If, as Woody Allen says, 80 percent of life is just showing up, there ought to be a U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement before President Barack Obama leaves office.
Secretary of State John Kerry has already met 47 times with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and 27 times with senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat over the past year, Erekat told a Washington audience earlier this week. Kerry and Obama, Erekat said, have shown a “relentless, unwavering commitment” to achieving an agreement which they recognize would resolve a core issue in an otherwise unpredictably changing Middle East.
Yet there is much uncertainty about the talks, whose current iteration is due to end in April – or perhaps sooner if Israel reneges on a pledge to release another tranche of Palestinian prisoners on March 29. The Israelis are demanding that Abbas first agree to extend the talks, which resumed last July, while the Palestinian leader is looking for Israel to curb its unrelenting construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Abbas dramatized his position during a meeting in the Oval Office Monday by presenting Obama with what Erekat called “a very ugly map.” It showed that Israel began work on more than 10,000 new units in Jewish settlements since last July – four times the “natural growth” of New York City during the same time period, according to the veteran Palestinian negotiator.
The kidney-shaped West Bank is now so thoroughly penetrated by settlements that it resembles that organ crisscrossed by arteries and veins. Indeed, the number of settlers on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem has more than doubled since 1995 from 230,000 to more than 560,000.
The U.S. position on settlements has always been that they are obstacles to peace. But Obama, stung by his administration’s failure to make progress on the peace front in his first term – when Israel did agree to a heavily conditioned moratorium on new settlement construction – has focused instead in his second term on negotiating borders for a Palestinian state that would clarify where Israelis and Palestinians would be allowed to build.
At his meeting on Monday with Abbas, however, Obama did not present a U.S. framework for a settlement, as some had anticipated. Indeed the conversation was “candid, difficult and long,” Erekat said, suggesting wide gaps remain between the Israeli and Palestinian positions that the U.S. is not yet ready to try to bridge.
The Israelis have further complicated negotiations – which are supposed to focus on the core issues of borders, settlements, security, refugees and Jerusalem – by adding a demand that the Palestinian Authority explicitly recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
Erekat noted that the Palestine Liberation Organization recognized the state of Israel under the 1993 Oslo accords and said this additional demand was meant to denigrate the Palestinian narrative of dispossession from what both sides claim as their ancestral land.
Instead of adding conditions, the Israelis should focus on an agreement that results in the “end of conflict and the end of claims,” he said.
Kerry, meanwhile, said last week that the issue was resolved by the United Nations in 1947 when it passed Resolution 181 which sought to partition the then British mandate of Palestine between Arabs and Jews. There are “more than 40-30 mentions of ‘Jewish state,’ ” in that resolution, Kerry told a Senate committee. The Palestinians affirmed their endorsement of the resolution in 1988 when the Palestine National Council, a proto-parliament, gave up claims to all of Palestine. Then PLO chairman Yasir Arafat agreed again that Israel would be a Jewish state in 2004, Kerry said.
Indeed, Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians explicitly recognize Israel as a Jewish state seems just another in a long line of delaying tactics while Israel establishes new facts on the ground. While it is understandable that Israel is wary of making new agreements requiring territorial withdrawal with the region in so much flux, a collapse of the peace talks is not in Israel’s interests either. Efforts have escalated over the past few years in Europe and on U.S. college campuses to boycott products made in West Bank settlements. The attachment of younger American Jews to Israel is waning and even the vaunted American Israel Public Affairs Committee is losing some of its clout on Capitol Hill when it comes to pushing for Iran sanctions or U.S. military intervention in Syria. Plus Obama, in his second and final term, does not have to worry about re-election.
U.S. officials, led by Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel in the 1990s, have studied and restudied the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ad infinitum and are well placed to put their own ideas on the table. One of the advisers to the U.S. delegation is journalist David Makovksy who three years ago put out three options for Israeli-Palestinian borders. Declaring borders would end the “legal limbo status” of most Jewish settlers, Makovsky told me at the time, while the Palestinians “would see the contours of a state and not just hear more speeches.”
The U.S. also should be prepared to call for a return of refugees only to a Palestinian state apart from a small number allowed back to Israel proper for family reunification. On Jerusalem, assorted peace plans have urged that the city not be re-divided – something Israel has repeatedly rejected – but that the Palestinians get to put their capital in the predominantly Arab eastern half and that an international commission supervise sites holy to the world’s three great monotheistic faiths.
It is possible, of course, that neither side would accept these parameters but they would at least become an established basis for further negotiations and prevent both sides from taking dangerous unilateral steps.
After more than a century of conflict, it is clear that Israelis and Palestinians will never be able to resolve their differences by themselves and only the United States is in a position to fill the gap. As Erekat said, “I hope that once the end product is put on the table, it will reflect American ideas because that’s the key to success.”
Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.