Talking about talks about talks


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (left) meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas July 17, 2013 in Amman, Jordan. (PPo/Getty Images)

Secretary of State John Kerry advanced Mideast peace efforts a small but important step on Friday, announcing that Israeli and Palestinian officials had agreed to move forward in negotiations. "We have reached an agreement that establishes the basis for resuming direct final status negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis," he told reporters.

But what does "reached an agreement that establishes the basis for resuming direct final status negotiations" actually mean? It means, in a sense, that Israelis and Palestinians have agreed to in principal – this hasn't yet been formalized – to start negotiating directly about the possibility of having direct negotiations. We're talking about talks about talks.

But don't let that discourage you: Absurd though it may seem, this is just how these things work. Before Israelis and Palestinians can even discuss a deal for peace, they have to figure out whether they can find enough common ground to even meet to negotiate what the negotiations would look like. What we do not have is peace or even a promise to talk about peace. What we have is an "establishing basis," an agreement that there's probably enough middle ground that they can hold talks about talks. It's not a lot, but it's something.

Why are we starting with an "establishing basis" rather than just diving right into direct peace talks? It's partly because Israeli and Palestinian leaders stand to lose political capital at home, where some domestic constituencies oppose negotiations, if they are seen as failing or losing ground. So they want to inch in carefully. It's also partly because there are such existential issues at stake – borders and physical territory – that both sides set pre-conditions, which can be mutually exclusive.

A D.C.-based political scientist who blogs pseudonymously at The Camel's Nose applied conflict resolution game theory to the Israel-Palestine negotiations and found that both sides, according to this theoretical approach, have strong incentive to support negotiations but little incentive to accept any resolution, which would necessarily involve painful concessions. This is why, he says, "Israel and the Palestinians begin rounds of talking about negotiation with willingness and enthusiasm, only to stonewall. Talking about bargaining gets each side political capital. They then stonewall to avoid the cost of actual negotiations and keep the payoff supporting negotiation."

Whether or not this is correct, it helps inform why Israelis and Palestinians seem to so carefully tiptoe into negotiations and why the United States sees each baby step as a big deal; it's not easy to keep both sides from resisting the urge to stonewall or back out or refuse to compromise on mutually exclusive conditions. And talks about talks can have value beyond just getting us one step closer to actual peace negotiations. Direct, high-level negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, even if only to decide on what to order for lunch, can help build the kind of personal trust and mutual understanding that could contribute to a breakthrough.

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Max Fisher · July 19, 2013