Kerry’s “framework” declaration is a bad idea

Published in The Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom, March 21, 2014.

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“Framework” and “shelf” agreements have proven to be a disincentive to Palestinian political maturation and moderation. 

Shelve the Shelf

The “framework” for Israeli-Palestinian peace that US Secretary of State John Kerry seeks to promulgate sounds an awful lot like the “shelf agreement” concept of 2008. Then, as now, conceptual agreements have proven to be a disincentive, not an incentive, to Palestinian political maturation and moderation. They create a situation where Israel ends up negotiating against itself with a phantom Palestinian partner.

Let’s go back into the peace process archives, and remind ourselves: In 2008, former US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice discovered that Palestinian leaders (then, as now, Mahmoud Abbas and coterie) were completely unable to deliver on any of their obligations under the celebrated “Road Map” – which outlined a cautious and logical step-by-step approach to peace.

So instead of focusing on the messy here and now, Rice hit on the idea of turning to the future. She sought to advance a “shelf agreement” for Israeli-Palestinian peace. The newfangled “shelf agreement” idea was to give the Palestinians a clear picture of the big prize awaiting them in the future; what Rice called a “political horizon.”

Israel was to negotiate an “agreement-in-principle” on an endgame solution with Palestinians, but then place this agreement out of reach – high up on a “shelf” where the Palestinians could see it, but not yet attain it. The concept was that this transcendent trophy – the horizon – would come down off the shelf and be activated only when the Palestinians would mature and fulfill all their “implementation” obligations.

Moderate Palestinians, it was said, would be strengthened by the shelf agreement, and then be able to do the difficult things demanded of them in the accord – such as confronting the terrorists in their midst and building reliable institutions of uncorrupt government.

This made for nice, but seriously flawed, diplomatic thinking.

This plan was based on an assumption – actually, a fantasy – that Palestinians would be encouraged to play according to the rules of the game in order to attain their prize; that the “horizon” fashioned by the agreement would provide an overwhelming incentive for Palestinians to live up to the terms of the agreement.

Unfortunately, the opposite proved to be true. The more the world talked positively and definitively about Palestinian statehood, the more the Palestinians sought to grab statehood unilaterally and force Israel to forgive the Palestinians on their implementation obligations.

And in fact, the Palestinian Authority has spent the years since 2008 defiantly “climbing up the shelf” to independently snatch their “horizon” and have their state willed into existence by the international community without having completed the promised chores on security and democratic reform.

Thus Israel has found itself in a situation where it has become well-nigh impossible to block the emergence of a runaway Palestinian state that has not delivered on many of the key commitments that constitute Israel’s security safeguards.

In short, “shelf” agreements have not led to greater Palestinian moderation and cooperation with Israel. And while a “framework declaration” by Kerry is not exactly like the “shelf agreement” sought by Rice, the dynamic is the same. Each places Israel at a diplomatic disadvantage.

In fact, there is little basis for believing that even if the PA is “strengthened” by the halo of Kerry-calibrated framework that further solidifies the contours of Palestinian statehood, Abbas will have the resolve to bite the bullet on the critical issues important to Israel.

There is no indication that the Abbas government, or any future PA governing coalition, will be willing to explain to its public that the West Bank (including the Jordan Valley and eastern Jerusalem) must be shared, that the “right” of refugee return must be set aside, and that Israel is the rightful, legitimate homeland of the Jewish People.

THERE IS an additional problem with Kerry’s framework concept. The framework assumes best case scenarios regarding the intentions and capabilities of a future Palestinian state. Aside from the fact that this may have no basis in reality, it is tactically counter-intuitive and strategically unwise. Rather, endgame talks must take into account all worst-case scenarios.

Any defense lawyer conducting a negotiation on behalf of a client will tell you that an agreement will be durable only if safeguards are built-in that ensure the agreement’s ability to withstand most performance failures. For Israel specifically, this means a wide margin of error on security matters if the Palestinian state fails to staunch terrorism against Israel.

But how can Israel, for example, sign onto a sustainable endgame “framework” with workable border crossing arrangements if it does not know the character or capabilities of the future Palestinian entity, and all it can do is assume the “nice” qualities of such?

The type of Israel army-police presence needed at the border checkpoints depends on the reliability and capabilities of the Palestinian partner. Yet the framework approach throws the requirement for Palestinian reform and performance into the amorphous future, and thus Israel has no way of professionally knowing now how to calibrate its minimum security needs on the borders.

This is just one example. There are hundreds of similar matters that currently cannot be assessed, because Israel is negotiating against itself in a vacuum with a phantom Palestinian partner. Israel is seeking to will into existence a “moderate, stable, capable and democratic” Palestinian government that does not yet exist in the West Bank, not to mention in Gaza.

Contrary to the framework approach, it should be obvious that an endgame agreement can be negotiated only the other way around: With a Palestinian partner that has proven its mettle over time.

KERRY’S FRAMEWORK approach unhappily fails a third critical test: it ignores the historical record. Alas, experience attests that with the Palestinians, negotiations are never over.

Even if Israel and the PA were to grasp the fabled horizon, and royally set a grand “final status” framework in a jeweled case high up on a shelf of honor, experience shows that the Palestinians would not really settle on that framework or work towards its implementation. Instead, they would proceed to bargain with Israel for additional concessions as the price of implementation.

For example, if Israel promises to forgo half of Jerusalem and dozens of Jewish towns in Judea and Samaria, it might still be expected to yield further concessions in order “to keep the process alive and the Palestinian moderates in power.”

And thus, Washington and the world community will demand that Israel go beyond the “ultimate” sacrifices it already had made in order to secure the framework or keep the horizon glowing.

Indeed, this week Abbas issued just such a demand: that Israel release hundreds more Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Palestinian agreement to extend talks on Kerry’s framework.

In sum, there is nothing “final” about any framework with the Palestinians. They always “pocket” Israel’s concessions, and press for more as the price for “implementation” on their part or as the price of “buying in” other Palestinian factions. This has been the repeated pattern of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, after each of the Oslo-era accords.

Of course, there is also the Gaza conundrum. The push for an accord might have validity were it to offer the theoretical possibility of a real resolution that would rope in the vast majority of Palestinians. But that is no longer the case. With the military takeover of the Gaza Strip by the radical Islamic Hamas movement, Gaza has become a mini-Palestinian state unto its own, and it answers to no other Palestinian “Authority.” Hamas-Israel relations inevitably will yet involve additional significant military confrontation, a reality that will make Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement in the West Bank tenuous at best. Thus the two-state paradigm on which the “framework” concept rests seems an anachronism, for the moment.

IN SUM, the impatient hunt for a “horizon” or “framework” with guaranteed outcomes is based on faulty, and for Israel, dangerous assumptions. Contrary to the hopes of its advocates, it will likely prove a disincentive to the steps required of the parties that might lead to real peace.

Unfortunately, Washington seems to have lost patience with toughing it out the old-fashioned way: building confidence between the parties by measured, verifiable and concrete steps along a long road towards stability. Such a performance-based peace process remains the only proven and sustainable model towards a durable final settlement.

David M. Weinberg is a think tank director, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »
A passionate speaker, David M. Weinberg lectures widely in Israel, the U.S. and Canada to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. He speaks on international politics and Middle East strategic affairs, Israeli diplomacy and defense strategy, intelligence matters and more. Click here to book David Weinberg as a speaker

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