"Be always at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let each New Year find you a better man", said the 'First American' Benjamin Franklin. The whole world hopes these sentiments spoke to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's envoy, Issac Molho, and chief PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat, when they met yesterday in Amman, Jordan to conduct the first direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians for 15 months.
It would be naïve to expect too much from these first halting contacts. But jaw-jaw is always better than war-war, as Churchill said, and optimism is no vice, especially at New Year. Perhaps we can be allowed three resolutions in the spirit of Ben Franklin.
First, we won't give up on negotiations - after all, Israelis and Palestinians haven't.
Western commentators are prone to dismiss the prospects for compromise. Not so Israelis and Palestinians. The regular poll conducted jointly by the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah has a most encouraging finding. There has been an increase in Palestinians' and Israelis' willingness to compromise.
Our December poll shows an increase in support for the Clinton permanent settlement framework on both sides. 58% of Israelis and 50% of Palestinians support a permanent settlement package along the Clinton parameters; 39% of Israelis and 49% of Palestinians oppose such a settlement. These results mark a significant increase in both sides' willingness to compromise compared to recent years.
Although there is much talk of three decades of failed negotiations, there have actually been important achievements. Before Oslo, contacts were unofficial and in Israel's case not even legal. Today, the negotiators know each other's positions like the back of their hands. Negotiations have helped Israelis and Palestinian leaders clarify their own positions. And the process of negotiation has made the two-state solution into common sense, and marginalised the purveyors of violence.
Out of Oslo came Palestinian self-rule, without which a Palestinian state would be unimaginable. Camp David to the Clinton parameters in 2000-1, and the 2007-2008 Annapolis process each glimpsed conflict-ending resolutions and on both occasions Israel offered close to the maximum any Israeli government could offer.
Second, we will continue to think creatively.
One of the encouraging developments has been the coalescence of American, European and now Jordanian energies around the focussed goal of getting the parties back into negotiations.
The positive intervention of King Abdullah of Jordan which created the first meeting between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in 15 months is particularly welcome. However, there is a need for more creative thinking on all sides. Even the back-channel proposal to release 100 ageing Fatah prisoners as a way to get negotiations moving, while perhaps never a starter, was at least an example of thinking outside the box.
Third, we will seek to be an honest broker.
One-sided calls for Israel to offer concessions in order to entice the Palestinians back into negotiations have been the catch 22 of international intervention. Diplomatic pressure should, rather, be carefully balanced, with both Israel and the Palestinians feeling that the international community will not tolerate measures that undermine the search for a conflict-ending agreement.
For the same reason, we need to stand firm against boycotts. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign encourages the Palestinians to avoid the difficult compromises necessary to end the conflict, and reinforces the case of those in Israel who argue that there is no partner for peace.
In the West Bank the UK is doing much to build bottom-up progress in the security field, taking a lead role in the day-to-day support of the National Security Forces, and as part of the EU POL-COPPS project to support the Palestinian Civil Police.
This work should continue alongside diplomatic efforts to prevent flash points that could both trigger confrontations between Israel and the Palestinians. The Palestinians should also be pressed to act with restraint in international forums, and Israel to maintain and enhance existing cooperation. And when engaging with emerging political forces in the region, Britain should encourage emerging Arab political actors to express their support for a negotiated two-state solution and the principles of the Arab Peace Initiative (as Syrian National Council leader, Samir Nashar, has just done).
The UK should also continue to encourage the practical measures that could be taken on the ground in the West Bank that are mutually beneficial and move the parties in the direction of a two-state reality. Many Israelis support interim steps that would move the Palestinian Authority in the direction of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, including expanding areas of Palestinian control in ways that do not compromise Israeli security. Britain, in partnership with the international community, can play a role by legitimising this kind of approach. It should encourage Israel to propose such initiatives, and encourage the Palestinians and the wider Arab world to embrace them, rather than pursuing counterproductive UN resolutions which are designed to isolate Israel, but do nothing for Palestinians or Israelis on the ground.
Britain, in partnership with the international community, can play a role by legitimising this kind of approach. It should encourage Israel to propose such initiatives, and encourage the Palestinians and the wider Arab world to embrace them.
The New Year is no time for cynicism. It is a time for thinking creatively about how to helping to bring the parties together in direct negotiations and for sustaining the regional environment that can help keep them there.
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