The U.S. and Israel want to limit Palestinian sovereignty, to demilitarize their state, to prevent a Palestinian return and to implement any agreement in stages. But in order for the two-state solution to have a chance at working, they need to do the exact opposite.
The deadlock in the peace talks has generated another American diplomatic push, one that seems like the first stage in the administration’s proposal for a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (or, more accurately, the Ramallah-based half of the Palestinian Authority). According to reports, the American team led by Secretary of State John Kerry put forward a proposal for security measures that would address some of Israel’s concerns regarding a withdrawal from the West Bank.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has so far refused to discuss the future borders of the Palestinian state in public, and leaks from the talks suggest that Israel will only discuss the territorial aspects of an agreement after the security aspects are resolved. The American proposal is designed to tackle this new hurdle or at least prepare the ground for a full American two-state proposal.
As I’ve written here in the past, I remain a sceptic regarding the administration’s ability to promote a real agreement, mainly due to the strategic decision by Israel to hold on to the status quo, along with an American reluctance to confront Jerusalem. As long as the administration is not willing to push Israel out of its comfort zone, the only available course of action would be to force the PA to move toward Israel’s position.
So far, this has been the American approach. Kerry backed Netanyahu’s refusal to enter talks based on the terms of reference agreed upon in previous rounds, and instead forced the Palestinians to “negotiate without preconditions.” Now, it seems the U.S. is gradually moving toward two other Israeli demands: maintaining an Israeli presence on the Jordan River for several years, and recognizing Israel “as a Jewish state.”
According to some reports, the Palestinian Authority rejected the American security arrangements proposal. As a result, the Maariv daily reported today, the Obama administration might allow Israel to postpone the coming prisoner release – the very gesture that was promised to the Palestinians in exchange for abandoning all other demands when entering talks.
If the Washington applies enough pressure, I believe it could get the Palestinian Authority to agree to Israel’s terms. Ultimately, the Palestinians simply don’t have much leverage in the diplomatic process and the PA is completely dependent on the U.S. for any political achievement. The only real threat Abbas could make is to resign and dismantle the Authority, and that is a high-risk, no-turning-back kind of act that could have devastating effects on the Palestinians living in the West Bank.
In the longer run, however, imposing on the Palestinians an agreement tailored to suit the political needs of Israel’s leadership is a recipe for disaster. It basically means repeating all the mistakes of the Oslo process. Back then, for pretty much the same reasons – Israeli politics, Israeli fears – the settlements were excluded from the interim agreement, undefined military zones were left in the West Bank (Netanyahu famously boosted that this was the loophole that helped him torpedo Oslo); and the implementation phase was prolonged in a way that allowed the opposition on both sides to organize, gain momentum and ultimately derail the entire process. Sometimes I think the negotiators are determined to repeat the same mistakes.
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Settling for an implementation in stages and accepting fierce Israeli security measures intuitively seems like the right way to go (since trust needs to be built, fear needs to be overcome, and so on), but I propose the opposite idea: If the two state solution has any chance of succeeding in the current geo-political environment – and that’s a big “if” – it needs to be a swift and extremely generous process (towards the Palestinian side).
For starters, such a solution should completely abandon the “zero-sum game” attitude which currently dominates the talks – according to which any gain for one side is a loss for the other. In fact, the more the Palestinians gain from the agreement, the greater their interest in it becomes, and the more isolated those rejecting it will be. The opposite of Oslo.
If Israel, for example, maintains an army presence on the Jordan border or anywhere inside the Palestinian state – even on a temporary basis – any Palestinian political force with a grudge will make this presence the object of his campaign. There will be political attacks, and then there will be physical attacks. For the same reason all Palestinian prisoners need to be released; keeping them in Israeli prisons will create a political time bomb and an on-going sense of resentment.
If the Palestinian Authority doesn’t control its borders or airspace, or if it needs to give up valuable land in the north and around Jerusalem for the settlements and get desert hills in return – in the spirit of some of the recent land swaps maps – the whole idea of statehood becomes meaningless to the average Palestinian. A chair at the UN, after all, is not the object of the Palestinian national struggle. Freedom and dignity are.
I am not a big fan of the security oriented debate since I think it has become a way for Israeli society to avoid making political choices. It should be clear, however, that a strong central government on the Palestinian side is a precondition for making any security arrangement work. The weaker Israel makes Ramallah (which should become Jerusalem), the less capable it is of being accountable for violations. If the Palestinians have no air space and no armed vehicles, they won’t be able to operate as an effective state. And ineffective states are where terrorism grows.
Giving armored vehicles or helicopters to a Palestinian state will not pose a security threat to Israel. The Israeli army has proved time and again that dealing with conventional weapon systems is extremely easy, due to its technological superiority and unique firepower. Much like Hezbollah’s strategic, long-range missiles, a Palestinian tank that fires on Israeli targets won’t survive 10 minutes. The challenge for Israel is the single person with a grudge or the committed underground cell. You want a Palestinian state? Allow it to have tanks. Otherwise you won’t have a state and you won’t have security; you will have something else.
Finally, there can not be a stable agreement without addressing the refugee problem. Even advocates of the two-state solution don’t want to turn 7 million refugees into opponents of the agreement, that is on top of the opposition to it in the OPT. Here also, the generous approach (in Israeli political terms) is the only approach. Israel should allow in hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and compensate and help resettle the others (this is where the Arab world and the international community, which owes a lot to the Palestinians, could help).
I usually don’t use demographic arguments either, but since those have become an inherent part of the two-state conversation, it should be noted that they don’t stand in the way of a substantial return. If a real two-state solution is to take place, Israel will “lose” 250,000 Palestinian residents and citizens in East Jerusalem, which means that accepting as many as 500,000 Palestinian refugees would have resulted in a rise of 250,000 people in the total number of Palestinian citizens in Israel, or an equivalent of 3.1 percent of the whole population. A lot, but in the context of a real final status agreement, it’s not that much. I actually think that we could take many more.
This maximalist approach is, in my opinion, the only way to reach an agreement that is not simply imposed on one side – or worse, implemented through a puppet regime – but has a chance of actually working. As for the ideas being discussed now, history has taught us that a bad agreement can be much worse that no agreement at all.