceptable, preference to ultra-Orthodox home buyers.


I cannot emphasize enough that this search for criteria applies to all the existential debates that take place in the country—especially those related to the peace process. This process reaches its peak when the “wisdom of crowds” is used to determine what those criteria should be.


And now I come to the primary point I want to make—one that I have never seen mentioned anywhere.


Long ago, in what was one of the most extraordinary exercises in democracy to have ever taken place anywhere, a majority of the Israeli public decided that, even before peace negotiations take place, criteria must be established for judging whether the other side to a peace negotiation was likely to abide by the agreement after it was signed. In other words, even before discussions on borders or water allocations or security measures begin, the majority of Israelis want to be sure that both sides actually want a deal and that the other side will abide by that agreement if a formal pact is signed.


For that reason, in the wake of the Sadat peace initiative, and for almost a decade, from 1977 until the first Intifada broke out in 1987, pundits, active and retired politicians, retired army officers, high school principals, academic specialists and seemingly anyone else with an opinion used op-eds, letters to the editor, radio and television talk shows and radio call-in shows to voice their views on this subject.


What made this exercise even more extraordinary was that the public engaged in this lengthy debate despite years of having been trained and badgered by Israeli and foreign politicians and diplomats into believing that only the elites are equipped with the specialist knowledge needed to judge the value of any peace proposal.


Nonetheless, the Israeli public persisted. And the results were nothing less than extraordinary because they were revolutionary in both their content and their approach. Even more importantly, they were prescient. In particular, they predicted the failures of diplomatic initiatives that were to come, such as the Oslo accords.


The debate began when Anwar Sadat announced that he would go anywhere, “even to the Knesset in Jerusalem” to make peace. Once the Israeli government had accepted his offer and had formally invited him to come, though, the first thing that the Israeli Chief of Staff, Motta Gur did was to put the Israeli army on its highest state of alert.


Gur feared that Sadat’s visit was an elaborate ruse, and that it could be just a cover for another surprise attack by Egypt, as had occurred in such a devastating fashion in 1973. Gur was not alone in thinking that this was an act of deception—or at best, a bit of diplomatic theater.


The reason was that Sadat’s announcement challenged all the conventional wisdom of its day. That so-called “wisdom” proclaimed that Egyptians, because of their hatred for Israel, were incapable of making peace. And, of course, at that time, the Israelis were still recovering from the psychological burns they had suffered during the Yom Kippur War. Prior to the war, military intelligence had had all the concrete information—in the form of wireless intercepts and aerial photographs—that it needed in order to judge that Egypt and Syria were preparing for war. However, using their own “rational,” analysis, based on the reigning conventional wisdom that Egypt would be foolish to go to war against Israel’s superior army, the Israeli analysts made the fatal assessment that war was not an option for Egypt or Syria.


They had failed for the same reason that so many intelligence assessments fail—an inability by analysts to get inside the mind of the opponent in order to judge his or her intent to use the assets at his or her disposal. Gur was determined that he would not be taken in by Sadat, as his predecessors had been.


The twin embarrassments of having failed to accurately assess both Sadat’s intent to make war and his intent to make peace, though, then set off an epidemic of soul-searching among the Israeli public. The very idea that they might blow an opportunity to resolve the Israeli-Arab dispute in the future was gut-wrenching.


In the end, the Israeli public was able to come up with a set of criteria for judging intent that has proven to be almost infallible over a period of more than three decades.


* * *


Before going into those criteria in detail, though, I should lay out the presumptions that I found in re-reading more than 5,000 articles, letters to the editor, and notes I took while listening to radio and television talk shows. The first was that a prior consensus within Israel on whether a peace making effort appears to be genuine, not just a post facto acceptance of an agreement drafted by the elected leadership, is essential. The Israeli public, preoccupied with making a living, picking up the pieces from failed government policies, and fighting a constant guerilla war with the bureaucracy, believes it needs some clear, agree-upon guidelines for itself before it can decide whether it should be roused to take the enormous effort necessary to come out en masse to support one particular so-called “peace proposal” or another.


A second was that the public agreed with the elitists, and was quite open about the fact that it did not have the specialists’ technical knowledge needed to judge whether a particular technical detail such as whether this hill or that, or whether this or that crossroads was worth giving up…or had to be kept in order to maintain national security. The public’s working assumption, though, was that if specific technical points did become a matter for popular decision-making, there were enough pundits who had retired from the military or the diplomatic service to provide the different points of view necessary to come to a reasoned decision.


A third presumption, and this was a revolution in diplomatic practice, was that the public could assess the intent of the other side without having secret material in hand. The assumption here was that while the elites may have been privy to secret facts, the public would be able to weigh the crucial issue of intent based on the statements being made and the actual public behavior of the other side. Put in clichéish terms, the Israeli public’s thesis was that if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, walks like a duck and swims like a duck…it’s a duck. All that is needed in order to judge the other side’s intent is for people to come up with clear criteria for what constitutes positive or negative actions; assess all the public statements available to see if they contain real value; and take careful note of all of the speech and behavior patterns of the other side.


The fourth presumption was that although the elites could construct a technical framework for a peace agreement, it would be of no value and could even be harmful to Israel if the intent of the other side was to use that framework for mischief, and not for creating a lasting peace.


As unspoken assumption, but an underlying theme that ran through many of the commentaries was that these same criteria could also be used by Israelis to judge their own government’s intent.


Fulfilling these criteria is easier said than done. To my mind, the singular failure of all foreign mediation efforts has been the refusal by the mediators to accept that if they are to create an Israeli consensus in support of their efforts, they must first prod both sides to respond openly to and then prove that have accepted the criteria that have been established.


It is important to recognize that these ideas were not seen by the writers of these articles as being absolute preconditions for beginning negotiations (which would have just delayed the talks) but rather as preconditions for the success of the talks.


While no formal public opinion polls were taken to judge the precise degree of public support each of these criteria had, there was not a single objection to each of the following suggestions in any of the articles and letters-to-the-editor that I read. They can therefore be assumed to have produced a national consensus. I very much doubt whether any of you would have a fundamental objection to any of these criteria


The first and most important criterion that the Israeli public set has also been the very reason why every round of negotiations with the Palestinians has so far collapsed. It states that the aim of negotiation must be the creation of what has been called “an end point.” In other words, the sides must agree in advance that any signed agreement will mark the absolute halt to any further claims each side may have had on the other. Moreover, in order to assure that this will take place each side must agree to a formal renunciation of violence to settle any future disputes that may arise.


This condition may seem to be self-evident. Anwar Sadat, from the very outset of his initiative, and even before formal negotiations had begun, didn’t just call for peace—a word which even at that time had had lost all meaning because of misuse—he also called out loudly for “No more war.”


To date, while he has rejected violence as a means for gaining his political objectives, Abu Mazzen has refused to accept the demand for an end point; and Hamas has refused to give up the notion of armed struggle. Most of the Israeli analysts I have spoken to believe that Abu Mazzen’s refusal arises from an unwillingness by the Palestinians to give up their belief in and their campaign on behalf of the right of any Palestinian or his or her progeny to return to their ancestral home. These analysts believe that unless the Palestinians at some point give up the dream of being able to return to the homes they or their ancestors lived in up to 1948, any agreement will be considered by the Palestinians to be an interim, one—not a lasting one.


In other words, even if all the technical issues involved in creating a peace agreement can be resolved, the success of such an agreement may ultimately depend upon both sides (including the Jewish settlers) agreeing to give up their inalienable right to dream—and, even more so, their inalienable right to voice their dreams.

Second, each side must demonstrate that its government is sufficiently stable domestically that it can carry out the terms of the agreement once the pact is signed. In the case of Israel, this means that the government of the day must be capable of winning a vote of confidence in the Knesset on this issue. When Ehud Barak disobeyed this rule and tried to push forward with his talks with Yassir Arafat despite the fact that he had a lame-duck minority government, he was punished not only by seeing the talks collapse, but also by losing the next election by a humungous margin.


Since none of the Arab states is expected to turn into a full-fledged liberal democracy soon, their leaders, instead, are expected to be able to show, by a repeated series of acts, that they are at least in control. In particular, the leader must be able to prove that all the armed forces have remained loyal to the government. Both Anwar Sadat and King Hussein were ruthless in cracking down on their political opponents, and in using their security forces to do so.


One of the main reasons why the Oslo accords broke down was that, from the outset, Yassir Arafat was the antithesis of such a leader.


However, not all the fault lies with the Palestinians. Israel’s chronically weak and dysfunctional governments have been unable or unwilling to control their own extremist vigilantes, most notably blatant law-breakers such as the so-called “hill-top youth” (many of whom are followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane), as well as other miscreants who have attacked Palestinians, uprooted their orchards, poisoned sheep and defaced mosques. Moreover, illegally-built settlements remain in place, illegally-built buildings remain standing, and some Supreme Court decisions to destroy them have not been carried out.


Third, on fundamental issues, the leader must be able to show that he keeps his word. This then makes him appear to be predictable. More than anything else, even in their own governments, Israelis have sought stability through predictability. The greatest single complaint that has been made against Netanyahu by all sides in Israel is that he has waffled on almost every major issue, and he has often reversed himself. It is ironic that it took Obama’s demands that Israel halt Jewish construction in Jerusalem for Netanyahu to finally take an unshakable stand on an issue.


Sadat, recognizing that the Israelis simply didn’t believe that he was a person of any stature, deliberately set about recreating his image—first by declaring, in 1972, that the coming year would be a “year of decision,” then by going to war, and finally by scrupulously keeping to the disengagement agreements. King Hussein just as scrupulously avoided undertaking any formal agreements—until the peace agreement—so that he could not be put in a position where he might be seen to have broken his word. Once the agreement was signed, though, as I will show in a moment, he made a point of putting on staged media shows that were specifically designed to prove his commitment to the pact that had been signed.


To date, Mahmoud Abbas, has made no promises that can be easily tested, other than his determined rejection of violence as a means to gain the Palestinians objectives.


The fourth precondition was put on paper more as an observation than as a plea or a demand. It states that the leader must be able to show that his staff is both competent and not only personally loyal to the current leader, but also loyal to the state as an institution. After all, it is these staff members who, once the leaders have come to an agreement on principles, will have to deal with the technical aspects of the deal. And it is they who will be responsible for implementing the agreement over time. For example, between 1977 and 1984 Israeli officials and King Hussein held meetings roughly twice a year. In 1984, however, the meetings were halted by Moshe Dayan because Hussein never brought any aides or staffers with him. Dayan had concluded that Hussein had no intention of striking a deal; and that the king was using the meetings merely to keep communication lines open in case a crisis arose.


The reason for the Israelis’ insistence on this point is that, if there is a single national Israeli characteristic, it is the fear of being a “freier,” or being taken for a sucker. Therefore, not only is there concern that the current leader may break the agreement at any time, there is also a longer-term, deep-seated fear that succession in the other camp may lead to conflict. Abbas has not groomed any natural successor, and his office remains packed with political cronies, many of whom are suspected of pure self-interest and corruption. Moreover it remains unclear how a successor will be chosen and whether the struggle for leadership will be accompanied by internal violence or violence against Israelis. Intimate contact between the aides of the senior leaders on both sides (those who will remain in their positions after a leadership transition takes place) is a necessity in order to prevent minor verbal and other skirmishes from being manipulated by candidates for office, and others with an axe to grind, to incite violence. No less importantly, these aides also provide a much-needed, stabilizing, institutional memory.


Fifth, the leader must be willing to speak to the deep-seated fears of the other side. Sadat’s simple sentence: “No more war. Peace” did more than anything else to win over the Israelis. Note that the phrase “No more war” addressed Israeli fears, while the word “peace,” provided the vision. The two ideas had to be inseparable. The game played by both the Israelis and the Palestinians, in which each party competes for the title of which is the greater “victim,” only fosters continued distrust.


Speaking to the other side’s fears is not merely a palliative, however. It helps resolve one of the most important obstacles to peace, the search by each side for legitimacy. The implication inherent in addressing fears is that the other side is a legitimate body whose concerns, whether real or a fantasy, must nonetheless be taken into account. It is noteworthy, for example, that not once have Israeli leaders openly addressed genuine Palestinian fears, such as that the West Bank will end up as a series of isolated Palestinian enclaves.


Sixth, all the statements of import need to be made by the leader to his own constituency, in that constituency’s own political language. Sadat made his historic announcement about going to Jerusalem in a speech to the Egyptian People’s Assembly—with Yassir Arafat in attendance. One of Israel’s serial complaints about Arab leaders is that those who have not made peace with Israel invariably say one thing for foreign consumption and something very different when addressing their own people.


Abbas, in his speeches to his own people, has yet to address any major Israeli concerns; and Netanyahu’s body language, when he spoke of his acceptance of a two state solution, did nothing to allay Palestinian fears that he really did not mean two, wholly independent states.


The seventh criterion is an outgrowth of the sixth. Any statement made by the leader must be repeated several times in the local press to ensure that it is not merely a trick or a slip of the tongue, or can be denied as having been taken out of context. One of the reasons Motta Gur decided to call an alert was that Sadat’s speech to the Egyptian parliament appeared in the Egyptian press only after a delay of 48 hours.


Parenthetically, I find it incredible that many foreign pundits continue to believe and say that Hamas doesn’t really intend to seek Israel’s destruction, when the Hamas leaders repeat, almost every day, that that is precisely what they are seeking. These pundits claim to be able to read Hamas’s intent—but they, unlike the Israeli public, never say what their criteria are for making such a judgment.


Eight, the leader must create a popular mood in support of the basic principles that he has outlined. In the three years prior to his Jerusalem trip, Sadat had worked assiduously to create an atmosphere in Egypt in favor of a settlement. When he finally made his announcement, there was a rebellion by leftist secular intellectuals and by the radical Islamists, but not by the masses. A major reason for this was that he had promised that money spent on war materiel could now be diverted to domestic concerns. When I arrived in Cairo in November 1974, on the first anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, I was surprised to find just how widespread the support for an agreement with Israel was. At the time, no one spoke about “peace,” but the willingness to negotiate was palpable in the universities and in the coffee houses. “Peace” was eventually the price Egyptians felt that they had to pay in return for getting the Sinai back.


King Hussein did much the same thing in Jordan, but over a longer period.


By contrast, to this day the Palestinian school system continues to teach some of the most egregious blood libels against the Jews—although the level has been reduced by a small extent in recent years as a result of American pressure.


By the way, Israel is no less guilty of the same sin. Israeli state religious schools, in particular, continue to teach a triumphalist version of modern Israeli history, during which a discussion about the Palestinians’ legitimate concerns is totally absent.


Ninth, any proposal must create value for both sides that is tangible and undeniable. In the case of Sadat, the proposal was: all of the Sinai in return for a full peace— Egyptian economic renewal, especially the reopening of the Suez Canal, American aid money and the repopulation of the Sinai, in return for an end to conflict. In the case of Jordan it was not just full economic, diplomatic and commercial relations, the deal also included an ongoing trade of inestimable importance: An Israeli promise to provide 50 million cubic meters of water annually from the Kinneret to the Jordanian farmers in the parched Jordan Valley in return for less water, but nonetheless continued Israeli access to wells on the Jordanian side of the Arava valley. That water is crucial for the Israeli farmers there who grow winter crops for export.


Ironically, Obama’s demands of the Israelis, that they undertake unilateral acts that need not be accompanied by similar concessions on the part of the Palestinians, have had the same effect of denying the Israeli and Palestinian leaders the ability to sell win-win scenarios to their own people and to prove that they can be trusted.


Since the withdrawal from Gaza, the very idea of unilateralism has become a dirty word in Israeli politics. That is because the level of violence emanating from the Strip increased dramatically following the pullback because, in the absence of a negotiated, written agreement, the Hamas regime in Gaza has never been bound by any commitments of its own.


Two subjects that are currently in the news and are a major focus for Israeli spinmeisters were not even dealt with in depth during the initial public debate, but were discussed in very great detail after the second intifada broke out at the turn of the millennium.


During the first round of the domestic Israeli debate, the cessation of terror was mentioned often. However, the idea that there should be a halt to ground incursions across or flights by rockets over the internationally-accepted border seemed to be such an obvious one that it was only very rarely mentioned. Because of the rocketing of Israeli villages from Gaza, the need to confront and to halt state-sponsored or patron-sponsored terrorism has now become yet another major issue for discussion. And, if recent commentaries are any guide, the resolution of this issue has now become another Israeli precondition for the success of diplomatic talks.


The second subject, Israeli legitimacy, was also only rarely mentioned initially; and, like terror, was never discussed in depth because it seemed, at the time, to be something so obvious that it need not even be discussed. The current brouhaha over Netanyahu’s demands that the Palestinians must first agree to recognize Israel as a Jewish state is something new. I should stress at this point that the Israeli public has never demanded that the other side openly and directly recognize Israel as a Jewish state. My impression is that Netanyahu raised the issue in order to prevent the peace talks from advancing.


During the 1980s, the Israeli public appeared to assume that any Arab state that chose to make peace with Israel, ipso facto was recognizing Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state. That may have been because, by the very act of speaking before the Knesset, Sadat was recognizing the legitimacy of Israel as it had been defined by its legally-elected representatives in a basic law (the equivalent of an article in a constitution).


King Hussein, as had been his wont, initially used a more indirect approach. As the secret talks got underway, a rumor, apparently deliberately spread by the palace in Amman began to circulate. It claimed that Hussein’s brother, Hassan, the crown prince and heir-apparent at the time, had studied the Mishna, the code of Jewish law, for two years. Whether true or not, the rumor got wide play in the Israeli press, was spoken about publicly by Shimon Peres, and was generally interpreted as an acceptance of the legitimacy of Jewish culture—a culture deserving of study and respect—by the scions of Mohammed himself


After the peace agreement was signed, Hussein went even further. After a crazed Jordanian soldier had killed a group of Israeli schoolgirls visiting the border area of Naharayim, Hussein not only came to Israel to offer his condolences, he went to the mourners’ houses, where the families, in keeping with Jewish tradition were sitting on the floors as a sign of mourning. Hussein, with cameras rolling, then went on bended knee to shake hands with the families. The the newsreel footage of him, a king, bowing to commoner Jews created an uproar throughout Arab world, but won over even the last of the Israeli skeptics. When I ask Israelis today what is their strongest memory of Hussein, without exception they make reference to that event.


By contrast, Ehud Barak was dumbfounded and apparently permanently shaken during his talks with Yassir Arafat when Arafat refused to recognize that the Jews had any historical attachment to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. It is apparently that incident, and several later ones like the repetition of the same claim on the web site of the student union of Al Quds University, (whose president, Sari Nusseibeh, was a member of the Palestinian peace camp), that led Netanyahu to make his demand. Mahmoud Abbas’s refusal to relate to the issue of what has now come to be called “The Holy Basin” has now become one of the main stumbling blocks to further diplomatic progress.


If Abu Mazzen chose to, he could follow in the footsteps of both Sadat and Hussein and easily circumvent Netanyahu’s demands that he agree in advance to openly accept that Israel is the homeland of the Jews—without losing the support of the Israeli centre. All it would take is a bit of will and a bit of imagination.


* * *


So, in conclusion, I would like to say that it is patently obvious to all that the peace process has failed to date, and that the patches that have been put on the process have not only failed, but in some cases have set back the process enormously.


Attempts at hard-ball tactics, such as the call for divestment or the demand for a halt in residential construction in parts of Jerusalem have also failed.


So too have unilateral acts.


The assumption that Abbas and Ehud Olmert were close to an agreement is false. Their seminal success was to clear away all the dross that had been left by the spinmeisters over the years until they found the real issues on which they could not agree.


It is, therefore time to rethink the entire process. Complaining about what Israeli leaders do or do not do is a waste of time because of the political constraints they operate under. It is necessary to look elsewhere for actors who are in a position to do something. That one of the most important players in this drama, the Israeli public, has been ignored, has been an act of utter folly.


Even if one believes that diplomacy can only be conducted by elites, a review of attitudes towards the Israeli public is nonetheless long overdue.


And finally, it seems to me that rather than going back to repeating old mistakes, such as emphasizing talks on the hard-nut issues right away, it might be wise to take the advice of the Israeli majority and first build a stronger foundation for the talks by creating a series of visible successes, before going back to discussing those issues that have proven to be impervious to a solution because of the deep levels of distrust between the parties.


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