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Published on: March 31, 2017
Paradoxically, Trump may prove to be the President who is willing to exert unprecedented pressure on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Michael Herzog concluded his recent insider analysis of the most recent Israeli-Palestinian peace process failure by warning, “No one really knows when the window for a two-state solution will close, but one day it will. Continued stalemate after three failed attempts to reach a deal accelerates the closing of this window and endangers Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic state.” He’s right: The two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is on life-support and does not have that much time left before the Palestinians permanently reject themselves out of any state and Israel settles itself out of a Jewish and democratic future. There is no specific deadline, and a few more years will not make a decisive difference, but the two-state solution will be hard-pressed to survive eight or even perhaps four more years of stasis.
So the question is whether (and when) President Trump should attempt to achieve “the ultimate deal.” It is not enough for the U.S. government to want peace; the willingness and political wherewithal to make the agonizing concessions necessary have to exist in both Jerusalem and Ramallah. Today, and for the foreseeable future, they exist in neither.
Both Israel and the Palestinians are experienced masters at stonewalling and making unwanted U.S. peace initiatives go away. Think the Rogers plan, Shultz plan, Roadmap, and “President’s vision”, among others. Both will do so again, if confronted by less than a total American commitment—and even then nothing is assured, as Arafat’s rejection of the proposals at Camp David and the “Clinton parameters” in 2000 demonstrated.
Israel is paralyzed by a right-wing government and unable to reach a deal, even if Netanyahu is willing to make the necessary concessions, which has yet to be conclusively proven. Israel’s current policy, which is limited—mostly but not entirely—to settling in the accepted “settlement blocs”, is gradually creating a binational reality, even if the international image of mass, unbridled settlement throughout the West Bank is incorrect; it has been overwhelmingly restricted to the settlement blocs. But there has been a steady growth over the past decade of approximately 2,000 people per year outside of the blocs, thereby slowly creating the binational reality and rendering Israel’s future ability to make concessions that much harder politically and economically. Moreover, the open land available for future territorial swaps is gradually being used for other purposes. In reality, there is no status quo.
The Palestinians, meanwhile, are paralyzed by a protracted succession process and could not conclude a final agreement, even if Abbas wanted to, as long as the West Bank and Gaza remain divided and Hamas remains opposed to any accommodation with Israel. This is a fundamental obstacle that the international community, which is overly focused on the more tangible and visceral settlements issue, overlooks: Israel could agree to dismantle every settlement and we would still not be that much closer to an agreement.
Moreover, the Palestinians, including the ostensibly moderate and peace-seeking Abbas, have repeatedly rejected, or walked away from without rejoinder, dramatic proposals that would have given them a state on virtually all of the territory, with East Jerusalem as its capital. They did it to Ehud Barak and they did it again to Ehud Olmert. They have also yet to recognize a fundamental and painful truth: that the price of statehood is a willingness to forgo the self-proclaimed “right of return” and explicitly recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. Among the very complicated core issues to be negotiated, settlements are actually one of the more readily resolvable ones. So Palestinian intransigence is similarly contributing to an onrushing binational reality.
We know what binational states look like. They are called Syria, Iraq, Yugoslavia—and they have become bywords for catastrophe. Those who advocate various one-state solutions, mostly on the Palestinian side (but increasingly on the Israeli side as well, including Minister of Education Naftali Bennett), are dooming both sides to endless strife. The first and second Intifadas, and the past two years’ “Intifada of the knives” (the haba in Arabic), are early previews of what a one-state reality would look like. It is rare that it we are offered such a glaring preview of the future. In fact, the future is already here.
The issue is thus pressing, but the President should resist the temptation to act prematurely. He should wait for the appropriate moment, possibly only after leadership changes in Jerusalem and Ramallah—a prospect that may not be that far off. Netanyahu’s coalition is unlikely to last much more than a year, if not less, although his demise is far from assured, and Abbas will not be there for more than a few years. As Herzog notes, another unsuccessful attempt will deepen the sides’ loss of faith in the process, further undermine American standing, and further reduce the prospects for a future agreement. Secretary Kerry made an heroic effort, but in the absence of both willing and able local partners and an all-out presidential commitment, his quixotic attempt was preordained to fail.
In the meantime, American policy should be focused on preserving the conditions for a two-state solution, for a time when the appropriate political circumstances evolve. To this end, U.S. policy should again adhere to the compromise, worked out under the Bush 43 Administration, whereby Washington accepts Israeli settlement in the “settlement blocs” and existing neighborhoods in East Jerusalem in exchange for a cessation in other areas. This appears to be the positioned staked out during the recent contacts between Trump’s peace process envoy, Jason Greenblatt, and his Israeli and Palestinian interlocutors—although disagreements reportedly arose with Netanyahu regarding the delineation of these areas. The matter is not a technical one for Netanyahu but a political landmine for the future of his coalition, not to mention his future relations with the Trump Administration, and it may yet contribute to the holding of early elections.
As for the Palestinians, U.S. policy should up the pressure on them to prevent terrorism and especially incitement, including an end to the unconscionable funding of the families of terrorists. Moreover, the Palestinians have to be made to understand, clearly and unequivocally, that they can only achieve their objectives through negotiations with Israel, including the need for painful concessions, and that the U.S. government will systematically block their attempts to circumvent negotiations by internationalizing the issue.
An actual breakthrough should only be attempted if and when the U.S. leadership is truly willing to put its stature and political capital on the line, crack heads, and offer significant inducements. The basic contours of the deal are well known and must finally be put to the two sides in the clearest terms and with consequences for saying no: Both sides compromise on territory, with Israel withdrawing from more than 90 percent of the West Bank, but the Palestinians must agree to land swaps in exchange for the remainder—with Israel making the agonizing concession on Jerusalem, agreeing to a division of the city along its ethnic lines (with both sides accepting a special regime for the Old City and holy sites), and with the Palestinians making an agonizing concession on refugees, who will only be allowed to return in numbers of significance to the future Palestinian state, not to Israel, and also explicitly recognizing Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
If Trump decides to get involved, he must play to win, and that requires a major, sustained, and highly focused presidential effort—not necessarily his strongest points. Paradoxically, however, Trump, who is beholden neither to domestic constituencies nor to diplomatic orthodoxies, may prove to be the President who is willing to exert unprecedented pressure on both sides.
U.S. leverage over Israel is constrained by the fundamental closeness of the relationship, but even limited pressure has had major resonance in Israel in the past—for example, the reaction to Obama’s refusal to veto the recent Security Council resolution on settlements. If the new and supposedly friendlier U.S. Administration applies pressure in a deliberate fashion, the impact will be greatly magnified. Indeed, the Israeli right is already being forced to confront the bitter reality that the Messiah has not arrived in Washington, and that the new Administration is actually no more accepting of settlements than its predecessors.
Alternatively, Trump’s ostensible lack of preference for a one- or two-state solution places the burden on Israel to finally decide what it wants and constitutes a considerable source of indirect pressure. Those who have been playing with the one-state idea, like Bennett, will be forced to face its harsh consequences. Mostly, U.S. pressure can help Israel address its justified concerns, for example, even greater assistance for missile defense, potentially even a security treaty. In coordination with America’s European allies, it could also hold out the promise of a major improvement in Israeli-European relations and, assuming that the European Union survives its present challenges, even a major upgrading of Israel’s EU status, just short of full membership. The impact on Israel’s strategic circumstances and economy would be dramatic.
With the Palestinians, U.S. leverage is clearer and the demands must be stark: Abandon the rejectionist all-or-nothing approach of the past, which has indeed left the Palestinians with nothing but an aching and unredeemable hope, agree to a state on almost but not all of the territory, forgo the unrealistic dream of a return of the refugees, or lose American support and aid. Even if the U.S. government cannot truly abandon the two-state solution, retraction of its active support for a Palestinian state would constitute a major diplomatic reversal for them, setting them back to the Clinton years or even earlier. They would also have to face up to their own self-defeating threat to dismantle the Palestinian Authority, the one significant symbol of Palestinian independence after seventy years, and to the likelihood that the West Bank would come under Hamas’s control. In addition to what should be the overwhelming inducement—the prospects of finally having a state—the United States and its allies could also hold out the possibility of major development aid.
This approach is not entirely balanced. Israel is a close American ally, the Palestinians are not, and U.S. frustration should always be tempered by the realization that even democratically elected allies can be recalcitrant. Should negotiations reach an advanced stage, however, the U.S. government must be willing to apply decisive pressure on both sides.
We have long been at a stage where the problem is not one of process—of some new and creative negotiating tactic—but that both sides face truly excruciating decisions. All of the supposedly simple issues have been explored fully and, in reality, even they have proven far from simple. The latest negotiating ploy, the “outside-in” approach, in which the Arab states press the Palestinians to go forward on negotiations, is no more than a rebranded tactic unlikely to achieve more today than it has in the past. In the end, if Trump decides to truly engage, it must be an all-out effort, or else its back to conflict management at the margins of a problem that can only get worse with time.
Chuck Freilich, a former Deputy National Security Advisor in Israel, is a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center and author of Zion’s Dilemmas: How Israel Makes National Security Policy and the forthcoming Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change.