Dr. Golan is a professor emerita at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The Arab-Israeli conflict has defied numerous attempts at resolution, placing it in the category of intractable conflict. Yet even a conflict as intractable as this can be transformed, and breakthroughs toward peace can occur. Indeed, this has happened between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, and even the Palestinians — in the form of the Oslo Accords. Looking at the Israeli side of the conflict, numerous factors lay behind these breakthroughs, while their absence or the addition of other circumstances or factors accounted for the numerous failures.1 An understanding of some of these factors may provide insight not only into the pitfalls that await future efforts at resolution, but also into possible remedies.
Among the factors that contributed to the Oslo breakthrough, for example, were changes in both the international and regional environments. Yitzhak Rabin perceived an opportunity with the demise of the Soviet Union: increased U.S. influence as the sole superpower, both globally and in the Middle East, leaving the PLO and Syria weakened. In contrast, the increasing rise of Islamism and the renewed Iranian nuclear effort rendered the region more dangerous for Israel in the absence of resolution of the Palestinian conflict. This push/pull situation pointed toward an attempt at a breakthrough.
Changes in leadership then and at various times in the past contributed as well. Not only the election of Rabin in 1992, but also several of the leadership changes in the 1970s, contributed to the breakthrough with Egypt. Anwar Sadat's rise to power in 1970 spawned a process that led to the Yom Kippur War and his historic visit to Jerusalem, both designed to precipitate a breakthrough with Israel. But it was also the leadership changes in the United States and Israel that enabled a successful outcome. President Jimmy Carter's interest in the Palestinian cause and his efforts to renew the Geneva Conference for a comprehensive settlement constituted pressure on newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. This was pressure to negotiate over the West Bank, which for Begin meant the ancient land of Israel (eretz Israel). Thus, an ideological factor led Begin to seek a separate, alternative negotiation over the territories belonging to Egypt — or Syria — that were not part of eretz Israel. This would relieve the pressure to withdraw from the West Bank.
Closely connected to ideology and leadership is political will. Each of the Israeli leaders — Begin, Rabin and also Ehud Olmert, who achieved a near breakthrough — was determined to reach an agreement for his own reasons and with differing views of what it might entail. Additional factors included changes in the adversary and not only Egypt; the PLO leadership in November 1988 accepted the two-state solution. The PLO's recognition of Israel's "right to exist within secure and recognized borders" was the key element in the Oslo breakthrough. A change in Jordan in August 1988 also made the 1994 peace agreement possible. By relinquishing its claim to the West Bank in favor of the PLO, Jordan effectively removed the major obstacle to peace with Israel.
Changes in the Israeli public also contributed to the Oslo breakthrough. The first Intifada, in 1987, shook Israelis' confidence that the status quo within the Occupied Territories could be sustained indefinitely and led to a greater willingness to compromise, as indicated by opinion polls at the time. Israel's adherence to global economic norms and its shift away from a welfare state may have played a role. Competition and individualism replaced the ethos of solidarity and sacrifice among Israelis, possibly contributing to a preference for a stable, "normal" society in which to pursue one's own interests. Rabin, for his part, was concerned (after the Iraqi SCUD attacks of 1991 and the Intifada) by what he perceived as a less resilient Israeli public than that of the previous generation.
Another contributing factor to the breakthrough with Egypt was the role of a third party. The authoritative and energetic mediation efforts by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1974-75 and President Carter in 1978-79 were critical to the agreements achieved. These efforts included creative tactics as well as carrots and sticks, particularly with the more recalcitrant party, Israel. Civil-society efforts also played a useful, though not critical, role. Menachem Begin reportedly said that the large demonstration in Tel Aviv by Peace Now was a factor in his determination to reach an agreement at Camp David, though this has been challenged by other Israeli negotiators. The impact of Peace Now and other civil-society groups in the 1970s and 1980s may have been more indirect, by changing the public discourse. In addition, track-two encounters, some organized by third parties, such as the dialogue meetings conducted by Harvard psychologist Herbert Kelman, served to sensitize at least some Israeli (and Palestinian) leaders to the interests of the other side prior to Oslo. The Oslo Accords themselves were born of a track-two endeavor facilitated by the Norwegians.
There have been far more failures than breakthroughs in past negotiations. It is difficult to gauge the significance of all the missing factors, but the absence of political will on the part of Israeli leaders would appear to have been a critical one. It might be argued that there was an absence of genuine change on the part of the adversary during the Oslo period and that Arafat was to blame for his failure to curb Hamas and Jihadi terrorism. Some have criticized the mediation efforts of the Americans for being insufficiently intrusive at the 2000 Camp David meeting. Others point to negative Israeli public opinion during Oslo or during the talks with Syria in 2001. Still others claim that there was poor leadership on the part of Barak or note the problems of Rabin's fragile coalition or Olmert's weakness once corruption charges were raised against him in 2008.
It is possible to challenge at least some of these claims. It is true that Rabin's narrow majority, as well as the corruption charges against Olmert, brought into question the legitimacy of these leaders to make a peace deal. However, there were strong government coalitions in Israel many times between 1967 and 1977 that enjoyed enough legitimacy to make a deal — or to go to war. This would suggest that a strong coalition was not a sufficient, even if a necessary, factor. Actually, Begin had to depend upon opposition support to pass the Camp David agreement with Egypt, given the divisions in his own coalition.
One can, however, identify more basic factors to explain the many failures; these may well be more instructive for future negotiations. The single most salient factor is mistrust of the adversary. In the case of Israel, this refers not simply to the expected mistrust attendant to a conflict, particularly an armed conflict but, rather, to something far more deep-rooted and immutable. Both before the creation of the state and afterward, Israeli leaders — with the possible exception of Ehud Olmert — were convinced that the Arabs would never accept Israel's legitimacy in the region. Whether the psychological product of centuries of persecution or more recent Jewish history, the conviction persisted. It extended to the view that, even if a peace agreement were somehow achieved, it would not hold; genuine peace for Israel with the Arabs was impossible. This view was clearly shared by Rabin's predecessors Golda Meir and Levi Eshkol. Rabin told President Gerald Ford in 1974: "No Arab ruler is prepared to make true peace and normalization of relations with Israel."2 In fact, the postwar deliberations of Eshkol cabinet members in June 1967 had been posited on this belief. The cabinet discussed whether to outline Israeli conditions for peace, to be presented by Foreign Minister Abba Eban at the upcoming UN session, despite the fact that they "knew" the Arabs would never agree to peace.3
This conviction determined Israel's policy of security over peace. Holding on to the Jordan Rift Valley, designating the Jordan River as Israel's eastern border — regardless of future arrangements that might be decided for the territory within the rest of the West Bank — were sine qua non for Israel. Since peace could not be expected to hold, Israeli control of all land access to the West Bank would, at the very least, prevent a third army from invading from across the Jordan River border. This decision persisted for many years, despite the fact that it was a known deal-breaker in the talks with Jordan from the outset. This included the topic of Jerusalem, as well. The June 1967 decision by the Israeli government to annex East Jerusalem was driven by historical and religious sentiment, but it was also linked to the basic concern over the Arab refusal to accept Israel in the region. Jerusalem had become the symbol of Israel's legitimacy in this geographic space. King Hussein, who initiated direct talks with Israel as early as July 2, 1967, right after the June war, expressed perplexity as to why Israel was so concerned about these matters if what was being offered was real peace. Sadat, and later Hafiz al-Assad, expressed similar reactions to Israeli security demands.
Perhaps the most glaring case of this attitude was the Israeli response to Sadat's peace proposals of 1971 and, most clearly, early 1973. On April 18, 1973, after Kissinger had conveyed to Israel the peace plan brought to Washington by Sadat's national-security advisor, Hafez Ismail, Prime Minister Golda Meir convened her advisors to evaluate signs of Egyptian preparations for war. Meir's advisor Israel Galilee summed up the matter:
All this system [of Egyptian war threats] is the outcome of the fact that we are not ready to return to the former  line. Apparently, if you take what Hafiz [Ismail] had said, . . . the starting point is that they are ready for peace and a system of agreements and international guarantees etc. — all these on condition that we fully return to the former border.4
As had been the case since September 1968, the decision was that security assets in the Sinai, namely Sharm al-Sheikh and the Mitla and Gidi Passes, must be retained, even if it meant rejecting a peace agreement with Egypt. It took a war and leadership changes for a new Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin, to abandon this position on Sinai out of an ideological preference for holding on to the West Bank.
It is not clear whether Begin believed that peace with Egypt would last, though he was willing to abandon his security demands (e.g., to keep the air fields in Sinai) when they became clear impediments to an agreement. It was Rabin who, despite the pronouncement to President Ford cited above that no Arab leader would make peace with Israel, allowed that this could change, that it might take years, during which the Arabs could be tested. Indeed, the Oslo Accords were an interim agreement intended as a testing period. Nonetheless, Rabin held firm to the Israeli demand for control of the Jordan Rift Valley and the Jordan River, which he defined as Israel's security border. This was true despite the fact that he acknowledged to President Clinton the reduced importance of the West Bank for security, given the changes in military doctrine due to missile warfare. He did speak of possibly limiting Israeli control to 30 years, presumably a testing period. Barak moved a bit further in this direction, proposing Israeli control of the Jordan Rift Valley for a shorter period, 15 or possibly even 10 years. One of Barak's military advisers at Camp David suggested that it was not critical for Israel to control this eastern border with Jordan, and negotiator Gilead Sher wrote later that the demand was primarily psychological, linked to the anxieties of the Israeli public.
Ehud Olmert, citing the importance of rocket warfare over territorial assets, was the first prime minister to abandon the demand for an Israeli military presence on the Jordan River and in the Jordan Rift Valley. In his 2008 negotiations with the PLO's Abu Mazen, Olmert agreed to an international force on that border, preferably NATO under U.S. command. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice even examined the proposal with the chief of NATO at the time.5 Netanyahu, succeeding Olmert, returned to the earlier demand. Ignoring the by-then discarded argument regarding a possible land invasion across this border by a third party, Netanyahu spoke of the danger of terrorists entering over this border, crossing the West Bank and penetrating Israel. No agreement or force but the Israeli military could be depended upon to protect Israel from such a threat. He was returning to the old belief that even peace with the Arabs could not be trusted, if for no other reason than that the Arabs would never accept Israel in the region. Emphasizing the "no partner" claim that had grown out of the failed Camp David negotiations, he reverted to the issue of Israel's legitimacy: Ignoring that the Palestinians had recognized Israel's right to exist, he demanded they explicitly recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. Thus, he played on Israelis' concerns over legitimacy, while raising a new demand difficult for the Palestinians to grant, given the 20% Arab minority in Israel itself. In other words, Israel's very legitimacy as a state rests on the ties of the Jewish people historically to this geographical place.
Beyond this fundamental impediment to a breakthrough, there have been factors connected with the negotiation processes themselves that may have contributed to the many failures with the Palestinians. The first of these was the Israeli attitude, at least from the 1967 leadership if not earlier, that all of the land (eretz Israel) is "ours." Rabin had once explained that there was no basic difference between his Labor party and the right wing regarding Israel's exclusive right to the land. The difference lay in the fact that Labor was willing to forgo some of it. Thus, Israeli leaders, including Ehud Olmert and his negotiator, spoke of Israel's "generous offers." Indeed, this had been the attitude of Israeli negotiators with the Palestinians all along, ignoring the fact that the Palestinians, too, believed they had a claim to the land. As one Palestinian negotiator later explained, it might have been more fruitful had the Israeli negotiators related to the land — that is, the designation of the border between Israel and a Palestinian state — as a matter of the interests and needs of each side.
This flaw in the attitude of the Israeli negotiators was reflected in the second example that may have contributed to the failure, the Israeli assumption of symmetry. The Israeli approach that it was "giving" something that rightfully belonged to Israel took the form of offering a "concession" or a compromise. The process was to be tit-for-tat — we give a bit, you give a bit — or concession for concession. This assumed an equality that did not exist; Israel was by far the more powerful party. In addition, the Palestinians believed that they had already made their greatest compromise, perhaps the only one possible, when they agreed in 1988 to abandon their struggle for all of mandated Palestine and make do with a "mini-state" on just 22 percent of the land.
Assuredly, there were other problematic factors in the negotiating process due to cultural and personality differences, along with differences in negotiating techniques. Israelis favored detailed, often legalistic formulations, while the Palestinians were more concerned with principles. Yet these differences and even clashes of culture, personality or technique were no less evident in the earlier successful negotiations with Egypt. Therefore, they would appear to have been only secondary with regard to the failure of the talks with the Palestinians.
The ultimate failure to reach a breakthrough with the Palestinians lay at least in part to a more practical factor, the role of domestic spoilers, specifically, Jewish West Bank settlers. Supported by major factions and leaders of right-wing and religious political parties, these settlers conducted massive public-relations and popular campaigns against the signing of any agreement that would entail evacuation of land, on the Golan Heights as well as the West Bank and Gaza. In some cases, even the powerful Jewish diaspora in the United States was called into these actions.6 Similar, albeit weaker, efforts had been organized around the talks with Egypt, but they were unsuccessful. That could have been the outcome for the Oslo Accords as well, had spoiler incitement not led to the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin. The weakness of Rabin's coalition, the constant threat and even the actual resignation of coalition partners had played into the hands of the spoilers. It might be argued that the government did not undertake a serious effort to deal with them, or that the Israeli peace camp did not do enough to counter the incitement.
There were also flaws in the Oslo Accords themselves. Their interim nature provided time for the spoilers to organize and mobilize; the absence of a clear final goal, such as the end of the conflict, fed uncertainties that strengthened spoilers' claims. Nothing in the accords explicitly prevented the continued building of settlements, and there were few provisions for monitoring and enforcing interim agreements. All these contributed to a frustration on both sides that gave momentum to the spoilers. Indeed, the most important "assistance" to Israeli spoilers came in the form of Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorism. Following the assassination of Rabin in November 1995, the domestic spoilers fell silent. The adversary's spoilers, Hamas and Jihad, however, dealt the final blows to an Israeli government that lacked the security credentials to maintain enough electoral support to continue the peace process. Rabin's successor, Shimon Peres, was (albeit narrowly) defeated by Netanyahu in the elections of May 1996.
DEALING WITH FAILURE
On the Israeli side, the emergence of a leader with the genuine political will to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians would be a most promising factor for success. Presumably, the motivation to seek an end to the occupation would be similar to what motivated Rabin, possibly Sharon and, more certainly, Olmert and Tzippy Livni in the past: the so-called demographic issue. In a sense, this motivation began to come into play even on the right, specifically among leaders like Sharon, Olmert and Livni, and among the right wing of the Labor party, with which Rabin was identified. It was born of a devotion to the Zionist dream of a state for the Jewish people — challenged now by the continued occupation of the West Bank with its millions of Palestinians.7
This is not to say that none of these leaders had other motives or did not view ruling over another people as morally wrong and corrosive to Israeli society, a motivation characteristic of the left. But the overriding motivation — expressed by them as well as many others — was the fact that Jews would soon be outnumbered by non-Jews, indeed by Arabs, in the area between the sea and the Jordan River. If Israel were to retain the territories and also remain a democracy, with full democratic rights for all those under its control, the country would become a binational state, and the Jews would once again become a minority (according to some, a persecuted minority). The alternative was to keep the territories but retain a Jewish majority by forgoing democracy and thereby becoming what would amount to an apartheid state. This was the threat perceived by Rabin, apparently also by Sharon, as well as by the dedicated right-wing adherents Livni and Olmert. What changed for all of these leaders was their perception of the continued occupation as a greater threat to the state of Israel than the risk of a peace agreement.
Were serious negotiations to be resumed, one might hope that the same factors, or similarly positive ones, that contributed to past breakthroughs would once again be operative. A conducive regional environment, in the sense that there is a confluence of interests in most of the Arab world to end the conflict over Israel and Palestine, is evident. The Arab League continues to back its own Peace Initiative of 2002, and there is the pressure of other, more critical, matters: the Sunni-Shia divide, growing Iranian power and the spread of extremist Islamic terrorism. The international environment, too, is positive; third parties, in particular Europe, if not also the United States, show signs of assigning resolution of this conflict greater priority, be it through support for Palestinian diplomatic steps or the application of punitive measures against Israel. In addition, the Israeli public itself is basically "finished" with the conflict, preoccupied with more mundane matters and supportive of a two-state solution, even if skeptical that it can be achieved. Yet, those factors that contributed to past failures are almost certain to reappear. Solutions or corrective measures must, therefore, be found if the negative factors are not once again to prevent a breakthrough.
To deal with spoilers, certain general measures may be suggested. In the negotiation process and, more critically, in the period of implementation, there should be a clear view of the endgame so that there is an understanding of the gains for which sacrifices may have to be made. The negotiations themselves would benefit from secrecy, to avoid spoiler interference prior to the public's knowledge of the entire settlement's costs and benefits. Once agreement is reached, it would be wise to move swiftly through implementation, so as to minimize the time in which spoilers might operate. Finally, the agreement should be presented as a package rather than revealed issue by issue. Polling of both Israelis and Palestinians has consistently indicated popular reluctance to compromise on specific issues such as Jerusalem or the refugees. However, when the agreement — posited along the lines of the Clinton parameters of 2000 — is presented as a package, majority support is registered among both publics. Thus, spoiler efforts would, presumably, have less chance of success.
Past negotiations may offer some coping mechanisms for the problem of mistrust. An international force, preferably NATO under U.S. command, as agreed between Olmert and Abu Mazen, might actually prove less of a security risk than Israeli military control of the Palestinian border with Jordan. An Israeli military presence on that border would complete Israeli control of all the land entrances and exits to the Palestinian state, inviting resistance to what would be perceived as continued Israeli occupation. Demilitarization of the Palestinian state, at least with regard to heavy armor and other weapons systems, along with regulated use of air space by Israel, have also been agreed upon in the past; third-party guarantees might round out the picture. A U.S. memorandum of understanding or side letters regarding an American response in case of violations would help, as they did in the Israeli-Egyptian agreements. Indeed, incentives in the past usually took the form of U.S. commitments designed to allay Israeli fears, for example, in the area of oil supplies or arms.
The matter of legitimacy may be handled, at least in part, through solutions to the issues of both Jerusalem and refugees. Israel's bond to Jerusalem was implicitly recognized by the inclusion of Israel (along with Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United States) in a trusteeship of the Holy Basin in East Jerusalem suggested by Olmert and Abu Mazen. Similarly, assurances of the type Abu Mazen has given publicly in the past regarding refugees — that is, that the Palestinians have no intention of changing the character of Israel — could be reflected not only in wording but also in the actual numbers agreed upon, so as to relieve Israeli fears of being "flooded" by returning refugees. Nonetheless, given the persistence of Netanyahu's demand for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, it may be necessary to have a joint declaration acknowledging Palestine as the national home of the Palestinian people and Israel as the national home of the Jewish people, with guarantees of equal rights for all inhabitants of both states.
Finally, regarding the pitfalls in the negotiations themselves — for example, the Israeli assumption of "ownership" of all the land and its demand for symmetrical reciprocity — it might be sufficient to approach the territorial issue from the point of view of interests and needs. Swaps have already been proposed to accommodate the Palestinian need to demonstrate that there would be no loss in the amount of territory regained, that is, the full 22 percent of Palestine left for their state. For Israel, the swaps would provide for the need to accommodate a maximum number of settlers (or evacuate as small a number as possible). A swap of 3-4 percent of the West Bank in exchange for Israeli territory has been suggested by Israeli experts as the maximum arrangement possible. For both Israel and the Palestinians, a regional framework based on the Arab Peace Initiative would also be of great assistance. This framework would provide trade-offs to both sides, adding credibility to the agreement achieved while according Israel long-sought legitimacy in the region and providing the Palestinians with backing. This is of particular importance for the issue of Jerusalem.
These remedies may not be fully achievable or sufficient to accomplish the breakthrough to peace, in which case the addition of pressure may be necessary. This might be provided through the authoritative, active and intensive involvement of the United States (as provided by Kissinger and Carter in the past), primarily in connection with the stronger party, Israel. One form of pressure may be the political isolation of Israel; this might be achieved were the United States to refrain from backing Israel up in the international arena — the UN Security Council, the International Criminal Court or other institutions. Alternatively, Washington might simply refrain from deterring its European allies from pressure they might apply. The United States might even go so far as to back up some of the Palestinian efforts in international arena, or at least some of the demands of the Palestinian Authority such as lifting the siege on Gaza, releasing prisoners and the like. More active pressure may take the form of selective economic sanctions, limited initially to dealings with settlements in the Occupied Territories, similar to those introduced by the EU in 2014. Broad sanctions, however, would most likely be counterproductive, causing a rally-round-the-flag reaction in Israel. Support of the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) campaign, in particular, would merely reinforce Israeli xenophobia and intransigence, given the BDS rhetoric challenging the legitimacy of the state of Israel. The potential efficacy of selective sanctions may be indicated by the recent appearance of the Breaking the Impasse (BTI) movement in Israel: local business people press for a political solution to the conflict out of concern for the economic effects of a continued status quo. Other U.S. sanctions, successfully employed in the past, might take the form of delays in military contracts or deliveries and other steps in the area of bilateral military relations.
Pressure of any kind may well entail a price, in hardship to the Israeli public or in domestic American politics. One might hope that this type of corrective will not be necessary, but successful negotiations, or even getting to serious negotiations, may well require drastic steps in order to induce what is in Israel's own best interests. In the words of the Iraq Study Group Report from the U.S. Institute of Peace, "The United States does its ally Israel no favors in avoiding direct involvement to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict…. [W]e should act boldly." 8
1 All of these are dealt with at greater length in my Israeli Peacemaking since 1967: Factors behind the Breakthroughs and Failures (Routledge, 2014).
2 Yitzhak Rabin, The Rabin Memoirs (University of California Press, 1996), 263.
3 Israel State Archives (ISA) (Hebrew), Documents 1-6: a-8164/7; a-8164/8; a-8164/9, and a-7634/5 (Government Publications, Periodic History, Stenographic Minutes of Meetings of the Government, 18 and 19 June 1967 April-June 1967 (including the Six-Day War).
4 Uri Bar-Josef, 553, citing a stenographic protocol of a discussion in the prime minister's residence on April 18, 1973, made by Hanoch Bartov and published later in Hanoch Bartov, Dado: 48 Shana Ve-od 20 Yom, [Dado: 48 Years and 20 Days More] (Tel Aviv: Sifriat Maariv, 2002).
5 Condoleezza Rice, No Higher Honor (Crown, 2011), 654.
6 See especially, Ofira Selitkar, Divided We Stand (Praeger, 2002), 119-149.
7 See Donald Waxman and Jonathan Rynhold, "Ideological Change and Israeli Disengagement from Gaza," Political Science Quarterly 123, no. 1 (2008): 11-37; see also, Neta Oren, "Israeli Identity Formation and the Arab-Israeli Conflict in Election Platforms, 1969-2006," Journal of Peace Research 47, no. 2 (2010): 193-204.