French president Francois Hollande delivers his new year address to diplomats, at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Thursday, January 12, 2017. Hollande says Sunday's Mideast peace conference in Paris aims at ensuring the support of the international community for the two-state solution as a reference for future direct negotiations. (Photo: Ian Langsdon, Pool via AP)
While the conference will likely produce nothing of a positive lasting value, there are four key principles that the participants would do well to remember if they want to make a positive contribution toward ending the conflict:
1) Other parties can't want peace for Palestinians and Israelis more than they do for themselves. Successful peace initiatives in the region have been the result of actions by the primary actors themselves—not the bashing of Middle Eastern heads by American or European hands. The Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979 became possible because of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in 1977 and his address to the Israeli Knesset. It fundamentally altered Israel's peace equation. The 1994 Jordanian-Israeli peace agreement was the result of an initiative taken by the Israeli and Jordanian leaders after years of secret, bilateral understandings. Likewise, the Oslo process that began in earnest in 1993 was born out of secret meetings between Israelis and Palestinians and their desire to see if they could solve—if not alleviate—their conflict.
The U.S. had a role in securing and guaranteeing the two peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan. During the Oslo process, the American role grew from helping to implement the early agreements; to crisis management; to providing economic and security assistance to the Palestinian Authority, and finally; to intensive mediation by 1997. Nevertheless, the decision to seek peace and end the conflict always came from the principal regional actors when they were ready. The fact that both the Palestinians and Israelis are not even attending the Paris conference speaks volumes about how little the gathering will likely achieve.
2) A permanent status agreement cannot be imposed from the outside. Notwithstanding the Paris conference, the recent UN Security Council resolution, and Palestinian attempts to internationalize their effort, peace will only be sustainable if the two sides negotiate it between themselves and own the concessions they make to achieve it. Otherwise, both sides will produce endless claims against the other and neither will feel as though they have equity in ensuring the deal's success. They can always claim it was someone else's fault.
UN Security Council Resolution 242 has been the basis of peace negotiations between Israelis on one hand, and Egyptians, Jordanians, and Palestinians on the other. The carefully worded resolution drafted in 1967 should remain the keystone of all efforts. It seeks an end to "states of belligerency" and an Israeli withdrawal "from territories" as part of a negotiated "peaceful and accepted settlement" to the dispute. In other words, the depth of the withdrawal would be negotiated to match the depth of the peace. Israelis offered Palestinians serious proposals on the core issues in 2000, 2008, and 2014. In each case the Palestinians answered either with a "no" or offered no response. Adopting additional outside resolutions that favor Palestinians while ignoring Israeli concerns, punishes Israel for continued Palestinian intransigence and only creates additional barriers to peace.
3) A future "State of Palestine" will not be an island unto itself and will be influenced by the conditions of the surrounding sea. To which Middle Eastern state should Palestinians turn to for an example of effective governance? According to Freedom House, of the 21 countries and territories in the Middle East and North Africa, only five percent of 420 million people are considered free. The Islamic State swept through Iraq and Syria, and beyond—are Palestinians somehow immune to their advance? The Palestinian Authority is severely lacking in effective institutions that can run a state, stemming from what has been called the "four fs": fawda (chaos), fitna (extreme, violent internal strife), falatan (lawlessness), and fassad (corruption). The Fatah party itself is steeped in graft and Hamas in Gaza is faring even worse. It's tempting for Western countries to believe that a Palestinian state will be self-sustaining once the proverbial boat leaves the harbor. But they are a product of their own neighborhood and not immune to the trending winds buffeting the Arab state system.
From Israel's perspective, the experiment of relinquishing territory and hoping for the best has been a proven disaster. Leaving Gaza in 2005 produced what even Reuters called, "an unmitigated catastrophe" with Hamas running a terrorist state that has launched more than 15,000 rockets at Israel. Leaving their security zone in Southern Lebanon in 2000 paved the way for the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel. The failures of the so-called "Arab Spring" should serve as a reminder that the region is awash in frightening examples of what not to do politically, civically, and religiously. There are numerous indications that such an experiment would fail in the West Bank where the stakes are immeasurably higher. Without a means to ensure a Palestinian state won't fall prey to the unrest, civil wars, and bloodlust that currently mark the region, it is not in America's interest—or even the Palestinian's interest—to support such a risky experiment on Israel's dime. Just ask Arab Israelis where they'd prefer to live.
4) If the end result of a permanent status agreement is statehood for Palestinians, then the end result for Israel should be a recognized Jewish state. Contrary to widely held mythology surrounding the peace process, the Oslo Accords of the 1990s were not designed to culminate in an independent Palestinian state. Rather it was to involve degrees of Palestinian autonomy and Israeli military redeployments. Permanent status discussions were to commence further down the road. Only by 1998—five years after the famous White House signing ceremony—did President Clinton begin playing with the idea that the permanent status agreement could provide for an independent Palestinian state, if a host of conditions were worked out in negotiations.
A basic principle in final status negotiations has been that "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed." It allows a give-and-take on the five core issues. Yet whenever peace talks resume, Palestinians have pocketed previous Israeli concessions and begin negotiations with their position unfairly enhanced. If Palestinians are now granted that an independent state will be their permanent status—no matter what else is negotiated—then they should recognize Israel as a permanent Jewish State at the outset—regardless of the negotiations. That means Palestinians will have to deal with their mythology concerning the refugee issue where millions of Arabs will supposedly flood into Israel, and part with the unreasonable expectation that their state will be judenrein while Arab Israelis remain in the Jewish state.
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It appears that the majority of the international community, led by European states, decided there needs to be a Palestinian state as soon as possible. While the details seem a secondary concern to them, they are crucial to an emergent state's durability. Perhaps its mere existence will assuage the white European guilt of their colonial past. The fruits of their collective colonial history withered on the vine long ago and are etched in blood today across the Middle East and Africa. It requires special skills in dissociation for Europe to believe they've earned another crack at righting the monumental mistakes they made at the expense of the region's inhabitants.
There are many reasons a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conundrum remains elusive. A lack of conferences and outside resolutions is not one of them. At its core lies not an issue of misunderstanding, but of disagreement. Until the two sides have reached a point where their negotiating red lines intersect, no amount of outside interference will bring the conflict closer to an end. With that in mind, the participants at the Paris conference would do well to take a diplomatic Hippocratic Oath and pledge from the outset to at least "do no harm."