US President Donald Trump.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
For decades, Republican and Democratic administrations alike have mistakenly treated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a strictly secular exercise. It is not. Likewise, religious leaders on both sides and Israeli settlers have been presumed to be intractable opponents of a negotiated two-state outcome. But they may not be. As President Donald Trump prepares to unveil his peace initiative, he has a unique opportunity to attract support from unlikely places.
Over the past year, the Trump administration has brought US positions firmly in line with the Israeli government, earning the adoration of the Israeli people and significant leverage with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And last month, Trump suggested the same endgame that his predecessors have fought for: a two-state solution, with the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state next to Israel. Still, the president has his work cut out for him – relations with the Palestinians are at an all-time low. The US has closed the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington and eliminated funding for Palestinian hospitals in east Jerusalem and UNRWA, the United Nations agency responsible for Palestinian refugees.
To succeed where others have failed, the Trump administration should engage leading Jewish, Muslim and Christian religious authorities, as well as Israeli settler leaders, in its efforts. Trump and his team are uniquely positioned to do just that. Efforts spearheaded by Mosaica – The Religious Peace Initiative have successfully enlisted religious figures in Israel and the Palestinian territories in constructive conversations about ending the conflict. Far from the headlines, this initiative has begun to build a critical level of trust between religious authorities that could eventually translate to progress in the peace process. This initiative is quietly building a religious legitimization of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, demonstrating that peace and religious identity are not inherently in conflict.
Moving forward, the Trump administration should solicit involvement from religious leaders to frame its peace initiative and seek to accommodate their religious narratives and specific religious concerns separate and distinct from the political process. Already, Israel’s police and security establishment have turned to these Jewish and Muslim religious figures to avert catastrophic violence on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount and reduce friction elsewhere. Empowering Jewish, Muslim and Christian religious figures to devise apolitical guidelines for peaceful religious observance in Jerusalem and the West Bank would minimize religious apprehension about a two-state agreement. For instance, a practical plan to enable Jewish and Muslim prayer and rituals at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, Western Wall, and cemetery grounds could greatly simplify territorial and sovereignty issues.
Building on these efforts, Trump can begin to heal the rift with the Palestinians. Having already demonstrated with the move of the US Embassy that Israel’s claim to Jerusalem will not be denied, he should consider declaring that Palestinians also have a legitimate claim to east Jerusalem. Drawing from past Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, he should explore options for two capitals – with Israeli sovereignty over Jewish neighborhoods, and Palestinian sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods. Moreover, the US team could choose from a number of promising models which could ensure access to the city’s holy sites, while balancing concerns over security and free movement for both peoples.
Additionally, the recent introduction of a political-security framework by Israel’s leading national security think tank, the Institute for National Security Studies, offers an opportunity to change the dynamic for Israeli settlers. With input from Israel’s foremost security professionals, the INSS plan calls for the completion of Israel’s security barrier in the West Bank, enhancing security and enabling continued construction in the large settlement blocs, which are deeply rooted in the Israeli consensus and where most settlers live. At the same time, it recommends a construction freeze in settlements outside the blocs and economic incentives for Israelis living there to relocate to the blocs or inside Israel. By adopting the INSS formula, the Trump administration would be endorsing a compromise that could be acceptable to some Israeli settlers, Palestinians and the international community, demonstrating that building in the settlement blocs and a viable and contiguous Palestinian state need not be mutually exclusive.
There is no question that Trump has already upended the traditional peace process. But with tensions strained with the Palestinian leadership, the political process is at a standstill. For Israel, the two-state solution is still an imperative, likely the only way to remain a Jewish state and a democracy and, according to many in Israel’s defense establishment, the best way to achieve long-term security. Having fulfilled his other promises to Israel, Trump must now ensure that his plan advances his ultimate promise: to bring peace.
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The writer is a former US congressman from Florida and the president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace.
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