Optimism is also an option

I am convinced that it is possible to make real progress through proximity talks, and given the level of mutual mistrust, I even believe it is the preferred means.

george mitchell 311 (photo credit: AP)
george mitchell 311
(photo credit: AP)
I am told by diplomats that I am the only optimist in the Middle East. There are certainly reasons to be pessimistic about the chances for peace, but I will not be dissuaded just because we have failed to reach peace so far. The difficulty in restarting negotiations is, of course, a result of many years of failed talks, an intifada, a war in Gaza and the election of a right-wing religious government in Israel.
It also is the result of a mistaken strategy by the new US administration, which fell into the trap of spending most of its first year negotiating about negotiations. The Israeli-Palestinian issue was far from having priority on the table of President Barack Obama during his first year. First was the need to save the global economy from total meltdown, health care reform, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran, and global climate change. Obama’s decision to appoint George Mitchell on his second day in office, and Mitchell’s appearance in Jerusalem and Ramallah on day four created an illusion that the administration would be quick to act. It has taken a full year, but now the show is on the road.
Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of meeting senior administrationofficials in the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon. Ihad similar talks in November. At that time I came back quite convincedthat the administration was not prepared to deal with the difficultiesthat Israelis and Palestinians had placed in the path to peace.
THE SITUATION is quite different now. As evidenced by the long-awaitedannouncements from Jerusalem and Ramallah on the launching of proximitytalks, Mitchell is no longer willing to take no for an answer.
In Washington, I learned that the administration is busy defining its“diplomatic tool box” – that inventory of incentives and disincentives(called “carrots” and “sticks” in less diplomatic language). Aside fromtaking stock, it was clear to me that it is in the process of assigningpossible “price tags.”
I am convinced that various tools were already used to induce both theIsraelis and Palestinians to agree to the proximity talks.
Now the process has begun. We all have a pretty good idea of what the endgame looks like.
Both Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian AuthorityPresident Mahmoud Abbas know what compromises they will be required tomake.
They may not want to acknowledge that out loud or with their domesticpolitical partners, but there is no doubt that when they thinkseriously about the agreement, they both know that Jerusalem will bethe capital of both states and that the return of Palestinian refugeeswill be to the Palestinian state only. They both know there will be aneed for a significant international presence, led by the US, that willprovide security and other guarantees of implementation in the forms ofmechanisms for monitoring, verifying and assurance of compliance withtreaty commitments.
They both know that neither Israel nor the Palestinians has anystrategic option other than reaching peace on the basis of two statesfor two peoples. There is no Israeli option of status quo or ofannexation of the territories without the people. There is noPalestinian option of one state based on one person, one vote.
There is no one-state solution. This is primarily a territorialconflict. If, at some time, there will no longer be a viable two-stateoption, the conflict will transform from a territorial conflict to aconflict over identity. Conflicts over identity pit everyone againsteveryone for everything. The best example is Bosnia, where 150,000 werekilled in four years.
Neither Israel nor Palestine can afford such disaster. Both leaders,with the best interests of their people at heart, must recognize thatnow is the time, and agreement is possible. Surprising to most, thehardest issue will be the map, not Jerusalem nor refugees. Mysuggestion is that the territorial discussion begins with Israelidentifying areas within the Green Line it is willing to swap forsettlement blocs. The quantity and quality of those areas willdetermine the quantity and quality of areas to be annexed.
My professional assessment is that it will be from 3% to 3.5% of theWest Bank (including east Jerusalem), which will include about 75% ofthe settlers. The remaining 25% will have to choose between staying inthe state of Palestine as law-abiding citizens of that state (Israelcan allow them to hold dual citizenship and to continue to vote for theKnesset) or repatriating to the State of Israel. In the case of thelatter, they can move to the annexed parts of Judea and Samaria or moveback to anywhere they like within the State of Israel.
Everyone who agrees to leave should be given a substantial check, andwill then decide to live wherever they want. It would be advisable todevelop a time-linked financial plan, so that the sooner you decide toleave your home in a settlement that will remain in Palestine, the moremoney you get.
Likewise, the Knesset should pass a law allowing those settlers outsidethe settlement blocs to receive compensation even before thepermanent-status agreement is reached. Let’s face it, Ariel will not bein the State of Israel, nor will settlements in the Jordan Valley. EastJerusalem settlements (neighborhoods), most of Gush Etzion, the Modi’inIllit bloc settlements and those settlements along the Green Line willbe annexed.
FOLLOWING MY Washington meetings, I prepared seven pages ofrecommendations for the US peace team on how to move the peace processforward. I shared those recommendations with the highest-level decisionmakers in Jerusalem and Ramallah. I am convinced that it is possible tomake real progress through proximity talks, and I even believe that,given the level of mutual mistrust, it is the preferred means.
Mitchell has a very tough job ahead, but he has all the toolsnecessary. The success of proximity talks does not have to be inreaching direct negotiations. Success at this stage can be thebeginning of the drafting of a peace agreement. That’s how presidentJimmy Carter did it in Camp David I – without having Menachem Begin andAnwar Sadat negotiate face-to-face, and Egyptian-Israeli peace hassurvived every test one could imagine.
The writer is co-CEO of theIsrael/Palestine Center for Research and Information, and an electedmember of the leadership of Israel’s Green Movement political party.