Encountering Peace: Opportunities for US peace initiative

The coming months are crucial and in the absence of real Israeli and Palestinian leadership advancing peace, there is no replacement for an effective and confident US role.

Clinton, Barak, Arafat at Camp David 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Win McNamee)
Clinton, Barak, Arafat at Camp David 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Win McNamee)
Is there a renewed opportunity for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking after the Israeli elections? That is exactly what US Secretary of State John Kerry will be seeking to determine on his first swing through the Middle East over the next couple of weeks.
He’s been calling Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas with a series of questions, and based on the answers he gets he will have to make a recommendation to US President Barack Obama on how much presidential time and collateral should be invested over the next year in trying to get the Israelis and the Palestinians to do what the US perceives to be in the best interest of both sides – make peace.
When Obama began his first term, he departed from usual American policy when he stated that resolving the Israeli- Arab conflict was in America’s national security interest. That statement could be understood to mean that the Israelis and Palestinians no longer had the veto on peacemaking because US interests and lives were at stake. But very quickly US policy returned to what is had been in the past, best understood from the mantra repeated many times by former secretary of state Hillary Clinton: the parties have to want it more than us.
That was a comfortable position for a first-term president with a complex plate of domestic and international issues to deal with that were more pressing than the long shot of an Israeli-Palestinian deal.
Now we have a second-term president who has successfully removed the US from two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an eager secretary of state raring to go on the road to have the US reemerge as the sole superpower, and a possible opening following Israeli elections. For the US to succeed it does not have to apply pressure on Israel or the Palestinians – which is the usual mode of thinking. The US needs to assure both sides that their most basic national interests and aspirations will be fulfilled from the negotiations.
The US needs to be prepared when it asks the two sides to return to negotiations, and must have the bridging proposals necessary to close the gaps and be ready to put them on the table from the outset.
The US needs to ensure Israel that security arrangements will be ironclad and that Israeli withdrawals will be linked with performance- based benchmarks on part of the Palestinians. The Palestinian state must be non-militarized and long-term security arrangements must guarantee that the West Bank will not turn into a launching pad for attacks on Israel. Those guarantees must include continued Palestinian security cooperation with Israel in fighting against terrorists and spoilers, as well as the incorporation of Israeli forces in whatever international, US-led force is placed on the Jordan River.
THE US must provide assurances to the Palestinians that Palestine will be a free independent state bringing an end to the Israeli occupation, and that the US will be the first to recognize that state through a UN Security Council resolution on the state membership of Palestine in the UN.
Palestinians should agree to an Israeli annexation of about 4 percent of the West Bank, enabling the settlement blocs to become part of Israel in exchange for equal territory from inside of Israel proper.
That is about the maximum amount of uninhabited land that is possible to find inside of Israel proper today.
The US secretary of state would be wise to revisit the offers made in the past by various countries to accept Palestinian refugees who do not wish to return to the Palestinian state, and to put that offer out front. At the same time, it should be easy to get an agreement from Israel and Palestine that all Palestinian refugees who wish to return to the Palestinian state should be allowed to do so as Palestine develops the capacity to absorb them. Israel should, with the assistance of the US and others, begin to calculate the financial compensation that should be made to Palestinian refugees who lost their properties inside of Israel and can still produce proof of ownership.
The US cannot and should not impose any peace plan on the parties. But the US can offer proposals and suggestions on how to best resolve the issues in conflict, and can back those proposals with commitments to continue to be engaged in the implementation of solutions.
THE PARTIES do have to want it more than the US, but there are many ways that the US can assist the parties to want it more than they have over the past four years. The US has to actively engage with the parties to convince them that a deal can be made, there are solutions and that the US will help turn them into reality.
The US will be a lot more effective at getting the sides towards agreements through quiet diplomacy and back-room negotiations. We don’t need a lot of photo-ops and ceremonious launchings of talks. Less festivities and more substance.
Palestinian and Israeli leaders would be wise to put their trust in the Americans, honestly put down their real positions and genuine redlines, and allow the US to develop a new path towards successful negotiations. It is not necessary to repeat the mistakes of George Mitchell, who laboriously worked to get the parties into the room at the same table. Negotiations can begin and progress without the parties sitting in the same room, through a trusted mediator with the power and backing of the US president. Documents can be exchanged without sitting together and the drafting of an agreement can be done without extensive summit meetings of leaders.
Much progress can be reached in this way, which will make the eventual meeting of the leaders possible and successful.
The coming months are crucial and in the absence of real Israeli and Palestinian leadership advancing peace, there is no replacement for an effective and confident US role. Immediately following Kerry’s visit to the region, the US administration must devise their operational plan aimed at demonstrating that peace is possible, that there are partners for peace on both sides and that now is the time.The writer initiated and ran the secret backchannel negotiations for the release of Gilad Schalit. He is the founder and co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information.