Time for the U.S. to Force Israel Back to the Negotiating Table?

With terrorism down, and settlements up, Israelis just aren’t feeling the pain. What might it take to get the ink dry on an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement?

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Clinton, Abbas and Netanyahu at re-launch of direct negotiations, 2010.
Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looks on as Palestinian President Abbas (R) and Israeli PM Netanyahu shake hands at the re-launch of direct negotiations, Washington, Sept. 2, 2010.Credit: AP

With the fire hose of commentary about Arab-Israeli peace and conflict drenching our screens each day, sometimes it’s useful to turn to those who’ve been there for the long haul.

I recently had a chance to speak to William B. Quandt, who is a veteran scholar of the Middle East, professor emeritus at University of Virginia, previously a fellow at the Brookings Institution, and who served as a staff member on the National Security Council in the 1970s for Presidents Nixon and Carter. Among other tasks, Quandt helped negotiate the 1978 Israel-Egypt Camp David agreement. I recently spoke with him about what it might take to get the ink dry on an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

If there’s one thing Quandt knows, it’s that, however important mutual trust and chemistry is between leaders, it’s national interests — and in particular the view each leader has of his or her national interest — that rules the day. This is what he sees as having propelled Begin and Sadat to an agreement, and this is what is stopping Israelis and Palestinians from rushing to the negotiating table today.

For while Palestinians have much to gain from peace, Israelis don’t “feel the sense of urgency.” With terrorism down, and settlements up, Israelis just aren’t feeling the pain.

So if Israelis aren’t experiencing a sense of urgency, then should the U.S. try to make the status quo more painful for Israel? On this, Quandt is realistic. Instead of focusing on sticks, Quandt prefers to think in terms of carrots. He knows that the United States has been instrumental in making potential deals more attractive to Mideast negotiating partners — whether through financial incentives or through security assurances. Still, he recalls some sensitive times, as when Henry Kissinger and President Ford “got really frustrated” with Rabin, and even spoke about the possibility of a “reassessment of the relationship.” In the end, they were able to help broker an agreement — the 1975 Sinai Interim Agreement signed by Israel and Egypt.

But while Quandt doesn’t envision U.S. cutting aid to Israel these days — “largely because of Congress” — he sees the possibility of the U.S. deploying some more symbolic measures, like withholding its veto the next time the Palestinians bring a statehood-related resolution to the UN. And sometimes these symbolic gestures can serve as an example: “When the U.S. accepted the PLO’s conditions for opening a dialogue in 1988-89, it paved the way for Israel to do the same thing via Oslo, a few years later.”

I asked Quandt what he makes of the “no partner” thesis that hardline Israelis use to describe the Palestinians, and about which I blogged here last month. “I don’t buy it,” he told me. “You could accuse Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] of being weak, or of not being courageous,” he said. “But he is not sponsoring terrorism while talking peace.” (It’s important to recall that the recent ruling whereby American victims of PLO terrorism were awarded a large financial settlement referred to attacks that preceded Abbas’s tenure as PA president.)

And unlike many former Israeli intelligence officers — consider former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy’s statements urging dialogue with Iran and Hamas, or the various former Shin Bet chiefs profiled in the film “The Gatekeepers,” Netanyahu, according to Quandt, is “not someone who naturally thinks of diplomacy as a way of solving conflicts.”

What’s more, “if Abu Mazen fails,” Quandt believes, there may well be a “radicalization on the Palestinian side. The next wave of leaders is not going to be a lot of well disposed, liberal Palestinians.”

In that case, I wondered aloud, can we trust the next generation of Palestinian leaders to honor an agreement? On this, Quandt was equally pragmatic. “It not just trust” that’s required. “There will be a built-in security arrangement that is way in Israel’s interests.” He points to the fact that whatever Palestinian state emerges will be demilitarized, and there will be “fairly severe” and easy-to-monitor “controls on the Jordanian-Palestinian border to prevent military equipment coming in.”

And, Quandt adds, if Israel feels truly threatened, the IDF will “go back in very quickly and reoccupy the crucial areas. They’ve demonstrated they can do it. It may not be a very happy prospect. But that’s what you have a military for. No one’s talking about Israel disarming.”

And of course, there is the security guarantee that will be forthcoming from Israel’s closest global friend, the United States.

On this, Quandt understands the appropriate risks that can be taken from a position of prudence — even when there is fear about the other side’s intentions.

Israel, he says, “will be able to get the gold standard of guarantees. Is the gold standard of international guarantees good enough? It's not a perfect world. Who knows?You try to get the best agreements and side agreements you can. Nothing gives you absolute assurances in this world.”