Israel should take the initiative

“We will prevail because we regard the building of peace as a great blessing for us, and for our children after us. We regard it as a blessing for our neighbors on all sides.” —Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony, December 10, 1994

With over a year to learn from the last failed attempt to jumpstart the peace process and now facing mounting international pressure and on-the ground escalating violence, Israel must awaken from its short-sighted solace in the status quo and search for new ways to reach a political settlement with the Palestinians. To avoid the shortcomings from prior rounds of negotiation and to ultimately pave the way for a comprehensive resolution, Israel could launch parallel sets of bilateral and multilateral talks with the Palestinian Authority and regional players, respectively. Meanwhile, Israel should finally define its borders and start retrieving those living in remote settlements.

Farsighted Israeli action needed to break the status quo

A couple of weeks before Secretary of State John Kerry’s effort to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian Permanent Agreement was launched in the summer of 2013, I went to see his deputy, Ambassador William Burns. “Bill, please tell me that this time you have a contingency plan in place,” I asked him, “otherwise an eventual failure of the talks will result in a disastrous collapse.” The reputable diplomat assured me that the issue was thoroughly considered next door. 

Three months later, Kerry’s negotiation team expressed explicit discontent with Israelis, myself among them, who voiced reasoned doubts about the secretary’s stand-alone, exclusive Permanent Agreement approach. The dismantling of the talks in early spring 2014 resulted in a two-month Gaza war with Hamas and the execution of Abbas’s strategy of an international diplomatic lawfare campaign against Israel. 

To date, the Palestinians and their supporters have a firm footing on the combined legal-political-media-economic offensive. Israel must act creatively to counter this de-legitimization campaign. More importantly, however, Israel must simultaneously push for achieving a two-state reality, gradually advancing toward a solution to the conflict. My concern is that, unless Israel does so, a settlement which disregards essential Israeli national interests could ultimately be imposed upon it by the international community. 

Given all the various components to the conflict (religious, political, territorial, symbolic, demographic, psychological, security-related, historic), a comprehensive, permanent settlement based on real peace is preferable to any alternative. However, it is simply not attainable in the foreseeable future in the absence of determined, courageous political leadership in both parties. 

Preservation of the status quo runs counter to the Israeli interest. The historic processes in and around Israel are dynamic and in some cases irreversible. In an inherently unstable region, Israeli leaders need to be ahead of the game. Early preparation for various scenarios and responsible, farsighted judgment by the Israeli leadership are key—especially on the Palestinian front. 

In the meantime, we are being dragged into a choice between a Jewish-dominated apartheid-like state and a shared, unitary Jewish-Palestinian state. The schisms within Israel—right versus left, religious versus secular, settlers versus non-settlers, Arabs versus Jews, rich versus poor, to name but a few—weaken its societal resilience and might further deteriorate into civil disobedience. This was definitely not what the Jewish state’s founders and visionaries intended. 

Borders should be the priority

The Israeli prerequisite for securing the Zionist vision of a democratic nation state for the Jewish people in the land of Israel is to define the borders between two states. With hundred-year-old borders in the Middle East rapidly being effaced, now more than ever the Jewish people’s national home cannot compromise on its need for secure and recognized borders. Israel’s national interests and its national security, as well as the country’s fundamental Jewish and universal values, demand a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Preservation of the status quo runs counter to the Israeli interest.

First and foremost, it requires set geographical borders. Subsequently, we should be able to draw clearer lines for all aspects of Israeli life—for example, equality in sharing the defense and civilian burden, rooting out corruption and strengthening the rule of law. Indeed, Israelis will not be able to optimize prosperity, welfare, equality, education, and national resilience until we disengage from the Palestinians.

To achieve these aims there must be a territorial division of the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean into two nation-states. 

Moving forward: multi-tiered negotiations and pulling back settlements 

The complex reality of the Middle East requires a new paradigm of negotiations in tandem with constructive independent steps. The new framework should include a regional dialogue broadly based on the Arab Peace Initiative and bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians, thus conveying commitment to eventually reaching an end of conflict. Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and the Palestinian Authority are potential partners in this relatively moderate axis to counter Islamist fanaticism and radical terror. They should assume responsibility for resolving the Palestinian problem within the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, while doing so with a direct, binding, and continuous Israeli-Palestinian track. 

In addition, if Israel were to plan constructive, independent steps, such as a gradual withdrawal from Palestinian territories to a border encompassing only the large settlement blocs—and recognition of a Palestinian state with provisional boundaries—it could also pave the way for a two-state reality. It would enable Israel to delineate its borders roughly along the security fence to reduce the occupation of Palestinian land and to ensure a Jewish majority, with the ultimate aim of negotiating the final borders based on the 1967 lines with land swaps. 

Obviously, such an independent plan as a complementary one to the regional and bilateral tracks entails very sensitive and complex moves, and would need broad public support, possibly obtained through a referendum or elections. Here, I agree with Natan Sachs that such an incremental step would be preferable, provided it avoids the unilateral nature of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s 2005 Gaza disengagement, which both spoiled the Israeli public’s openness to such measures and arguably emboldened Hamas’ resolve to the detriment at that point in time of Mahmoud Abbas’ non-violent efforts to end the conflict. Therefore, I propose that such steps only be actively implemented after it becomes clear that reaching an agreed-upon final settlement is not feasible.

The complex reality of the Middle East requires a new paradigm of negotiations in tandem with constructive independent steps.

Moreover, such steps will need meticulous government planning. Relocating up to 100,000 settlers from outside the large settlement blocs requires a comprehensive national plan, including relevant legislation and rehousing on a massive scale. At the same time, the government must emphasize that the door remains open for dialogue with regional state actors as well as the Palestinians. Moreover, independent steps will only be justified if the diplomatic, security, and moral benefits are greater than the price of internal division. It will be the government’s job to prepare public opinion. 

Israel will have to absorb tens of thousands of settlers who return to live within the new borders, whether demarcated unilaterally or by agreement. Either way, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) would remain in areas Israelis evacuate, like the Jordan Valley, until security responsibility is taken over by a party we can trust. Especially in the wake of the latest rounds of bloodshed and the resurgence of organized and individual terror, we need to replace the prevailing despair and hate with hope and trust within and between both peoples. 

Such an initiative would allow progress in each of the channels by achieving interim steps and transitional periods designed to advance a partial settlement while creating a reality of two nation states. 

After all, the two-state solution is the only vehicle for securing Israel’s future as a Jewish democracy and establishing a viable Palestinian state. We need determination, initiative and a new paradigm to achieve this. 

But the road to a permanent settlement resolving all the core issues remains long and arduous. And the big question facing Israel is how to set in motion a process leading to internationally recognized borders that encompass a democratic state with a clear Jewish majority. Israeli leaders need to come up with a clear plan—one that will put practical strategic alternatives to the status quo on the table in order to reach a two-state reality.