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Conflict Management, Not Resolution: America's Role in Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations

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The current round of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians is on the brink of collapse, with each side accusing the other of failing to live up to previous commitments. Thus, after nine months of fruitless negotiations and the U.S.'s overly ambitious assessment that a deal could be reached within that time frame, Israel and the Palestinians are back where they began.

According to Palestinians, Israel's failure to release the fourth group of Palestinian prisoners, including several Israeli Arabs, prompted President Mahmoud Abbas to make the Palestinians signatories to 15 international treaties, suggesting they were already pursuing alternatives to direct negotiations with Israel. This fuels Israeli concerns that the Palestinians are not committed to continuing the peace process beyond the release of the next group of prisoners. Therefore, Israel is seeking assurances from the Palestinians, and, in light of Abbas' signatures on the treaties, Israel has accused the Palestinian side of breaching its agreement not to go to the United Nations but to negotiate in good faith with Israel through American mediation. These developments have followed an American effort that appears to be designed primarily to continue the negotiating process, rather than provide the structure for reaching a final agreement. As such, the U.S. appears to be in conflict management mode, not conflict resolution mode.

Both the Israelis and Palestinians appear to be approaching these negotiations cynically, seeing little chance for success. Thus, both are trying to squeeze as much as possible from the Americans and from each other before the process ultimately collapses. For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jonathan Pollard's release may be a gambit to satisfy the more hard-line or conservative elements of his coalition and party, who have strongly resisted Israel's release of Palestinian prisoners during the current negotiations. On the other side, Abbas' efforts to secure the release of Palestinian prisoners is an attempt to prove to his constituency that he is delivering tangible results from participating in negotiations with Israel. Yet these inducements have little to do with negotiations over final status issues but instead suggest that all the parties are doing just enough to keep the process alive.

As recent events have shown, the very notion that these secondary issues will build trust between the two sides has proven false as large gaps remain unresolved by these incremental measures. To be sure, the Netanyahu government does not seem ready to approach any dramatic final status decisions, whereas Abbas continues to adhere to a phased approach by continuing to take what he can get until a final agreement is reached. This marketplace bargaining over inducements to keep the negotiations going could lead to a deadlock, but it has nothing to do with the larger core issues at hand. Each party is attempting to exploit the peace process for its short-term interests rather than taking any bold step forward toward a long-term solution that would entail great domestic political risk.

In short, both sides are trying to deliver something concrete before final status issues are brought to the table, if that ever happens. Israel's plan is to take the interim plan as far as possible. Should this fail, then plan B will be implemented, where Israel will pursue unilateral disengagement while the Palestinians go to the UN. However, it is not certain that these measures will succeed or bring about a more stable situation. If anything, they will continue to exacerbate existing tensions which can only be addressed if both sides participate in direct talks on final status issues.

The writing on the wall points to another breakdown between the Israelis and Palestinians before final status issues are discussed. On the one hand, the Obama administration still believes the U.S. can exert a strong influence on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Secretary of State Kerry has personally invested a great deal of time, effort, and prestige in the current process and does not want to see it end in failure. On the other hand, his energetic mediation has run aground on the hard realities of domestic politics in Israel and the Palestinian territories and a century of conflict between the parties, to say nothing of deep mistrust and mutual recrimination. Therefore, the American position may be shifting from resolving the conflict to simply managing it, where the priority is finding an interim method for avoiding another regional crisis. Despite this pessimistic prognosis, in the highly unlikely scenario that the U.S. can successfully induce both sides negotiate seriously, it would be demonstrating to an increasingly skeptical world that it still has a very important role to play in the region, both as a world power and as a constructive force for security and stability in the Middle East.