Negotiation is an inoffensive word. It seems only reasonable to expect parties to settle differences by negotiation. Why would one object to the idea of negotiation?
One could object, I suppose, if negotiation became an excuse for playing for time to avoid fair resolution of the problem, or if negotiation became a cover for more unilateral action leaving less to negotiate, or if commitments entered into by negotiation were never implemented. One could object as well if negotiation were circumscribed by other, pre-existing rules that either made some things non-negotiable or prescribed particular outcomes.
In Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, both sides have used delaying tactics to gain advantage. Over the long term, however, Israel has benefited far more, confiscating homes, lands and natural resources, and expanding settlements on Palestinian territory. By establishing so-called facts-on-the-ground, successive Israeli governments have made sure that the Palestinians have less and less to negotiate with. At the same time, they keep extending their own list of non-negotiables: Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley, major settlements, refugee return and explicit recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
Appealing to “negotiation” allows the peace process to bolt the traces of international law. From the Nixon administration to the first Clinton administration, U.N. resolutions defined the parameters for hoped-for negotiation between the two sides. In particular, U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which affirmed the principle of nonacquisition of territory by war, stood as the basis for any later negotiation. It was accepted by Israel in 1968, by other Arab states soon after, and by the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1993. Only in the second Clinton administration did negotiation, sometimes described as negotiation “without preconditions,” become an alternative framework for the peace process.
President Obama’s “Arab Spring” address of May 19, with its insistence once again on the pre-1967 borders, returned to the older international standard. The president’s proposal was harshly and rudely denounced by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in favor of a process of pure negotiation.
There is reason to doubt negotiations alone are a suitable way ahead. There is ample evidence that for weaker powers, negotiations with Israel go nowhere. A case in point is Israel’s negotiation with the Vatican. Following the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians, the Holy See drew up a Fundamental Agreement with Israel. The treaty was signed and ambassadors exchanged; the treaty was also ratified by the Israeli cabinet and published in the official government gazette, but to no avail. The Israeli Justice Ministry has declared that the treaty is “not legally binding in Israel.”
In addition, for more than a decade the two sides have been negotiating a follow-on agreement about fiscal and property matters—without result. There have been numerous delays, cessations in negotiation and start-overs to reconsider points already agreed. If that is the record of Vatican-Israeli negotiation, where Israel has little to fear or lose, what can be expected of a peace formula like that of Prime Minister Netanyahu, which leaves everything to negotiation? Very little, I think. The Vatican-Israel negotiations are a litmus test for those who would trust unrestricted negotiations as a road to Israeli-Palestinian peace.
The best way to prove to the world that Israel can be trusted to resolve differences through negotiations would be for the Knesset to pass the enabling legislation to implement the Fundamental Agreement and bring to a successful conclusion this year the remaining talks with the Holy See.