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Israel & Palestine: Can They Start Over?

Benjamin Netanyahu; drawing by John Springs

The problem with the two-state idea as it has been construed is that it does not truly address what it purports to resolve. It promises to close a conflict that began in 1948, perhaps earlier, yet virtually everything it worries about sprang from the 1967 war. Ending Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories is essential and the conflict will persist until this is addressed. But its roots are far deeper: for Israelis, Palestinian denial of the Jewish state’s legitimacy; for Palestinians, Israel’s responsibility for their large-scale dispossession and dispersal that came with the state’s birth.

If the objective is to end the conflict and settle all claims, these matters will need to be dealt with. They reach back to the two peoples’ most visceral and deep-seated emotions, their longings and anger. For years, the focus has been on fine-tuning percentages of territorial withdrawals, ratios of territorial swaps, and definitions of Jerusalem’s borders. The devil, it turns out, is not in the details. It is in the broader picture.

The problem was built into the structure of the negotiations. It is only a slight exaggeration to describe them as a confidence game, a tacit understanding by all sides to elude the historic core of the matter through disingenuous ambiguity. Palestinians hoped they could achieve their goals even as they persisted in denying the Jewish people’s entitlement to even part of the land; Israelis trusted that if they granted Palestinians some kind of state the whole problem would fade away. The US assumed the role of a willing participant. Others, Europeans included, lazily followed.

Failure to deal with basic issues guaranteed their reemergence whenever the parties inched closer to a deal and recoiled from the implications of that last, fateful step. Then what had been obscured came into fuller view, namely that Palestinians were not truly prepared to stipulate that the conflict has been terminated and all claims set aside solely in exchange for an end to the occupation, and that Israel was not prepared to end its occupation in exchange for less.

Establishing two states would resolve the occupation, but that is only one aspect, albeit an important one, of a problem that arose decades before the occupation began. An Israeli leader will be loath to relinquish territory and permit the emergence of an indisputably sovereign Palestinian state at least as long as suspicion lingers that Palestinians have not genuinely made their peace with the new reality, that they are biding their time, and that a future of renewed strife lies in store.

In turn, a Palestinian leader cannot credibly proclaim that the conflict has come to a close if the solution ignores the genesis of the Palestinian plight and the historic core of its national cause. To adopt such a stand would be tantamount to conceding that the refugees—who make up a majority of the Palestinian population, were once its political vanguard, and could well regain that position—had waged six decades of struggle by mistake and endured six decades of suffering in vain. Internal challenges to such an arrangement might not be immediate. But they would be certain and severe, laying bare the fragility of a supposedly historic accord.

There are other reasons to break out of the straitjacket that the two-state model has become. For one, the parties have exposed their positions to the point where they lack negotiating space. The long public history of Israeli–Palestinian negotiations no longer is a legacy to build on. It has become an obstacle to overcome. An Israeli leader offering more to the Palestinians than what Prime Minister Ehud Olmert proposed would be accused of caving in; a Palestinian leader accepting less than what President Abbas rejected would be condemned for selling out.

The process of the past sixteen years also has been least effective in dealing with those who can do the most to derail it. The elements of a two-state deal as traditionally mooted carry little appeal to the more mobilized constituents—Israeli settlers and right-wing activists; Palestinian refugees and Islamist militants. If the objective is a legitimate and sustainable deal, their interests and aspirations too need to be borne in mind.

Some will deduce from this that little can be done. It is a conclusion that betrays a lack of imagination. New elements can be introduced and pieces of what has become an overly familiar—and faulty—puzzle reshuffled. Plausible departures from the conventional model should be considered that involve neither a flight of fancy into a one-state universe nor resigned submission to the status quo. They offer no guarantee of success. But the alternative is continuing a process that has consistently failed.

Just as the perfect can be the enemy of the good, so the good can be the enemy of the real, which is the key to the possible.


A Long-Term Interim Arrangement

As currently defined and negotiated, a conflict-ending settlement is practically unachievable; even if signed it will not be implemented and even if implemented it will not be sustained. Against this background, the idea of a long-term interim arrangement acquires some logic. Instead of a resolution that promises finality, Israelis and Palestinians could strive for an agreement that seeks to minimize risks of violence by attempting to stop some of the dispute’s more inflammatory manifestations. Such an agreement could create a more positive climate and new realities that may, in time, end the conflict. Israel would withdraw from all or part of the West Bank, diminishing friction between the two peoples. Security arrangements would be put in place. More vexing questions, including final boundaries, the fate of refugees and of Jerusalem’s holy sites as well as Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state, for now put on a slow track, would be taken up only after both peoples had grown accustomed to their new interaction.

By lowering the bar, the proposal would lower the stakes, preserving Israeli and Palestinian aspirations while defusing the conflict’s more volatile aspects. Should Palestinians feel more secure and prosperous and Israelis feel safer, the constituencies backing renewed confrontation might shrink. Unlike Oslo’s lofty dreams, an interim arrangement would more authentically reflect the two sides’ feelings: begrudging mutual acquiescence as opposed to earnest acceptance.

The idea is not new. Among its proponents are an unlikely assortment of Israelis and Palestinians; what they share is disbelief in the possibility of a genuine peace and faith in more circumscribed coexistence. The Israeli right historically has backed the notion of Palestinian autonomy. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, current Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and Hamas’s leaders all have raised the possibility of an interim arrangement. Sharon talked of a nonbelligerency pact, persuaded that Palestinians were not prepared to genuinely recognize the Jewish people’s right to their homeland and that peace without such recognition at best could only be a guarded lull. Lieberman, dismissing as delusional the notion that the two sides could end their conflict in the foreseeable future, argues for a long-term interim arrangement focused on delivering prosperity and security.

Although their angle differs significantly, Hamas leaders too see things that way. Existential issues cannot be resolved now, they say, not with emotions so raw, not with an Israeli entity that remains hostile and has usurped the land from its original Palestinian owners. Future generations might find a more harmonious way of living together, but only after a cooling-off period. For the time being, a truce, or hudna, that involves a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders is the most that can be done.

Other suggestions fall in this broad category: a Palestinian state within provisional borders or resolving borders first, while postponing questions about Jerusalem and refugees. Unilateralism— the idea that one or both parties would take steps on its own rather than through agreement—is a variant, arguably the more likely of them all. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s notion of building the institutions of a state even as the occupation endures is one example. An Israeli decision to withdraw from parts of the West Bank might be another. All these models differ save in one respect: the faith that something can be done even if not everything can be settled.

There are serious problems with all these variations, not least the wide discrepancies between the two sides’ assessments of what would be acceptable. From how much West Bank territory would Israel pull out? Would any part of Jerusalem be involved? For some Palestinians, a truce would require withdrawal to the 1967 lines, with equal swaps between land retained by Israel and land in Israel turned over to Palestinians. In their eyes, anything less risks perpetuating the occupation and reducing pressure to end it. Israelis, who find it difficult to accept such an outcome as part of a permanent deal, will find it nearly impossible to condone if it is part of a temporary arrangement.

Likewise, Palestinians might fear that with the territorial question essentially defused, unresolved issues—refugees and Jerusalem—will forever be postponed. Israelis might suspect that Palestinians, with their territorial aspirations essentially satisfied, will adopt maximalist positions on what remains. Then there is the question of how long the provisional can last and still claim to be provisional.

How such an interim arrangement would work is hard to fathom. But if an end-of-conflict settlement is out of reach and the status quo out of the question, options that fall somewhere in between deserve at least serious exploration.



The mention of Jordan as a possible piece of the Israeli– Palestinian puzzle comes with burdensome baggage. Memories of the bloody battle between Palestinians and Trans-Jordanians in 1970 endure, together with Palestinian concerns about the Hashemite Kingdom’s efforts to appropriate their national cause. There is the shadow cast by the view long held by many Israelis that Jordan is Palestine, from which it follows that there is no need to establish another independent Palestinian state or for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank. Officially at least, no one—not Israel, not the US, not Palestinian leaders, and certainly not the Jordanian leadership—currently will venture to suggest more than a supporting role for Jordan in a peace accord.

Yet arguments favoring some kind of Jordanian–Palestinian entity comprising Jordan, the West Bank, and perhaps Gaza are worth considering. Inserting a new variable would give both parties additional flexibility in an increasingly arthritic process. Israelis, almost viscerally unwilling to entrust their future to the Palestinians, hold a more sympathetic view of Jordan. For reasons at once historical, political, and psychological, they have faith in the Hashemite Kingdom, its complicated, uneasy relations with the Palestinians only bolstering the sentiment. What Israel might not hand over to the Palestinian Authority, they conceivably could give to a joint Palestinian–Jordanian entity. In the absence of a continued Israeli presence, a Jordanian security force in the West Bank would be viewed as reliable—undoubtedly more than any alternative Arab contingent, Egypt included. It would be arguably more reliable than a Western force, which might flee at the first whiff of violence. Even were Israel to remain skeptical of long-term Palestinian intentions, it might be prepared to withdraw from the West Bank if Jordan jointly held power on the other side.

Mahmoud Abbas; drawing by John Springs

Palestinians would need to overcome the initial jolt. Their national movement has spent the past several decades emphasizing separation from Jordan. Those whose political identity and interests have become wedded to the idea of a separate, independent state will be particularly resistant. Others will suspect an Israeli ploy to resurrect the idea of Jordan-as-Palestine. But more unexpected reactions might follow. For the Palestinian elite, Amman already serves as a substitute political and social hub. For Hamas, which thinks in broader Islamist categories and for which Palestinian statehood never was the crux of the matter, association with a larger Muslim entity could be appealing.

Being closely linked to Jordan—a country of similar ethnicity and faith, where the majority are already Palestinian—and accepting a Jordanian security presence in the West Bank might seem a tolerable price to pay compared to the alternatives, whether continued Israeli occupation or the dispatch of an unfamiliar Western force. Palestinians would gain economic and strategic strength, reduce their vulnerability and dependence on Israel, obtain valuable political space, and become part of a more consequential and self-sufficient state. The notion of a nonmilitarized West Bank could become more palatable: rather than Palestine being deprived of a military, Jordan–Palestine would consent to a limited demilitarized zone, akin to what Egypt has accepted and what Syria, in the event of a peace deal, almost certainly would approve.

The concept faces significant hurdles. It needs the Hashemite Kingdom’s consent and, though the thought of expanding its territorial expanse and political weight has long enjoyed appeal, it also causes anxiety among Jordan’s elite. The addition of millions more Palestinians could tip its demographic and political balance in unpredictable ways. The question will be whether—faced with the prospect of more of the same or the birth of a fragile state over which it lacks control—the kingdom finds this the less unattractive option. Moreover, bringing in Jordan might facilitate Israeli–Palestinian negotiations in several respects, but hard issues—not least the refugee question—would remain. Gazans have no history of ties to Jordan and might object to the arrangement. Jordan’s Arab neighbors probably would look askance at a solution that risks magnifying the kingdom’s influence and provide it with direct patronage over the Palestinian cause.


Back to the Core?

A more radical, far-reaching approach is conceivable. It is to try to resolve the conflict by dealing not only with the issues that materialized in 1967 but also those that led to the events of 1948: the question of Palestinian acceptance of a Jewish state and Israeli recognition of the Palestinians’ historical experience. Such an approach would bring to the fore historical grievances. To critics, this would probably be one of its worst features. They will point out that however frigid Israel’s peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, they have held; and that overcoming past wounds can only be the outcome of, not the precursor to, a deal. This is true, though the difference between Palestinians and other Arab countries lies precisely in the former’s unique relationship to Israel, which makes it impossible to resolve the conflict in the present without pronouncing some judgment on its past. Critics might add that negotiations would become far too complex were their scope to be expanded, though the arguments would sound more convincing were it not for sixteen years of failed peacemaking.

One could imagine two variants. Under the first, Israelis and Palestinians would complement their more conventional negotiations on borders, Jerusalem, refugees, and security with a parallel track devoted to matters left over since 1948. The hope is that progress on 1948 issues would increase confidence that the conflict genuinely could be ended, thereby leading both sides to show greater flexibility on the 1967 track.

A second approach takes this a step further. It would recognize that there can be no end to the conflict without honest reckoning with the past. It would accept that negotiations as traditionally conducted have reached a point of negative returns. And it would attempt a thorough reframing and reformulation of the issues. Core concerns associated with 1948 would be placed at the forefront: whether Palestinians can express acceptance of a Jewish state in a way that is perceived by Israelis as genuine while preserving the Palestinian version of the past, refugee rights, and the interests of Israel’s Palestinian minority; and whether Israel can acknowledge its role in the refugees’ tragedy and both respect and address their rights without this threatening its Jewish character. All other issues would be discussed and addressed from that starting point.

The parties might well reach familiar answers and there is every reason to predict an outcome comprising two states established on the basis of the 1967 borders. The occupation would have to come to an end. But the result would derive from a different process and satisfy a different objective: to focus not only on terminating the occupation but also on fulfilling both peoples’ basic yearnings.

To pursue an agreement that confronts these matters might be a painful and prolonged endeavor. The outcome is uncertain, for the conversation has not even begun. At a minimum, the effort would be fresh, the leaders untainted and unencumbered by what they had said, done, or rejected in negotiations past. Such an approach might attract support from Israelis and Palestinians who feel alienated from the current process both because it is insufficiently inclusive and because it treats their more deep-seated demands as mere byproducts rather than as focal concerns. It would have credibility and sturdiness, qualities absent from approaches that ignore the legacy of 1948. Assuming success, it would accomplish what those ventures have feigned to propose but have been inherently incapable of producing: a sustainable end to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.


The Obama administration has been in office for less than a year, but it has been engaged from the first with strategic reviews. US policy toward Iran has been discussed and redefined. Early months witnessed debate on Iraq. Substantive deliberations and questioning of past assumptions appear to have occurred regarding Burma, Sudan, and North Korea. On Afghanistan and Pakistan, the administration had not yet implemented the conclusions of a March interagency appraisal before the President decreed a review of that initial review.

On the Israeli–Palestinian front, meanwhile, there is no sign of anything resembling thoroughgoing reappraisal. There have been adjustments in tactics. The administration zeroed in on Israeli settlement expansion and steps toward normalization of relations with Arab countries. Relations with Israel are frostier. But when it comes to the fundamentals, apparently it’s still business as usual. The goal is to achieve a comprehensive agreement by persuading Israel to concede more land and Palestinians to demand less while trading off Israeli flexibility on Jerusalem against Palestinian compromises on refugees.

The reluctance of the US to change the way it thinks about the conflict and its possible resolution arguably has several causes. There is a belief embedded in each successive administration that its predecessor either didn’t try hard enough or did not try well. And there is the fear that taking a step back will look to critics more like throwing in the towel than engaging in productive thought. But there must be a better way than the flailing and failing to which all have become inured.

A decade ago, President Clinton set out to resolve the Israeli–Palestinian conflict along what now are familiar lines. At the time, one could have called the venture bold, if mismanaged. When, some years later, President George W. Bush waded into the business of peacemaking by following the same general prescriptions, one could describe his efforts as belated and somewhat unrealistic, though ambitious nonetheless. Should President Obama follow the same trodden path, without first rethinking basics, there would be nothing bold or ambitious about his efforts. They would be futile and thoroughly mystifying. This time, there would be no excuse.

—November 3, 2009

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