The Path to Peace exchange, part 2: ‘Absent an agreement, Israel risks a deterioration of stability in the West Bank’
George J. Mitchell served as a Democratic senator from Maine from 1980 to 1995 and Senate majority leader from 1989 to 1995. He was the primary architect of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement for peace in Northern Ireland, chairman of The Walt Disney Company, US Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, and the author of the Mitchell Report on the use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, as well as the books The Negotiator and A Path to Peace. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1999.
Alon Sachar has worked to advance Middle East peace under two US administrations. He served as an adviser to the US Ambassador to Israel, Daniel B. Shapiro in Tel Aviv from 2011-2012, and to President Obama’s Special Envoys for Middle East Peace, George J. Mitchell and David Hale, from 2009 to 2011. In those capacities, Alon participated in negotiations with Israelis, Palestinians, and Arab states. From 2006 to 2009, he served in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, focusing on the US bilateral relationships with Israel and the Palestinians as well as Arab-Israeli relations.
This exchange focuses on Senator Mitchell and Mr. Sachar’s new book A Path to Peace: A Brief History of Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations and a Way Forward in the Middle East (Simon & Schuster). Part 1 can be found right here.
Dear Senator Mitchell and Mr. Sachar,
In the book there are several descriptions of Senator Mitchell’s arduous attempts at convincing both President Abbas and PM Netanyahu to engage in substantive peace negotiations. Several personal meetings with the two are recounted, and a clear picture of deep entrenchment and unwillingness to compromise arises – Netanyahu would not talk borders until his very rigid security demands are accepted; Abbas did not accept Netanyahu’s security demands and demanded a halt of settlement construction as a precondition to talks. In the last of their four meetings, Netanyahu’s security demands (Israeli presence in the West Bank “for decades”) were rejected, and that was that.
I would like to ask about Netanyahu’s security demands. In a curious passage in the book, you write the following:
Netanyahu continued to insist on being fully satisfied by the United States on security issues before he would discuss territory, with us or with the Palestinians. Yet after Obama appointed U.S. military and civilian officials to begin those security discussions, Israel delayed meetings between the IDF and our officials for eight months. Through the summer and fall meeting after meeting was scheduled, then canceled. Finally, when one cancelation came at the last minute, I telephoned Defense Minister Barak, reminded him that these meetings were to be held at the request of Israel, and bluntly demanded that the Israelis end the delay in getting them started. He agreed, but the excuses and delays continued.
My question: What do you believe is behind the stalling described in the passage above? Why has Netanyahu never taken the available security suggestions brought forward by the US and by other peace negotiators seriously? What message does your book have for Israelis who are afraid of hell breaking loose if the IDF leaves the West Bank and the Jordan border?
There are many possible reasons for the delay in our security discussions. There were internal disagreements within Israel’s government over who would lead the discussions. There was considerable opposition within Israel’s ruling coalition to the two-state solution. There was the lack of trust between Netanyahu and Abbas.
The United States is committed to helping Israel protect itself and to preserving Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region. In addition to large aid packages to Israel, we have very close and ongoing relations at all levels of government, including working groups within our intelligence and defense agencies and at the State Department.
The reality is that the security concessions that Israel seeks in a peace agreement with the Palestinians must come from the Palestinians. The United States can present its ideas; we can work with Israel to try to minimize the risks inherent in any withdrawal; we will, of course, urge Palestinians to make reasonable concessions, and we can leverage our relations with the other Arabs, with Europeans, and with others to do the same. Ultimately, though, and by its very definition, a peace accord requires Palestinian consent. In that context, terms on security cannot be imposed on them any more than terms on territory or Jerusalem can be imposed on Israel. Israelis and Palestinians will live with the consequences of their decisions. We cannot realistically impose those decisions on them; even if we could, they then would be unlikely to stand the test of time.
The second part of your question touches on the dilemma facing Israel. No course of action is without risk. Many Israelis believe that the risk is too great that a Palestinian state will fail and that the West Bank will be taken over by Hamas or more radical groups – “hell breaking loose,” as you write. But there also are many Israelis who believe, as we do, that the risk of instability is much greater in the absence of a peace agreement. As we mentioned in our response to an earlier question, support among Palestinians for the current PA-Israel cooperation on security is low and declining. Palestinians increasingly view the PA as serving Israel’s territorial and security interests more than the Palestinian desire for self-determination and independence. We believe that the current arrangement cannot endure.
Israel’s security environment today is complex. During most of Israel’s early history, the principal threat was from a land invasion by the armies of neighboring states. The threat now comes from Iran’s quest for regional hegemony, from terrorist organizations operating in neighboring territories, and from the uncertain situation in the West Bank. Any one of those threats should be enough to keep Israel’s security establishment awake at night; the combination of all three is daunting.
As the United States has learned in its own counterterrorism efforts, the most effective way to counter non-state actors, the proliferation of contraband, and the flow of funds to extremists is through broad and close intelligence and security coordination with partners. Many Arab governments, particularly in the Gulf, oppose Iran and fear non-state actors as much as the Israelis do. As a result, the cooperative relations between Israel and some of the Arab states are as close as they have ever been. But the working relationship between states pursuing common strategic and defense goals must go beyond just senior levels. Those are, of course, important. But the bulk of the relationship must be maintained at the working levels, by professionals at intelligence, defense, and financial agencies. Those relationships take time to develop, and they are unlikely to mature and normalize in the absence of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
Absent an agreement, Israel risks a deterioration of stability in the West Bank and an end to effective cooperation with the PA on security. It also misses an opportunity to shape favorable regional coalitions and to establish deeper and more comprehensive regional cooperation to combat Iran, non-state actors, and other mutual threats; agreements and relationships that may be able to withstand, or even help mitigate, the consequences of the Middle East’s unpredictability.
Ultimately, Israelis will have to decide whether their Government’s current views on the West Bank and Jordan Valley are more important than the normalization of relations with the Arab and Muslim world and close security coordination with the Palestinians. Palestinians also have difficult and wrenching decisions to make.
There is no perfect, risk-free, entirely just solution. There is likely to be partition and violence in the future. What the parties must ask themselves is how to shape that partition to better position them to deal with regional and domestic threats; what approach will be less difficult and less costly, especially in human lives. An agreement will be very difficult to achieve and will have its own problems. But an agreement – phased, coordinated, internationally and regionally backed – offers both Israelis and Palestinians less pain and expense than they otherwise will endure.