Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

John Kerry and Middle East Peace: Negotiating a Hard Bargain

Paul S. Rowe


By Paul S. Rowe

January 10, 2014

I recently finished reading a biography of the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Up until the time that he signed a peace treaty with Egypt, Begin was an uncompromising revisionist. He had maximal ambitions that Israel would eventually include all the territory it now occupies – and the state of Jordan as well. He rose to power condemning the Labor governments of the 1970s for seeking compromises in return for peace. And yet, he was eventually persuaded to commit Israel to returning the entire Sinai to Egypt as a necessary concession to ensure a peace treaty.

One point that stood out to me in reading his biography was the importance he placed on bargaining hard.  He argued that if one entered negotiations promising concessions from the beginning, the game was lost already.

That assertion gives me some marginal feeling of hope for Secretary of State John Kerry as he continues on with his mission to create a framework agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. We need not take at face value the hard lines staked out by the protagonists to a dispute. But that’s about all I have to contribute to the side of optimism.

Even though the framework for an agreement has been hammered out several times in the past – for example, in the “Clinton parameters” of 2000, or the Geneva Document of 2003 – the political opening for a two-state solution to the conflict seems increasingly to have closed. 

Israeli politicians continue to ignore the conflict in hopes it will simply go away. Unilateral technical fixes, like the “security barrier”, or the Iron Dome defense system, limit Israel’s vulnerability to Palestinian violence. Trying hard to negotiate a peace treaty would do little to improve any party’s chance for re-election, so it is better to avoid the appearance of compromise altogether. 

Most Israelis no longer need to think about Palestinians, who are separated from them by walls and bureaucratic red tape. They dream of gradually annexing the West Bank bit by bit, through the expansion of settlements and gradual dispossession of Palestinians. To up the ante in negotiations, Israel has been insisting for many years now that Palestinians must recognize its Jewish character, in order to prevent demographic threats to the Israeli state.

And while Israelis have sought simply to ignore the need for compromise, the Palestinians have a greater problem. Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas, the only person that Secretary Kerry or the Israeli government will consider dealing with, has a serious problem of internal legitimacy and cannot provide credible commitment to a peace treaty for the Gaza Strip, which remains under the authority of Hamas. 

Meanwhile, ordinary Palestinians are no longer particularly interested in a two-state solution.  They are effectively separated into small cantonal areas surrounded by Jewish settlements and security zones. They have begun to dream of a single state of all its citizens, both Jewish and Palestinian, even if it takes decades.

So John Kerry certainly has his job cut out for him. 

There are, however, three things I would suggest to Secretary Kerry as he approaches this formidable task.

First, the primary problem for Palestinians is statelessness. Palestinians look back on the 1948 War, which they call the nakba, the catastrophe, and dream of returning home and getting back what they once had. But ultimately their concern is not the past but the future: they cannot move ahead without citizenship, a state of their own, and a functioning bureaucracy that will keep it going. Whether that is a Palestinian state or a binational one is of less concern to most of them.

Second, the primary concern for Israelis is security. The Israeli right has convinced many of their people that the best way to ensure their security is to be uncompromising and assertive. But ultimately the means by which they get security is less important than shalom – the wholeness and well-being that come from secure borders, years spent at rest, and the prosperity that derives from hard work. The trick is in convincing them that their neighbors actually want that, too.

Third, no matter how much everyone seems to think that an Israeli-Palestinian peace is impossible, in fact it is not. The barriers to a just peace agreement are political, not technical.  Past efforts to create a functioning relationship between two states have demonstrated that peace is possible – it just requires the credible commitment of two parties who have the other’s best interests at heart.

If nothing else, maintaining an emphasis on these three points while dealing with all of the intricacies of a framework agreement might help to change attitudes toward peace for Israel and the Palestinians. And it might help to persuade even the hardest of bargainers that concessions are necessary.

- Paul S. Rowe is Associate Professor of Political and International Studies at Trinity Western University in British Columbia, Canada. 

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”