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Incentives and peace: part 1

By Alon Ben-Meir - posted Thursday, 18 August 2016


Unless distrust, insecurity, and illusions are first addressed, no incentives-however sweeping and compelling-will motivate Israel and the Palestinians to make the critical concessions needed to reach a peace agreement.

This article is part one of two; see next week for the conclusion.

The international conference that was convened by France on June 3rd in Paris to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process ended up without concretely establishing specific measures that would persuade both parties to resume negotiations in order to reach a peace agreement. The joint communiqué issued following the conference stated "The participants discussed possible ways in which the international community could help advance the prospects for peace, including by providing meaningful incentives to the parties to make peace."

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Although the conferees agreed to reconvene again later this year and offer some incentives to both sides to restart the negotiations in earnest, I maintain that no incentives, however extensive and compelling, will succeed unless preceded by a period of reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians. In fact, if Netanyahu or Abbas refuse to engage in a process of reconciliation, this would strongly suggest that they are not interested in reaching a peace agreement, let alone making the major concessions necessary to achieve peace.

While incentives will eventually become necessary to lock in an agreement, there are three essential impediments that must first be mitigated in order to change the Israelis' and Palestinians' perception of each other to enable them to negotiate in good faith.

The three elements are: the embedded distrust between the two sides; concern over national security; and the illusions that significant constituencies on both sides continue to entertain, which ultimately deny each other's right to an independent state of their own.

Distrust: The pervasive and mutual distrust cannot be mitigated through negotiation nor dispelled by simply agreeing to begin to trust one another-it is a process that must be nurtured over a period of time. According to the philosopher Jay Bernstein, "trust relations provide the ethical substance of everyday living... Trust relations are relations of mutual recognition in which we acknowledge our mutual standing and vulnerability with respect to one another."

Distrust remains one of the most daunting problems that continues to haunt both sides and has become engrained in the minds of nearly every Israeli and Palestinian, as neither has made any effort to mitigate it. On the contrary, they have and continue to take demonstrable actions on the ground in ways that only deepen distrust.

By way of example, Israel continued building and expanding settlements, Hamas constructed tunnels in Gaza for offensive purposes, certain Palestinians and settlers engaged in wanton violence, and leaders on both sides displayed public acrimony. Moreover, personal chemistry and communication between the Israeli and Palestinian leadership was and still is completely absent.

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Continuing distrust has automatically created a dogmatic attitude of stubbornness and reinforced assumptions about each other's true intentions. Moreover, the absence of trust leads to social paralysis and the loss of hope while evoking fear, a deep sense of uncertainty, and the inability to foster social bonds. As a result, both sides became suspicious of every action taken by the other regardless of how well-intended they were, as mutual skepticism led to the sense of futility in making any concessions.

To be sure, little effort was made to engage one another through mutual conciliatory interactions to cultivate trust. Instead, they used the public stage to malign the other, further deepening hatred and distrust rather than building new bridges. As a result, the absence of trust has sunk too deep to be simply rectified at the negotiating table. It must thus be nurtured to allow both sides to view one another as a potential partner worthy of being trusted.

In the final analysis, distrust can be mitigated only through people-to-people interactions. Both sides need to take confidence-building measures to faithfully demonstrate they can, in fact, begin the process of learning to trust one another and commit to reaching mutually agreed-upon terms of engagement that will pave the way for a durable peace. Some of these measures could include but are certainly not limited to the following:

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About the Author

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

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