Inside Out: The multilateral alternative

If the Israeli government concludes that negotiations with the Palestinians are doomed to fail, it should abandon bilateral negotiations.

Netanyahu and Abbas (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu and Abbas
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Israeli government signed the Oslo Accords with the PLO over 20 years ago. By signing the accords, Israel sought to ensure its future as a Jewish and democratic state that lives in peace and security, and which has the respect and cooperation of the world at large. Those interests, which prompted Israel to negotiate and sign the Oslo Accords, have not changed since.
The governing premise of the Oslo Accords was that a negotiated end of the military occupation of the Palestinian population, on the one hand, and the subsequent establishment of a Palestinian state (or a statelike autonomy), on the other, would secure those vital Israeli interests. It should go without saying that Israel’s goal in ending the occupation and establishing secure and recognized borders was not to be kind or generous with the Palestinians but to secure its own vital interests.
The initial progress that was made in the Oslo process yielded Israel a number of significant ancillary economic and diplomatic benefits as well. It opened Israel up to new international markets (such as India and Turkey), allowed Israel to make inroads into the Arab world (as with Jordan) and facilitated the expansion of Israeli trade and cooperation in myriad fields with other foreign markets (as with the EU).
The failure (thus far) of the Oslo process to culminate in an arrangement that frees Israel of its military occupation and provides it with internationally recognized borders has eroded many of the achievements that were chalked up in the first years after the accords were signed.
There are numerous political, cultural and sociological reasons for the failure of the bilateral negotiations to deliver the final results Israel needed. By all signs, the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships have been unable to bridge the gaps dividing them on the core issues – refugees, Jerusalem, security arrangements, settlements and borders. In part, the disparity stems from substantive concerns harbored by both sides, however, to a great extent the two leaderships – and mainly the Palestinians—have been leery of making public concessions due to fear of domestic political fallout and a severe lack of trust in the other party.
The interests that motivated Israel in the 1990s to negotiate with the Palestinians, as noted, have not changed. Israel still aspires to ensure its existence a Jewish and democratic state that lives in peace and security, with the respect and cooperation of the world at large. No less importantly, the route to securing those interests – ending the military occupation of the Palestinian population and achieving secure and recognized borders – has not changed, either.
The mechanism for achieving that goal – namely, bilateral negotiations with the Palestinian Authority— has failed by all signs. If that is the case, it should be replaced. The question is with what.
To annex the West Bank and grant the Palestinians citizenship would be suicidal from every conceivable angle. Unilateral action, as has been proposed by former ambassador to the US Michael Oren and others, would be a possible but risky course to take, as the Gaza disengagement proved. A third option, one of multilateral negotiations, however, warrants some contemplation.
In the time that has elapsed since the Camp David talks were held in 1999, a number of Israeli and world leaders have outlined the contours of a peace agreement that they envisioned would secure the two Israeli interests of ending the occupation of the Palestinian population and providing Israel with secure and recognized borders, while securing the Palestinian interest of independent statehood.
In all cases, the contours have been overwhelmingly similar to one another: Israel will annex the settlement blocs in the West Bank, in return for which it will relinquish territory of equal size and quality; Jerusalem will be divided along demographic lines, with a special arrangement in the holy basin; the Palestinian state will be demilitarized, and adequate arrangements will be instated to ensure Israeli security; Palestinian refugees and their descendants will not be allowed to “return” en masse to Israel, but will receive compensation and full citizenship either in their host countries, the future Palestinian state or third countries.
The above-cited contours, with minor variations, were put forward explicitly by US president Bill Clinton and the Israeli premiers Barak and Olmert. Many other Israelis and prominent figures on the global diplomatic stage have spoken in similar terms. More than anything, they reflect the accepted vision that is shared by the responsible international community and the large Israeli political center for the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Judging by his seminal Bar-Ilan speech, it would seem fair to assume that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu belongs to that same center, and envisions the resolution of the conflict along similar lines, albeit with some variation as to security arrangements, the size of the settlement blocs and so forth.
If the Israeli government concludes in the weeks and months ahead that negotiations with the Palestinians are doomed to fail, it should abandon the mechanism of bilateral negotiations. Instead, it should seek to negotiate the terms under which it would end the occupation and establish recognized and secure borders multilaterally, with the United States and other allies in the responsible international community.
Given the similarity in positions, the parties presumably ought to be able to reach an agreement rather quickly.
If and when an agreement is reached between Israel, the United States and other prominent players in the responsible international community, the Israeli government should propose that as its peace plan to the Palestinians. If the Palestinians accept, Israel will have the bonus of peaceful relations with the Palestinians. If they refuse, Israel would then be in a position to implement that plan without Palestinian compliance. As opposed to the case in disengagement, the implementation would not be unilateral, but with the practical support of the United States and other Israeli allies.
Optimally, Arab countries, such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf states could be enlisted to support this resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel has a vested interest in ending its military occupation of the Palestinian population and establishing recognized and secure borders. Israel’s allies in the international community would like to see Israel accomplish those two goals as well – not only for Israel’s sake, but for the Palestinians’ sake too. If they can be persuaded that the offer being put forward by Israel is fair, just and reasonable, there would be no reason for them not to support it, even if the Palestinians refuse.
The writer is a veteran author and translator.