Now is the Time for Middle East Peace
Given the impasse between Israel and the Palestinians in the peace negotiations, the formation of a new right-wing Israeli government will make it further difficult for the two sides to come to terms on their own to reach a peace agreement. Leaving them to their own devices is inherently dangerous, which explains why the Obama Administration might make one last-ditch effort to resume the peace process following the conclusion of the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. I do not believe, however, that the resumption of bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations with U.S. mediation alone will succeed any more than the two previous efforts.
What is needed is a new strategy and a new venue to create a new political dynamic that will compel the Israelis and Palestinians to deal with one another. Being that the French are planning to submit a new framework for peace to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) –which requires the US’s full support to pass it – the Obama Administration can shape the resolution to make it consistent with its overall policy of a two-state solution. At the same time, this will prevent the Palestinian Authority (PA) from submitting their own resolution seeking an end to the Israeli occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state within a specified period of time, which can further complicate the conflict.
Contrary to common wisdom, the turmoil sweeping the Middle East, the convergence of multiple conflicts, and future uncertainties have created new compelling circumstances that support the resumption of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Whereas the regional violent conflicts – particularly in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen – distract attention from the currently less violent Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the relative quiet cannot be taken for granted. As the Palestinians’ frustration continues to grow, so does the risk of a new violent flare-up, which must be avoided. Preventing such an outbreak would allow for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating channels to remain open and for the Arab states to focus on the present danger posed by ISIS and Iran’s regional ambitions.
Why the conditions are ripe for the resumption of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations
More than ever before, the Arab states are eager to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; they see Israel as a natural ally against their common enemy—Iran and ISIS. In fact, Israel and the leading Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, are tacitly exchanging intelligence and coordinating plans to face the growing danger posed by ISIS and Iran.
President Obama may well be more inclined at this particular juncture in his presidency to breathe new life into the peace process. He has little political capital to lose—any success, however partial, will be to his credit, and another failure will be left to his successor to deal with.
The EU is more eager than ever before to play a larger role in settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which they view as another flash point that adds more fuel to the fire engulfing the region.
Europe is already suffering from Islamic radicalization and views the resolution to the conflict as one of the central components to protecting its massive interests in the region and significantly reducing radicalization.
Finally, a solution now would prevent the creation of additional facts on the ground, including the expansion of Israeli settlements, and narrow the opening for ISIS to instigate unrest in the territories, making it ever more difficult for Israel to extricate itself and end the occupation.
Provisions for a framework for peace
Unlike previous peace efforts by the US, the Obama administration together with two major allies, France and Britain, can join hands and introduce a UNSC resolution that will be based on the following provisions:
Limit the peace negotiations to two years to reach an agreement based on a two-state solution, while US and EU representatives act as facilitators to ensure continuity and progress;
Provide a framework for the negotiations, based on prior agreements between the two sides on specific conflicting issues in 2000 at Camp David, and in 2009-2010, and 2013-2014 under the Obama administration, so they do not start from scratch;
Maintain constant pressure on both sides to prevent either from playing for time by establishing a timeline to negotiate certain issues such as borders, to ensure that a full agreement can, in fact, be reached within the period provided;
State clearly that there will be consequences if they fail to reach an agreement, which may include sanctions, providing no automatic political cover for Israel by the US at UN agencies, exerting financial pressure on the Palestinians, blocking any unilateral efforts by the PA to end the Israeli occupation, etc.;
Insist that both sides engage in positive public narratives about the prospect for peace in an effort to change public perceptions and instill hope about the real possibility for reaching a lasting agreement;
Delink the various conflicting issues—for example, once an agreement is reached on the parameters of security along the Jordan Valley, it should no longer be linked to other issues over which there is still no agreement;
Use the Arab Peace Initiative (API) as an overall umbrella for the negotiations, thereby allowing the Arab states to lend significant psychological and practical support to the peace negotiations, while clearly signaling an end to the Israeli-Arab conflict, which a vast majority of Israelis seek.
The Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Egypt, are in a position to exert political and material pressure on Hamas to adopt the API, which will provide common denominators with Israel about the principle idea of a two-state solution.
The US and the EU can use their leverage on Israel to also embrace the API, particularly since the majority of Israelis, including former top security officials, strongly advocate the adoption of the API.
Overcoming obstacles that have impeded progress in the past
For the renewed peace efforts to succeed, it will be necessary to address the psychological dimension of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its impact on every conflicting issue. In this regard, it will be essential that both sides begin a systematic effort to reconcile, in particular, their historic and religious narratives.
Indeed, as long as their historic and religious claims to the same land remain set in stone, little progress can be made. The current young generation of Israelis and Palestinians need to see each other from a different lens and accept the fact that their coexistence is irrevocable, and therefore must choose to either live in constant ruinous hostilities, or in peace and prosperity.
Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians should be allowed to use their internal political factionalism as an excuse for why they cannot make certain concessions. This has been the practice by both sides in the past.
The UNSC resolution must call on both sides to stop their mutual public acrimony and criticism while the negotiations are in progress. This is particularly important because such negative statements lower public expectations instead of fostering hope for reaching a breakthrough.
Moreover, it will be necessary to engage the public by sharing elements of the progress being made, so that the public begins to envision the new horizon of peace and its far-reaching benefits.
In addition, the public would develop a vested interest in the process and lend its support to the negotiations, which of necessity requires both sides to make major concessions to reach an agreement.
Both sides must undertake any and all measures to prevent acts of violence that some extremists on either side might commit to torpedo the whole peace process, and embrace the late Yitzhak Rabin’s mantra: “fight terrorism as if there is no peace process; pursue peace as if there is no terrorism.”
Finally, irrespective of the negotiations, both sides should unilaterally undertake some confidence building measures to promote mutual trust in each other’s ultimate intentions. For example, Israel could release some Palestinian prisoners and stop the expansion of certain settlements, while the Palestinians could introduce a new curriculum in schools that recognizes Israel, and speak publicly about the prospect of living side-by-side Israel in peace, amity, and with good neighborly relations.
After nearly seven decades of conflict, peace between Israel and the Palestinians remains elusive. The longer the conflict persists, the more intractable it will become. Those Israelis and Palestinians who wish to have it all are dangerously misguided and will ultimately condemn any prospect for peaceful coexistence.
The new international effort to resume the peace negotiations must not lose sight of the popular demand of the majority on both sides to live in peace, because on their own, they will not come to terms with one another.
The regional turmoil must not forestall the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; on the contrary, it should serve as the catalyst that could end one of the longest conflicts in modern history.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.