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Negotiating Tomorrow: An Interview with Prof. James Sebenius


James K. Sebenius

Discussing the Israel-Palestinian negotiations, I asked whether the Palestinians even have any “currency” of real value that they can offer Israel, such as peace, and the related question of whether they actually have any interest in resolution.

Jim rephrased my question though, asking: “Is a two-state solution actually in Israel’s interest?”

I, for my part, said no.

Jim explained that the question is not whether it’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for Israel, but rather in terms of the alternatives – “Which is the better situation for Israel?”

While Netanyahu has said that a two-state solution is in Israel’s strategic interest, the critical question is whether that premise is true? And the answer will determine whether Israel should expend time negotiating for the two-state solution, beyond the desire to mollify the international community. After all, there are actually plenty of reasons to negotiate, though not necessarily one reason to reach a resolution.

Jim expressed the view that the negotiations across the Israel-PA table are probably easier than the internal negotiations each side is dealing with.

For instance, Israel has had enough bad experiences after evacuating Lebanon and Gaza that the risks of evacuating from the West Bank might be too high. And with the construction of the security barrier, the extensive cooperation of the Israeli and PA security forces (the level of which we disagree on), and the possibility that we are actually negotiating a “two-staged” solution, not a two-state solution, the status quo does not look so bad for Israel; and a resolution under the rubric of negotiations is thus undesirable.

I pointed out that this is similar to the issue of the Golan Heights: there are no negotiations taking place, yet the situation is relatively stable and secure for the Israelis.

In short, the value of the deal is small and the risk is high, and that is why Israelis don’t support peace talks.

The Palestinians may comprehend this calculus, and for this reason decide that the Israelis are not serious negotiators.

I didn’t think to point this out at the time, but if this logic indeed rules the negotiating calculus, then ironically, a drastic increase in Palestinian terror attacks would induce more Israelis to want to reach a negotiated resolution. At the same time though, this would reduce our trust in them as negotiating partners even further. Recognizing these complicated strategic implications sheds light on how negotiations with the Palestinians seem  to lead nowhere (besides the fact that peace isn’t their goal).

The question I did think to ask  was: “Considering everything Israel has done, including creating the PA, giving them guns, leaving Gaza, the settlement freeze, and so on and so forth, wouldn’t it appear that there are no steps that Israel can take that the Palestinians would consider to be serious?”

Jim answered in the negative, saying there are those that take Israel’s steps seriously. A big problem, he continued, is that each side is deeply suspicious of the other.

Unfortunately, just as we were diving further into this topic, our time elapsed. Nevertheless, we both couldn’t help but note that our discussion took us to the exact issues we had agreed not to discuss at the interviews outset. Apparently, we had reached a “zone of agreement,” and departed from each other the better for it.

For more background on this interview, please read this.

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