international analysis and commentary

The Palestinian statehood bid: end of the road for Mideast peace?


Almost all the truisms about the endless failure to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement are entirely wrong. My favorite piece of received-wisdom nonsense is that to craft a policy response to guarantee peace is beyond the combined talents of Kissinger, Bismarck and Metternich.

This is utter rubbish. Bear with me here, and I can bring 80% of you along with a rough plan that Anatol Lieven and I put forward in our book Ethical Realism in 2006. Nothing that has happened in the past five years causes me to think we were wrong about what needs doing at the policy level. But that is not really the problem.

The heart of the plan goes something like this. First, the Palestinians must forfeit the right of refugee return to Israel, except for some very limited cases. The Palestinian refugees and their descendents must be compensated for their lost land and property, with the overwhelming share being paid by European and Arab supporters (such as Saudi Arabia) of the Palestinian Authority (PA). In parallel, there is little doubt that the US Congress will compensate Israel for the sacrifices it must make in order for a deal to stick.

Second, the PA and all its major Arab state supporters must recognize Israel within the borders agreed to, and formally pledge not to support violence against it. For the sake of reciprocity, Israel must do the same. The treaty must be witnessed and guaranteed by all the members of the UN Security Council.

Third, Israel must recognize an independent Palestinian state with full sovereign rights, subject to security guarantees acceptable to Israel included in the treaty between the two states. Legally, the border between the two states should take as a point of departure the 1967 boundaries. In practice, Israel would annex most of the largest settlement blocs in the West Bank, including the great majority of Jewish settlers, in return for due compensation to the Palestinians in terms of land swaps. However, the borders must be drawn in such a way as to make the Palestinian state contiguous and viable, with free access to the outside world, and covering the great majority of the West Bank. The capital of the Palestinian state should be East Jerusalem, and there should be guaranteed and uninterrupted road and rail links between the West Bank and Gaza.

Fourth, all of the above initiatives must happen simultaneously. As the ultimate trade is land for peace, negotiations on both must bear fruit in tandem if the political actors brave enough to do this are to survive personally and politically. The details of the proposed territorial settlement must be worked out comprehensively and in private. Only when all the details have been agreed to should the settlement be made public. This agreement must be comprehensive and final; it shall not be open to renegotiation. If the plan is violated by either side, this should bring unified retaliation by the international community, along the lines laid down in the treaty.

So reasoned, so elegant, so clear – yet so unlikely to happen. And that has always been the problem. Getting to a policy deal like this one would take most moderates on both sides about a week. The politics, as ever, is the problem. And with Abu Mazen’s efforts to somehow unilaterally realize the Palestinian dream of statehood at the UN, the wheels have totally fallen off efforts at realizing the dream of a two-state solution. It is over.

As a thought exercise, here is what needs to happen to make my moderate peace plan a reality. It can be stipulated that neither side, as it is presently politically constituted, can enact my plan. Prime Minister Netanyahu, incredibly with the Likud Party the moderate voice in his present coalition, would have to be forced from office (perhaps by continued massive street protests over the cost of living combined with a rejuvenated Labour Party allying with centrist Kadima). The only other forlorn hope is that, as a late convert shedding a lifetime of rejectionism, Netanyahu would choose to reconfigure his premiership by bringing in Kadima and ditching his present concede-nothing right-wing partners. Only a government conceived in such a radically-changed Israeli political constellation could carry off the moderate peace plan.

On the Palestinian side, Abu Mazen and his aging PA, buoyed by the rise in popularity their UN statehood adventure has brought them on the ground, would have to call elections, trounce intransigent Hamas (which continues to refuse to categorically recognize Israel’s right to exist), and then pressure its members to still join with them in making a joint peace agreement. Without Hamas on board, Israel does not get the ‘peace’ it needs to trade away ‘land.’

Failing this, only Marwan Barghouti – languishing in an Israeli prison, the hero of the first Intifada, still by accounts the most popular Palestinian leader, and the only one acceptable at present to factions in both the PA and Hamas – would have to sacrifice himself and his immense prestige on the alter of a peace deal that would gain his people statehood, but not all of what they want. Failing these two far-fetched outcomes, there is no deal on the Palestinian side either.

And remember, both these political thunderbolts would need to happen soon and at roughly the same time. This is the problem, for which there seems no solution.

What about America’s role in all this? President Obama foolishly raised Arab and Palestinian hopes in the aftermath of his eloquent-but-without-substance Cairo speech, and then did nothing in terms of sticks to pressure Israel to change its aggressive settlements policy, making his refreshing message of being an honest broker practically meaningless. But emboldened and hopeful, Abu Mazen made a settlement halt a new condition Netanyahu had to meet before talks could even begin. Blandly and correctly gaming out both the Palestinians and especially the Obama White House, the Prime Minister made it clear that a compromise on settlements would trigger his government’s fall; in practice this means that no substantive talks will occur.

Wholly outplayed and desperate at his fading popularity in the face of the far more aggressive Hamas, Abu Mazen played his last card: pressing the UN for a unilateral declaration of statehood. Again, Netanyahu must have enjoyed this, knowing that given American domestic politics (particularly in the Democratic Party where Jewish-Americans still overwhelmingly vote) Obama would be forced to veto Abu Mazen’s dream.

Tactically, it’s game, set, match, Netanyahu. But while he has beaten the US president at checkers, the chess game has changed. In 1978, Israel had the tacit support of three great regional powers: Turkey, Egypt and Iran. Today it has no one. While Netanyahu has won the tactical battle, Israel finds itself in its worst strategic position since 1967. The best thing the President can do is realize that Mideast peace is not achievable, and concentrate on the bigger things (like the Indian Ocean Rim and China) that are. However, he must also develop a strategy for seeing that a failure to achieve peace does not blow the whole region sky high.