Why Israel-Palestinian peace talks will fail

The conventional wisdom is that the revived Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are doomed to fail. The popular reason cited is that “the maximum the Israelis can offer is less than the minimum the Palestinians can accept.”

David Suissa is Publisher & Editor-in-Chief of Tribe Media/Jewish Journal, where he has been writing a weekly column on the Jewish world since 2006. In 2015, he was awarded first prize for "Editorial Excellence" by the American Jewish Press Association. Prior to Tribe Media, David was founder and CEO of Suissa Miller Advertising, a marketing firm named “Agency of the Year” by USA Today. He sold his company in 2006 to devote himself full time to his first passion: Israel and the Jewish world. David was born in Casablanca, Morocco, grew up in Montreal, and now lives in Los Angeles with his five children.

August 7, 2013

The conventional wisdom is that the revived Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are doomed to fail. The popular reason cited is that “the maximum the Israelis can offer is less than the minimum the Palestinians can accept.” 

From a pragmatic view, that may well be true, but I think there’s an underlying emotional reason why these talks are doomed to continue the failures of the past.

No one wants to negotiate — let alone compromise — with a thief.

For several decades now, the Palestinians have successfully sold the world and themselves on the narrative that Israel stole their land. This has given them zero incentive to compromise.

Over time, as this unchallenged narrative has taken on the aura of accepted truth, it has undermined all attempts to reach a final peace agreement, as well as expose Israel to a global campaign of boycotts and condemnations.

To make matters worse, whenever there is more settlement construction, the perceived level of “criminality” has only gone up.

I get why Israel never made a big deal of challenging the “illegal occupation” narrative. Because it has already shown its willingness to dismantle settlements for the sake of peace, it probably figured, “Why bring up this red herring? What purpose would it serve?”

Israel’s mistake was to overlook a crucial  truth of the Middle East: Honor trumps all. If you don’t defend your honor, you’re worthy of contempt, not respect. It’s not a coincidence that Palestinian leaders have consistently used contemptuous language in accusing Israel of every possible sin.

Concentrating on pragmatic issues while ignoring this emotional poison is like cooking a rotten fish with a tasty tomato sauce. Eventually, you’re bound to bite into the fish.

We saw another example last week of how dismissive the Jewish world can be about defending Israel’s honor.

A petition signed by 1,000 jurists from around the world was delivered to European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton asserting that the E.U. is wrong in holding that Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria are illegal, and that the term “1967 lines” does not exist in international law.

Remarkably, I couldn’t find any mention of this initiative in the Jewish media, except for the right-wing Israeli news site Arutz Sheva.  No coverage in the mainstream media; no supportive statements from major Jewish organizations.

The jurists who signed are certainly no slouches. As reported on Arutz Sheva, among the signatories are former Justice Minister Yaakov Ne’eman, former U.N. Ambassador Meir Rosen, Britain’s Baroness Ruth Deech, and law professors Eliav Shochetman and Talia Einhorn, as well as legal scholars from more than 20 countries around the world.

It’s well known that when prominent Jews release public statements encouraging Israel to make “courageous concessions for peace,” they get major coverage.

But apparently, when prominent jurists release a statement defending Israel’s honor, it’s not even worth a news mention.

Even if you’re a J Street-supporting peacenik whose definition of Mashiach is the two-state solution, this state of affairs should trouble you. It’s bad for peace.

However impractical you might think it is to defend Israel’s honor and assert her land rights, in this case there is one very practical advantage: If you have a legal right to the land, it makes your concessions worth something. The concessions of a thief are worthless. 

Sadly and ironically, Israel could have made a compelling legal case regarding her land rights. The settlements may be a bad idea, but that hardly makes them illegal. 

As the man behind the initiative, Alan Baker, explained to Arutz Sheva, “It is true that most of the world thinks so [that the settlements are illegal], but that does not make it true legally. Legally, the clause in the Geneva Convention that they use to say that settlements are illegal was not intended to refer to cases like our settlements, but to prevent the forced transfer of populations by the Nazis. This is not relevant to the Israeli settlements.”

Baker is Israel’s former ambassador to Canada and legal adviser to the Foreign Ministry, who was also a member of the three-person committee headed by former Supreme Court Judge Edmond Levy, which pronounced last year that Judea and Samaria were not occupied territory.

Beyond the issue of the strategic or moral wisdom of Israeli settlements, the Levy committee showed there’s plenty of evidence supporting Israel’s legal right to settle the disputed land — including binding international agreements that predate the United Nations and were never abrogated.

In their well-intentioned zeal to challenge the wisdom of these settlements, the pro-Israel peace camp has tragically reinforced the enemy’s narrative that the settlements are a criminal enterprise. The real tragedy is that it’s probably too late now to correct this libelous narrative.

At this moment, it’s clear that external conditions — such as the presence of Hamas, the wide gap between the parties and the instability of the region — mitigate against the success of the peace talks.

But we should never underestimate the power of internal, emotional conditions.

Because even if external conditions were to improve, one human truth will remain: As long as you enter negotiations with the mark of “thief” on your forehead, good luck trying to get the other side to compromise.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

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