The U.S. should know by now that only a multi-national, mega-incentive package will bring peace to the Middle East.
This article originally appeared at i24news.
Much has changed in the Middle East since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu first negotiated with the Palestinians some 15 years ago. But Netanyahu’s thinking about incentives for peace appears to be the same.
In 1998, just before the signing of the Wye River Accords, Netanyahu demanded from the US the release Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard. The US refused. In July 2013, Netanyahu reportedly tried to persuade American officials to release Pollard ahead of resuming negotiations with the Palestinians. Again, the US responded in the negative.
In both cases, Netanyahu eventually did as the Americans desired – signing the Wye River Accords and resuming talks with the Palestinians – without getting the prize to which he aspired in return. But if and when the current Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations move forward, the major concessions demanded from Israel might not be possible without incentives.
Although much more attention has been put into the study and practice of sanctions, incentives have proven effective in international politics and in conflict-resolution processes. In the history of Israeli-Arab peacemaking, however, incentives have been put into practice in a limited and inefficient manner.
The United States – the main Israeli-Arab mediator – does not have much to offer Israel. Due to the strong alliance between the two countries, it already provides Israel with almost all the military, financial and political support that Israel asks for. The American incentive toolbox is nearly empty. It mostly includes security-related components, but these were not useful in the past.
In the peace process of the 1990s, it was the option of a formal and binding defense treaty with the US in return for an Israeli-Arab peace agreement. Israeli leaders have sought such a treaty since the 1950s, but as the moment of truth approached, it became evident that Israel is not interested in such a treaty, which would limit its self-reliance and freedom of action.
Netanyahu was offered such a treaty by President Bill Clinton in early 1998. Due to domestic political considerations, Clinton was in dire need of progress in the peace process and tried to convince Netanyahu to slightly expand a planned Israeli redeployment in the West Bank. According to Dennis Ross, the U.S. diplomat, Clinton proposed in return a formal defense treaty. Netanyahu refused and so did his successor Ehud Barak, who was offered a similar incentive for peace during his term as prime minister in 1999-2000.
More than a decade later, in 2010, Netanyahu was offered another unprecedented U.S. security incentive. The Obama administration offered Israel a set of wide-reaching security and diplomatic assurances, for the sake of adding an additional 90 days to a ten-month settlement freeze which had just expired. This offer was intended to enable the continuation of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations which had resumed just a month beforehand. As in 1998, Netanyahu did not take up the American offer. The settlement freeze was not extended, and direct peace negotiations were put on hold.
One should not conclude from these examples that the incentives tool is doomed to failure in the Israeli-Arab peace process. It has scarcely been used so far as a peace-promoting tool.
The Israeli-Arab peace process still awaits the use of a mega-incentive that will generate public and political support for the peace process, assist in dismantling societal barriers to peace and enable the policy shifts needed for an agreement to be made. Such a mega-incentive should be conditional on the reaching of a full-fledged peace agreement, and not aim towards small steps in the process. It is especially needed in an era in which peace by itself is not as attractive a concept as it used to be, and in which personal and national benefits from peace need to be highlighted in order for an agreement to be ratified in a referendum, as may be required by a proposed Israeli law.
The limited incentives that the U.S. can offer Israel are probably not capable of producing the necessary impact for a peace agreement to be reached. The U.S. should therefore coordinate its incentive-providing efforts with other international actors that have more to offer. The Arab League, the European Union and NATO could be natural partners in such an American effort to craft a multi-national mega-incentive package for Middle East peace.
Such an incentive package might not be able to create the will for peace among those ideologically opposed to the concessions involved, but it may very well reframe the discussion about peace, make peace seem more feasible and desirable, empower political actors who are committed to realizing it, and contribute to ensuring public support in a future referendum.
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