Wrapping a Peace Package

Ever since the last acrimonious meeting between Obama and Netanyahu in March, US and Israeli officials have been discussing new peace options.

cabinet meeting barak 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
cabinet meeting barak 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This article was published in The Jerusalem Report on May 2, 2010. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report, click here.
The tension between Israel and the Obama Administration over peacemaking with the Palestinians has engendered a spate of new American thinking on what to do next.
Within days of each other in mid-April, a number of former key players with ties to the current administration gave their advice: Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, bluntly urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to choose between his right wing or friendship with the U.S.; Aaron David Miller, a member of Mideast peace teams in successive American administrations, argued that since the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not currently resolvable and the US has higher priorities in the region, it should put Israel-Palestine on the back burner; conversely, former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski called on President Barack Obama to get more proactive by putting American parameters for a settlement on the table and forcing the parties to cut a deal.
Months of Israel-US friction, exacerbated by Israeli building plans in Jerusalem that had torpedoed an agreement for indirect “proximity” talks with the Palestinians, came to a head in an acrimonious late March White House meeting between Obama and Netanyahu. Obama, frustrated by what he saw as Netanyahu’s less than helpful attitude on restarting the stalled negotiations with the Palestinians, handed the Israeli leader a long list of points on which he thought Israel could move to help get the Palestinians back on board. Ever since, US and Israeli officials have been discussing a new Israeli peace package and critical observers on both sides have been suggesting new ways to go forward.
Three weeks after the Obama-Netanyahu tete-a-tete, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlined the official American position. At an April 15 dedication ceremony for the Washington-based S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, she put her finger on the reason for the severity of the U.S.-Israel differences: The lack of peace, she said, was not only threatening Israel’s future and the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people, it was destabilizing “the region and beyond.” In other words, in the Obama Administration’s view, peace is not only an Israeli and Palestinian concern, it is a key American interest, and when Israel stymies peace efforts by, say, insisting on building in East Jerusalem, it undermines America’s regional goals.
In her address, Clinton also conveyed a new American sense of urgency. If peace is to be achieved, she said, the parties need to act without delay. Otherwise the window of opportunity could close as rejectionist forces gain the upper hand. “Failure to act now,” she declared, may “not just set us back, but may irreversibly prevent us from going forward.”
The way forward, in her view, is to build on Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s impressive state-building project in the West Bank through renewal of the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. And here, she said, Israel needed to do more to make this happen by, for example, stopping settlement activity, addressing humanitarian concerns in Gaza and refraining from unilateral actions or statements that might prejudice the outcome of talks.
But despite the deadlock and the perceived urgency of the situation, Clinton insisted that the US would not try to impose a settlement. According to the Secretary of State, America will do all it can to achieve peace, but through incremental steps, working closely with the parties, the way special US Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell has been doing since January 2009.
Clinton’s views, however, do not go unchallenged in Washington, as other players reassess the long intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Miller, for example, debunks virtually all the Secretary of State’s basic premises. In an article in Foreign Policy magazine entitled “The False Religion of Mideast Peace: And why I’m no longer a believer,” he asserts that Iraq, Afghanistan, terror and Iran are Mideast issues more central to US interests than Israel-Palestine, that the Obama doctrine of defanging Israel-Palestine to help create a coalition of Middle East moderates against Iran is “not compelling,” and, most importantly, that, despite America’s best efforts, the conflict is not soluble.
Peace, says Miller, is elusive because the current crop of regional leaders are not strong enough and the peace project is too heavy for either side to carry: the Israeli government cannot handle the settlers, the Palestinian Authority cannot deliver Gaza. Moreover, he maintains, the US cannot impose a settlement, partly because it has lost its “mystique” as an all-powerful mediator, and partly because only a settlement the parties buy into can work. Obama, he says, has embraced the “peace religion,” but is not in a position to do much about it, and, “without a tectonic plate shifting somewhere,” the president would be better advised to give Israel-Palestine a wide berth.
Others in Washington accept the Obama administration’s basic premises, but disagree with the incrementalist approach. Several former national security advisers from Brent Scowcroft to Colin Powell are reportedly in favor of a dramatic launching of an American peace plan, and, according to The Washington Post’s David Ignatius, Obama is listening. Ignatius reports that when Obama walked in on a late March meeting of former national security advisers convened by the present incumbent Gen. James Jones, Scowcroft and Brzezinski suggested putting American peace parameters on the table. Others in the room, including Jones, backed them. If there is no breakthrough in Mitchell’s incrementalist effort, administration officials are hinting Obama could well set out the terms of a binding American plan in the fall, around the time Israel’s temporary freeze on settlement building is due to end.
Writing with former New York Congressman Stephen Solarz in The Washington Post, Brzezinski proposed a mind-boggling scenario: Obama goes to Jerusalem and Ramallah with an array of world and Arab leaders in tow, addresses both the Knesset and the Palestinian Legislative Council, putting peace parameters on the table and calling for negotiations for a final peace deal within the new American-initiated framework.
The parameters would be an updated version of those set out by president Bill Clinton in December 2000: Palestinian refugees to Palestine, not Israel; sharing of Jerusalem as the capital of both states; a territorial agreement based on the 1967 lines and land swaps; a demilitarized Palestine with US or NATO troops along the Jordan River. According to Brzezinski and Solarz, the high profile visit would give Israelis a sense that peace is possible and enable the political leadership to make the necessary compromises; and the presence of Arab leaders would give the Palestinian leadership political cover for the concession on refugee return to Israel proper. If either side rejects the new parameters, Brzezinski and Solarz say the US should go to the U.N. and get the peace framework endorsed in a binding Security Council Resolution, thereby generating irresistible international pressure on the non-compliant party.
Underlying much of the new American thinking is a get-tough with Israel approach.
Writing in The New York Times, Indyk observes that since Obama sees Israel-Palestine as a major American interest, Israel needs to coordinate Palestinian policy with its ally or jeopardize the key strategic relationship with the US that for years has been the cornerstone of Israeli foreign policy. “The shift in America’s Middle East interests means that Netanyahu must make a choice: take on the president of the United States, or take on his right wing. If he continues to defer to those ministers in his cabinet who oppose peacemaking, the consequences for US-Israel relations could be dire,” he warns.
In the weeks following his meeting with Obama, Netanyahu met several times with his seven-member inner cabinet to discuss the moves the American president thought Israel could make to convince the Palestinians it was serious about peace. For example, stop building in East Jerusalem for a few months, open Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem, hand over more West Bank territory to full Palestinian control, free Palestinian prisoners, remove more checkpoints, refrain from “provocative actions and statements” that could compromise peace talks, agree to discuss core issues like borders, Jerusalem and refugees in the proximity talks, commit to a two-year timetable for a full peace agreement.
In parallel, Israeli officials discussed the same issues with their American counterparts, paving the way for a late April visit by Mitchell to Jerusalem and Ramallah in an effort to get the stalled peace talks restarted on the strength of a new Israeli offer.
One of the ideas Netanyahu reportedly considered was offering to recognize a Palestinian state in temporary borders on around 60 percent of the West Bank, and then negotiating the core issues like permanent borders, security arrangements, Jerusalem and refugees on a state-to-state basis. That would have meant handing over more territory to full Palestinian political and security control, and would have removed any lingering doubts on Israel’s seriousness about a two-state solution.
For several months now, President Shimon Peres, Labor leader Ehud Barak and Kadima’s Shaul Mofaz have been suggesting a move along these lines. Peres and Barak, apparently with Netanyahu’s approval, tried to convince Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to go along. Abbas refused. He maintains that by offering the interim state, the Israelis are trying to trap him into futile negotiations that will end with the temporary borders becoming permanent. Instead, Israel is now reportedly offering a package which includes: allowing the Palestinians to extend civilian and security control over more West Bank areas without official land handovers, removing more checkpoints, releasing prisoners, easing the siege on Gaza and a willingness to discuss all the core issues up front in the proximity talks.
Netanyahu is refusing to accede to the main Palestinian demand for a total building freeze in East Jerusalem, but he has told the Americans that in practice Israel will not launch “significant” building projects in East Jerusalem and will not issue new tenders for Jewish building in Arab neighborhoods. On this basis, the Americans have issued invitations to both sides to commence proximity talks. Abbas is expected to give his answer after a follow-up Arab League meeting on the Palestinian issue scheduled for May 1.
On the Israeli side, there is cautious optimism that his answer will be positive. “The feeling is that there is now a framework in place that is going to allow the start of indirect negotiations,” a senior official told The Report.
Netanyahu’s domestic critics, however, argue that even if the proximity talks are launched, nothing significant will happen on the peace front as long as the current coalition remains intact, and they accuse him of holding Israel’s future hostage to narrow, partisan political considerations. Meir Sheetrit, one of the leaders of the opposition Kadima party, maintains that even if Netanyahu has come round to genuine acceptance of the two-state model, he is a prisoner of the hawks in his party and his coalition. If he makes serious moves for peace, Likud right-wingers will confront him with the party Central Committee’s decision against Palestinian statehood for which, ironically, Netanyahu himself was responsible; and in a coalition dominated by hawks in Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas and The Jewish Home, his room for maneuver is nil.
If Netanyahu really wants to make peace, Sheetrit says, he will have to form a new coalition made up of Likud, Kadima and Labor, with 70 seats in the Knesset and a majority for peace in the government. “Then he would be able to make peace, change the system of government and make a really significant imprint on the country. I told him several times: ‘You can make history or become history,’” Sheetrit tells The Report.
In Sheetrit’s view, the way for Netanyahu to make history is to come out with a bold Israeli peace initiative, preferably based on the 2002 Arab peace plan: Not only would he be hailed as a hero internationally, but accepting the Arab plan would serve Israeli interests. Sheetrit argues that the only road to peace with the Palestinians is through a territorial agreement based on the 1967 borders with land swaps, and he notes that the Arab plan stipulates that all 22 Arab states would be ready to normalize ties with Israel as soon as it withdraws on that basis. “If we are ready to pay the territorial price to the Palestinians, why not do it through the Arab peace plan and get normalization with the rest of the Arab world for the same money?” he declares.
Sheetrit also warns against antagonizing the US by hindering its wider regional plans. For example, America, not Israel, should deal with the Iranian nuclear issue. Israel simply should not get in the way and should support the American effort as best it can. And if one of the ways of supporting the US is by not exacerbating tensions with the Arab and Muslim worlds, Israel should cooperate by nurturing the peace process with the Palestinians. “It is essential for us to give the American president all the support he needs in this. And if it’s a case of freezing building, then we should freeze building for a period of time, even in Jerusalem,” he says.
Other critics insist that by kowtowing to his right wing Netanyahu is missing a historic opportunity for peacemaking with the Palestinians. Ron Pundak, director of the Tel Aviv-based Peres Center for Peace, which runs professional capacity building projects with Palestinians, argues that as a result of Fayyad’s state-building, there is a new readiness for peace on the Palestinian side. It stems not only from the law and order in West Bank towns and cities, the opening of new businesses and shops and the sense of a booming economy; there is, Pundak says, a pervasive sense of pride in Palestinian achievement and a new unity of purpose, and Fayyad’s plan to announce the arrival of a functioning Palestinian state in the summer of 2011 is channeling all this positive energy towards a political goal. According to Pundak, one of the initial negotiators of the 1993 Oslo Accords, support for a two-state solution that ends the Israeli occupation is growing not only in the West Bank, but in Gaza too. Moreover, he is convinced that Abbas, with whom he has a working relationship, genuinely wants to cut a deal. “I think he wants to go down in history as the man who signed a peace treaty with Israel, threw off the shackles of occupation and created an independent Palestinian state,” he asserts.
But, says Pundak, this will not happen if the Israeli-Palestinian process is allowed to meander along aimlessly, the way it is today. In his view, only firm American intervention with a new set of negotiating parameters can put the process back on track. It is not a question of an imposed settlement, he is quick to point out, but more a case of focusing the negotiations by setting relatively narrow parameters within which the parties seek agreement on each of the core issues. For example, on land, the parameters might be retention by Israel of 3 to 6 percent of the West Bank. What the parameters would provide, says Pundak, are sorely needed new terms of reference for peace negotiations.
His proposal is not dissimilar from that of Brzezinski and Solarz; but where they would go to the UN only if either of the parties rejects the parameters, Pundak favors getting a binding Security Council Resolution first. He says the Americans should get input from the other members of the Quartet, and then, with their backing, seek a Security Council Resolution that would supersede resolutions 242 and 338 as internationally approved terms of reference for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
“I think the Americans have to be careful not to leave themselves as the lone player or to allow the possibility of antagonism between Israel and America on its own. They would be much better off presenting the parameters as a demand of the international community,” he says. Pundak argues that one of the reasons the 2000 Camp David peace conference failed was because Clinton only put clear parameters on the table several months later, and then, for four weeks only. “If he would have said at the outset these are our parameters, he would have forced the two sides to conduct serious negotiations. And this is what could save the situation today,” he declares.
This article was published in The Jerusalem Report on May 16, 2010. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report, click here.