By Samuel Nurding
On 15 January, delegates from approximately 70 countries will reconvene in Paris to try to map a path for Israel and the Palestinians to achieve a negotiated two-state solution. Two days later, the UN Security Council will convene to discuss the Middle East, and, most likely, the outcome of the Paris conference.
Although the Israeli government has expressed concern about these events, the conference can be positive step for helping the two sides return to direct negotiations. But, in order for this effort to be successful, the delegates will have to prevent themselves from being lured into imposing parameters that are unacceptable to the parties and instead focus on incentives to encourage each to move forward.
The first Paris meeting in June 2016 failed to captivate commentators, and its communiqué lacked substance – the delegates simply reaffirmed that “a negotiated two-state solution is the only way to achieve an enduring peace”. Yet, the conference was not insignificant; the participants decided to prepare a benefits package that would demonstrate the advantages of a negotiated agreement. Working groups were to begin looking at three areas of potential incentives: civil society, capacity building and economic aid.
The benefits package is aimed at incentivising a final status agreement in relatively short order. That paradigm, while inescapable at some point, may not fit this difficult political moment. For a variety of reasons – domestic opposition, lack of leadership, large gaps between the sides, Hamas’s control of Gaza – a two-state solution as part of a final status agreement is currently not on the horizon and preparing incentives for when it is reached is thus irrelevant. It would be better to detail incentives for how each side would be rewarded for making concrete steps towards a two-state reality, and eventually to conduct negotiations based on that reality.
The case of the Arab Peace Initiative may constitute an interesting example of this approach. The Initiative, officially adopted by the Arab League in 2002, began as a non-negotiable “take it or leave it” offer to Israel along vague lines (such as a “just solution” to the refugee problem). However, as a recent BICOM strategic analysis paper shows, due to the efforts of US Secretary of State John Kerry, and warming of attitudes to Israel in the face of the growing shared threats and opportunities, Arab states have adapted the Initiative. There now appears to be a willingness to pursue diplomacy with Israel in parallel to steps Israel makes towards Israeli-Palestinian peace, rather than sequentially at the end of the process. While the Palestinian Authority is weak and divided and thus can reasonably offer Israel little in the way of quid pro quo steps, Arab states have much to provide in return for Israeli compromises. Parallelism thus opens up paths to progress.
The international conference could do a lot worse than adopt this concept of parallel incentives before a final status agreement is achieved. But just because a final agreement is not within reach doesn’t mean that there isn’t a real need to move the sides towards a final agreement and to keep the two-state window open.
There is of course another, less productive approach the conference could take. Israel has expressed concerns that it could be a launching pad for a new Palestine-related UN Security Council resolution, perhaps to enforce out-going John Kerry’s six “parameters” for negotiation in his 28 December speech. As both sides opposed these parameters, any such resolution would likely be dead on arrival.
This is why UNSCR 2334, the Security Council resolution passed in late December, is detrimental to the dynamics of peace-making: while settlements may be an obstacle to a final-status agreement, they are not the obstacle and certainly should not constitute an impediment to restarting negotiations.
The Resolution also creates a suffocating environment for those on each side who advocate a return to negotiations: in Israel the right wing argue that in the eyes of the international community Israel is and will always be to blame and therefore there is no need to do anything that could harm the country’s security; on the Palestinian side, it feeds the false hope that the international community will be able to force Israel into giving them concessions to start negotiations, without having to give Israel what it requires. These narratives are detrimental to creating the right conditions for peace-building.
The Paris conference would be best served by rejecting the approach of internationally imposed parameters and focus instead of creating an incentives package for the sides that can be received before a final agreement is reached. Adopting a package that focuses on gradualism and parallelism may help convince both Israeli and Palestinian domestic audiences of the advantages of a political process. Understanding this will be key if the delegates are to decide they want be useful in peace making rather than grandstanding with positions that may make them feel good but which will bring peace no closer.