The Way Out of the Middle Eastern Morass

The Middle East peace process just died, but nobody seems to be in mourning. Twenty months of U.S. efforts to freeze Israeli settlement activity to create a conducive environment for negotiations have produced only deadlock. Few seemed to even notice when the Obama administration quietly announced this week that it had ended the effort. Washington’s focus has shifted to a more promising negotiation with Congress over renewing tax cuts. Israel has moved on to the next crisis – a police sex scandal here, a natural disaster there. In the West Bank, life is good: 11 per cent growth, low unemployment and Palestinian police maintaining order. Even in Gaza, a new normalcy is taking hold, albeit under repressive Hamas rule. Hamas, Hizbollah and Iran still swear they will liberate Palestine through violence, but in the meantime they do nothing to upset the current calm. And WikiLeaks has now revealed the world’s worst kept secret: Arab leaders care more about Iran’s threat than about the Palestinian cause.

Could it be that the Middle East has found a way to survive without a peace process? It would certainly make life easier for President Barack Obama, Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, were this the case. They would be spared the politically dangerous decisions that might transform relations between Arabs and Israelis, but could also unseat them. Mr Obama could preserve his shrunken political capital. Mr Netanyahu could maintain his fractious coalition and focus on the Iranian threat. Mr Abbas could avoid negotiations with an Israeli partner he does not consider serious in favour of a campaign to delegitimise Israel and gain international recognition for Palestinian statehood.

It is at times like these that professional peace process practitioners reach for their bicycle theory: “If you’re not pedalling forward you are bound to fall off,” we will darkly intone. That is undoubtedly true. Israel’s demographic clock has not stopped ticking, and continuing the occupation is eroding its international legitimacy. Hamas and Hizbollah, with Iran’s backing, have not given up on their determination to use terror, violence and threats to destroy Israel to advance their agenda. Palestinian police in the West Bank will not forever fulfil their responsibilities if the path to independent statehood looks permanently blocked. And moderate leaders such as Mr Abbas and Salam Fayyad, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, will not stay long in power if they are unable to demonstrate that talks with Israel and West Bank state-building can produce liberation from occupation.

Instead of giving up on peacemaking, it would therefore be wiser to use the blessed demise of this settlement-focused process as a chance to build a more productive way to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace. How to do that?

First, a pause is in order for America. Running after Israelis to fulfil their “road map” commitments and Palestinians to enter direct negotiations has become counterproductive.

While Washington gives the parties time to reconsider priorities, it should go back to basics and create a new design for negotiations. The objective should be unchanged – a two-state solution. That cannot be achieved without defining the borders that separate the two states. So the next negotiation must be about borders – what to do about settlements and security, refugees and Jerusalem will flow from resolution of that issue. “It’s the borders, stupid” should be the mantra.

A negotiation on borders will have to be predicated on the principle in UN Security Council Resolution 242, the original peace process resolution: that the border between the two states should be based on the June 4, 1967 line with territorial adjustments. This is consistent with American policy in recent decades. Mr Obama should pronounce that as the American position going into these border negotiations.

Focusing on the borders leads naturally back to the original idea in the 1947 UN General Assembly resolution that sought to deal with the conflict over Palestine – partition of the land into two states, one Jewish, the other Arab, with a special regime for Jerusalem, and equal rights and equal protection under the law for all citizens of the two states.

To jump-start new negotiations, why not have Israel declare that it recognises the Arab state of Palestine, with equal rights for all its citizens, and have the PLO declare that it recognises the Jewish state of Israel, with equal rights for all its citizens? Both could then announce they are entering into state-to-state negotiations to define the border between them. The Arab states could welcome Israel’s recognition of the Arab state of Palestine and take their own steps of recognition of the Jewish state of Israel. These dramatic steps could turbo-charge the negotiations by giving each side something fundamental that they both demand – mutual recognition of their national aspirations.

Finally, the parties should commit to reaching an agreement on borders by September 2011 so that the state of Palestine can be seated when the UN General Assembly next meets, as Mr Obama has promised. Of course there will be objections. But there surely can be no debate about the need to find a more creative way forward. Going back to basics – two states for two people separated by an agreed border – is a good place to start.