President Donald Trump was in Israel this week to reboot peace talks between the Jewish state and the Palestinians. Many believe this is premature, pointing to the litany of past failures and continued mistrust between the two sides.
However, one path the new U.S. administration should consider is counteracting the orthodoxy of low expectations by drawing from the path taken last year by the Colombian government and the FARC guerilla rebels to end the 50-year war between them, another of the world’s longest standing conflicts. In that situation, the resulting peace came not because the government’s chief negotiator Sergio Jaramillo spent years waiting for the right moment, but because he never expected that right moment would come.
As a former Israel Government Fellow, a program of Masa Israel Journey, based in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ International Organizations Department, I had the opportunity to meet with veteran peace negotiators and scrutinize Israel’s successful and enduring peace agreements with other countries, like Egypt. Following that experience, I spent three years at the Israeli Consulate in San Francisco, speaking on a daily basis with Israel’s staunchest supporters and its harshest detractors. During that time, I became accustomed to the prevailing thinking – that a new peace agreement is not on the horizon, that the timing isn’t right.
Yet, through my current work with Rotary International’s Peace Center initiatives, I recently met the architect of Colombia’s peace with the FARC rebels, and I was struck by the parallels between what led to his success in Colombia and what is taking place in Israel today.
In Colombia, Jaramillo saw two fundamentally different ways of approaching peace — the logic of time vs. the logic of space. Either he could wait for that elusive change in conditions that could enhance the likelihood of success, or, he could focus on the structure of the process itself, and in his words, attempt to “construct a space that shapes reality.”
Jaramillo’s gambit was to predict that a peace agreement could change the conditions that perpetuated the conflict, whereas waiting for the optimal conditions to end the conflict would not bring peace.
At Jaramillo’s suggestion, the Colombian government and FARC leaders agreed that secret negotiations would be conducted in Cuba. The location of the talks was crucial, allowing both sides to talk seriously without public pressure or the temptation to use the media to pander to their own audiences.
Next, Jaramillo asked both sides to focus not necessarily on trusting each other, but in having trust in the process itself. So far, no Israeli-Palestinian negotiation since Oslo in 1993 has enabled trust in the process to be stronger than the mutual mistrust between the opposing sides.
If Israel is to follow Jaramillo’s model, then the structure of the peace talks also has to be modified. The “nothing is agreed upon unless everything is agreed on at the same time” formula would need to change. This means taking an incremental approach, implementing a series of agreements in stages by de-linking the conflicting issues (borders, Jerusalem, security etc.).
In addition to an incremental approach, Jaramillo also focused his energies on creating a nuanced narrative of the conflict as a framework for negotiations. In Israel, the narrative must give space for both sides to define a contested issue as either an enabling factor or root cause of the conflict. This could be applied to Israeli actions such as settlement construction beyond the Green Line, or Palestinian actions such as public incitement of violence. The narrative must also be based on the premise that the end of the conflict is a prelude to peacebuilding, because citizens will have to implement any solution.
Despite these opportunities to try a new negotiating method in the Middle East, the naysayers may protest (as they have with reference to other conflicts) that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the same as the Colombian war, so its resolution will not be achieved by equivalent methods. In Netanyahu’s words, “No one understands Israel but Israel.”
Yet instead of playing the blame game, the case to pursue a restructured peace process that can create new opportunities is stronger than the tired refrain to wait for the “right moment.”
It may never come.