“Direct Negotiations” is the most used (or abused) word-pair in the context of the search for a Palestinian-Israeli deal. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu keeps flaunting this idea as if it’s a panacea. President Donald Trump lost no time adopting this vocabulary, and he repeated it in his recent phone conversation with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, bringing grins of satisfactions to the faces of Israeli policymakers.
Forget about it. Of course, it is possible that the Palestinians can be coerced into direct negotiations with Israel, but such a format is not likely to bear any practical fruits because direct negotiations completely ignore Muslim/Arab dispute resolution practices. Let me explain.
1. Muslim/Arab dispute resolution philosophy and practice is predicated on a victim-perpetrator pairing principle. A conflict (any conflict) is always divided amongst the disputants – some assume the role of victims and some that of the perpetrators. A true process of reconciliation cannot start unless the “magnetic field” of roles is set properly. The reason is simple: Muslim/Arab dispute resolution assigns a different choreography to each side in the conflict, depending on its role. Until and unless the roles are properly assigned, neither of the parties will be able to act according to their place in the equation, and the process will never move forward enough to start dealing with substance. With the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the situation is complicated by the fact that both sides have long ago assumed the role of victims and have been unwilling and unable to even contemplate revising this position.
2. For direct negotiations to have any chance to succeed, the disputants must feel that they have at least some leverage on the process and that they can negotiate at “eye level” with the other party. Any configuration that is patently asymmetric (in the sense that it pits a supremely strong and dominant party against a weak and subservient side) cannot be called negotiations, but dictation, and thus will never mature into genuine negotiations.
The power equation between the Palestinians and the Israelis is uniquely one-sided. The Israelis have been the occupying power for the past nearly 50 years. They are loath to accept that fact, but for the past 50 years, Israelis have had nearly total control over the life, livelihood and freedoms of the Palestinians’ existence. At this point in history, Israelis cannot but look at Palestinians through the lens of occupiers. Most Palestinians do not have any experience of living free of Israeli occupation – a thoroughly humiliating and debilitating experience. There is little to no chance that the Palestinians will conduct meaningful direct (eye-level) negotiations from such an inferior posture. Even if they did, their decisions will have no chance of ever being seen as anything but the dictates of an occupier.
3. Muslim/Arab conflict resolution practices are mostly based on the conduct of negotiations under the active guidance of a respectable, powerful and purposeful third-party intervenor (either an individual or a group called Jaha). The role of this third-party intervenor is to use its clout with both parties to keep them at the table through thick and thin, drag them across impassable gaps of disagreement, and give both sides the “out” they need when it comes to making painful concessions. In those instances, the parties can assuage the fury of their own constituencies by telling them: “what could we do? The mediator/arbitrator forced us to make these concessions”.
So for any negotiated settlement between the Palestinians and the Israelis to have a chance of moving forward, both sides, but particularly the Israelis and their Western supporters, will have to make peace first with the three basic realities of negotiated settlements in this part of the world. Interest-based, win-win deal-making breakthroughs, a-la Trump, are highly unlikely to ever get off the ground in this cultural context, and if they do, they are not likely to produce durable results. Sooner or later, even President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu will have to recognize this reality – better sooner than later.