Hassan Rouhani’s victory in Iran’s presidential election has renewed hopes for a diplomatic solution to the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program. But some analysts have voiced concern that the cleric’s accommodating tone and moderate reputation may reduce international pressure, even in the absence of a substantive change in Iranian policy. Critics have attacked the president-elect’s cynical account of how a temporary nuclear freeze in 2004 actually served to expedite Iran’s nuclear program. “While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran,” Rouhani recalled, “we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan” — a key site for producing nuclear fuel. “By creating a calm environment” through diplomacy, “we were able to complete the work”.
Whether or not this is an accurate depiction of Rouhani, it captures perfectly another item dominating the regional agenda: the Middle East peace process. For Israel and the US, negotiations with the Palestinians have never been about achieving a resolution of the conflict, which can only happen on terms all Israeli governments have rejected. Rather, their primary function has been to reduce international pressure on Israel without it having to make political concessions.
Negotiations began in the early 1990s as a response to the first Palestinian intifada, which dramatically increased the costs of occupation for Israel. The 1993 Oslo Accord, which launched the peace process, was the product of secret discussions that subverted the official negotiations being conducted at the time. Whereas official Palestinian representatives, riding the wave of the intifada, demanded the fulfilment of Palestinian rights under international law, the Oslo Accord and the peace process it initiated neglected even to demand the dismantling of Israeli settlements. The result was predictable: over the next decade, as Israeli and Palestinian diplomats talked, Israeli settlers built – nearly doubling in number. “By creating a calm environment”, they “were able to complete” their work.
Israeli governments have consistently embraced negotiations as a relief valve for international pressure to end the occupation, provided that they are not based on international law, reach no decisive conclusion and can be extended unto eternity. As Israeli journalist and former politician Yossi Sarid recalls, “they used to say about [Prime Minister] Yitzhak Shamir that he conducted peace negotiations with our neighbours as long as they never ended”. “There are no sacred dates”, insisted former Israeli Prime Minister and architect of the Oslo peace process Yitzhak Rabin. Looking back over twenty years of these negotiations, former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami found himself unable to “escape the conclusion” that “the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has become one of the most spectacular deceptions in modern diplomatic history”. Purportedly aiming to resolve the conflict, its primary function has been to reduce the costs of sustaining it.
This understanding of the peace process is the only way to make sense of the current situation, in which an Israeli government that explicitly rejects a two-state settlement is pushing for negotiations, against the resistance of a Palestinian leadership that officially accepts it. International opposition to Israeli rejectionism is increasing. Europe grows impatient in the face of protracted diplomatic stagnation: a recent open-letter signed by 19 former senior European officials stated frankly that the Oslo peace process “has nothing more to offer” and urged a “new approach”, while a non-binding 2012 EU Heads of Missions report went so far as to propose sanctions on Israeli settlements. Israeli officials have sought to restart direct negotiations, in order to pre-empt the threat of international measures. Thus, in a stormy Knesset debate, Avigdor Lieberman urged opponents of a two-state settlement to support a revived diplomatic process, in the interests of “conflict management”. “If we do not initiate”, he warned, “there will be others who will put plans on the table”.
In the wake of Rouhani’s election, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been particularly forceful in urging the international community to maintain pressure on Iran and avoid “drawn out” negotiations that simply allow Iran to “gain time”. For its part the US has been clear that, as a National Security Council spokesperson put it this week, “the window for diplomacy is not open indefinitely”. “We are open to negotiation”, Secretary of State John Kerry has explained, but “not an open-ended, endless negotiation”. Both the US and Israel are well aware of the risk of dialogue being used as a fig-leaf to enable destructive behaviour. They should know.