Palestinian and Israeli negotiators are back at the table for their first peace talks in years, to be mediated by United States Secretary of State John F. Kerry. Israeli settlement expansion in the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem halted attempts at peace talks in 2010, and continued expansion as well as the handling of existing settlements and their inhabitants will be critical issues this time around as well.
National Geographic Explorer and Israeli-Palestinian conflict specialist Aziz Abu Sarah has spent years bridging the gap between both sides. We contacted him for his perspective on this round of talks.
>How likely is it that Israel will attempt to relocate settlers as a result of negotiations?
There are over 650,000 settlers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. This is more than 8% of the Israeli population. I don’t imagine that any Israeli leader would be able to relocate such a large population. The population of Texas is about 8% of the U.S. — imagine any American leader trying to relocate its 25,000,000 inhabitants!
Even Palestinian negotiators know that Israel will not relocate all settlers. The negotiation is about how many settlers will be relocated and how many settlements will be added to Israel proper. Palestinians and Israelis will negotiate land exchange to allow some settlers to stay in their houses and remain in Israel. Still, with that being said, it takes an amazing political mandate to relocate any settlers.
> Do you believe removing Israeli settlers would incite more violence?
Yes, removing any settlers will require force and confrontation between the Israeli army and the settlers. The last time Israel relocated settlers was in 2005, and the number of settlers was much lower than what will now be required for a deal. The relocation was with forced eviction and resulted in violence and a huge public outcry in Israel.
However, in general every time the two sides get closer to an agreement, radical groups are likely to use violence as a tool to spoil a potential deal. This is true for both sides. For example, after the Oslo agreement, an Israeli settler stormed the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, killing 29 people. Islamic radicals used the same tactic by employing suicide bombings on Israeli buses. Both radical groups count on their ability to rally the public of the other side by using violence to spoil the implementation of agreements. Unfortunately, they are often successful. As the two sides go into negotiations, they should consider the history of these events and be prepared for such reactions. Also, in the past few years, every action the Israeli government did that was perceived by settlers as an attack on their project was met with “price tag actions,” which is violence towards Palestinians.
With that being said, at this point I don’t expect a rise of violence because both sides are pessimistic about this round of negotiations. However, if there is a movement and signs of potential agreement, then violent attempts are likely to be on the rise.
>Dani Dayan, an Israeli leader of the Yesha Council, was recently quoted in the Washington Post:
“I don’t mean to say the Israeli military couldn’t handle forcibly evacuating settlements,” he said. “What I am saying is that from a psychological point of view, there is no going back. We are here to stay. Dismantling the settlements would break the back of Israel. There would be no Israel. There would be no Zionism. There would be no point.”
Do you agree with his assessment?
We interviewed Dani Dayan for the Nat Geo Conflict Zone videos (he is not in the final cut). I don’t agree with Dani’s assumptions. Many Israeli thinkers have argued that it is the settlements that are breaking the back of Israel and are diminishing the Zionist dream. Without a Palestinian state and with growing settlements, Israel will continue to have a military rule over millions of Palestinians. This means an eventual de facto one country for both Israelis and Palestinians. Israel will not be able to maintain a Jewish majority in such a state. It will be forced to accept a bi-national state or forsake democracy for a Jewish rule. Many Israeli thinkers and politicians see the two-state solution as Israel’s last hope for a democratic Jewish majority state. The status quo presented by Mr. Dayan is not an option that would bring peace and security to either the Palestinians or the Israelis.
> Can peace be achieved without moving settlers from the West Bank?
The two-state solution is not possible without evacuation of some of the settlements. However, it is possible to leave the major blocs and do a land exchange. These major settlement blocs house most of the settlers. Israel will have to remove some settlements that make contiguity of land impossible for a Palestinian state. It will also have to remove most of the small random settlements in the West Bank. This will mean tens of thousands of settlers. However, Israel is unlikely to agree to the removal of all settlers. The two sides are currently stuck on what settlements should be dismantled, which ones should stay within Israel, and what percentage of land should be exchanged between the two sides.
With that being said, peace is also possible through other solutions. If the relocation of settlers is not possible, then alternatives to the two-state solution should be considered. Many scholars and politicians have been working on a variety of models and solutions. Also, some people have suggested that some Israeli settlers remain in the Palestinian state as Palestinian citizens. These options are less liked among the two governments, but they might have no option but to start considering them. If the current negotiations fail, the public support for two state solution is likely to diminish and new alternatives will become more popular and mainstream.
>The last time peace talks were held was at the beginning of the Obama administration. How difficult will negotiations be this time around? What are the new challenges?
With each day that passes without an agreement, the challenges of reaching one increase tremendously. There is a lack of trust on both sides. There have been twenty years of unsuccessful negotiations, failed agreements, and broken promises. Every time a negotiation fails, it reduces the public’s faith in the possibility of reaching a peace agreement. The same people who led the unsuccessful negotiations in the past decade are heading the negotiation teams today.
I think we should ask another question: what will make the same two negotiators who failed to secure an agreement in the last decade succeed in reaching a deal today? There are more settlements and settlers today, and there is more tension and opposition to a compromise. Radical groups on both sides have more political power. Many details about the negotiations’ framework and starting points remain secret, but unless Secretary Kerry initiated a major change in the framework in which these negotiations are held, they are likely to fail. Also, there must be clear incentives and consequences for the two sides depending on the outcome of the negotiations.
I believe the lack of a public campaign in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza demanding that the politicians deliver an agreement is a problem. Politicians tend to follow public opinion more than they lead. Unfortunately, little attention is given to this issue, but a public mandate for the politicians will give them more space and strength to reach a compromise.
>Is there anything you’d like to add?
The issues that will be discussed in the negotiations are borders, security, water, Palestinian refugees, and Jerusalem. These issues have been at the heart of the conflict and each one of them could be the cause for the negotiations’ collapse.
The best approach at the moment is to start on two issues that are pressing for both sides. Borders is a pressing issue for Palestinians and security is a pressing issue for Israelis. If these two issues are resolved, then the chances of resolving the other issues are much higher.
If the two sides are able to come to an agreement, it is likely to be tough and painful for both sides. However, the only way out of this conflict is to have an agreement where no one feels like the winner while the other side feels like the loser. Palestinians will be giving up 78% of what they believe is their homeland and Israelis will be giving up 22% of what they see as their land.
Another thing- there must be a major change of tone on both sides. The two governments should promote a new language when talking about the other side and start confidence building steps even before any substantial agreements are reached. They should remind people of what peace can bring.
The two governments should promote a new language when talking about the other side and start confidence building steps even before any substantial agreements are reached. They should remind people of what peace can bring.
This is important because to some people this situation has become a bitter conflict that dwells in the hearts. It is a consuming hatred that darkens everything and veils all hope of peace. It is a wall of ignorance and pride. It is a dehumanization of the people behind the wall. And it is a desire to kill and hurt without being hindered by guilt. These issues are not on the negotiation table, but no peace deal stands a chance if we don’t address these issues even before reaching an agreement.
Palestinians and Israelis are at hard crossroads. The restoration of hope to a lost people will take intense work and perseverance of heart and mind. We need to stop fighting one another, and fight against the true causes of this conflict: the reasons why a Palestinian teenager decides to fire a rocket at Israel, and the reasons why a Jewish 18-year-old mans a checkpoint instead of a desk at school.
Learn more about this decades-old conflict from the special online 4-part video series, “Conflict Zone”, that follows Aziz Abu Sarah, a native of Jerusalem, and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer who works in international conflict resolution.