There is a desperation at work in the sad excuse for negotiations underway between Israel and Palestine. This is the latest:

PA rejects Olmert’s offer to withdraw from 93% of West Bank

By Aluf Benn, Haaretz Correspondent, and Reuters

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday rejected an Israeli peace proposal, which included withdrawal from 93 percent of the West Bank, because it does not provide for a contiguous Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

Nabil Abu Rdainah, Abbas’s spokesman, told the official Palestinian news agency WAFA that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s plan showed a “lack of seriousness.”

Under the proposal, Israel would return to the Palestinians 93 percent of the West Bank, plus all of the Gaza Strip, when the Palestinian Authority regains control over the Gaza Strip, which the militant group Hamas seized from forces loyal to Abbas in June 2006.

Olmert presented Abbas with the proposal as part of an agreement in principle on borders, refugees and security arrangements between Israel and a future Palestinian state.

In exchange for West Bank land that Israel would keep, Olmert proposed a 5.5 percent land swap giving the Palestinians a desert territory adjacent to the Gaza Strip.

Olmert’s proposal first emerged several months ago and was published in detail on Tuesday by Haaretz, prompting Abu Rdainah’s response.

“The Israeli proposal is not acceptable,” Abbas’s spokesman said. “The Palestinian side will only accept a Palestinian state with territorial continuity, with holy Jerusalem as its capital, without settlements, and on the June 4, 1967 boundaries.”

He called the Israeli proposal a “waste of time.”

Olmert spokesman Mark Regev said the Olmert was serious about continuing the peace talks.

But another Israeli official said Olmert was merely trying to establish his legacy. “There is going to be no agreement, period,” he said on condition of anonymity.

Olmert, who met with Abbas this week, feels there is time to reach an agreement during his remaining time in office. Two weeks ago, Olmert announced that he would not participate in the upcoming primary election within his Kadima Party and that he would step down from his post when his successor is named.

The centerpiece of Olmert’s detailed proposal is the suggested permanent border, which would be based on an Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank. In return for the land retained by Israel in the West Bank, the Palestinians would receive alternative land in the Negev, adjacent to the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians would also enjoy free passage between Gaza and the West Bank without any security checks, the proposal says.

A senior Israeli official said the Palestinians were given preliminary maps of the proposed borders.

Under Olmert’s offer, Israel would keep 7 percent of the West Bank, while the Palestinians would receive territory equivalent to 5.5 percent of West Bank. Israel views the passage between Gaza and the West Bank as compensating for this difference: Though it would officially remain in Israeli hands, it would connect the two halves of the Palestinian state – a connection the Palestinians did not enjoy before 1967, when the Gaza Strip was under Egyptian control and the West Bank was part of Jordan.

The land to be annexed to Israel would include the large settlement blocs, and the border would be similar to the present route of the separation fence. Israel would keep Ma’aleh Adumim, Gush Etzion, the settlements surrounding Jerusalem and some land in the northern West Bank adjacent to Israel.

Since Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently approved more construction in both Efrat and Ariel, two settlements relatively far from the 1949 armistice lines, it is reasonable to assume that Olmert wants to include these settlements in the territory annexed to Israel as well.

Olmert’s proposal states that once a border is agreed upon, Israel would be able to build freely in the settlement blocs to be annexed…

This is not serious negotiation. Refugees are not addressed, Jerusalem is not addressed, the cantonization of Palestine is not addressed, the collective punishment of all of Gaza’s residents is not addressed. The relationship between the people of Palestine and Israel is not addressed. I have heard more serious peace conversations in Damascus than this. We are not even close to addressing the deep rooted problems between these people.

There appears to be little point to official negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians at this point. Palestinians are in a state of paralysis due to the violent civil conflict taking place between Hamas and Fatah, in addition to continual threats of Abbas to resign, or the Palestinians to dissolve the Palestinian Authority, or, paradoxically, to declare unilaterally a Palestinian state. There is also a financial crisis that threatens the base of their popularity, such as it is. Taken together there seems to be a kind of despair and paralysis afoot in terms of Palestinian politics.

On the Jewish side there is a kind of hysteria afoot, a fear of peace, especially in the Jewish Establishment outside of Israel, where positive gestures from the Arab world are viewed with extreme suspicion and hostility. More importantly, we are seeing the end of Ehud Olmert’s tenure as Prime Minister and the beginning of a long period of struggle for the future of Israel’s political leadership that could last at least through next spring. We have left an extended period of weak leadership on both sides to a period with no leadership on either side that is able to form the basis of reliable negotiations.

It is a good time to assess the accomplishments of diplomacy till now. I want to suggest that there is a certain level of absurdity to diplomacy as it has been practiced until now. Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy is merely an exaggerated example of what is wrong with diplomacy in many conflicts—negotiations have nothing to do with what keeps the conflict vibrant and alive. There has been a constant obsession in diplomacy with final status issues behind closed doors, issues such as borders, refugees, Jerusalem. On the one hand, it is good that Israelis and Palestinians at the highest levels are talking about final status issues, on effectively how to divide the land. The problem is that it is bound to fail for the same reason that the Oslo peace process failed—diplomacy is not affecting the state of human relations on the ground—the engine of the violence. Far from it, internal relations between Palestinians themselves are worse than ever, with a civil war in the offing and a complete division of Palestine into two warring entities. This may satisfy Jewish militants in the military but it is a disaster in terms of long term stability and peace. At the same time, the willingness of a significant number of Palestinians to still embrace the ruthless violence against Israelis of Hamas’ approach to resistance is matched only by the astonishing level of tolerance that Israeli Jews display for the violence of their own soldiers and settlers against thousands of unarmed Palestinians. The immorality of collective punishment is not even debated anymore in mainstream Israeli Jewish society.

This is what the negotiations should have been about from the beginning. Such negotiations over behavior and human relations are dismissed by all sides, especially by military and political elites, as mere ‘confidence building measures’. But they are not. They are at the core of the conflict, they are at the heart of the reason for the conflict in the eyes of millions of people on both sides. The core of the persistence of violent behavior is not over final status issues, as it seems to be on the surface. All the statistics concur that most Jews and Palestinians have reluctantly accepted that they cannot win militarily against the other, and that a political compromise is inescapable. They accept the harsh reality that they cannot each have the whole land, no matter how much right to it that they may feel they have. In that regard, the majority of Jews and and Palestinians are far more mature politically than Jewish, Muslim, Christian, right-wing and left-wing outsiders who goad the sides on with their own irresponsible motivations for pressing a conflict to the death. The problem is that Palestinians and Jews are so wounded by each other that they have become astonishingly comfortable with beating each other to a pulp, and there is no one pulling them apart and saying, ‘Wait a second, catch your breath, stop hitting, and give yourselves some time to fight this out with words’.

In the Oslo years we got used to the Israeli adage, ‘ Make war as if there is no peace, and make peace as if there is no war’. This is very tempting as a way to deal with the complexity of the enemy relationship in this case, and also with the multiplicity of spoilers. But think about it for a moment. We would find this arrangement absurd if it were not for cannon fodder. In other words, there is an infinite supply of civilians around to kill, to abuse, to collectively punish, to target—while you go on with negotiations! You can beat the hell out of Palestinian demonstrators, shoot children, but continue with a warm relationship with your fellow negotiators in Ramallah or Jerusalem. You can look the other way as fellow Arabs train their kids to hate Jews and blow themselves up, just as long as you can continue with friendships across the negotiating table.

But what if you and I were in a marital fight, and during the day I beat you, I tormented you, I deprived you of water, then at night we would meet over a beautiful dinner and negotiate how we are going either to live together or separate amicably. How well do you think that would go, how advisable would that be for the quality of our negotiations? What marriage counselor would recommend this combination of behaviors and encourage us to continue the negotiations? Who would have the gall to get on the nightly news and be able to say with a straight face at the State Department, ‘The negotiations are going well’? But that is what we have done here. And for Israeli victims of terror and millions of Palestinian civilians subjected daily to torment we have expected them to live through abuse, hatred, and the spilling of their blood. We expected them to endure this and also believe in peace?

It is absurd to beat someone by day and negotiate at night. No, the status quo is physical and mental abuse, particularly in this combination of trauma and the veneer of hope. How could anyone imagine that the political space for compromise would not implode given this pattern of abuse?

Here is the alternative, and this is an alternative that is perfect for this leaderless period. Negotiate behavior, bargain hard for every single behavior that is going to matter to each side. List every violent offense against people and property of each side. Then develop a staged de-escalation, with third party inspection and verification. Begin with the regions where controlled de-escalation is more likely to succeed. Create facts on the ground. Then do the same thing simultaneously with negotiations over positive behavior that each side wants from the other. Do a staged increase in such behavior, region by region, city by city, village by village.

What harm can come of this approach? What it really will expose is the fact that these various forms of violent behavior are an unrecognized bargaining chip of the entire conflict. Collective punishment and incitement to hatred are part and parcel of the conflict. They are essential methodologies of conducting irregular warfare on both sides. But they are not present at the negotiating table as a serious subject. It is time that moral and immoral behavior in the context of this war of attrition takes center stage as the essential threat to progress. Behavior change must come to be seen in political circles as a realistic avenue to break political deadlocks and quagmires that seem to be unending and chronic. (More research needs to be done to demonstrate the history of such negotiated shifts in behavior and their impact on negotiations and compromise.)

It is up to third parties, third party countries, to begin to emphasize this form of negotiation. Naturally citizen diplomacy and unofficial diplomacy will take up this banner first. But it is vital that the diplomatic community shed its old comfort with the expenditure of cannon fodder while the elite diplomats and military men bargain. This is not sustainable in an age where the misery of the masses has a direct impact on the political space for compromise. Violence induced misery of populations and the political space for compromise are inversely proportional. Therefore in stalemated conflicts like Israel/Palestine the only rational course of political action is to negotiate a de-escalation of human suffering and an increase of compassionate action toward both communities. No one in the heat of conflict is rational. If you have a hammer you keep using it even if it is killing you. So we need the help of others, not just for final status issues, but for negotiating human decency.

In Batman Begins, Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) says to Bruce Wayne (Batman, Christian Bale), “It’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you”. This should be the new motto of global diplomacy because it is true. It is what you do that defines you. It is what enemies do that defines them in the eyes of each other. It is what they do that therefore defines the boundaries of what is possible. Change what they do, even a little, and you will change their definition of each other. You will then be changing the boundaries of what is possible, and peace is essentially about the art of the possible.

© Marc Gopin