The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: is Another Conversation Possible?

The recent exchange between Israeli Prime Minister Netantahu and President Obama did not bode well for the possibility of renewing conversations toward the ultimate goal of a two-state solution in which a state of Israel lives in peace and security with a contiguous Palestinian state.

But against all odds, I believe that conversation can be resumed if both sides will commit to two pre-conditions for conversation. I don’t mean pre-conditions as to what the results of the conversation should be. That is anathema to me because you cannot predict beforehand the results of a genuine conversation. Rather, I refer to two pre-conditions that, if not met up-front, will make it impossible to have a fruitful conversation.

The first pre-condition is that there needs to be general agreement as to the purpose of the conversation. Both Israelis and Palestinians need to agree that the ultimate goal is to create two states that can live in peace and security with one another. It does not appear that this pre-condition has been met.

In brief, in light of the recent reconciliation between the Fatah Party and Hamas, and the official position of Hamas that a state of Israel does not have right to exist, it remains to be seen whether the Palestinian Authority will recognize the right of Israel to exist as a state. To not acknowledge this right is tantamount to rejecting the goal of creating a viable two-state solution, rendering it impossible to re-start a conversation toward that end.

This was Netanyahu’s point when in his recent speech to the U. S. Congress, he said that he will accept a Palestinian state, but he is waiting for Mahmoud Abbas, the President to the Palestinian Authority,  to say, “I will accept a Jewish state.” Netanyahu went on to say that when he hears these six words, “Israel will then be prepared to make a far-reaching compromise.” That remains to be seen. But we will never know if that is possible until there is initial agreement that both Israel and Palestine have a right to exist.

The second pre-condition is that each side not come to the table with fixed, unyielding positions on the issues that need to be discussed. There must be openness on the part of both parties to the possibility of revising one’s initial position on a particular issue in light of the initial position of the other.

Once again, it remains to be seen whether this pre-condition will be met. I illustrate by reporting on what I heard Netanyahu and Obama say relative to the possibility of starting a conversation about borders.

I heard President Obama propose that renewed conversation should start with the prevailing borders before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, but with adjustments through mutually agreed upon land swaps to take into account Israeli settlements, pointing out that Israel and the Palestinians may have to swap territory on either side of this border to account for the large Jewish settlements that have taken root in the West Bank since 1967.

In his initial response to Obama’s proposal regarding borders, I heard Prime Minister Netanyahu say that for Israel to return to its pre-1967 borders would make it “indefensible,” and, in addition, such a proposal does not take into account what has happened on the ground in the last 44 years.

In this initial exchange, Netanyahue and Obama were obviously talking past each other, because Obama did not say the pre-1967 borders were the end of possible negotiations. Rather, they were a starting point for conversation, with adjustments to be made (mutually agreed upon land swaps) based on what has happened on the ground for the past 44 years.

One journalist called Obama’s proposal for mutually agreed upon land swaps a “nuance” that “Netanyahu simply ignored” (Steven Lee Myers, “Divisions are Clear as Obama and Netanyahu Discuss Peace,” New York Times Reprints, May 20, 2011). But to be fair, I found that many journalists also ignored this nuance in their reporting on this Obama/Netanyahu exchange. Why is that?

It is my perception that nuance does not play well, either in politics or the media. Rather, unyielding fixed positions play well. To rally your political constituents around your position on a controversial issue or to sell airtime or newspapers, stark either/or contrasting fixed positions are taken, allowing little room for talking about nuances that that could lead to a viable middle-of-the road position.

The good news is that in his later speech to the U. S. Congress, Netanyahu did acknowledge this nuance. To be sure, it may be an impossible dream to think that Israel and Palestine can come to “mutual agreement” about such land swaps, and that they can then continue talking about other major areas of disagreement, such as the status of Jerusalem and the return of Palestinian refugees. But first addressing this nuance about borders could at least get the conversation started once again. And, once again, you cannot predict beforehand the results of a genuine conversation.

Despite the apparently intractable nature of the ongoing conflict, I hold tenaciously onto the hope that if both sides will acknowledge the right of both states to exist, and if they will avoid crippling either/or unyielding fixed positions and start talking about what some erroneously dismiss as mere nuances, fruitful conversations can yet begin toward the goal of creating two contiguous states that can live in peace. Hope springs eternal!