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The Limits of Clarity, and Benefits of Ambiguity

It has been nearly two years since the Obama administration set out to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, yet virtually no progress has been made. One thing, however, that the process has not lacked is clarity. Americans, Israelis and Palestinians have been very clear in articulating their demands. Yet this very clarity has often turned out to be an obstacle to progress.

If the parties want to move the process forward toward its intended conclusion (i.e., a peace accord), they would do well to rediscover the virtues of creative ambiguity. Throughout history, many a diplomatic debacle was averted by some old-fashioned fudging of the issues — whereby the parties could each walk away and say that they had won the day. After all, as in personal relations, face-saving and climbing down gracefully is a key element of diplomacy.

Yet in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, the virtues of creative ambiguity appear to have been all but forgotten. Instead, the parties seem hell-bent on forcing each other into one box or another. The result is that all those involved have needlessly painted themselves into corners from which they cannot easily escape.

We saw this tendency in the Obama administration’s clarion insistence on an overall settlement freeze. The only dividends from that push are that the Palestinians dug in their heels on the settlement issue and demanded a complete construction freeze as a precondition for resuming negotiations. Instead of helping the parties hammer out a peace agreement, the Obama administration wasted many months trying to get Israel to agree to a settlement freeze (which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally did, for 10 months, at the expense of significant political capital), haggling over the freeze’s terms and duration, and trying to convince the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table.

The Obama administration made matters even worse with its approach to housing construction in East Jerusalem. Early on, the Obama administration wanted East Jerusalem to be included in any settlement freeze. But Israel was not about to capitulate on Jerusalem — indeed, Netanyahu could not afford to do so politically. The implication of the Obama administration’s position is that East Jerusalem is simply another occupied territory, a stance Netanyahu firmly rejected when he stated that “Jerusalem is not a settlement.” (Contrast the Obama administration’s approach to Jerusalem with that of the Reagan administration, which vetoed a number of United Nations Security Council resolutions that sought to equate Jerusalem with occupied territory.)

The Obama administration’s pursuit of clarity without regard to the political realities on the ground in Israel has had embarrassing results. The administration has been forced to gradually back down from its own clear demands upon learning that they were unrealistic.

The Americans, however, are not the only ones making unrealistic public demands. For instance, the Netanyahu government insists — as no other Israeli government has ever done — that the Palestinians explicitly recognize Israel as a Jewish state. But Palestinian leaders have flatly refused to do so, and any such declaration would likely spark an enormous backlash from the Palestinian public.

So why beseech the Palestinians to bestow their blessings on the reality of Israel’s Jewishness? Israeli officials who support this demand would say that such a statement would provide the best measure of the Palestinians’ true acceptance of Israel. Well, good luck. True acceptance is not something that comes from a statement of goodwill. Israel’s strength is the best guarantor of its acceptance, not declarations from its adversaries, no matter how clearly worded.

In unrealistically insisting that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, Netanyahu is painting himself into a corner. His clarity on this issue may limit his own political maneuvering room when it comes time to work out creative language that will be acceptable to both parties in any final agreement.

Clarity, of course, has its uses. But successful diplomacy means knowing when to be clear and when to be less than clear. Sometimes it takes a little bit of ambiguity to create the political breathing room necessary for getting beyond words and making real progress.

Allan Gerson served during the Reagan administration as a senior counsel to American delegation to the United Nations and as a deputy assistant attorney general.

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