The Middle East peace process is in a deep hole, with no easy way out. The Israeli coalition, none too interested in pursuing engagement on peace, is now frozen in place with elections scheduled for March 17. The Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority are weak, don’t govern in Gaza, and barely represent a majority of Palestinian opinion. The PLO seems intent on pursuing a UN statehood option that is guaranteed to elicit a U.S. veto. The United States, the traditional third party and catalyst for negotiations, is absorbed with other crises at home and abroad, and is apparently not interested in investing more effort in the peace process sinkhole. And the context for a negotiated peace is anything but conducive: the Middle East is broken, at war with itself, and in the midst of historic transformations in identity, state power, and religious ideology.
Under these circumstances, it could be argued that the best course of action would be to do nothing: in other words, to wait until the situation is more propitious or “ripe” for peacemaking and for a time when leaders are better prepared to take the necessary risks to reach an agreement. But this is an attractive option only for the opponents of peace. On the Palestinian side, Hamas derives support and legitimation from peace process setbacks, for this bolsters its argument for resistance. The absence of a peace process does not force Hamas to confront its rejectionist, absolutist stance on Israel, enshrined in its Charter. On the Israeli side, settlements leaders and activists take heart from the breakdown of peace efforts, for it provides time to build more settlements and gives meaning to the argument that Israel does not have a partner with whom to make peace.
Doing nothing also really does not mean doing nothing. Life goes on in the meantime, and the bad behaviors of both Palestinians and Israelis (terrorism, incitement, settlements, onerous occupation practices) continue during a period of inactivity in peace making. At bottom, the argument for doing nothing rests on the false premise that the status quo can hold until the situation allows for progress toward peace. Reality is different: status quos in the Israeli-Palestinian arena are never static, and they inevitably deteriorate when positive actions are not taken to improve them.
The alternative to a strategy of doing nothing is often thought to be a “Plan B”—that is, a different strategy than the one that has been followed until now, namely pursuit of the two-state solution. Currently, the market is awash with Plan B’s, with many rushing in to fill the perceived vacuum. For example, former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren believes the time has come to return to unilateralism, a theme taken up by others with variations. Former military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin wants Israel to unilaterally determine its borders. Naftali Bennett, the leader of Israel’s National Home Party, advocates the annexation of Area C—more than 50 percent of the West Bank—while easing up on the rest of the area by providing Palestinians with autonomy. Former settlements leader Dani Dayan argues for “peaceful non-reconciliation,” eschewing annexation while maintaining Israeli control under more relaxed conditions.
Other Plan B’s offer different solutions. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman urges Israel to make peace in a regional context, from which a Palestinian state would emerge, and in which there would be territorial and population swaps, along with economic incentives for Israel’s Arab citizens to emigrate. Al Quds University President and former negotiator Sari Nusseibeh has argued for Palestinians to forego independent statehood as a goal and to accept full social and economic rights within Israel, but without citizenship. There is a movement among Palestinians to accept a one-state solution, as long as Palestinians are given full citizenship and voting rights. Some Palestinians have argued that Palestinians should aim for confederation with or absorption into Jordan, rather than pursuing their own independent state. And there are jointly developed, creative ideas such as “two states in one space,” a proposal developed by IPCRI in consultation with Israelis and Palestinians.
Thus far, none of the Plan B’s has gotten much traction, and they are likely to take their place on the library shelf alongside the scores of other plans that have been advocated over the decades. All of these plans share at least one thing in common: They seek to avoid the only common sense outcome of the Arab-Israeli conflict that has been known ever since it was first surfaced in the 1930s by the British Peel Commission: namely, partitioning the land between the two national movements that claim exclusive control over all the territory.
If there really is no acceptable Plan B—and I submit that to be the case, that there is no alternative to a two-state outcome that would be acceptable to a significant majority of Israelis and Palestinians—then what should happen now, when the prospects of achieving Plan A, two states, appears so remote? Israelis and Palestinians need to confront this question on their own; for the United States, the policy implications are clear.
I start with four analytical assumptions:
- No progress towards substantive negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians is possible now. Neither side can move because of politics, weakness, and/or ideological rigidity.
- An attempt by the United States to revive negotiations now is ill-advised and certain to fail, leading to further weakening of U.S. credibility.
- The status quo is neither static nor sustainable, and is likely to deteriorate if nothing is done.
- Plan B strategies won’t work and will only serve to detract attention from the obvious, though hard, decisions that ultimately need to be made to reach a two-state solution.
As such, U.S. strategy should be aimed not at reaching negotiations now, but rather at establishing a sound basis of U.S. policy on which to operate in the future. Specifically, during these next two years, the Obama administration should strive to create a sustainable foundation both for U.S. diplomacy and for the peace process itself. This would involve coordinated policy and action along four axes, each of which should be accompanied by a significant public diplomacy effort:
- First, the United States should articulate U.S. positions on the core issues—that is, American parameters. (See, for example, here). Forty-seven years after the 1967 war, it is time for the United States to express its views on a peace settlement. The parameters would represent American views of the principles that would drive negotiations, once the parties are ready to negotiate the details. The parameters would represent American policy, and would not be represented as reflecting the positions of the parties. Indeed, the United States would not seek formal responses from the parties. The parameters would represent American policy.
- Second, if the United States opposes bad behaviors, it should act accordingly and not simply issue statements of condemnation. U.S. statements that criticize Palestinian violence and incitement, or Israeli settlement activity or occupation practices, have become meaningless, because they are only words. If we truly oppose these behaviors, we need to exact consequences from the party that acts irresponsibly. Without U.S. action, U.S. credibility suffers. Any U.S. actions in response to bad behaviors will be politically difficult and controversial, especially U.S. actions directed at Israel. For this reason alone, the responses must be measured and of a kind that is able to be seen as reasonable by the publics in the region and at home. U.S. security and humanitarian assistance should be fenced off and not become part of this policy of exacting consequences for bad behaviors.
- Third, the United States and others need to develop a strategy and take steps to start deconstructing the occupation. The Palestinian economy, trade, and labor are all dependent on Israel, and Israel uses the West Bank as a closed market for Israeli goods. A game plan is needed to build independent Palestinian capacities. These changes will need to be introduced gradually and carefully so as to avoid short-term dislocations especially in Palestinian society.
- Fourth, the United States should consult closely with Arab states to develop ways to activate the Arab Peace Initiative, to the extent possible. The Arab Peace Initiative is very important, but its benefits for Israel kick in only at the end of the peace process. If the United States starts to act more forthrightly as advocated here, so too should the Arab states do more than simply reiterate support for their initiative. As the United States takes the steps above, which the Arabs are likely to welcome, the Arabs should also be taking steps to signal Israel about the tangible benefits of peace—for example, regional working groups on pressing issues such as health and water, diplomatic contacts, and the like.
The political fallout in Washington and the region from this integrated U.S. strategy is likely to be severe. Republicans in Congress will seize upon these policies as evidence of bias against Israel and seek to lay claim to being Israel’s only friends in Washington. Right-wing members of the large pro-Israel community in the United States will protest the administration’s actions. The current Israeli government will balk and, at a minimum, accuse the United States of unveiling these ideas so as to interfere in Israel’s elections. Some Palestinians will argue that the U.S. policies do not go far enough. However, the impact of such pushback, both here and in the region, should not be exaggerated. The essence of this strategy is to articulate U.S. policy, to make clear what we support and do not support.
Two immediate questions arise: how does this strategy relate to the Palestinian strategy of forcing a UN Security Council vote on statehood; and should the United States launch this strategy in the midst of an Israeli election campaign? On the first issue, strong and determined leadership by the United States will make any Palestinian UN initiative look weak in comparison. The Palestinians might not back off, but a U.S. veto in this context will be far more reasonable and explainable than a veto in the absence of a U.S. strategy.
Regarding Israeli elections, the United States is a factor whether we articulate a strategy or remain silent. Indeed, U.S. silence at this stage will be represented by some in Israel as acceptance of the status quo. To be sure, the announcement of a U.S. strategy now will be far more controversial than waiting until later. However, having an American strategy on the table will also help inform the debate in Israel over the critical issues involved in peace making. On balance, it is far wiser to be upfront about our policy—if we decide to go in this direction—than to unveil it only after the Israelis go to the polls.
The risk/benefit calculation of this strategy clearly weighs in favor of implementing it. Since there is no expectation that it will lead to negotiations, in a sense it can fail only if the United States abandons it in the face of opposition from the region or domestically. Potentially, it could stimulate a healthy debate in Israel and Palestine about issues that are normally avoided. And, at a minimum, it will leave U.S. policy in far better shape to craft a strategy in the future to reach negotiations, once the politics in Israel and Palestine will allow it.