Analysis from Israel

Being a pessimist means that having your predictions come true rarely brings much joy. That’s the situation I and many other Israelis and Palestinians are in right now–all those who warned that John Kerry’s insistence on restarting Israeli-Palestinian talks would likely spark a new round of Palestinian-Israeli violence, but were drowned out by those who insist that talking never does any harm. It’s already too late to spare Israelis and Palestinians the bloody consequences of Kerry’s hubris. But it’s important to understand why such initiatives so frequently result in bloodshed, so that future secretaries of state can avoid a recurrence.

First, as repeated efforts over the last 14 years have shown, Palestinians and Israelis aren’t ready to make a deal. Serious efforts were made at the Camp David talks in 2000, the Taba talks in 2001, the Livni-Qureia talks in 2007-08, the Olmert-Abbas talks in 2008, and, most recently, Kerry’s talks, but all failed because the gaps between the parties couldn’t be bridged. As Shmuel Rosner noted in a perceptive New York Times op-ed in May, that’s because many issues Westerners don’t much care about, and therefore imagine are easy to compromise on, are actually very important to the parties involved and thus impossible to compromise on. That isn’t likely to change anytime soon, and until it does, negotiations will never bring peace.

But failed peace talks inevitably make violence more likely, for two main reasons. First, they force both sides to focus on their most passionate disagreements–the so-called “core issues” that go to the heart of both Israeli and Palestinian identity–rather than on less emotional issues. On more mundane issues, Israel and the Palestinian Authority can sometimes agree–as they did on a series of economic cooperation projects last June, before Kerry’s peace talks gummed up the works. But even if they don’t, it’s hard for people on either side to get too upset when their governments squabble over, say, sewage treatment. In contrast, people on both sides do get upset when their governments argue over, say, the “right of return,” because that’s an issue where both sides view the other’s narrative as negating their own existence.

Second, failed peace talks always result in both sides feeling that they’ve lost or conceded something important without receiving a suitable quid pro quo. Palestinians, for instance, were outraged when Kerry reportedly backed Israel’s demand for recognition as a Jewish state, while Israelis were outraged by Kerry’s subsequent U-turn on the issue. Thus both sides ended up feeling as if their positions on this issue were undermined during the talks. The same goes for the Jordan Valley, where both Israelis and Palestinians felt Kerry’s proposals didn’t meet their respective needs, but now fear these proposals will serve as the starting point for additional concessions next time.

Added to this were the “gestures” Kerry demanded of both sides: that Israel free dozens of vicious killers and the PA temporarily refrain from joining international organizations. Though the price Kerry demanded of Israel was incomparably greater, neither side wanted to pay its assigned share. So when the talks collapsed, both felt they had made a sacrifice for nothing.

In short, failed peace talks exacerbate Israeli-Palestinian tensions rather than calming them. And when tensions rise, so does the likelihood of violence. That’s true in any situation, but doubly so for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because terrorist groups like Hamas are always happy to throw a match into a barrel of explosives. The unsurprising result is that spasms of violence, like the second intifada and the current war, have frequently followed failed peace talks.

So if Washington truly wants to avoid Israeli-Palestinian violence, the best thing it could do is stop trying to force both sides into talks that are doomed to fail. For contrary to the accepted wisdom, which holds that “political negotiations” are the best way to forestall violence, they’re actually the best way to make violence more likely.

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How Israel’s Electoral System Brings the Country’s Fringes Into Its Center

Like Haviv Rettig Gur in “How and Why Israelis Vote,” I, too, think the advantages of Israel’s parliamentary system outweigh its disadvantages, and for essentially the same reason: because it keeps a great many people in the political system who would otherwise remain outside it.

Critics of the system’s plethora of small parties—as Gur notes, no fewer than 43 parties have been vying for Knesset seats in this year’s election—maintain that it should be streamlined and redesigned so that only big parties would be able to enter the Knesset. In that case, the critics argue, people who currently vote for small parties would simply switch their votes to large ones.

No doubt, some voters would do so—but many others would not. There are at least three groups among whom turnout would plummet if niche parties became by definition unelectable: Arabs, Ḥaredim (including some ḥaredi Zionists), and the protest voters who, in every election, propel a new “fad” party into the Knesset. (In 2015, as Gur writes, the fad party was Kulanu. This year, it’s been Moshe Feiglin’s pro-marijuana, libertarian, right-wing Zehut party, which Gur doesn’t discuss although polls have consistently showed it gaining five to seven seats.)

Together, these three groups constitute roughly a third of the country, and all three are to some extent alienated from the mainstream. If they were no longer even participating in elections, that alienation would grow.

Why does this matter? In answering that question, I’ll focus mainly on Ḥaredim and Arabs, the most significant and also the most stable of the three groups (protest voters being by nature amorphous and changeable).

It matters primarily because people who cease to see politics as a means of furthering their goals are more likely to resort to violence. Indeed, it’s no accident that most political violence in Israel has issued from quarters outside the electoral system.

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