The greatest tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian gridlock, aside from the many lives lost, is that the parameters of any future agreement are already known to all sides involved. These are the common parameters of then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s proposal at Camp David II in 2000, the Clinton Parameters of December of that year, and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s initiative in 2008.
Broadly speaking, Israel would be required to forfeit the dream of a Greater Israel, to agree to the two-state solution based on the 1967 borders with land swaps, and to accept some Palestinian presence in the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and in the Holy Basin. The Palestinians would have to agree to an end of conflict and an end of claims, a solution for the Palestinian refugee problem only within the borders of a future Palestinian state (not Israel), and limitations on their sovereignty due to security concerns. Unfortunately, national narratives and aspirations, religious beliefs, perceptions of historic justice, and the practical lessons each side learned in the recent past have all prevented the leaders of both sides from convincing their publics of the need for such concessions—which are necessary for an agreement.
Plans A and B
Reaching an agreement is harder today than it was in either 2000 or 2008. Even the moderates among the Palestinians are unwilling to concede a right of return, to acknowledge an “end of conflict and end of claims,” to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, or to allow basic security arrangements that will ease Israel’s justified concerns. It appears that in 2016, the Palestinians do not view a two-state solution, along the Clinton Parameters, as a preferred outcome. Instead, their discourse is rooted in a “return of rights” in historic Palestine as a whole (including Israel), in accordance with both the Hamas and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) charters. Indeed, the Palestinian positions have not budged much since Camp David II in 2000.
Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
Instead, the Palestinians have an attractive (in their view) “Plan B,” which is to get the Israeli concessions in international decisions, without having to make their own concessions—all while denouncing Israel and delegitimizing it in international forums. Since 2008, there are strong indications that the international route was actually the Palestinian “Plan A”—hence their intransigence in entering the talks and in the negotiations themselves.
A sustainable—but undesirable—status quo
The continuation of the status quo—which appears so problematic to many Israelis and Americans—represents for the Palestinians a favorable strategic avenue that would lead, eventually, to an Arab-majority, one-state outcome. When Americans, Europeans, and even elements of the Israeli public repeatedly warn that Israel will be “lost” if it allows the status quo to persist, it does not encourage Palestinian moderation or willingness to compromise. Instead, it strengthens the underlying Palestinian assumption that a failure of negotiations is a reasonable option from their perspective. For the Palestinian leadership, all paths lead to the same destination: either Israel accepts their conditions (which, through flooding Israel with refugees, will lead to the demise of Israel as a Jewish state) or the status quo persists and Israel is supposedly lost.
Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Amir Cohen
Moreover, any demand made of Israel that it alter the status quo must convince the Israelis that their situation will not deteriorate further. The days of the Second Intifada—a terror campaign initiated by Yasser Arafat after the failure of Camp David with dozens of dead each month—are still etched in the collective Israeli memory. Similarly, Israelis are unwilling to accept a West Bank that would be a base for rocket launching, tunnels, and a continuation of terrorism against Israel, as is Gaza, which Israel fully evacuated. Only a move that would provide Israel security and full legitimacy to act against future Palestinian terrorism will create public support in Israel to move toward a two-state solution.
Yet, while the status quo is much more sustainable than the conventional wisdom claims—for reasons beyond the scope of this post—it is certainly not desirable, since it furthers Israel from its goal of a Jewish, democratic, safe, and just state of Israel. It is therefore important that Israel have a viable alternative plan that is not merely a continuation of the status quo.
Four paths for an Israeli alternative
There are more than two options, muddling through in the status quo or accepting Palestinian demands in full. If Israelis cannot get peace in terms that secure an end of conflict, security, and no “right of return,” we must look for another option—an Israeli Plan B.
An Israeli Plan B would consist of a proactive effort to formulate the future borders of the state of Israel in one of four paths in order of preference: 1) a negotiation process resulting in a final status agreement, 2) a regional agreement, 3) an interim bilateral agreement, or 4) in the case a negotiated agreement cannot be realized, an independent Israeli determination of its own borders.
First, Israel should present an initiative for a final agreement with the Palestinians, based on the Clinton Parameters: generous borders for a future Palestinian state, demilitarized Palestinian state and no compromises on Israeli security, a commitment to an end of conflict and end of claims, and a Palestinian relinquishment of implementing a “right of return.” This should be followed by a comprehensive effort to reach an agreement on the basis of the Israeli proposal. Such a move should be led by the leadership on both sides in order to foster genuine relations based on trust.
Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih
Should the (preferable) bilateral track fail, Israel should move to a regional track, including the moderate Arab states—led by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan—in an effort to reach a final status agreement. This effort could be grounded in an updated version of the Arab Peace Initiative—as a starting point rather than a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Such a plan should be decoupled from the issue of the Golan Heights (given the situation in Syria today and in the foreseeable future) and should not be conditional on a solution to the refugee problem according to U.N. Security Council Resolution 194 from 1949.
The pragmatic Arab states have the capacity to add much-needed value to the table in order to move the negotiations beyond a zero-sum game on the territorial, financial, security, and ideological levels. However, if the moderate Arab states are unwilling or unable to contribute, Israel can aim to secure interim agreements with the Palestinians. Interim agreements would necessitate abandoning the principle of “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” and shifting the paradigm to a principle of gradual implementation of any area of agreement, deferring talks on more contentious subjects to a later time.
Only if all these paths fail, Israel should embark on a long-term independent strategy for shaping its borders. This strategy should be innovative and creative, removing the effective veto Palestinians have through negotiations on Israel future. It would require as much coordination as possible with the United States and the international community. It would leave open the option for a return to the negotiating table and to a negotiated settlement, and reinforces the agreed two-state solution paradigm. Likewise, this route undermines and prevents the most problematic outcomes, namely the continuation of the status quo or a final agreement without an end of conflict and security arrangements, and the flooding of Israel with refugees.
An independent route suffers from a bad reputation within Israeli society, as a consequence of the perceived failure of the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. As discussed below however, the Gaza precedent can provide valuable lessons for the West Bank that can mitigate the potential pitfalls of such a move.
Four lessons from the disengagement plan
Any independent move with unilateral elements suffers from strong negative connotations among Israelis because of the perceived failure of the “disengagement” from Gaza in 2005, though I know of no one in Israel who wants to regain control over the 1.7 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Still, while then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was right to initiate the disengagement plan, it was riddled with strategic errors. Four major miscalculations also offer lessons for a future independent move:
- The plan was initiated without securing a strong internal Israeli or international backing. Israel must show that it is ready for substantial concessions in certain areas in order to be able to put forward significant demands in others. Therefore, the first move in a future plan should begin with a genuine and generous peace proposal to the Palestinians. If the Palestinians again show intransigence, and if Israel demonstrates a willingness to accept compromise, then there will be a significantly increased likelihood for international acceptance of independent Israeli measures to work toward building a two-state reality.
- The Israelis left an open border between the Gaza Strip and Sinai, evacuating the “Philadelphi line” on the Gaza’s Strips border with Egypt, which Hamas subsequently used to rearm with smuggled weapons from Iran and Libya. This mistake must not be repeated in the West Bank, and so the Jordan Valley—that separates the West Bank from Jordan—must stay under Israeli control, preventing arms smuggling into the West Bank. These moves therefore offer a clear separation between ending the occupation and expanding Palestinian self-rule on the one hand, and taking decisive action to prevent the buildup of terrorism in the West Bank, on the other.
- Sharon ordered the complete evacuation of all of the Gaza Strip in order to gain world recognition of an end of the occupation there. In reality, it did not achieve this outcome and left Israel without any bargaining chips for future negotiations. A future Israeli redeployment should only be to the security barrier, or close to it, leaving Israel in possession of the main settlement blocs and other strategic areas, some of which could be used as future bargaining chips.
- There was a complete lack of communication between the Israeli leadership and the evicted Israelis, as well as the lack of planning that botched their resettlement to this day. In order for any future plan to succeed, there is a need for an open and serious conversation within Israeli society—including through elections or a referendum—that would gradually build the societal trust needed for such a move.
Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Amir Cohen
So, an independent Israeli strategy would therefore involve:
- Israel’s willingness to hand over 80 to 85 percent of the West Bank—a willingness demonstrated by undertaking concrete steps on the ground. Israel would need to initiate further redeployments from the West Bank not including the Jordan Valley and East Jerusalem;
- The transfer of Area B and much of Area C to a full Palestinian responsibility;
- The full completion of the Security Barrier in areas that are currently lacking in order to provide Israel with a contiguous and defensible border;
- A full cessation of Israeli settlement construction beyond the declared lines;
- A plan, preferably under an agreement, to resettle Israelis living east of these lines into Israel-proper, preferably to the Galilee, the Negev, and the main settlements blocs; and
- The responsibility for the security of Israel remaining in the hands of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and the proper Israeli authorities. Israel must preserve its capacity to conduct preventive action, hot pursuit, border control, and air security. However, the IDF must try to minimize such operations in the evacuated territories.
Drawbacks of an independent strategy
The proposed independent course of action is not ideal, and has elements that will be difficult to implement. Its main weaknesses are:
- The difficulty of formulating a political plan that would be all-inclusive and that could feasibly garner wide acceptance within Israeli society. Today, the right wing in Israel would view such a plan as a capitulation to the Palestinians, a forfeiture of parts of the Land of Israel, and a withdrawal from territory without gaining anything in return. The left would also be appalled from the lack of agreement with the Palestinians. The Israeli public at large does not recognize the need to change the status quo.
- The widespread unpopularity of evacuating Israelis from the settlements. Since the 2005 Disengagement Plan, no Israeli government has dared to directly address this topic. Israel’s leadership would need to oversee prolonged financial, social, and political preparations for such a strategy. Likewise, it would require coordination with the settler leadership to ensure the maximum possible cooperation from the settler population.
- Obtaining international legitimacy—something that should not be taken for granted. Israel can mobilize the international community only if it shows that this course preserves the feasibility of a two-state solution. It must work to counter the perception in the international community that this two-state framework is rapidly becoming irrelevant. Halting settlement construction would provide a much-needed signal from Israel showing its sincere desire to end the conflict, and would promote international efforts to build a future Palestinian state.
- The inherent tension between Israel’s need to ensure its future security and its desire to provide the Palestinians with the essential tools for self-government. Balancing these two requirements would continue to pose major challenges for the future.
Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Amir Cohen
Try, try, try again
This independent strategy would allow Israel to pursue a solution from a point of strength, rather than being dictated by outside forces or waves of terror. It represents a long-term, paradigm-changing option which would preserve the two-state solution while removing several of the most serious obstacles to such a solution.
Zionism always yearned for a future that has seemed impossible at times. Generations of people have strived to achieve it, often overcoming great obstacles amid harsh realities. In our generation, we too can succeed.
Those who most need the protections of international human rights law — dissidents, journalists, civil society actors — these vulnerable people are used to operating in the knowledge that big governments out there in the world care. They don’t have that now.