Negotiations absent trust

The two most pressing issues on which the US and Israel are working together are negotiations regarding Iran's nuclear program, and peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Both negotiations are being handled with considerable-and crucial-American involvement. 

On the Iran issue, while Israel is clearly an interested party, it is nevertheless not a part of the negotiations. That does not mean to say that Israel is absent from this process; our presence, though not physical, is clearly felt when the Europeans and the US discuss Iran's nuclear future. Our positions are known and taken into consideration; intelligence gathered by Israel's security organizations is shared with our American partners. 

On the Palestinian issue, Israel is talking directly to the Palestinians in negotiations chaperoned by Secretary of State John Kerry and his envoy, Ambassador Martin Indyk. 

Both the Iranian and the Palestinian talks, with indirect and direct Israeli involvement, ultimately boil down to what may be summarized in one word: trust-or rather, lack thereof. In the talks with Iran, the Islamic Republic is trying to convince the international community that its nuclear program, spread over multiple locations under a shroud of secrecy and buried deep underground is designed for peaceful purposes. It asks the world to trust that despite its enormous oil reserves, it is seeking (more expensive) nuclear-powered electric plants, a move that would make no sense whatsoever. Some countries, notably Russia and China, are very keen to believe that country's intentions are peaceful. Israel, on the other hand, has no doubts about Iran's real intentions: it asserts that Iran is duping the international community and stalling for time while accelerating its nuclear program. In a word, we do not trust the Iranians. History shows that theirs is a radical regime that backs, finances and arms terror organizations all over the world, as part of a strategy of exporting the Islamic revolution to the Arab world and beyond. The diplomatic route to disarming Iran's nuclear program needs to be given a chance, but the dialogue cannot be open-ended and must have a clear time limit. At the end of the day, it comes down to the question of whether Iran can be trusted, and up to what point?

On the Palestinian front, very little is known about what is happening behind the closed doors of our negotiations. The embargo on all information has been (rightly) imposed by Secretary Kerry in order to avoid pressure from the media and public opinion on Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. However, the respective positions of both sides are well known-as are our differences. Many of the parameters of a future peace accord are known as well, although the sides are careful not to outline them publicly in order to avoid public opinion pressure which may undermine talks. Here too, as in the case of talks with Iran, the trust issue is clearly going to be of vital importance. It will come down to some difficult concessions on Israel's part; we will almost certainly need to cede territory, dismantle a number of settlements, and uproot settlers. We will be asked to entrust our nation's security to an agreement in which we will give tangibles and in return, receive an intangible guarantee of peace and security. That requires trust and Israel is, understandably, skeptical. At stake is our security and countless lives of Israeli citizens. Misplaced trust will carry potentially lethal consequences. 

In both the Iranian and Palestinian arenas, Israel and the US are required to trust the other side in a high-risk gamble. Israel's close proximity to both, as well as our recent history, makes us weary. We know that negotiating with Iran and with the Palestinians does not resemble a give and take process familiar to western lawyers and diplomats; when lawyers or diplomats enter a negotiation, both sides know that in order to reach common ground they will have to give something up. They will necessarily renounce part of their wishes and desires, in order to reach an agreement and meet their interlocutors halfway. Trust is a necessary condition for talks to be successful. When Iran claims that it will never give up its uranium enrichment activities, it does not foster trust among the powers negotiating with it. When the Palestinians continue to honor and glorify suicide bombers and terrorists during their negotiations with Israel, they do not create trust. That element is sorely lacking from talks with Iran and with the Palestinians.  That deficit of trust may prove to be the biggest stumbling block in both cases.  

Ofer Bavly is the director general of the JUF Israel Office.

Posted: 1/2/2014 1:54:27 PM
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