Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Preconditions And Key Conditions: Distinction Without A Difference

Prime Minister Netanyahu reiterated today that Israel has no preconditions for peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.  However, he indicated that Palestinian recognition of a Jewish State would be necessary to "finish negotiations."  Such recognition is highly unlikely, since Palestinians understand recognition of Israel as a Jewish State to be a denial of the historic Arab Muslim presence in what is today Israel.

The statement raises the important issue of preconditions in Middle East peace talks.  Israel has been keen to highlight its willingness to sit down "tomorrrow" with Palestinian negotiators to discuss final status issues.  For their part, the Palestinian leadership have listed preconditions.  Chief among these is asking Israel stop settlement building entirely - a position which President Obama has regarded with dismay as of late.

After a brief Twitter exchange with Professor Brent Sasley today, Prime Minister Netanyahu's Spokesman Ofir Gendelman took the time to clarify for me that for Israel's part, Palestinian recognition of a Jewish State is not a precondition.  Rather, it is a "key component in ending the conflict."  Yet in a practical sense, this terminology is a distinction without a difference.

Let's say you have a good friend who has recently decided to become vegan.  A precondition is telling her, "You can only come for dinner tonight if you will agree to have chicken soup."  A key condition is "You can come for dinner tonight but keep in mind that I'm making chicken soup."  In both cases, knowing the friend has chosen to be vegan, the outcome will be the same.  Whether it's framed as the former or the latter makes no practical difference.

Critically, you have every right to serve whatever you like in your own home.  And Israel as the Jewish State has every right to ask for recognition as such.  But if it behooves you to see your friend, maybe you should just watch a movie instead.  That doesn't mean you have to stop making chicken soup for dinner.  You just have to not let it get in the way of seeing your friend since that is the outcome that really matters to you.  In other words, focusing on the outcome versus the principle allows you to get the best outcome possible.

Outcome-based negotiation will be critical for Israelis and Palestinians to make progress.  Standing on principle is both justified great for politics.  But it devastates the lives of those who suffer the consequences of political conflict in the Middle East.  Palestinians and Israelis - and the U.S. for that matter - have all stood on principle historically, and no final status agreement has been set in place as a result.  Changing the status quo in the region requires changing our collective approach to negotiations.

Official Palestinian recognition of Israel's Jewish nature is important - very important.  But it is not more important than the well-being of innocent civilians in Sderot who run into bomb shelters with 15 seconds' notice.  It is not more important than the lives of IDF soldiers who put their lives on the line on behalf of the State.  And it is not more important than the shared desire among Israelis to see the next generation come of age in a region free of the violence and conflict.  In an emergency like this one, triage is the best strategy.  Even an imperfect peace agreement is better than this status quo.  And focusing on problems which are both critical and treatable is the best way for a Jewish, democratic, secure state of Israel to ensure its national well-being.

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