Eleven months have passed since the Obama administration took over. President Obama’s impact on the entire world has been dramatic and impressive. But it seems that the issues that confront the president on every front are much more complex than hoped for, and, as we say in Hebrew, “as large as the expectation—the size of the disappointment.”
There is an opportunity here and now to make a strategic change in Israeli-Palestinian relations, despite the fact that it cannot be done by traditional means.
There is close to zero chance of a bilateral negotiated Israeli-Palestinian agreement at this time, given the political constellations in Israel and in Palestine. It is a waste of time and even dangerous to try to resume a negotiated process that will lead to open-ended negotiations with no real progress.
In this region, we have already proven over and over again that we love to negotiate. We love peace processes. What we don’t like is making tough decisions. Another set of bilateral negotiations is a waste of time. There is nothing that can be added to the equation that was absent in the past. There is no chance of agreement at this time, and even getting to the negotiations will demand the full-time attention of Middle East envoy George Mitchell. Both sides speak of no pre-conditions and both sides have put down pre-conditions that cannot be easily bridged. It is dangerous, because, as we have seen in the past over and over again, a failed and frustrating negotiation process can easily end up with another round of violence.
The current economic growth in the West Bank is viewed by many as a sign of stability, and it creates the illusion that there is no real pressure to move forward with a political peace process. There is new investment and new building, employment is on the rise, young people are out every night in Ramallah, a cinema opened in Nablus, and a new passage for cars has opened in the Jenin area. At the same time, perhaps a bit less obvious to most Israelis, the territories are percolating with political activity. The popular resistance campaigns all around the territories are on the rise, and with them continued confrontations with the Israeli army. The Palestinian campaign to boycott Israel is gaining support, and a conference held in November was widely attended by Palestinian officials as well. The newly elected bodies established by the Fatah conference are working, organizing, and consolidating support for the future, including for a future uprising.
It is important to remember that both the first and the second Palestinian intifadas erupted at times of great economic growth and hopes. The territories are ripe for real movement forward on the peace agenda. At the same time, they are also ripe for a new explosion. The continued settlement growth and the failure of Mahmoud Abbas to achieve a settlement freeze, coupled with the great disappointment that Palestinians already feel about the Obama administration, are the ingredients of discontent and serve as the fertilizer for a new uprising.
The Middle East is often likened to a car with two gears: forward and reverse. There is no neutral gear; there is no standing in place. In this region, if we are not moving forward toward peace, we are moving back to violence. The walls and fences will not stop the violence if it erupts. The last intifada brought thousands of casualties and no political achievements. It destroyed the dwindling Israeli peace camp and led to the complete reoccupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The reverting back to violence is a real possibility, even though it seems that everyone here is tired of this conflict. All too often, rationality and knowing what is good have too little to do with what actually happens.
I have just returned from a cross-country speaking tour in the United States that concluded with several days of meetings in Washington. I had the opportunity to meet with officials and nonofficial experts in Washington. My meetings included people from Mitchell’s team and a White House official. I also met with several of the leading Middle East think-tank experts and the head of J Street. One of the unfortunate conclusions I drew from my visit to Washington is that, unless there is a rapid and substantive change in the way that the Obama administration is handling the peace process, we are heading for a dead end or worse.
Aside from the obvious fact that the Israeli-Arab peace process is not the highest issue on Obama’s agenda (he’s focused first on the economy, health care, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and only then, maybe, the Israeli-Arab peace process), it seems to me that the almost complete reliance on Mitchell and the methodology he employs is where the problem lies.
At the same time, the Obama administration has actually done quite a bit of damage to the peace negotiations’ chances of moving forward. Under Palestinian and Arab pressure, the Obama administration adopted the position of trying to achieve a full Israeli settlement freeze prior to reaching negotiations. This was a grave error, not because a settlement freeze is not important, but because it is first of all a tactical issue and secondly it is not achievable. The settlers had no reason to cooperate with Netanyahu, even if he supported it, and they certainly had an interest in embarrassing President Obama. Netanyahu rejected outright the demand to include Jerusalem in any settlement freeze, and that is where most of the building today is taking place. Knowing that settlements are not popular among Israelis, Netanyahu strategically maneuvered the debate to the issue of Jerusalem, where there is far greater public consensus behind his position. Even if a settlement freeze could be achieved, nothing would change on the ground. The issue is not the settlement freeze; the issue is the border between Israel and Palestine. This is a strategic issue, and as such it should have been taken up by the new U.S. administration.
The Obama-Netanyahu-Abbas summit in New York was a failure. Obama backed down from the call for a full settlement freeze. Abbas was forced to meet Netanyahu under conditions that he said publicly he would not agree to, and Netanyahu came out on top. Obama’s position was weakened because he appeared to give in to Netanyahu on this critical issue and wasted diplomatic ammunition in forcing the parties to come together without gains of any substance. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton furthered the folly when she declared that Netanyahu had made unprecedented progress in freezing settlements, only to withdraw that statement a day later at her meeting with Arab Foreign Ministers in Morocco. From the Middle East, this kind of political behavior looks amateurish, nonstrategic, and clearly like a step in the wrong direction.
So for the past months, George Mitchell and his team have been shuttling back and forth between various Middle Eastern capitals, negotiating on negotiations. I have deep respect for Mitchell, and no one can take away from him the huge amount of credit due to him for his past achievements. The problem is not the man, but his approach. As far as I can determine from my discussions with players in Washington, Mitchell is a deep believer in “the process” itself. And while people have tried to assure me that Mitchell has no intention of leaving the parties sitting at the table by themselves without his presence as an active mediator, his main objective now is to get the parties back to the table. This is a futile exercise. How could the current government of Israel and the PLO reach a comprehensive agreement on all permanent status issues? How could the government of Israel and the government of Syria reach an agreement ending that conflict? It is almost impossible for this to happen. By focusing on “process” (meaning renewing negotiations) rather than on “substance” (meaning the principles of permanent status or the parameters of the agreement), we now find ourselves back in the well-known Middle Eastern trap of negotiating about negotiations. Nothing could be more futile and frustrating. The Middle East is not Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland there is no endgame, there is only process. In the Middle East we have had eighteen years of process and little or no real substance, and in the Middle East the endgames are quite well known.
On both tracks the parameters of agreements are more or less known. The needs, interests, threat perceptions, and means to answer them are known on both tracks. But the prospect of the negotiations accomplishing their purpose seems light years away if the actors rely on the standard classical negotiating process (the kind of process that George Mitchell believes in).
Eventually, the sides must be brought back to the table, but that should happen only when the United States and the other members of the Quartet that created the road map (the European Union, UN, and Russia) place something of substance on the table. We don’t need to wait for the parties to the conflicts to produce that substance.
There needs to be an immediate course change, before it is too late. The techniques of the course are somewhat different for each context, mainly because the Israeli-Palestinian track is much more complex and significantly more sensitive than the Israeli-Syrian track.
The need for the course change is based on these facts:
The parameters of the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement are well known.
- There is global consensus on the parameters of that agreement.
- A majority of Israelis and Palestinians would be willing to make the concessions necessary to reach peace if they believed that there were a credible partner willing and able to meet its obligations (and if backed by international guarantees).
- The resolution of this conflict is a U.S. national strategic interest (and an international strategic interest as well), which means that the old formula stating that “the parties have to want it more than we do” is no longer true. The parties no longer have the right to veto peace and to allow the conflict to endanger the security of the region and the whole world.
- The Quartet led by the United States (henceforth referred to as just “the Quartet”), must not be held hostage by domestic politics associated with the United States, Israel, or the Palestinian Authority.
The following is what I propose for the Israeli-Palestinian track:
1. The Quartet should ask the parties to provide answers to the following questions within three months:
- What are the difficulties and obstacles that you face in implementing a “two states for two peoples” solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
- What are the primary concerns that you would face (including but not limited to domestic concerns) in implementing this solution?
- What are the primary threats that you will face as a result of implementing the solution?
- What mechanism/means would you propose to monitor, verify, and ensure the compliance of obligations undertaken within a peace agreement by the other side?
If one or both parties fail to respond to the request, the Quartet should inform the parties that their part of the exercise will be undertaken by a group of private experts. Noncooperation will not be rewarded and will not prevent the process from advancing. The Quartet needs to plan in advance its response to noncooperation in this exercise.
2. The objective of this exercise is for the parties to detail the specific difficulties they would face within the parameters of the well-known solutions to the conflict, without letting them put their maximalist positions on the table.
3. After receiving the answers from the parties, the Quartet should spend the following three months developing detailed answers in response to the threats and difficulties spelled out by the parties. A major emphasis within the Quartet plans must be on the role of credible third parties and third-party multinational forces (military, police, and civilian forces led by the United States but without U.S. soldiers on the ground). The plans should not rely solely on the parties themselves to deal with those threats unilaterally or even bilaterally (which they have proven over the years incapable of doing).
4. The Quartet’s response to these difficulties should entail the expansion of its “diplomatic tool box,” which should contain both carrots and sticks. The Quartet must be willing to provide detailed answers (including statements about its own commitments) about how to meet the real needs of both parties, as presented by the parties and not by the Quartet. These specific responses to possible threats and obstacles can serve as carrots. In other words, the Quartet should not suggest that any one of the threats or obstacles presented by the parties is not real. All threats must be treated with the utmost sincerity, and the answers provided must be based on real commitments. Likewise, the diplomatic toolbox must contain sticks: the consequences backed by commitments that the Quartet is willing to enforce if the parties fail to cooperate.
Once the Quartet has designed the package aimed at providing answers and solutions to the obstacles, difficulties, and threat perceptions presented by the parties, and once it has specified the mechanisms by which it will handle the monitoring, verification, and enforcement of implementation of treaty obligations, the Quartet should place on the table for the parties the draft of the full peace agreement (in the format of a Declaration of Principles) including all of the permanent status issues:
- Palestinian statehood and sovereignty
- Delineation of borders
- Security regimes and cooperation
- The link between the West Bank and Gaza
- Economic relations
- Water and environmental issues
- International regimes/forces
- End of conflict, end of claims
- UN Security Council Resolution
The Declaration of Principles would state that the agreement relates to all of the area (including Gaza) that will be included in the implementation of the treaty as soon as the political situation enables such an implementation. The declaration would contain the following elements:
a. “Two states for two peoples” based on the June 4, 1967, lines with agreed-upon territorial exchanges. The territorial dimension is the 22 percent and 78 percent formula regarding land between the Jordan River and the sea.
b. The majority of settlers would find themselves in the areas annexed to Israel; others would be repatriated to Israel proper or to the annexed areas; and others could remain in the Palestinian state as law-abiding Palestinian citizens.
c. Jerusalem would be the capital of both states (based on the Clinton parameters). In the Old City, either there would be an international regime, or the Jewish quarter would be under Israeli sovereignty and the other quarters under Palestinian sovereignty. Israel would control the Kotel, and the Palestinians would control the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif. Both sides would agree not to excavate, tunnel, build, or damage the Holy compound without mutual agreement. Jerusalem would be an open city.
d. Palestinian refugees wishing to return would return to the Palestinian state, receiving financial compensation. Israel would acknowledge its part of the responsibility for their refugee status.
The majority of Israelis and Palestinians agree to the above solution and want the conflict to end, but they do not believe that there is a real partner for peace on the other side. If there were a real chance of ending the conflict on the above terms, the majority of Israelis and Palestinians would rally around it, even against their own political leaderships. The Obama administration has the support of the international community to use international diplomatic tools that have never been used before in this part of the world.
What If the Parties Do Not Cooperate? Or What If They Oppose this Plan?
This initiative is aimed not only at the governments concerned but also at civil society in Israel and Palestine. The Israeli peace camp is almost nonexistent. One of the reasons for its disappearance is that a majority of its supporters have become “peace skeptics.” In their hearts, they want peace with the other side; they simply have lost faith that there is a partner for peace. The same reality exists on the Palestinian side, as well. Objectively speaking, there is no reason why Israelis and Palestinians should trust each other or believe that there is a partner for peace on the other side. Both sides have systematically and substantively breached every agreement signed. The second intifada and the continuation of the launching of Qassam rockets into Israel’s civilian population after the disengagement from Gaza dealt a fatal blow to the Israeli peace camp. How can you convince Israeli citizens that giving territory back to the Palestinians will gain them peace and security? The Palestinians also cannot be convinced that there is a partner for peace in Israel because every government since the beginning of the peace process has continued with massive settlement building. Israel effectively occupies all of the West Bank, including the cities where the Palestinian Authority is supposed to have full control; indeed, Israel continues to prevent the Palestinians from having any control over some 60 percent of the West Bank.
An effective and realistic international plan backed by the United States and the Quartet would enable the civil societies on both sides to rebuild public support for peace. Realistic and definitive solutions for Israel’s security dilemmas proposed by the United States in this initiative would enable civil society to convince the public that Israel’s welfare and security would be better served by cooperating with the United States than by continuing the occupation, which compounds rather than relieves Israel’s security needs.
The Israel-Syria Track
It has been said that more than 80 percent of this track has already been negotiated. The agreements and disagreements have been carefully mapped out by previous U.S. administrations. Over the years, various political leaders and think tanks have floated possible solutions to real threats and to anxieties about perceived threats.
There is little need for the shuttle diplomacy of George Mitchell and his team between Jerusalem and Damascus, or for proximity talks. The issues and the solutions are well known. The United States should use all known data to draft a model Israeli-Syrian peace treaty and suggest bridging proposals to close the existing gaps. On the basis of the proposed treaty, the U.S. president should invite the Israeli prime minister and the Syrian president to negotiations.
The U.S. proposal must be comprehensive and must relate to all of these issues:
- The Golan Heights
- Security arrangements including demilitarization, peace-keeping forces, observers, early warning detection technology, etc.
- A timetable for withdrawal and demilitarization schedules
- Repatriation of Syrian citizens to the Golan
- Border regimes
- Normalization of relations, such as the exchange of ambassadors, tourism, and economic and other forms of cross-border cooperation
- Water issues
- Syrian relations with Hamas and Hezbollah
- Syrian relations with Iran
- Issues concerning the future of Lebanon-Israel relations that concern Syria
- The Shaba Farms and Raghar—the Alawite village on the Syria, Lebanon, Israel border
The parties should be called to convene in Washington with the United States, and the Quartet should be ready to provide the assurances and mechanisms to guarantee the full implementation of the treaty and address all of the required security-related proposals.
On both tracks, once the U.S.-led Quartet proposals are on the table, the United States with its mediator at the table would be in a position to put additional bridging proposals in place, with the international community willing and ready to provide for whatever guarantees and assurances are necessary to monitor, verify, and ensure compliance.
Now Is the Time
One could devise other proposals—this is only one example. The main point is that there is little time to wait for events to play themselves out. The Obama administration must call for an immediate “time out” to re-think the U.S. strategy for advancing Middle East peace. The Obama administration can, however, push forward with a strategic plan to change the reality on the ground and move the process forward with great speed.
Other Possible Scenarios and Strategies
All other possible scenarios and strategies are also based on a process laid down from the outside. These include:
1. The Obama parameters: a revisiting of the parameters put forth by President Clinton on December 23, 2000, less than one month before the end of his administration. Those parameters set the positive course of discussions that were held in Taba, Egypt, in January 2001, and which were stopped ten days before the elections that brought Ariel Sharon to power and ended an Israeli-Palestinian negotiation process. The Obama parameters would be based on Clinton’s, with the addition of the regional elements provided in the Arab Peace Initiative.
2. Coordinated unilateralism, based on the plan of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Dr. Salam Fayyad to build the infrastructures and institutions necessary to create a Palestinian state de facto within two years. This, coupled with the Palestinian plan to gain full UN membership, would advance the creation of the Palestinian state without negotiations.
The government of Israel under Netanyahu has threatened to take unilateral actions against the Palestinians if they advance statehood without negotiations. This is, of course, a serious mistake. Israel has always complained that the Palestinians do not take responsibility for themselves, that they don’t have initiative, or that they don’t learn from the Zionist model of creating facts on the ground. Now, the Palestinians are proposing to disprove those claims. The Salam Fayyad plan is a Palestinian version of the Zionist enterprise and should be embraced by Israelis and by the government of Israel because the Palestinians are proposing one of the fastest tracks to relieve Israel from the occupation and from the danger of reaching the end of the viability of the two-state solution—meaning the end of the Zionist enterprise.
In order for Palestinian unilateral strategies to work, the United States would have to agree not to use its veto on the Israeli-Palestinian question against the will of the entire international community.
I started presenting in detail on the idea of Palestinian membership in the United Nations in March 2009, and briefed the Middle East envoy to the European Union, Marc Otte, on this idea a couple of days before European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana discussed it publicly in the U.K. The membership strategy is based on changing perceptions of reality and thereby changing reality itself. The “two states for two peoples” solution has been determined. Even if the government of Israel may be reluctant to recognize this reality and it is hard for the prime minister to utter the words, there is no other solution to this conflict. This is the solution that the United Nations proposed on November 29, 1947 (Resolution 181). On that basis Israel’s first Prime Minister Ben-Gurion declared independence; he even based Israel’s international legitimacy on that UN Resolution. It is time to go back to where it all started—the United Nations. It is time to implement the principles of that very same resolution.
After floating the “balloon” of membership in the UN for the State of Palestine and receiving swift negative responses from the United States and the European Union, the PLO is now clarifying its position: it is calling for a UN Security Council Resolution to preserve the “two states for two peoples” solution.
The following is a draft of a possible resolution that I sent to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in April 2009:
Proposal for a New United Nations Security Council Resolution on the Two-State Solution
Expressing its continuing concern with the grave situation in the Middle East,
Emphasizing the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war and the need to work for a just and lasting peace in which every State in the area can live in security,
Emphasizing further that all Member States in their acceptance of the Charter of the United Nations have undertaken a commitment to act in accordance with Article 2 of the Charter,
Affirms that the fulfillment of Charter principles requires the establishment of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East, which should include the application of both the following principles:
1. Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in June 1967;
2. The establishment of the State of Palestine on the basis of the June 4, 1967, borders, in the areas of the West Bank and Gaza including East Jerusalem;
3. Termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgement of the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence of the State of Israel and the State of Palestinein the area, and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force;
4. The governments of the State of Israel and the State of Palestine will enter into immediate negotiations between them on the exact borders between them based on the June 4, 1967, borders with agreed-upon territorial exchanges of equal size and quality. The guiding principle in the determination of the borders is that the State of Palestine will be composed of 22 percent of the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and the remaining 78 percent of the territory will be the State of Israel.
5. This settlement will establish Palestine as the Palestinian homeland, just as Israel is the homeland for the Jewish people. Both states are free to maintain their own immigration policies allowing for the return of nationals to each state respectively. The issue concerning the rights of Palestinian refugees will be dealt with in negotiations between the parties seeking to reach a just and agreed-upon solution that will put an end to the decades of suffering of the Palestinian refugees.
6. The issue of the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab and Islamic countries will be dealt with in the framework of bilateral negotiations between Israel and the second parties directly involved.
7. Accepting this Resolution:
7.1 Israel must immediately demonstrate support for the creation of a prosperous and successful Palestinian state by removing unauthorized outposts and ending settlement expansion.
7. 2 The government of the State of Palestine must demonstrate that its state will create opportunity for all its citizens, govern justly, and dismantle the infrastructure of terror. It must show that a Palestinian state will accept its responsibility and have the capability to be a source of stability and peace for its own citizens, for the people of Israel, and for the whole region.
8. In accordance with the principles laid down in UN Resolution 181 from November 29, 1947, both states will respect the rights of national minorities within their borders and grant them full equality under the law and in practice.
9. The Security Council recognizes the City of Jerusalem as the capital of both states and calls on the governments of the two states to negotiate the modalities for application of such in the city.
10. The Security Council recognizes the importance of the Holy Sites in Jerusalem to all three religions and proposes that they be placed under an international guardianship guaranteeing free and open access to all people who respect the sanctity of the sites, or under any other acceptable arrangement reached by agreement of the parties.
11. The Security Council empowers the Quartet to work with the governments of the State of Israel and the State of Palestine to conclude negotiations on the permanent borders of the two states within one year, including the modalities for the City of Jerusalem. The Quartet will report back to the Security Council on progress of those negotiations on a quarterly basis.
12. In accordance with Chapter VI and Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, the Security Council announces its readiness to deploy peacekeeping troops to the State of Palestine to assist and to facilitate the withdrawal of Israeli security forces from the territories of the State of Palestine.
13. The Security Council calls on the General Assembly to act in discharge of its functions under Article 4 of the Charter and rule 125 of its rules of procedure, to:
13.1 Decide that the State of Palestine is a peace-loving state that accepts the obligations contained in the Charter and is able and willing to carry out those obligations;
13.2 Decide to admit the State of Palestine to membership in the United Nations.
Yes, this is a form of imposed solution, but it is the agreed-upon solution that the entire world supports and the majority of the people here in Israel and the Palestinian territories support. There must be a public “buy-in” on both sides, but that is only possible when both sides can see the endgame clearly placed in front of them. The United States must commit to use its influence and political might to provide the international guarantees for the security of both states and both peoples.
There is no doubt in my mind that the moderate states of the Arab league in the region will fully support this process and provide their financial and political backing for it. The European Union is very likely to support the process with real financial resources and to provide personnel (military, police, and civilian) on the ground to back up the process with the mechanisms and modalities necessary to monitor and secure borders, as well as to prevent importation of explosives and weapons. Russia, China, Turkey, Japan, and other important nations are also likely to provide their backing and support. The United States should further provide concrete and visible positive results of the process stating that once the process is set into motion, the United States will open its embassy to both states in Jerusalem, and it should call on all of the nations of the world to do so as well. Israel would finally have a recognized capital in Jerusalem!
This issue needs leadership, ingenuity, creativity, boldness, and determination. This is what we expect from the Obama administration. We don’t want more of the same. We want and need a real change. This is the moment for making history.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.