Overcoming the Zero-Sum Hurdle in Israel-Palestine Negotiations

It seems as if the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been dissected from every possible angle.

But despite these various close examinations, there has been relatively little progress made toward a lasting peace deal between the two parties, discouraging some peace activists.

Many observers, still abiding that by the well-worn adage that "the road to peace runs through Jerusalem," hope to work out a two-state solution in what is widely perceived as the short remaining window for one.

So with the incoming Barack Obama administration, which has campaigned on and, in transition, promised an early push for Middle East peace, activists and experts are seeking new ways to frame the challenge of the peace process that may carve out workable solutions to the more contentious issues.

In a recent article for the journal Foreign Affairs, senior Council on Foreign Relations fellow Walter Russell Mead calls for a new approach that goes beyond the scope of what many negotiations of the past, such as the Oslo and Annapolis processes, have addressed – an honest consideration of Palestinian realities and aspirations.

At a panel discussing the piece, New America Foundation’s Middle East Task Force director and former Israeli negotiator Daniel Levy delighted in Mead’s description of engaging the peace process as a "necessary evil," and read from one of the passages in Mead’s article.

"The Obama administration needs to accomplish a kind of Copernican shift in perception: looking at the same sun, moon, planets, and stars that others have seen, it must reconceptualize the relations among them," wrote Mead.

"In the past, U.S. peacemakers have had an Israel-centric approach to the negotiating process; the Obama administration needs to put Palestinian politics and Palestinian public opinion at the center of its peacemaking efforts."

Mead, at the same New America event Monday, addressed and expanded on his article.

"The reason peace is so elusive is not due a handful of weak or bad people somewhere, but due to the very, very difficult nature of the interests involved," said Mead.

"I think the American negotiators, particularly in the case of the Oslo negotiations… sort of simplified Palestinian politics," he said.

Mead called for increased focus on some issues on which the two central parties have failed to attain compromise solutions, but where the international community could play a bigger role, such as Palestinian refugees.

While the right of return for refugees remains a "zero-sum issue" reserved for late in final status negotiations, said Mead, there are opportunities to look at what can be done about those refugees who wouldn’t return to a future Palestinian state, either by choice or restriction.

"[The U.S. needs to] understand conceptually that there are a lot of non-zero-sum issues on the table in Israeli-Palestinian issues," said Mead.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees live in poverty without passports in camps in Lebanon and other places "where they do not have basic economic and social rights," said Mead. "To provide an honest, decent, dignified road into the future for these people is not necessarily to take something away from Israel."

"Non-zero-sum issues" provide wiggle room for U.S. negotiators to make important progress for Palestinians without a cost to Israel, unlike some zero-sum issues, such as borders, where concessions to one party necessarily come at the expense of the other.

For non-returning refugees, Mead suggests setting up a means of compensation paid for by the international community, including Israel.

By providing concrete gains for Palestinians and resolving issues, said Mead, both Israel and Palestinians will benefit because it will incentivize movement for both sides on the stickier zero-sum final status issues, leading, eventually, to the realized two-state solution.

"If we just sort of project a political two-state solution that doesn’t have answers to the concrete everyday problems of the [impoverished and refugee Palestinians], then basically you’re going to have a peace that is not widely seen as just, legitimate, or helpful," Mead said.

"You are creating a situation which would be very hard, if not impossible, for Palestinians to honor their obligations under the treaty of peace and also develop representative, effective institutions for governance."

"Peace will only be real if Palestinians consent to it," he said.

Levy, a respondent on the panel, explained how this new historically-focused paradigm is a good opportunity for international actors to get involved.

"[W]e can take a lead role as the international community – as the United States – in addressing some of the key components of the historical narrative that can redeem a sense of Palestinian dignity in the broadest possible Palestinian community and can, therefore, get us to the next phase and allow Palestinians to develop their independent state with a sense not that the historical file has been closed – but has been addressed in a way that is serious," said Levy.

The notion of a new approach to the same old problems on Monday closely echoed comments made by peace activist and former speaker of the Israeli Knesset, Naomi Chazan.

Chazan repeated the mantra of "reframing" key issues in order to reinvigorate stalled efforts of the previous processes.

She also reinforced a notion hit upon repeatedly by Mead that "reframing" and "reconceptualizing" require looking back critically at the history and root causes of the disputes between Israelis (or, earlier, as Zionist migrants) and Palestinians in order to get past them.

Mead, who in an earlier issue of Foreign Affairs had argued somewhat controversially that U.S. public opinion, rather than the so-called "Israel lobby," drives staunch support for Israel, was insistent that a new Palestinian-centric approach wouldn’t compromise U.S. support for Israel. On the contrary, he thinks that it will strengthen Israel by putting the peace and security that Israel desires within reach.

Levy reinforced this point, saying that Mead’s "narrative [recognizes] the fact that we can do the mutually supportive Israeli-American relationship better."

But the focus on Monday was definitely on Palestinians.

"A decent human life is what Palestinians want and what all people are entitled to," said Mead at the conclusion of the meeting.

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Author: Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib writes for Inter Press Service.