By Prof. Efraim Inbar
BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 430, March 21, 2017
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Since the 1970s, every American president has attempted to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Senior American diplomats and envoys have spent a great deal of time on this Sisyphean endeavor. For all his iconoclasm, President Trump has this goal in mind as well – but his eagerness might prove self-defeating.
During the election campaign and after his inauguration, President Donald Trump said several times that he wants to close a deal between Israel and the Palestinians. The longer the list of failed attempts, the more alluring this challenge apparently becomes. The prospects for enduring acclaim in the event of success seem particularly enticing for narcissistic politicians.
In March 2017, only two months after the inauguration and before all the positions in the defense and foreign policy establishment had been filled, Jason Greenblatt, President Trump’s Special Representative for International Negotiations, was sent to Jerusalem and Ramallah to test the waters. The mission signals unwarranted eagerness.
While the new American administration seems genuinely interested in getting results, its determination to pursue a comprehensive deal is not clear. Will Trump emulate the “messianic” approach of former US Secretary of State John Kerry? Will the US settle, after an undetermined period, for a “process” only, once it realizes there is no deal in the cards? Will the US finally concur with the Israeli consensus that there is no peace partner in Ramallah and/or in Gaza?
In the absence of a Palestinian peace partner, there is some merit to engaging in a “process” that lowers tensions in the region and removes a sticky, if increasingly marginal, issue from the diplomatic table. This would allow the US to pursue its relationships with important states such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, with little background noise.
In contrast, a lack of American involvement and consequent absence of a peace process might create the conditions for the emergence of a new paradigm to replace the defunct “two-state solution.”
Evidently, the American administration did not allow time to study the issue, opting instead for impatient activism.
Whatever its object, the peace mission of Mr. Greenblatt started off on the wrong foot. He stressed how important it was to President Trump to stimulate the Palestinian economy and improve the quality of life for Palestinians. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assured Greenblatt that he is fully committed to broadening prosperity for the Palestinians and sees it as a means of bolstering the prospects for peace. According to the press release, the two discussed concrete measures that could support and advance Palestinian economic development.
It is odd to offer carrots to the Palestinians before they have committed to returning to the negotiations table they left in March 2014. The impulse to give out carrots displays the conventional wisdom of the international community (including Jerusalem): that the Palestinians must be well fed to prevent their erupting into violence. This attitude has led to continuous financial support to the PA despite the growing awareness that a large proportion of that aid is channeled to terrorists and their families.
Short-term calculations of this kind only prolong the conflict. Indeed, the campaign of terror that started in September 2000, dubbed the Second Intifada, took place after several years of economic progress during which the Palestinian standard of living was the highest in history. The many carrots provided did not overcome the Palestinians’ appetite for political achievements; nor did it channel their energies from terror to the negotiating table.
The art of negotiation requires a carefully calibrated mix of carrots and sticks. The cumulative failures since 1993 suggest that the right balance between carrot and stick has not yet been reached. Considering the huge amounts of money the PA has received over time and the Palestinians’ persistent refusal to recognize that a deal is in their interest, it is reasonable to conclude that the approach adopted to bring them around has lacked sufficient sticks.
The carrots awarded the Palestinians indicate that their intransigence and unwillingness to compromise have no correlation to the level of support they receive. The PA was subjected to hardly any sticks at all after the terrorist campaign was eventually put down. The Palestinians’ choices will never change if their poor decisions never exact a cost.
This month, the US and Israel missed an opportunity to try to change Palestinian behavior by emphasizing the sticks in the equation. The Palestinians are still committed to unrealistic goals like Jerusalem and the “right of return.” Yet without tacit and/or manifest threats that Palestinian lives could become much more miserable, there is little chance that their behavior will improve. Pain and suffering are important in ridding a nation of unrealistic dreams.
Efraim Inbar is professor emeritus of political studies at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and the founding director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (1991-2016).
BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family