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Lessons from the Iran talks for Israel and Palestine

International leaders are struggling to contain the latest Middle East violence. The Iran nuclear deal offers a template

October 29, 2015 2:00AM ET

Violence between Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank has surged in the past month, and international leaders are scrambling to quiet the situation. But their well-intentioned interventions are destined to fail, at least if they continue to use the same old unsuccessful mediation strategy that evades the central issues of the conflict.

The nature of the current violence is unprecedented, given that it is mostly the work of individuals or small groups of young men beyond the control of their traditional political leaders. This should prod foreign mediators to admit their many failures and apply a new strategy that draws on the important lessons of the recently concluded Iran nuclear negotiations.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the principals of the Quartet (the United States, Russia, the European Union and the U.N.) have all reiterated that violence must be curtailed, leaders must recommit to meaningful negotiations, aggressive unilateral gestures must be avoided and the international community must be engaged to promote a permanent peace agreement. However, none of them are addressing the issues that are most meaningful for both sides.

Sadly, this reflects Kerry’s statement before his visit to the region last weekend that he had no “specific expectations” but merely sought a way to urge calm and “move things forward.” The one practical agreement that emerged from his visit was for Jordan and Israel to install 24-hour cameras to monitor movements on the sacred area that Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary and Jews call the Temple Mount. Meanwhile, Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza keep attacking and killing each other, oblivious to the talks by leaders who are both politically and physically distant from the conflict.

In the last month, at least 63 Palestinians have died at Israeli hands, and 11 Israelis have been killed by Palestinians. This imbalance reflects the structural reality of the situation: Israel is the occupying power with massive military capabilities, while the Palestinians have been occupied since 1967 and are largely defenseless because of that. In East Jerusalem in particular, Palestinians find themselves without protection or representation by the Palestinian Authority (PA), because Israel claims to have annexed all of East Jerusalem — a claim not recognized internationally. The PA, created by the 1993 Oslo Accord, controls pockets of the West Bank but has no role in Arab East Jerusalem.

The U.S. has monopolized mediation in this conflict for the past quarter-century, without any success. Experts who follow this matter debate whether this is because the U.S. mediating approach favors Israeli over Palestinian positions or because the parties are not ready for the tough concessions needed for a breakthrough. Whatever the real reason, the outbreak of ever more vicious killings on both sides should signal the urgent need for a new approach.

The killings persist because a truly decisive, international and evenhanded approach to negotiating has never been attempted.

The Iran negotiations offer three important lessons for the Arab-Israeli peace process. The first is that the U.S. alone cannot achieve a fair and permanent agreement. Instead, it should coordinate closely with other global powers, as it did in the P5+1 format on Iran. A consortium of powers anchored in the legitimacy of the U.N. Security Council and its resolutions would provide both Israelis and Palestinians with the confidence they need to make the tough concessions required to achieve a breakthrough.

The second lesson is that negotiations should start by putting the key demands of both sides on the table — and then trying to fulfill those demands simultaneously and to the greatest extent possible. This has not happened in previous negotiations. The U.S.-mediated talks since 1992 have usually started by insisting on Israeli security assurances and then moved from there to explore what Palestinian gains might be possible.

Success, as in the Iran talks, requires from the start acknowledging the existential needs of both sides. For the Israelis, this means being accepted as a sovereign, secure and legitimate Jewish-majority state that can live in peace and have normal relations with all its neighbors. For the Palestinians, it means achieving contiguous, meaningful and sovereign statehood in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem and resolving the refugee status of millions of their people. The 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which has been repeatedly supported by almost every Arab state at Arab Summit meetings and ignored by Israel and the U.S., is probably the best starting point for such an approach. It strives to meet both sides’ core demands while respecting international legitimacy and U.N. resolutions.

The third lesson of the Iran talks is that both sides must make substantive and meaningful concessions simultaneously, not sequentially or on the basis of the balance of power on the ground. Previous negotiations always failed because they sought guarantees for Israeli security before any parallel gains of equal magnitude for the Palestinians’ main needs. The Iran talks succeeded because each side made important concessions simultaneously while moving toward meeting the other’s central demands.

This is the moment for the U.S. to lead a genuine international consortium of powers to mediate Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that finally confront the most difficult existential issues for both sides. The American people supported the Iran deal, and they would almost certainly support an evenhanded U.S. approach to mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This is the way to end the killings in Jerusalem, which persist and become more barbaric year after year because a truly decisive, international and evenhanded approach to negotiating has never been attempted.

Rami G. Khouri, a Jordanian-Palestinian national, is a senior public policy fellow at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut and a senior fellow of the Harvard Kennedy School.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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