The long view of peacemaking

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Excerpts from Ambassador Martin Indyk’s May 8 remarks at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy about the suspended Israel-Palestinian peace talks. Indyk is the U.S. special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. 

As you all know well – in the Middle East, it’s never over.


Think back to the spring of 1975. … Secretary of State Henry Kissinger set out to the region to broker a second disengagement agreement between Israel and Egypt. After 10 days of shuttling back and forth between the parties, the secretary of state suspended his efforts and returned to Washington empty-handed.

President Ford and the secretary announced they would step back. Kissinger vented his frustration. Maybe a David Ben-Gurion or a Golda Meir could lead Israel to a peace agreement, he fumed, but never a Yitzhak Rabin. We learned a little later what a peacemaker Yitzhak Rabin could be.

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Everybody thought it was over. Of course, as we know now, everybody was wrong. A few months later the talks were restarted, and soon thereafter a deal was reached.

On resolving the settlement issue


Just during the past nine months of negotiations, tenders for building 4,800 units were announced and planning was advanced for another 8,000 units. It’s true that most of the tendered units are slated to be built in areas that even Palestinian maps in the past have indicated would be part of Israel.

Yet the planning units were largely outside that area in the West Bank. And from the Palestinian experience, there is no distinction between planning and building. Indeed, according to the Israeli Bureau of Census and Statistics, from 2012 to 2013 construction starts in West Bank settlements more than doubled. That’s why Secretary [of State John] Kerry believes it is essential to delineate the borders and establish the security arrangements in parallel with all the other permanent status issues. In that way, once a border is agreed each party would be free to build in its own state.

On clearing the Jewish state roadblock

In the view of the Obama administration, [Israel’s call for being recognized as a Jewish state] is totally legitimate. By the way, it’s legitimate for either side to bring issues to the table that are important to them. And from the American point of view, it’s kind of self-evident that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people … and President Obama has made it absolutely clear that … there needs to be that kind of mutual recognition.

When it was first introduced by Tzipi Livni, who is very dedicated to trying to achieve a two-state solution, when she was negotiating in the Olmert government with Abu Ala [Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei], and when she first put it on the table, Abu Ala, you know, said, “This is a new requirement. We reject it.”

But he was a very canny negotiator, and I think he saw it as, suddenly, a new card that Israel was giving him in his pocket. If it’s so important to Israel that they need recognition of their nature as a Jewish state, as opposed to recognition of Israel’s right to exist, which the PLO had already done back in 1993, he thought, well, OK, if they care about this so much, I’ll get something for it. I believe that this was his attitude.

And we proceeded on the assumption that the resistance to this on the Palestinian side was tactical. There were objections, strong objections that Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] voiced to it. Number one, he said, this is a new requirement. It was never a core issue in the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, in the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, or in the Oslo Accords. We were required to recognize Israel’s right to exist, not Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. So that was his first objection.

Second objection was that to call it a Jewish state is to deny the rights of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens. The third objection was that it would somehow undermine the argument of Palestinian refugees for a “right of return.” And the fourth argument was that it would require the Palestinians to accept the Zionist narrative.

So, in the negotiations we tried to address all of those concerns. But the more we tried to address them, the more he seemed to dig in. And the more that the Israeli government made it an issue, and raised it to a more and more supreme issue, I think the more that the Palestinians began to think, there’s something going on here.

It’s part of the pathology of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that what one side wants, the other side naturally denies. So it ended up becoming a major roadblock. And I think there is a way of resolving it. I believe that once the Palestinians come to understand what their state will look like, and when they will get it, this issue will become much less important – and solvable.

Excerpted from original transcription with permission of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. ©2014.

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