How ‘constructive ambiguity’ has failed Israelis and Palestinians

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Well-meaning American negotiators over the years have done a disservice to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. To try to bridge the perhaps insurmountable gulf between the warring parties, diplomats have employed Henry Kissinger’s diplomatic tool of “constructive ambiguity” to obscure the profound ideological divides. This is not just the old adage, “I gave it the old college try but failed.” The consequences of failed negotiations and unfulfilled expectations using ambiguous language “to disguise an inability to resolve a contentious issue” can lead directly to bombs exploding on Israeli buses and an atmosphere of mistrust that moves the parties even further apart. 

The center-left Israeli polity that dominated the early Oslo Accords era (1990s) reevaluated their assumptions about peace created under cover of constructive ambiguity when they witnessed the Palestinian Authority’s rejection of their own state in 2000 (Camp David) and 2001 (Taba, Egypt). Israeli Oslo enthusiasts reluctantly realized that the essence of the conflict was not about returning territory gained in the defensive war of 1967. That reality came crashing down on them over the six years of the Second Intifada (2000-2006), targeting every type of civilian structure. The constructive ambiguity of the Oslo peace process obscured the real impediment for peace — the Palestinian leadership’s adamant refusal to accept a Jewish state in a land that once was under Islamic sovereignty. 

Whether we are talking about the latest Gaza war, the Trump peace plan, Hamas’s charter of Jewish annihilation, or the Palestinian Authority’s increasing incitement to keep up with their Islamist Gazan brethren, the reality not addressed is that, for Palestinians, the outcome of the 1948 war for Israel’s right to exist has not been settled. For over a half-century, diplomats apparently have misunderstood that this is the root cause of the conflict, which explains why their strategy of constructive ambiguity has been disastrous for both Israelis and Palestinians.

In 2000 and 2001, President Clinton and his team of negotiators believed they came closest to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In reality, they never had a chance; their thesis was based on resolving the outcome of the 1967 Six-Day War, not the 1948 War of Independence. The Palestinians refer to 1948 as their Nakba, the catastrophe. When they can want a Palestinian state more than destroying a Jewish state, the negotiators can return.

Bill Clinton believed he knew what the outcome of negotiations should be and what the parties wanted, but that they couldn’t do it by themselves. So when Yasser Arafat, former chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), walked away from all that he supposedly wanted — preferring to be a revolutionary, not a peacemaker — his counter offer to the unprecedented Israeli concessions was the Second Intifada. The Obama administration remained married to the false narrative of what this conflict is about, despite evidence to the contrary, in 2008. Their thesis was shown to be bankrupt when an Israeli prime minister offered 100 percent of the West Bank, with land swaps and East Jerusalem, to the Palestinians as their capital, but they again walked away without even making a counter offer. 

The only internationally recognized, signed Israeli-Palestinian document — the Oslo Accords — was based on constructive ambiguity and has not withstood the test of time. In May 2020, President Mahmoud Abbas said the PLO and the State of Palestine are absolved of the contractual obligations of Oslo. Both parties have claimed that the other breached the agreements, but only the Palestinians have declared they are no longer obligated. 

So when Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh told Al Jazeera this month that there is no proof there ever was a Jewish temple on the Temple Mount, it should be a wake-up call to the international community. When one of the parties cannot accept archeological evidence and respect the defining narrative of the other party, it should be clear that returning to constructive ambiguity is not the answer. The Biden administration so far has wisely realized that the conflict is not ripe for resolution.  

Going forward, the lesson to learn for those who are tempted to find the holy grail of diplomacy to resolve the conflict is to not obscure the profound causes of why the dispute has not subsided. It is better to rip off the Band-Aid and inspect the actual divides. It is for the Israelis and Palestinians to accept or reject a compromise that they negotiate. Harm can occur when outside negotiators insist on promoting the failed strategy of constructive ambiguity.

The Palestinian Authority needs to realize that, in order to survive, they need the help of Egypt and Jordan and the moderately conservative Gulf states with their financial largesse. Their rival, Hamas’s allies Iran and Turkey, are no friends of the Palestinian Authority and would like to see the Fatah-dominated Palestinian government overthrown. So, it is in the interest of the Palestinian Authority to follow the lead of those who have entered into the Abraham Accords with Israel. Unending incitement against Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state is a strategy of failure for both sides, because it increases the possibility of a Hamas coup.

Constructive ambiguity will never solve the problems of this conflict as long as Palestinian leaders deny the 3000-year-old Jewish presence in the land. Diplomacy will fail unless core issues such as Jerusalem and the Palestinian “right of return” are directly addressed. Recognizing the history and mythology of your enemy is the path forward — as long as that narrative doesn’t negate your existence.

For the Palestinians, they need to accept Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state in a secure territorial dimension. They must accept that Judaism is not just a religion but one with a legitimate national dimension. For Israelis who cite evidence that there never was an Arab Palestinian state, or who believe Palestinian nationality was artificially created in response to Zionism, they still must respect the Palestinian aspiration for a national homeland — hopefully living next-door to an independent Jewish state. The United States can help facilitate such understanding but, ultimately, it cannot be negotiated by anyone other than the belligerents. 

A better approach comes from former Knesset member Einat Wilf, whose ideology leans  center-left of the Israeli political spectrum: “Drop the dogma that ‘constructive ambiguity’ helps advance the peace process. In its place, Israelis and Palestinians need to adopt a new strategy of ‘constructive specificity’ regarding what is required from each side of the process to result in a realistic peace.”  

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the U.S. Senate, House, and their foreign-policy advisers. He is the  senior editor for “Security” at the Jerusalem Report/The Jerusalem Post.

Tags Bill Clinton Israeli–Palestinian conflict Israeli–Palestinian peace process Palestinian nationalism

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