Jerusalem of Peace by Calman Shemi.
(photo credit: JWG LTD)
At a joint press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump spoke optimistically about the prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, stressing that his administration remains engaged in the effort to broker one.
Netanyahu – and his wife – are both swimming in corruption scandals, the most consistent thing about Trump is his inconsistency, and Palestinian President Abbas is aging without having accomplished much to call a legacy. It seems like a counterintuitive time to talk about a peace initiative, but it is the despair of the three that might make this the moment when each for his own reasons is desperate enough for something to call an accomplishment. History, in fact, has demonstrated that when Israeli prime ministers face trouble at home they turn to diplomatic initiatives to distract from domestic hardships.
I do not mean to suggest that we should get too carried away. The Arab-Israeli conflict is highly complex, it will not be solved in any single fell swoop. Well-intended but overambitious politicians are often overcome by the desire to broker a deal of grand proportions only to neglect the limited contributions they actually could have made.
One of the most important elements for peace is the establishment of a border-designate. Though many wish to use the pre-1967 Israeli-Jordanian border known as the Green Line, that effort has failed, not for political reasons, but because it is not practical. Aside from reflecting troop positions at the end of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, the Green Line does not reflect the historic, geographic, demographic, or religious considerations at play.
Peace depends on establishing a more clear and logical separation of territory than what exists today. A proposal recently debated by Israel’s cabinet involved expanding Palestinian administered territory adjacent to the city of Kalkilya. Though the initiative has stalled, the fact that it made it so far through Israel’s rightist political machine exposes a significant opportunity. In his opposition, Education Minister Naftali Bennett asserted that it advanced Palestinian interests without benefiting Israel.
In the meantime, many Israelis are agitating for annexation of major Jewish communities beyond the Green Line. Previous rounds of peace negotiations established that a final-status agreement will involve such annexations in exchange for transfers of territory from the Israeli side of the line to the Palestinians.
Were there an agreement on exchanging Palestinian and international acceptance of Israeli annexation of Jewish communities beyond the Green Line for an equivalent expansion of the territory already under Palestinian control, perhaps Bennett, who is Israel’s foremost advocate for such annexations, and others on Israel’s Right, could be convinced to accept it.
Palestinians will not like negotiating over territory which is already considered Palestinian for final-status purposes, regardless of the fact that they do not yet control it, much less at the cost of other territory they also consider rightfully theirs, regardless of the expectation that it will be annexed to Israel in a final-status agreement.
The Palestinians prefer to perpetuate the myth that the Green Line is the border-designate. Obama’s adherence to that myth complicated peace efforts, led to further deadlock, offended many Jews and pushed the Israeli electorate rightward in a backlash. He stubbornly allowed his preconceived notions to undermine his ability to make progress.
A look at religious sites is telling. A return to the Green Line would leave Israelis with no access to the Temple Mount, Western Wall, Cave of the Patriarchs, Rachel’s Tomb, and other sites.
Additionally, several significant Jewish communities that exist today were founded, even in their modern incarnations, long before 1948, despite having fallen under Jordanian control between the ‘48 and ‘67 wars.
Nineteen years of Jordanian control does not give the Palestinians title to preexisting Jewish communities.
While recognizing that unlimited Jewish building undermines the territorial continuity needed for Palestinian statehood, Trump influenced Israel to restrict Jewish building without using the Green Line as a de facto border.
Though the limitations frustrate some, recognition of legitimate Jewish rights beyond the Green Line leaves less of the sense of hostility that drove Israelis rightward during Obama’s presidency.
The exchange I propose depends on stating that it is an interim arrangement that does not impact final-status talks in which land swapping is negotiated based on deviations from the Green Line, regardless of how well established those deviations are. Such a clause, coupled with the immediate expansion of territory already under Palestinian control, should make it easier for Palestinians to accept.
Progress depends on breaking both the myth of the Green Line’s continued relevance as a border and the myth that Israel can continue ignoring the needs of the Palestinian population. If Trump’s team can broker an interim agreement that Netanyahu can sell to his base as an annexation and that Abbas can sell to Palestinians as an immediate territorial expansion, it would advance the interests of both sides, break both myths, and provide a win to three leaders desperate enough to make history.
The author grew up in Pennsylvania and now lives in Jerusalem.
Previous columns of his have appeared in media outlets in both the United States and Israel.