Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton looks on as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, right, and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands as she hosts the re-launch of direct negotiations, Sep. 2, 2010, in Washington, D.C.
"The Kosovo Model for Mideast Peace"
Op-Ed, The Providence Journal
November 12, 2010
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
Once Israelis and Palestinians start talking to each other again, all parties may need to find a new way of thinking about what these fragile negotiations can achieve. For almost two decades the "peace process" has been about securing a deal.
Yet, if negotiations resume, it is time to adopt a more open-ended, almost Buddhist approach: It's about the road, not the end point. Focusing on the process for its own sake, rather than getting locked in on whether a deal is reached, could help dissipate the Israel-Palestine paradox in which both parties share the same goal — the emergence of a Palestinian state alongside Israel — but for 17 years have been unable to sign an agreement that will lead to it.
Rather than thinking about the last two decades as all "process" and no "peace," let us stop to consider the remarkable legacy of these inconclusive years: Both sides completely and fully (if grudgingly) accepted each other's existence as a fait acompli.
Such acceptance is especially striking if we recall that, as late as the early 1990s, neither recognized the other as a legitimate national entity. An institutional foundation for the Palestinian state was laid, especially in the West Bank. And, perhaps most importantly, Israeli and Palestinian political elites got to know each other well and gained an in-depth understanding of each other's interests, needs and desires.
Negotiating when there is no deal to be had may sound bizarre, but it is far from unheard of in international negotiation. In fact, there is growing recognition among professionals about the importance of such processes.
For example, the U.N.- led negotiation about Kosovo's status failed in 2007, but the two-year process that resulted in this failure also paved the way to the outcome that many parties preferred, an independent Kosovo. The U.N.'s achievement was to put in place the basic building blocks that would make an independent Kosovo more feasible. For example, in the course of the status talks, the Kosovars agreed to guarantee certain rights to the Serb minority there, thus removing a significant hurdle for independence.
Finally, focusing on the process of negotiation in hope of incremental gains is still superior to taking unilateral steps. With no prospects for a deal in the near future, recent reports indicate that both Israelis and Palestinians are reviewing one-sided moves to rattle the status quo: Palestinians are contemplating pushing through a U.N. resolution recognizing their state (or simply declaring independence and hoping for the best); Israelis are thinking about reviving earlier plans for a unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank.
These are both bad options, as the 2005 Gaza experience reminds us. Then, too, a deal seemed impossible, and Israel unilaterally left the Gaza Strip. The result: Hamas rose to power, and dragged Israel into a massive armed confrontation in the winter of 2008–9, leaving over 1,000 dead. Some sort of negotiation before the Israeli withdrawal, even if it had not led to a final deal, could have saved some of these lives.
A gradual approach has its drawbacks. The Palestinians suspect that a process-oriented path is merely a mechanism for continued Israeli control with low costs. Israelis are hesitant to give any benefits to the Palestinian side, without the prospect of an "end to claims."
Still, perhaps it is important to realize that the peace agreement that we hope will one day result from these frustrating talks is itself a continuous effort rather than a static end state. As the political philosopher Andrew Schaap tells us, political reconciliation is not a finish line to be crossed and left behind. It is, rather, a process (and must always remain a process) in which antagonists commit to letting a political system regulate their lives while remaining keenly aware of how fragile that commitment is. If we remember that peace itself is an endless, difficult, exasperating undertaking, we might just become a bit less cynical and a bit more generous about our seemingly interminable peace process.
Nir Eisikovits directs Suffolk University's Graduate Program in Ethics and Public Policy. His recent book is "Sympathizing with the Enemy: Reconciliation, Transitional Justice, Negotiation." Ehud Eiran is an associate at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School.
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