Taking Stock: Kerry’s Peace Efforts


Video and Edited Transcript
Khaled Elgindy, Leila Hilal and Yousef Munayyer
Transcript No. 405 (29 April 2014)

 “Taking Stock: Kerry’s Peace Efforts”


Khaled Elgindy
Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings Institution,

Leila Hilal
Director, New America Foundation Middle East Task Force


Yousef Munayyer
Executive Director, The Jerusalem Fund & Palestine Center


Yousef Munayyer: We’re very happy to have with us today Leila Hilal and Khaled Elgindy to participate in this conversation. Khaled sitting next to me is a fellow with the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution here in town and he previously served as an advisor to the Palestinian Leadership in Ramallah on permanent status negotiations with Israel from 2004-2009 and was a participant in the Annapolis Negotiations of 2008. Leila Hilal is director of the New America Foundation Middle East Task Force, which covers in depth analysis of commentary on the Middle East and North Africa. From 2002-2007, Leila served as a legal advisor to the Palestinian Negotiations Department. She also advised the Palestinian Constitutional Committee during the drafting of the Basic Law. We’re very glad to have Khaled and Leila here. They are both individuals with direct experience with negotiations and have also followed the process sometime after that.

Here we are, nine months later on April 29. The last week of this nine month period has been a busy one as well in terms of news around the process and statements and actions by the players and so on. What were going to do is have a conversation about a number of different questions and then move to the Question and Answer Session. I just wanted to set a little bit of context for the conversation by reminding us all what the goal was, the stated objective was nine months ago. This is an article from the 30th of July 2013 quoting the secretary. “Our objective,” he said, “will be to achieve a final status agreement over the course of the next nine months.” What’s interesting about this statement is not only the degree of ambition, but how the objective changed over time. We went from talking about an objective during this nine-month period of a final status agreement between the parties, to an objective of a framework agreement that may or may not have been something like a bridging proposal that the Americans would put forward, to in the most recent weeks just extending the negotiations for the sake of extending the negotiations. I think that it’s important to keep in mind where we were at the onset and where we ended up today. What we want to talk about during the course of this discussion is why. Why we got from that point of lofty expectations to the point that we are at today nine months later and whether or not these negotiations were set up for success to begin with. I want to begin by turning to Khalid and Leila and ask, just for their reaction, to the question “why do you think in these past nine months these talks essentially broke down and we got to the point we are at today?”

Khaled Elgindy: Thank you Yousef. It’s a pleasure to be back here at the Palestine Center. I think there are a couple reasons, which are really structural. You have in the first place an enormous power imbalance between the two sides and it’s a power imbalance that has actually grown over the last twenty to twenty five years or perhaps longer. On the one hand you have an Israeli government that is highly successful in almost every way. The settlement project has been a huge success. You have a calm situation in Israel. You have relative economic prosperity despite the global downturn in general, and of course Israel is a nuclear power compared with a Palestinian entity that is divided and dysfunctional more than at any point in the contemporary Palestinian national movement, certainly since the creation of the P.L.O.

With that disparity you have Israel on one hand that is very content with the status quo. There’s calm, there isn’t violence directed at Israelis for the most part and they’re continuing the settlement project at an accelerated pace. So there is very little incentive to try and change that. On the Palestinian side, you have very little capability to change realities on the ground because of having such a divided and weak leadership that was really at the mercy of the Israeli occupation. Even a 19 year-old Israeli soldier can stop a Palestinian negotiator at a checkpoint and prevent them from doing anything. I think it really comes down to that power balance. But it’s not just that power balance. The other side of it is there is a role for the United States. The reason we have mediators is to help level the playing field and do the things that the two parties cannot do on their own. The United States has again not been able to play that role of trying to level the playing field. Instead, what the U.S. has typically done is to almost magnify the Israeli position and therefore the imbalance that already exists in Israel’s favor already on the ground.

To put pressure where, it’s usually on the Palestinians, and I think you see that today where Israeli actions that are clearly harmful to the two-state solution and are clearly designed to undermine them like increased settlement activity, go completely unpunished. What the U.S. focuses on and tries to prevent are those things oddly enough perfectly in line with the two-state solution: going to the U.N. to get recognition or signing treaties or healing the rift inside Palestinian politics which to me you need a cohesive unitary government for a Palestinian state. It’s not only a power balance, it’s a power balance that is exaggerated and exacerbated by American involvement.

Leila Hilal: Thank you Yousef as well and the Palestine Center for this timely discussion and for the invitation to be part of it. I would just point out before talking about why we are where we are today that there hasn’t been an official statement saying that we are stopping negotiations. Yesterday, the State Department said we are on pause. Martin Indyk, peace envoy, has left the region and there are no plans for him to return. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said that we are still open to negotiations and Israel just has suspended the participation. So we could very well be back in another cycle of the same sort of structural process that we’ve been in for the past nine months and it may come sooner rather than later because I think there is some sense of urgency among those who want to see a peace agreement irrespective of the problems on the ground to move things forward.

There is this sort of petty optimism that seems to overtake new administrations or new secretary of states in the U.S. to sort of tackle this intractable conflict so perhaps we will be in another round of talks before we know it. I think why they have broke down to the degree that they have to now, is that the breakdown was not really about substance. It was more about the lack of will and a lot of commentators, particularly official commentators such as the secretary of state have seemed to indicate that the problem lies at Netanyahu’s feet, that for Netanyahu there would be Israeli will or a possibility to get some kind of agreement. As someone who participated at negotiations behind the scenes, I think that Erakat and Livni, who were the two direct counterparts, genuinely want to reach an agreement.

I think that the notion that the problem only lies with Netanyahu and that but for him we would have had an agreement on something is faulty. I think the problem is that there is no peace constituency amongst the Israelis and I question whether it exists among the Palestinians and in what way it would or does exist amongst the Palestinians. But that’s an open question and I think without the peace constituency, anyone who’s schooled in conflict resolution will tell you, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no exception. You can’t push through a peace deal that doesn’t have some resonance amongst some aspect of the population and I just don’t see that there is that will among the Israeli side and maybe reinforcing what Khaled said in terms of the power imbalance and the apathy on the Israeli side in the sense that there is no need to actually reach any settlement with the Palestinians.

I think that we’ve been in this sort of rhetorical dynamic for a long time where we keep saying to the Israelis “The time for the two state solution is ending” and this threat has been really the only attempt that I can see that the U.S. has used to incentivize the Israelis to have that will to make peace with the Palestinians. And I think that the threat that the two state solution is almost dead or on life support has not been enough to galvanize the Israeli leaders let alone the public. There is this sense among the Israelis that they can manage the conflict and I do think the way the U.S. has brokered processes between Israelis and Palestinians, they may believe that where we need to be is the position of conflict management. That’s one point but I think the larger one that I want to stress is this notion that continuing to say “the Israeli existence depends on a two state solution” is just not enough to convince the Israeli public or build a constituency for peace that is going to push forward a will for actually signing a deal that is viable.

Munayyer: To continue on that point you’re absolutely right. The Israelis have occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip for almost half a century, more than twice as long as they have not occupied the West Bank and Gaza. So for them the idea that the Israeli state cannot exist if it continues to do that doesn’t make any sense. In fact, the occupation has become a very profitable enterprise for the Israelis, both economically and politically. They have a thriving economy today. So this notion that we keep hearing not only from the secretary of state and from the official sort of channels here in Washington, but one that was adopted by Washington’s officials that for Israel to survive it must end the occupation.

Well most Israelis are looking around and saying, “well we’ve survived pretty well with this occupation and we could probably keep it going for some time. As long as those checks from Washington keep coming, as along as you keep supporting us at the United Nations, why wouldn’t we be able to keep this up?” That is I think the prevailing assessment as you point out among Israeli decision makers. That this is manageable; there is no reason to think not. So it’s not a very persuasive argument for Washington to make. That being said, I did want to make a couple points on a couple things I thought Secretary of State Kerry deserved some credit for over this nine-month period. One of those things I think that many advisors had talked about prior not only to Secretary Kerry getting involved but also prior to the Obama Administration coming into Washington, D.C. was the notion that you needed consistent engagement for a process to work. I don’t think anyone can say that the secretary did not invest enough time or effort into this process over the past nine months. The way that time was invested though and the way that he went about handling the process as that time was invested was extremely problematic.

The New York Times’ story this morning notes in its opening paragraph that the secretary of state met, during this nine-month period, with Mahmoud Abbas 34 times. That’s quite astonishing in a nine-month period. Even more so is the fact that he met Benjamin Netanyahu twice as much. So the way that they went about handling this was, at it has come to light, that they checked with the Israelis first on what their positions are, and then try to impose those positions on the Palestinians, to get them to agree to what will suit Israeli desire. That clearly has not worked in the past, and probably not ever going to work moving forward. The other thing that I think he did fairly well, considering what we have seen in the past, is the extent to which leaks were minimized during this nine-month period. In the past, we’ve seen leaks that really kind of throw things completely off track, and while there was certainly reporting, I think it was far tighter this nine-month period than we’ve seen in the past.

But there were, I think, other big problems during this nine-month period. First, where was the president of the United States? There was this constant question about whether or not Barack Obama is completely behind his secretary of state. During the first four years of President Obama’s presidency, he dispatched George Mitchell as his personal envoy for Middle East peace. This was something that was handled directly through the president. With Secretary Kerry, it became an initiative that was far more associated with the State Department, something that the president himself could distance himself from, in the event that it did not go as planned. While the secretary was engaged, these questions led to the perception among some of the players that the United States was not really ready to invest in this process.

Finally, I think, and perhaps this was the death knell, was the failure to enforce basic commitments. What I am talking about here is the agreement that started this nine-month period was brokered by Secretary Kerry between the parties, and that was under the terms that the Palestinians would put off any initiatives in international fora in exchange for negotiating during this nine-month period, and Israel would release 104 prisoners from the pre-Oslo period. It was very straightforward, it was very obvious. Everybody understood what the terms were, it was reported. When it came to the Israelis releasing the last batch of prisoners, 25 prisoners, and they did not do so. The secretary, who is the personal guarantor of this agreement, was unable to get them to abide by that simple commitment. Now the prisoner issue is very important; these 26 people have been held for a very long time, and I would not want to diminish the significance of that. But if the secretary of state cannot even get the Israelis to keep a commitment over releasing 26 prisoners, how on Earth can Palestinians believe that this man can get the Israelis to keep their commitments on removing hundreds and thousands of settlers? On leaving Jerusalem? On an equitable agreement on refugees? What reason is there to believe at all that that would be done if a straightforward commitment on 26 prisoners cannot be kept?

I just wanted to point out those three things that I thought were some of the biggest issues over this nine-month period. Now, I want to turn to a different question, and that is what are the implications of this failure, and I know it’s a pause, right? That’s the official comment at this point is that it’s a pause. The parties have not declared it a failure. But I think for our purposes, it’s clear that this did not succeed and is probably not going to succeed moving forward. So what are the short-term implications of this for the players, and what are the longer term implications for this? Khaled?

Elgindy: In a lot of ways, the last nine months is sort of a microcosmic example of the last twenty years. You know, the way that it started out with the grand expectation or the goal that, from the outset, was this conflict-ending peace agreement between the two and how, knocked down at each stage, and sort of down to the bare minimum of really just perpetuating itself. I think, frankly, it has been primarily about perpetuating itself. We see that time and time again where the outcome of two states is subordinated to the process, and I very much believe, and have said this in the past, one day when the two-state solution is dead, the gravestone would read, “it was killed by the peace process.”

So the question now in my mind as far as where would we go, I think it’s clear that the peace process is dead. They put it on pause, they can prop it up, it is essentially a corpse, not to be too morbid about it, but it has been dead for a long time, and it is merely being propped up. It was doomed from the outset, from July. It never had a chance to succeed. Of course, it’s easy to say in hindsight, but I did say this before. So the question now is now that peace process is dead, is it still possible to salvage a two-state solution, and I think on this, there are different mindsets.

There is the view on the Palestinian side, the Palestinian leadership, and I think that their thinking is they have an interest in trying to salvage a two-state solution, they will try to achieve it through other means, like going to the United Nations, by getting recognition, by anything that bolsters their international standing. Reconciliation, I think, is part of that, and I think they will continue to pursue them. The United States will continue to fight them, rigorously, I think. Which, again, highlights how we have subordinated the outcome to the process. It’s really quite mind-boggling. The stated goal is the two-state solution, and yet you are committed to blocking those activities that lead to, or affirm, a two-state solution in order to insist on everybody’s participation on a fruitless, dysfunctional process. It’s really, I think, a level of denial and psychological charge that is almost pathological. If you look at politics and policies, to analyze the psychological term, you’re almost looking at a pathology, I think, at this point.

I think, on the Israeli side, what we are likely to see is a different kind of unilateral action. I think there’s already the discussion of “coordinated unilateralism,” “disengagement,” type of withdrawal, unilaterally withdraw from part of the West Bank, perhaps beyond the wall/barrier. That is going to gain ground in Washington in the coming weeks. I don’t think it will actually happen because there’s a cost to evacuating any number of people, of settlers. It’s a government by the settlers, for the settlers and of the settlers. So he’s unlikely I think to pursue anything but the most minimal symbolic type of evacuation from the West Bank. In which case I think Israel’s in a real quandary because they will try to pass off some sort of unilateral evacuation as a fulfillment of the two states, that Israel is unilaterally demarcating its borders. It will not be seen as that by the international community and in the meantime Palestinians will pursue these sorts of international forum type of activities to gain recognition and legitimacy. The bottom line is that if we’re not already in a place where a two-state solution is functioning effectively then we’re very close to it. And yet, alternatives have not yet become viable. I think a one-state scenario based on financial and global citizenship for both members is not yet politically viable in this environment, and so we’re likely to be in this sort of limbo I think for an indefinite period of time. And it’s something that so far has worked—the status quo is something that is quite sustainable and comfortable.

Munayyer: For the Israelis.

Elgindy: For the Israelis and hence for the Americans—until it’s not. And when it’s not then I think that only at that point when there is a price to pay and a price being paid that people will start to look seriously at where do we go from here, but I don’t expect any major moves by any side other than these kind of tracks that they have been pursuing already on the ground and in the international forum.

Munayyer: Leila I know you had some thoughts about the longer-term implications of the process.

Hilal: Yeah, I would like to talk about this notion of the two-state solution being dead. But before I do I just want to comment on the immediate term and what I foresee happening or at least being the priority. One is looking at what the Israelis do with respect to unilateral moves which could have major implications in changing the situation in the West Bank and turning it into more of a multiple Gazas—maybe three different parts of the West Bank, breaking it up. I’ve heard this scenario played out and one could imagine that if the Israelis now say well we are forced to take unilateral steps and this is going to be the fulfillment of our peace terms, if they take these unilateral moves, it’s possible that it will be in the north of the West Bank, in the center, in the south, and that produces a whole new set of realities that will change, I think, a lot of the political calculations of players, the Palestinians, Israelis, and the wider region. But I think in addition to seeing how the Israelis react in the immediate term, I think everything will be about the Palestinian authority and whether or not to keep it afloat. The Palestinian authority is an administrative temporary entity whose existence is very much tied to the peace process, and without a viable peace process in existence, its own purpose is called into question. In addition to that, the European countries which are the primary funders of the Palestinian authority—the European Union provides I think some eleven, ten million Euros a month for salaries of civil servants and pensioners of the P.A. and the European countries are starting to really question funding the Palestinian Authority which they see as essentially funding the occupation. And so I think going forward if we can say that this is sort of the death of the two-state solution there’s going to be a large question about the continuation of the Palestinian authority.

I think for the Palestinians themselves they see a value in the continuation of the authority, especially if they get it to work for the Palestinians as opposed to just getting it to help the Israelis avoid the cost of occupation. It gives the Palestinians a semblance of self-determination and it provides salaries. I think I’ve heard the former head of the World Bank on the West Bank and Gaza Strip say that the P.A. is a welfare system for the Palestinians. And so I think that there is still a large interest in keeping the Palestinian authority afloat, but if it doesn’t have a political dividend there will be more questions about why it’s existing. In addition, if it chooses to pursue reconciliation with Hamas, and it seems to me that it’s a serious endeavor this time around, it will face congressional hurdles like funding, but those will also come in the form of pressure. The U.S. Congress is not the major funder of the Palestinian authority and its existence does not depend on congressional funds but it is a large factor in its continuation. So I think if the P.A. is to pursue reconciliation it will face some hurdles. I think the European Union will deal with reconciliation in a more nuanced way.

But there’s the other question of whether the P.A. and the P.L.O. will press harder to go back to the U.N. So I think the Palestinians are going to be facing a real strategic crossroads at this point in terms of do we keep the authority alive, what’s its purpose, what are the trade-offs of going to the U.N. and reconciliation? And they may utilize these questions that are important to the Palestinian people as a way to get the Israelis back to the table and to make some concessions that would allow the status quo to persist for a while longer without any unilateral action, if I’m being clear. I mean there’s been a lot of theater in the last couple of weeks where I think that even though you have the same old peace process that has tried and failed in this round, there are a lot of cards that have been thrown up, whether they be Kerry’s statements about apartheid, or the courses that the Palestinian forces will have to take in the immediate term—so I think it’s not business as usual. And so I think the immediate term to medium term presents some real interesting developments and choices, that’s putting aside the longer term.

Khaled Elgindy is a Fellow with the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. He previously served as an advisor to the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah on permanent status negotiations with Israel from 2004-2009, and was a key participant in the Annapolis negotiations of 2008. He is the author of numerous publications on Arab-Israeli affairs, Palestinian politics, Egypt’s transition, and related subjects, including: “The Middle East Quartet: A Post-Mortem” (Brookings Institution, Feb. 2012); “Palestine Goes to the UN: Understanding the New Statehood Strategy,” Foreign Affairs (Sep./Oct. 2011); as well as “The Impact on the Peace Process: Peacemaker or Peacebreaker?” (with Salman Shaikh) and “The Palestinians: Between National Liberation and Political Legitimacy,” both in the recent Brookings volume, The Arab Awakening: America and the Transformation of the Middle East (Nov. 2011).

Leila Hilal is Director of the New America Foundation Middle East Task Force, which covers in-depth analysis and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa. From 2002 to 2007, she served as a legal adviser to the Palestinian Negotiations Department. She also advised the Palestinian Constitutional Committee during the drafting of the Basic Law. She has also consulted widely and published on conflict mediation policies in the Middle East, including for the Chatham House, International Development Research
Center, International Center for Transitional Justice, Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation, and the Euro-Med Human Rights Network.

Yousef Munayyer is Executive Director of The Jerusalem Fund and its educational program, The Palestine Center. He frequently writes on matters of foreign policy in the Arab and Muslim world, and civil rights and civil liberties issues in the United States. His Op-Eds have appeared regularly in The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Detroit Free Press, and AlQuds Newspaper, among others. He has also appeared on national and international media outlets such as CNN, MSNBC, CBS, Al-Jazeera English, C-Span, and others.