Negotiators Ahmed Qureia (right) and Saeb Erekat (2nd right) and Tzipi Livni (left), in the peace process. Photograph: David Furst/AFP/Getty Images

From concepts to realities

Peace is not built solely by reaching agreements on paper – this is necessary, but not enough. Peace must be built on the ground – from the bottom up. We must begin to transform words and concepts into new realities.

It has been reported that the Israeli-Palestinian permanent status negotiations being conducted in parallel by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and PA negotiator Ahmed Qurei are moving toward the final stages. To reach agreement there are issues which are unavoidable and must be addressed. There are also steps on the ground which are necessary to build public support for the potential agreement, which could be implemented immediately, even before a full agreement is reached.

Apparently Livni will not agree to any kind of treaty that does not fully recognize Israel as a Jewish state. In the preparation for the Annapolis summit in November 2007, we recall that this was one of the major Israeli demands that made it impossible to reach a joint statement of principles for permanent status. The Palestinians rejected the demand. Negotiator Saeb Erekat stated: “We recognize Israel, don’t force us to determine your identity.”

Behind that statement was the Palestinian understanding that if they recognize Israel as a Jewish state, they underwrite the transfer of more than 1 million Palestinian citizens of Israel. They also claimed that acknowledging Israel as a Jewish state would predetermine the outcome of the negotiations on the “right of return” before that subject is even put on the table.

The Israeli claim is that the two states for two peoples solution is fundamentally based on the principle of partition of the land according to UN Resolution 181 from November 29, 1947 which clearly states: “Independent Arab and Jewish states… shall come into existence in Palestine.” Both the State of Israel and the PLO have based their international legitimacy for statehood on this resolution. The resolution itself, as well as the laws of the State of Israel, protect the rights of non-Jewish minorities in Israel, and when there is a Palestinian state, the rights of non-Palestinian minorities should also be guaranteed under law.

PALESTINIANS HAVE never fully understood that the notion of a Jewish state is not solely a religious designation. They have never fully conceptualized Jews as a “people” and still relate to Zionism as an illegitimate imperialist concoction aimed at usurping their national rights.

The negotiators are going to have to find the appropriate acceptable formula to address this issue. It might be possible to quote the same UN resolution and to add to it that the rights of the Palestinian minority in Israel and the Jewish minority in Palestine would be guaranteed and protected under law. The Palestinians say, however; that if we are going back to UN Resolution 181 let’s also use the map that was devised for partition at that time as well. That, of course is a non-starter for Israel.

The Ayalon-Nussiebeh formulation adopted two principles to assert the legitimacy of the two-states for two people solution: “Both sides will declare that Palestine is the only state of the Palestinian people and Israel is the only state of the Jewish people” and “Palestinian refugees will return only to the State of Palestine; Jews will return only to the State of Israel.” This formulation was possible because it also included clear positions regarding borders and Jerusalem that enabled a “package deal” to be agreed upon.

Regarding those issues, Ami Ayalon and Sari Nusseibeh agreed that in Jerusalem sovereignty would be divided between the two states, except for the holy places where neither would hold sovereignty, but Israel would serve as guardian over the Wester Wall and Palestine would serve as guardian over the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. On borders, they agreed to the principle of using the June 4, 1967 as the basis with acceptable 1:1 territorial exchanges.

The Geneva Initiative addressed this issue as follows: “As part of the accord, the Palestinians recognize the right of the Jewish people to their own state and recognize the State of Israel as their national home. Conversely, the Israelis recognize the Palestinian state as the national home of the Palestinian people.” Once again, this was an acceptable formula because of the comprehensive nature of the Geneva Initiative.

So far, as much as we can assess, the official Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have only agreed on the principle of territorial exchanges but have not agreed on the size of the territory which will be annexed by Israel. There appears to be no agreement on refugees or on Jerusalem.

TO REACH a package agreement, both sides will have to make substantive concessions. Just as the Palestinians will have to acknowledge the Jewishness of Israel, Israel will have to acknowledge its part in the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem. Israel does not bear full responsibility for that issue, but it certainly does have partial and even significant responsibility. Acknowledging Israel’s partial responsibility is necessary for the Palestinians to accept the principle that the “right of return” will be implemented primarily to the state of Palestine and not to Israel.

Acknowledgement by both sides of these fundamentals is what is required to reach an agreement that could enable real and lasting reconciliation. Both sides will also have to recognize that Jerusalem will be the capital of both states with the requisite division of sovereignty, including the division of control or sovereignty over the holy places.

Both sides could also implement substantive steps immediately that would provide a stronger foundation for the statements of acknowledgement listed above. Palestinians could indicate their willingness, in principle, to accept the right of Israeli settlers to become citizens of their future state, under Palestinian sovereignty and laws. Israel could acknowledge and implement the right of Abbas to pray in Al-Aksa Mosque beginning with this Ramadan. Both sides could agree to the construction of a new city or cities in the West Bank to which first preference would be granted to returning Palestinian refugees from Lebanon.

There is no reason to wait for a final agreement and its ratification by the people to begin to implement steps that will build peace on the ground while implementing specific clauses that will become central themes of the peace treaty. Peace is not built solely by reaching agreements on paper – this is necessary, but not enough. Peace must be built on the ground – from the bottom up. We must begin to transform words and concepts into new realities.

Gershon Baskin

Gershon Baskin

Gershon Baskin is one of the most recognizable names in the Middle East Peace process. His dedication to creating a culture of peace and environmental awareness, coupled with his impeccable integrity, has earned him the trust of the leaders of all sides of the century old conflict. Few people have such far-reaching and positive impacts on promoting peace, security, prosperity and bi-national relationships.
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.
Gershon Baskin

Latest posts by Gershon Baskin (see all)

About Gershon Baskin

Gershon Baskin is one of the most recognizable names in the Middle East Peace process. His dedication to creating a culture of peace and environmental awareness, coupled with his impeccable integrity, has earned him the trust of the leaders of all sides of the century old conflict. Few people have such far-reaching and positive impacts on promoting peace, security, prosperity and bi-national relationships. 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.