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Mitigating distrust is central to Israeli-Palestinian peace

Tuesday, April 30, 2013    

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A critical impediment to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the complete distrust between the two sides. What makes the conflict even more intractable is that neither side is convinced that distrusting the other can be mitigated given the history of the conflict.

This leads to an ever-diminishing prospect for reconciliation which inhibits concessions and results in a zero-sum negotiating posture.

As a result, they refuse to show flexibility and, in so doing, distrust becomes further ingrained, creating a vicious cycle which defies reason and reality.

It is clear that if the Israelis and the Palestinians hold fast to their positions, it will be nearly impossible to allay distrust.0

Given the embedded distrust, even if the two parties negotiate and reach an agreement, such as the 1993-1994 Oslo Accords, there is still no assurance that such agreements will endure, as has been demonstrated.

But since Israeli-Palestinian coexistence is an unadulterated fact, any agreement reached must be based on certain provisions, mechanisms, logistics, and a timeline designed to ensure compliance based on reciprocity that would nurture trust.

The claims and counter-claims, especially by Israeli officials, that distrust prevents them from reaching an agreement are gravely counterproductive, because neither side can coexist as enemies indefinitely, but also because distrust cannot be mitigated in a vacuum.

Trust can be nurtured if both sides negotiate in good faith to reach an agreement. The prospect for an agreement, however, can be dramatically improved by agreeing on developing close socio-economic relations.

For example, in 2000 and 2008-2009, the Israelis and the Palestinians were able to reach an agreement in principle on many contentious issues. At close scrutiny, however, we find that at play were biased and selective perceptions nurtured by distrust over each other's intentions to deliver.

The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 provides a classic case from Israel's perspective and was viewed as a major move to demonstrate its intentions to end the occupation, but ultimately it failed to achieve its "presumed objective".

Instead of turning a free Gaza into a prosperous area, after wresting the strip from the Palestinian Authority (PA), Hamas used Gaza as a staging ground for launching thousands of rockets into Israel. This was a clear manifestation that the Palestinians simply do not want peace and cannot be trusted, a belief that most Israelis share to this day.

As a result, Israel was discouraged from further evacuation of Palestinian territories in the West Bank, believing that the Palestinians would still seek the destruction of the state as Hamas repeatedly enunciates, especially when such protestations are taken at face value.

From the Palestinian perspective, however, the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza was a tactical move. They insist that Israel simply wanted to rid itself of occupying a densely populated area of Palestinians, which had no strategic value and was prohibitively costly to maintain.

The Palestinians further argue that Israel has no intentions of vacating other occupied territories in the West Bank. From their vantage point, there is no reason to trust Netanyahu's government, which claims to support the two-state solution, yet continues to build settlements.

The question is, had the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza been done differently, would the outcome have been any different, or at a minimum, vindicated or repudiated the narrative of distrust by either side? My answer is absolutely yes.

The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza was precipitate and unilateral with no coordination with the PA, it entailed no phased withdrawal, no new security arrangements, and did not assess Hamas's power and specific reciprocal moves on the part of the Palestinians. Moreover, there was no agreement on trade and commercial ties to foster human-to-human relations that engender trust.

Thus, it can be argued that had then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reached an agreement with the PA about every aspect of the withdrawal, it could have nurtured trust between the two sides rather than further aggravating the situation.

Surely, both sides would have known full well that any violation of the specifics agreed upon would stop the process in place, an action from which neither side could benefit.

It should be recalled that it took three years for Israel to complete its withdrawal from the Sinai, while taking reciprocal measures to enhance security and develop closer ties with the Egyptian government. Had Israel followed the same pattern, it would be safe to assume that Hamas might not have been able to overthrow the PA in Gaza or win the elections in 2006.

Indeed, the Israeli withdraw from Gaza should have lasted long enough to allow the PA to establish its own security apparatus, engage in economic developments with Israel, and develop a vested interest, while enacting confidence-building measures between the two sides.

The same can be said about Israel's unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, under cover of night, without any agreement with the Lebanese government, which could have changed the sequence of events that led to the war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006.

Obviously, trust cannot be fostered in an environment of hostility and mutual recrimination. However, distrust is not set in stone; it can and should be alleviated, especially under the circumstances that govern the lives of Israelis and Palestinians.

Israel must now learn from its experience with Egypt versus Gaza and Lebanon and apply these lessons to the West Bank. The Israeli argument against withdrawal, citing national security concerns, is invalid not only because the acquisition of more territory in the West Bank would not enhance Israel's security, but because there are available means by which to nurture mutual trust.

Israel should develop a plan that would allow the PA to develop infrastructure and commerce while attracting investments especially in Area C, which is completely controlled by Israel, as was requested by the PA President Abbas from Secretary of State John Kerry who recently visited Israel and Palestine. In addition, Israel should allow gradual tourism between the two sides, encourage trade, begin the systematic release of Palestinian prisoners, and ease Palestinian mobility while curtailing the expansion of settlements.

Any withdrawal from the West Bank should extend over a period of several years, and such phases should be based on reciprocal measures taken by the PA while continuing and further enhancing security cooperation to foster trust. The PA has demonstrated that it has the ability to meet its commitments on security matters, to which many Israeli officials attest.

In the final analysis, guided by the imperative of coexistence, genuine efforts can be made to mitigate distrust, which is the only way both can build trust and test each other's real commitment to reaching a lasting peace agreement.

Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

alon@alonben-meir.com

www.alonben-meir.com

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