Monday, October 24, 2016

What is worse: no hope or no trust?

This was one of the audience questions at tonight's Harvard Law School's Program on Negotiation event with a proposal statement by Gilead Sher and a commentary by Khalil Shikaki, followed by discussion moderated by the event's host and program director, Robert Mnookin. (See HERE.)
Sher and Shikaki disagreed in their answer, as they did on much - though not everything - else. For Shikaki, a prominent survey researcher and regular Brandeis University Crown Center for Middle East Studies lecturer from Ramallah, it is the prevailing distrust among Palestinian and Israeli majorities that sustains a "no-partner-syndrome," which is the main reason why final status negotiations have stalled. For Sher, a prominent Tel Aviv lawyer and formerly chief negotiator on Jerusalem under Ehud Barak at Camp David, worse than distrust is hopelessness. The difference between these views speaks volumes. It illuminates the policy disagreement between Sher and Shikaki. Both are troubled by the stalled negotiations. For Sher, who emphasized his Zionist credentials as someone who believes in Israel as the nation state of the Jews and as a liberal democracy, the threat emanating from the lack of leadership is the slippery slope toward a one-state solution that threatens both, Israel's demographic Jewishness and its democratic constitution. In the absence of negotiations and to avoid for things getting only more complex and intractable, suggests Sher, Israel needs to prepare for the only plausible solution, the two state solution, by taking wise, practical policy steps that help to prepare the ground for two states, if need be unilaterally, with interim agreements and as much cooperation with the Palestinians and the international community as possible. Such concrete steps would presuppose the Clinton parameters of December 2000, which include the assumption that Israel would annex the major settlement blocs, compensate the Palestinians through land-swaps, and retain security positions along the perimeter of the West Bank and in strategic locations. It also includes reaching out to settlers living outside the major settlement blocs to persuade them, through positive and negative incentives, to resettle in the Negev, the Galilee or elsewhere in Israel. Instead of removing them by force, as was done during the unilateral disengagement from Gaza, they should be commended for having achieved what they set out to do, but then "to come home." In other words, Sher is interested in building consensus with rather than against the settler-community, as such a consensus within the complex Israeli society is the precondition for any peaceful resolution that achieves the desired result: the preservation of the Zionist vision - as Sher understands it - of Israel as a democratic nation state of the Jews. Without such policies and the will to implement them, Sher implied, there is no hope for Zionism. The bi-national Apartheit state that is the inevitable consequence of the ever more openly advocated annexation of the West Bank would be the end of Zionism.

Khalil Shikaki disagreed. The unilateralism suggested by Sher would play into the hands of the religious extremists among the Palestinians. Unilateralism assumes, there is no partner, and thus while perhaps conducive to achieving the Zionist vision of a Jewish democratic nation state in the long run, it would undermine the partner there is, namely secular Palestinian nationalists, rewarding those who believe that Israelis only understand the language of force and hence result in more violence, at least in the short term.

For a secular Palestinian nationalist like Shikaki, Sher's solution spells a further erosion of his own place within Palestinian society. It dismisses moderate Palestinians while holding on to the idea that moderate and liberal Israelis can somehow regain momentum within their own society, not for the sake of the Palestinians but for their own sake. Audience questions sounded a skeptical note. Some called for more practical suggestions and better strategies in place of rehashing the history of failed negotiations that took up much of Sher's time. Others challenged Sher to explain how he imagined the Knesset to be composed in order to approve the very reasonable measures he suggested.

When challenged to suggest something more concrete Sher pointed to the work he initiated together with Admiral Amichai Ayalon, the former head of Shin Bet, an initiative they call "Blue-White Future", which brings together different stake-holders, including radical settlers and their rabbis, to work on building consensus for the kind of policy initiatives that Sher knows will require broad support across all factions of Israeli society.

The speakers and the audience agreed that a strong policy statement by the US president would be useful and help guide Israeli and Palestinian societies in their internal dialogues, as well as provide hope and strengthen trust, but they also agreed that it was unlikely such a statement was forthcoming before the elections.

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