Focus on the means, not the end

An American peace plan for the Israel-Palestinian conflict would be a substitute for, rather than a prelude to, a peace process.

netanyahu obama 311 (photo credit: AP)
netanyahu obama 311
(photo credit: AP)
The rumors concerning a US administration intention to present a new Middle East peace plan in the fall worry me. Not because this would be a bad plan. Quite the contrary, I think I know exactly what will be in it.
But an American peace plan is a substitute for, rather than a prelude to, a peace process. And what the parties need right now is a process.
Peace processes sponsored by the United States may not all have succeeded, but at least they were welcomed and used by the parties and in some cases generated real progress. In 1978, there was a framework agreement between Israel and Egypt that comprised talks on Palestinian self-government. Those talks were a bad joke; they dissolved against the backdrop of the First Lebanon War.
Then there was the Madrid Conference which formulated a complex and interesting procedure for talks between Israel and its neighbors. Those talks led to the Oslo agreement and the Israel-Jordan peace, but Syria and Lebanon abandoned them and never returned.
The Shepherdstown negotiations ended in January 2000 without any dramatic announcement, and were renewed only with abortive Turkish mediation during the days of prime minister Ehud Olmert.
Final status talks with the Palestinians ceased at Taba in 2001 with a promise to renew them after elections in Israel – a promise never redeemed, unless one counts Olmert’s abortive talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that fell somewhere between negotiations and non-binding discussions over a good lunch.
The hope that Barack Obama’s election as president of the United States would bring about renewed talks between Israel and its neighbors has thus far not been realized. Nearly a year has been wasted on pathetic negotiations regarding modalities of a settlement freeze. This represents a failure for Middle East Special Envoy Senator George Mitchell, who lent his hand to an absurd formulation that did not lead to renewed talks but did grant indirect American legitimization to ongoing settlement.
THE SYSTEM has collapsed into genuine paralysis. Syria is ready only for indirect talks with Turkish mediation, and even this looks less and less practical now. Abbas cannot renew final status talks without a genuine settlement freeze, at least for three or four months, while Israel under Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman won’t even consider that possibility and continues to build in the Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem. And Lebanon is waiting for a green light from Syria, like in the good old days.
This situation will not be alleviated by a dramatic presidential speech, whether in the spring or the fall, that presents an Obama plan for the Middle East. Before taking such a step, the president should have a look at White House archives, where he’ll find a speech by President Ronald Reagan from September 1, 1982:
“The United States has thus far sought to play the role of mediator. They have avoided public comment on the key issues. They have always recognized that only the voluntary agreement of those parties most directly involved in the conflict can provide an enduring solution. But it’s become evident, to me at least, that some clearer sense of America’s position on the key issues is necessary to encourage wider support for the peace process. The immediate adoption of a settlement freeze by Israel, more than any anything else, could create the confidence needed for wider participation in these talks. Further settlement activity is in no way necessary for the security of Israel.”
The Reagan Plan was presented to the parties in 1982. Israel, led by Menachem Begin, rejected it outright, as did the Arab states. No effort was made to alter these positions. Reagan’s dramatic address became a dead letter.
Even the parameters associated with former president Bill Clinton, important as they are as a point of reference for a future solution, were proposed only after failed negotiations and were greeted by the parties with endless reservations. They did not advance the talks.
And then there was the “Bush vision” that failed to change realities.
The history of recent decades proves that just because a peace plan is presidential, it does not necessarily have the shock effect needed to cause the parties to alter their positions.
By contrast, when an American president proposes a new procedure, theparties accept it and register progress within that framework. An Obamaplan will not offer the parties anything revolutionary. It willpostulate a border based on the Green Line with equal land swaps, thepartition of east Jerusalem between Arab and Jewish neighborhoods, afinancial and symbolic solution to the issue of the Palestinianrefugees, security arrangements for Israel that comprise amultinational force on the West Bank, and realization of the Arab PeaceInitiative. Both parties will find clever ways to reject it.
Why waste time? Everything is known; everything has been written. Whatwe need is to make the link between the well-known peace plan and itsimplementation. Obama should replace his failed Middle East team,reconvene a framework similar to Madrid, establish the basis for talksin the agreed invitation to the conference, work out with the Arabstates the gradual implementation of the Arab Peace Initiative – andnot wait for the fall of 2010. If Obama issues the invitation, theparties will have to come. But the substance should be left to them.
The writer, a former minister of justice, currently chairs theGeneva initiative and is president of Beilink. This article was firstpublished by and is reprinted with permission.