Why Middle East Negotiations Fail

The approach to Middle East negotiations generally adopted by the international community bears its own seeds of failure.  As a general principle, the party less interested in reaching a negotiated solution is given almost unfettered rein to impose stringent -- often unreasonable -- conditions before it will even begin to consider dialogue.  Conversely, the party more willing to compromise in order to reach an agreement is expected to comply with the preconditions simply to get talks started.  This stacks the deck in favor of the more intransigent party.

As an example of this development, the Palestinian Authority has set explicit preconditions on its willingness to enter into discussions with Israel.  Among others, these conditions include cessation of all Israeli construction in the disputed territories and recognition of the 1948 armistice lines as the basis for the borders of an eventual Palestinian state.  The U.S. and the EU accept the PA's refusal to come to the bargaining table until these preconditions are met, and they pressure Israel to accede to the PA's demands. 

But the same countries that expect Israel to make these painful concessions to the PA have acted very differently regarding negotiations with Iran.  There was talk initially of requiring Iran to cease entirely its nuclear enrichment program before talks could begin.  The five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany (the P5+1) quickly scrapped their own precondition.  U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton now says that Iran must agree only to limit its uranium enrichment to the 3.5% level.  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his government's deep concern about this retrenchment, stating: "That doesn't stop the Iranian nuclear program in any way.  It actually allows them to continue their nuclear program."  As the Iranians continue to resist negotiations, they are comforted by the ongoing whir of their centrifuges. 

We can learn a very important lesson by comparing these two cases: the strength of a party's demand for preconditions is inversely proportional to that country's desire to reach an agreement.  The PA and Iran feel that time is on their side.  The PA has no great desire to compromise with Israel in order to create a Palestinian state, so the Palestinians have no need to enter into talks until Israel gives them everything they want from the outset.  Iran has taken a parallel position, asserting that the "only path" for negotiations to progress is for the P5+1 to accept Iranian demands.  

Conversely, Israel and the U.S., wanting very much to reach agreements and avoid violent conflict, are most likely to be held to the other sides' preconditions.  The U.S. and its allies are willing to talk even if Iran does not accede to their initial demand. 

Of course, the Palestinians have a history of moving the goalposts once initial demands are met.  When Israel complied with President Obama's request for a construction freeze by declaring a 10-month moratorium in late 2009, it took the PA more than nine months to come to the bargaining table.  They then happily ended their participation when Israel refused to extend the freeze beyond the original period.

There is a further inconsistency in the U.S./EU approach to Mideast negotiations that reduces any chance of a breakthrough in the Israeli/Palestinian peace process: the U.S. and the EU have imposed sanctions on Iran, hoping to convince the Iranians that it is in their interest to negotiate and compromise.  Although sanctions have not been -- and are unlikely to be -- entirely effective, the West can at least assert that they have created a system of leverage to force the Iranians in the right direction. 

But no such leverage is even suggested with respect to the PA.  Billions of dollars in aid have poured into Palestinian coffers over the past decade, much of it disappearing with no positive impact on the people the aid was meant to benefit.  Financial support continues unabated, even as the PA thumbs its nose at its key benefactors -- stealing money while refusing to engage in negotiations with Israel. 

International largess should not be an absolute entitlement.  Donors have a right to set conditions on their contributions, and to receive a full accounting of how their funds are deployed.  Much of the responsibility for the failed peace process lies with Palestinian leaders who attain personal wealth at the expense of their less fortunate brethren.

Interestingly, hesitation by donors to hold the PA accountable for its failures mirrors the U.S.'s reluctance to reduce aid to Pakistan even as that country fails to control terrorists within its borders and imprisons a doctor whose only crime was helping to locate the world's most wanted murderer, Osama bin Laden.  In both cases, the U.S. seems constrained by an amorphous fear that requiring accountability could result in the current undesirable leadership being replaced by even more anti-Western regimes.  

Rather than a carrot-and-stick approach, the West has created a system of carrot and carrot for Iran and the PA, and yet we wonder why our approach has not had the desired outcome.  Just like with Iran, the Palestinian leadership has no incentive to negotiate when it benefits even more by delaying.  Iran and the PA will begin negotiating in earnest only when they conclude that further delay will be more harmful than any concessions made as a result of dialogue.  Until then, Israel, the U.S., and the EU would be foolish to give in to any preconditions for negotiation that only reinforce the Palestinian penchant for making maximalist demands, and further contribute to Iranian intransigence and tongue-wagging.

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