19.03.2013 position paper by Ben Steinberg
Netanyahu-Abbas meeting, September 2010. Photo: M. Milner G.P.O.
Netanyahu-Abbas meeting, September 2010. Photo: M. Milner G.P.O.    

Speaking Peace: Why the Left Must Oppose Negotiation Renewal

It is our duty to distance the Left from the hemorrhaging political process of the Netanyahu government

For the last twenty years, the Israeli Left has reflexively supported direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. This was always considered the preferred route, or perhaps the only route, that would put an end to the conflict. Time after time and without exception, the Left camp has legitimized a Right-led peace process in the eyes of the Israeli public and the international community without considering the earnestness of right-wing leaders and the destructive consequences that come with a failed process.

When it comes to negotiations, the Left has repeatedly aided and abetted the Right —much as cheerleader from the sidelines might. The pattern is as follows: the Right opens negotiations, the Left lends them support, demonstrating their enthusiasm, the process fails, and then —without fail — the Left pays the price, even though they merely stood aside. Even worse, when negotiations lack all potential for success and are presented by propagandists from the Right, their failure has real destructive consequences for the two state solution.

The automatic backing given to every round of hollow or forced negotiations for the last two decades demands that the Left renew its line of thinking: Might it be that we’ve turned talks into ends and not means? Have we thereby abandoned our original goal — a political agreement with the Palestinians? Have we not strengthened the right with our own hands, a right which isn’t at all interested in an agreement? Have we thereby participated in hemorrhaging processes whose sole purpose has been to stall for time? 

In 2013, with the establishment of the third Netanyahu government, it is clear to all involved that this government is not interested or at all prepared to advance a two state solution based on the 1967 lines. It is instead interested in stalling tactics that would allow the establishment of facts on the ground (“creeping annexation”) and simultaneously reduce international pressure. In light of this, it is upon the parties and organizations of the Left to publicly oppose and cleanse themselves of Right-led direct negotiations. Negotiations cannot succeed when one of the sides want them to fail. Failed negotiations are potentially dangerous and can cause real harm and it would be a mistake, both on a political and policy level, to again fall in step.

It is our duty to distance the Left from the hemorrhaging political process of the Netanyahu government. In the same way it also falls to this camp to invest maximum effort in building a governmental alternative that can create the  appropriate conditions, necessary trust, and strong leadership to bring an end to the conflict. Negotiations aimed at a settlement—not those aimed at “processing —are the one the Left must support.

Direct Negotiations: Benefits

Of course, direct negotiations should not be rejected out of hand. They should be rejected only when they are not implemented with integrity or contain the goodwill necessary to arrive at a political settlement. To date, direct negotiations have become irresponsible and dangerous.

The benefits of direct negotiations are obvious: They allow for clarity on the tough issues — the process of evacuating settlements, transferring security authority from Israel to the Palestinian, and others. additionally, they enable both sides to bridge the gap in trust that plagues them. When the Israelis and the Palestinians sit together, around one table, face to face, in public, they actively legitimize the sentiment of the two peoples to come to an agreement.

But today we have reached a point at which the notion contained in the three words “direct bilateral negotiations” stimulates a broad, automatic response across the Left camp that does nothing but turn it into a collaborator of the deceptions of the Right, a very dangerous stance. We must ask ourselves two questions: First, do we believe that direct bilateral negotiations under a Netanyahu government will lead to a two state solution? And second, what the dangers that lie buried in another resounding failure for this political process?

The Danger of Failed Negotiations

A. Netanyahu’s ploy will ultimately lead to the Third Intifada

Managing negotiations at a time of conflict is no trivial matter. Although Israel presently finds itself in a situation of relative quiet, the explosive security situation could change at the drop of a hat. The incidents of the last few weeks in the West Bank indicate that this kind of fermentation is on the rise just beneath the surface, and could burst forth under the right circumstances. Negotiations, by their very nature, lead to expectations on both sides. If we open up a political process that involves negotiations only to crush it later, a move that will undoubtedly be backed by the permanent “no partner” mantra, we will get a taste of the dangers that disappointment and indignation in the wake of failed negotiations pose to the citizens of Israel. Every analogous failure has seen the crumbling of international support for Israel and a general distancing from the region.

  • The inability to advance the Oslo process brought great frustration within the Palestinian public, and was expressed in the outbreak of the Second Intifada, among other things.
  • One of the reasons for Hamas’s rise to power in 2006 was the Palestinian public’s frustration with Abu Mazen’s inability to advance the peace process.
  • The international community will be a central, key actor in bringing about a final settlement, yet Western countries have already retracted from the region due to repeated frustrations, primarily stemming from Israel’s actions. The United States and Europe are fed up with the Israeli Prime Ministers’ false claims, and their abnegation from their side of the regional partnership carries a hefty price, both economically and politically.
  • Over the years, the “peace process” has become synonymous with “a ploy that aims to protect the status quo and deepen Israel’s hold on the settlements.” Therefore, support for such a process is eroding in leftist intellectual circles in Israel, Palestine, and abroad. The notion of a one state outcome will soon have a real foothold in the broader public; it has already begun to become popular in small, but highly influential circles of diplomats, reporters, and political actors.

B. Every time the right begins negotiations, it creates new obstacles to peace instead of resolving old ones.

An analysis of the last 20 years of negotiations shows that the outline for a solution has been known since the Oslo Accords, and has been spelled out in various forms since 2000. Since then, the Israeli side — primarily under right-wing governments — has added more and more conditions to such a solution that only distance us from achieving two states. In other words, not only do negotiations not move us towards our desired end, they distance us from it. If, in 1993, we could identify both our goal and the knots we would need to untangle in order to get there, in 1999 it had already become much more difficult to reach that goal. If, in 2002, an outline for an agreement acceptable to both sides was on paper, in 2013 no such outline exists.

How did this happen? Some examples:

  • The Right, with the active assistance of the government of Israel, took advantage of the negotiation process in the 90s to build more settlements. These settlements were then suddenly presented as a new obstacle in the next round of talks.
  • Even during the years that settlements weren't built, over 100 outposts were built--which are settlements with a different name.
  • In 1998, Netanyahu decided that the Old City of Hebron was a strategic location and that it must remain under direct Israeli control until there can be a final agreement. Netanyahu thus virtually anchored an Israeli enclave in any agreement — causing pronounced harm to any negotiations’ ability to move forward on a two state solution.
  • In 2002, a decision was made not to build any more settlements in the West Bank. This was a move that aimed to grant legitimacy to the settlements built in the 90s, in stark contrast to the agreement. As a result, a new and problematic dynamic was forged — the idea that progress meant “settlement freeze” replaced the idea of progress meant settlement evacuation.
  • In 2007, the Annapolis negotiations declared direct negotiations as a goal, not only as a means to achieve a goal. In other words, negotiations became an end in and of themselves, and we moved further from any moment of decision. 
  • In 2010, a new negotiation framework was introduced, conditioned by a “temporary settlement freeze” which functioned to conceal a formula for “continued regular building as long as there is no temporary settlement freeze.” In other words, it’s a step back from “permanent settlement freeze”.
  • In 2012, another new condition was added to opening negotiations: The recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. At its essence, this is a symbolic demand, but it only moves us further away from renewing the process. · In 2012, The Edmund Levy Report was presented which undermined the notion that the Palestinian Authority has the right to rule over West Bank territories. 
  • Towards the end of 2012, a new principle was presented for “any future negotiations”: the demand for Jewish refugee compensation from Arab lands. 
  • Throughout these years the conditions set for negotiations have evolved and multiplied. Each served to hinder any advancement. None aimed to bridge gaps.

Absurdly, when the Left blindly backs these kinds of “negotiations as such”, it tacitly accepts the core assumptions of the Right. That is, the Left chooses to sacrifice its world view in light of the Right’s seeming willingness to talk with the Palestinians. It is almost certain that, in this sense, we will reach a new high point in the third Netanyahu government. This coming government will operate alongside the HaTnu’a Party, in whose very DNA is etched the words “two states”. This party will administer two state negotiations in the name of a government that is entirely uninterested in such an outcome. While Livni plays her part in the political drama — i.e. waves another empty proclamation to the world in Netanyahu’s name — the Israeli government will continue to build in East Jerusalem, in the settlement blocs, and on the isolated hills of Samaria with a renewed energy.

The expectation that all negotiations legitimize the path towards the establishment of two states is a misnomer. The question we should be asking ourselves is what is the ultimate purpose of negotiations? Just as it does not make sense for Israel to open talks with a Palestinian leadership when it is determined that the final goal be to wipe Israel off of the map, there is no reason to support a Prime Minister who calls for negotiations when the majority of his party members support the annexation of the West Bank, when his government encourages schools to visit the territories of the West Bank, and when his Treasury Minister is proud to give blatant budgetary preference to the settler community.

This is not about preconditions to negotiations, but actual results. The Left knows that much is already agreed between its stance and the Palestinians. And it is true, the vast majority of the issues on the table in negotiations have been agreed upon in the past, in the framework of official and unofficial diplomatic tracks between the two sides. The price of an agreement is well known. The problem is not in formulating the solution but in the readiness implement it — in other words, “political will”. The Israeli Right does not have the political will necessary evacuate settlements, which would force them to reconcile a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders. With this in mind, what utility could more negotiations possibly have?

C. The Right’s failure, as always, will harm only the Left.

Because the “Peace Process” is identified with the Left, the inability to gain traction or see any real results unquestionably weakens our camp, even when those actually operating the negotiating are from the Right camp. At the end of the day, the Left is watching from the sidelines as its policies are appropriated, stripped of all content, distorted, and mislead. The Right, for its part, can only gain from the Left’s support, which cleanses it of its mendacious intentions and grants it legitimacy in the international community. In the wake of the predictable next stage of talks — in which they inevitably combust (to the great joy of the Right) — the Left is left to absorb the moral and ideological electoral fallout so that the public will forever identify it with that loss. This is one more reason we must distinguish the Left from the Right’s futile attempts to reach a solution.

A Potential Opportunity for the New Government

Today the new government, like all its predecessors, is dealing with restarting the ritual that is the peace process. Now, just as in 2009, Netanyahu is declaring that he is ready to negotiation without preconditions. At each juncture, he is careful to hide his political vision from the Israeli public. All while parties of the Left present detailed platforms that include an outline for a future settlement. And despite this, Netanyahu is somehow absolved of this most basic obligation in the eyes of the broad Israeli public.

HaTnu’a’s entrance into the coalition, and even that of Yesh Atid, will not change the new extremism of the Likud. Making a real effort towards agreement requires a great deal more than just more clever statements about the importance of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. During the last four years of his tenure, Netanyahu has not evacuated a single settlement, and has only turned out a single, illegal holding — the Ulpana neighborhood — while he simultaneously strengthened and cared for the settlements in other ways. Is there reason to assume that a government like this will change its clothes because Tzipi Livni and Amram Mitzna joined its ranks?

There are a variety of reasons that Netanyahu is not interested in a political settlement:

  • First and foremost, Netanyahu does not see a Palestinian state as in Israel’s interest. The Bar-Ilan speech was, in his words, a function of international pressure.
  • Netanyahu’s security perspective is determined by territory, and as a result he has a powerful desire to safeguard an Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley. Despite the fact that 21st century security threats take aim at very different objectives than those of the previous century, Netanyahu remains enmeshed in this archaic assessment.
  • Netanyahu often expresses a lack of faith in the international community, primarily Europe, though also the Obama administration, and certainly in Israel’s regional neighbors. It is difficult to advance complicated and historic process when one side displays such an absolute lack of faith. 
  • Netanyahu is ideologically committed to the settler project. 
  • Netanyahu has expressed his a deep lack of trust in a Palestinian negotiating partner many times. 
  • Netanyahu’s history demonstrates that he has a hard time making difficult and accepting courageous choices when it comes to the future of Israel on a wide variety of subjects.
What Can We Do? Renewing negotiations as an opportunity to forge a clear distinction between Left and Right.

Currently, the Left has the advantage in its opposition to the Right, particularly because it presents a consistent and detailed policy position. The Left clearly supports an agreement, and includes the evacuation of settlements, security guarantees, and the establishment of a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders. The Left cannot back endless, aimless negotiations from an external position. It must call on Netanayhu to fulfill three conditions from in order for him to gain the Left’s support in negotiation:

1. Display a clear agenda: What is the Netanyahu government’s purpose in negotiating? What is the political solution for which it is striving? The Likud actively disavowed the Bar Ilan speech. During the elections the Party did not present a policy platform. The government must publish a vision document, which outlines the path towards a future settlement. Such a vision must be based on the establishment of a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines (with land swaps).

2. A cessation from the use of the Levy Report: The Netanyahu government must state that the Levy Report does not represent the State’s stance, he should prohibit its use in various government offices for both legal and public relations purposes. 

3. Repudiation of any and all Annexation Plans: The government must speak with a single voice when it comes to the future of the State of Israel. Netanyahu must not be allowed to advance a political process at a time when the majority of his party supports the annexation of the West Bank, and area C in particular. The government must express its opposition to annexation publicly. The only decision that must be made on the issue of the Palestinian territories that is positive for Israel is one that affirms the establishment of two states for two peoples. Netanyahu understands this to the point that he has not made a decision, but rather has chosen to continue the process of infinite talk. It is the duty of the Left to present an alternative path of governance by deflating Netanyahu’s negotiations balloon and forming a distinct agenda —courageous, serious, and distinguished from that of the Right.

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