Colin Irwin Sat 08 Feb 2014
Kerry and his team are preparing a framework document, which will lay-out suggested parameters for a negotiated Final Status Agreement to end the Israel Palestine conflict. Inevitably this interim proposal will come under fire from spoilers on both sides. If it lacks substance on the key issues of importance to the Palestinians they will not want to stay in the negotiations and negotiations will collapse but if it does contain some real substance on these issues then Netanyahu’s government, in its present form, will most likely collapse. Kerry’s team are ‘caught between a rock and a hard place’. Is there a way to soften the landing?
Kerry is doing everything he can to muster international support for his proposals and that will certainly help. But Palestinians and Israelis in particular do not respond well to being told what is good for them. So in addition to a top down approach to public diplomacy a bottom up approach is also required. This was standard practice in Northern Ireland and James Zogby recommended such a course of action to the Kerry team but his proposals were turned down. This fact came to light when he presented the results of his latest poll at the New America Foundation in Washington on January 31st. Critically, in the panel discussion, Lara Friedman, the Director of Government and Policy Relations at Americans for Peace Now, disagreed with James Zogby on this point and explained that US strategy rested on the belief that if the Israeli and Palestinian leaders gave their support to a negotiated agreement then that agreement would pass a referendum. (1)
But Lara Friedman and the US strategists have missed the point here. Doing everything one can in terms of public opinion and public diplomacy is not a substitute for the leaders to make the right decision it is an aid to getting them to make the right decision. This is especially true when dealing with a weak leadership as was the case in Northern Ireland and is presently the case in Israel and Palestine. Netanyahu and Abbas are not Rabin and Arafat and they certainly are not Mandela so the process needs all the help it and the leaders can get. It may be too late to implement such a strategy now for the Framework Agreement but if negotiations do move forward in some form then this should be done for the referendum.
James Zogby’s poll documented the failings of the Oslo Accords 20 years on, explained the negative impact the failure to fully implement the Accords has had on the peace process and concluded that if Netanyahu backed an agreement 55 per cent of Israelis would vote for it and if Abbas backed an agreement 49 per cent of Palestinians would vote for it. (2) This result is not particularly good and probably does not fill the Kerry team with confidence. However, in another poll run by Shibley Telhami and Steven Kull for the Saban Centre at The Brookings Institution and US Institute of Peace they got a much better result with 63 per cent of Israelis saying ‘yes’ providing the Palestinians agreed to the deal and 59 per cent of Palestinians saying ‘yes’ if Israelis agreed to the deal. (3)
Shibley and Kull probably also got a better result than Zogby because they had presented their informants with a detailed outline of the deal that they would be asked to vote for and, well, we should remember that not everyone voted for Netanyahu in Israel and not everyone voted for Abbas in Palestine and this is not how a referendum question, if we get that far, is going to be presented. The context will be quite different and if Kerry achieves all he is aiming for in this regard the referendum result could be even better. It seems most likely that an agreement will have to be passed and supported by the Israeli Knesset and by the Palestinian Authority and/or PLO, which, in both cases, will carry more weight than their respective leaders alone. Additionally the agreement will be supported by the Quartet, namely the US, EU, UN and Russia as well as, most probably the Arab League so this is how a question on a Final Status Agreement should be framed.
When the politically equivalent question was asked in Northern Ireland 77 per cent said ‘yes’. But we then asked one more question: ‘If you said ‘yes’ would you still accept these terms for a settlement even if the political party you support was opposed to them?’ having been told what the agreement would be. Inevitably some support fell away. However, it was then possible to precisely calculate on the basis of party strength who was needed to pass a referendum and who was not. One party did oppose the agreement but our calculations showed that their exit from the pro-agreement camp would only drop the referendum result by about 5 per cent so the remaining parties backed the agreement, which passed in the referendum with 71 per cent voting ‘yes’ as predicted within our margin of error. (4)
The same can be done in Israel and Palestine now. For Netanyahu’s coalition ‘the writing will be on the wall’. Sometimes a little truth telling can help the bitter pill go down.
(1) New America Foundation. Peace for Israel and Palestine? Available at: http://newamerica.net/events/2014/peace_for_israel_and_palestine
(2) Zogby Research Services, Israel & Palestine 20 Years After Oslo. Available at: http://www.zogbyresearchservices.com/israel-and-palestine-20-years-after-oslo/
(3) Shibly Telhami and Steven Kull, Israeli and Palestinian Public Opinion on Negotiating a Final Status Peace Agreement. Available at: http://www.worldpublicopinion.org/pipa/pdf/nov12/Israel_Nov12_rpt.pdf
(4) In Irwin, C. J., The People’s Peace. Page 213-214. Available at: