Israeli-Palestinian Peace Is Worth the Necessary Rethink

Netanyahu and Abbas
In this picture taken on November 30, 2015 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (R) behind Comoros' President Ikililou Dhoinine during the family photo at the COP21, United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Le Bourget, outside Paris. Speaking to Newsweek, Hilik Bar, deputy speaker of the Israeli parliament, outlines his vision for resolving the decades-long conflict. Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty

The failure of the Obama administration's efforts to deliver a breakthrough on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking invites a paradigmatic rethink. Both Senator George Mitchell and Secretary of State John Kerry have failed to mediate even a framework agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Israelis and Palestinians have only grown more hostile toward and distrustful of the other during these efforts.

The principal error of U.S. mediators has been the exclusive focus on negotiating a final status agreement. All or nothing. I have been arguing for years, including in the diplomatic plan I have published in July 2015, that generating actual movement on the ground toward a two states reality is a necessary parallel process.

There were more and less violent periods since the collapse of the Camp David negotiations in 2000, but throughout this long period, mutual denial has only grown stronger. This is why an actual change on the ground, one that would tangibly demonstrate the value of moving towards resolution of the conflict, is absolutely necessary. Without it, final status negotiations should not be pursued.

However, Israelis and Palestinians alone are unable to create such a self-reinforcing process. Let's face it, Israel will not, and should not unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank as this would be perceived as a reward to terrorism and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Palestinians, unfortunately, would not and cannot unilaterally dramatically reform their education and alter their national narrative as long as they face intrusive Israeli military control. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is right that Palestinians should recognize Israel as a nation state of the Jewish people, but wrong and deceiving when he places this as an essential condition for movement towards the two state solution—the only possible real solution to the conflict.

Peacemaking in 2017 requires a conductor whose primary goal would be orchestrating and coordinating serious movement toward a two states reality on the ground, as opposed to a resumption of final status negotiations. Given the high degree of mutual denial and hostility between Israelis and Palestinians and in light of the asymmetry between the two parties, international and regional stakeholders need to, maybe have to, pool their resources into a menu of rewards that the parties would secure in case they pursue major steps in the right direction. The fact is that Israel and the Palestinian Authority can do a lot in order to generate a different, better reality: one in which there is less violence, less suffering, and more political will to continue toward a comprehensive peace agreement.

PLO funding for the families of terrorists, bigoted teaching against Jews in Palestinian mosques, teaching a single simplistic narrative of the conflict's complex history in PA schools, and commemoration of Palestinian terrorists in city squares are all destructive for peacemaking. They can change this destructive behavior, and they should.

Israel in turn can permit the building of several large Palestinian cities with affordable housing in Area C of the West Bank and more broadly allow an expansion of the Palestinian Authority into some of Area C (policing, access to agricultural lands, economic activities and so forth). The Knesset can pass an evacuation-compensation law allowing settler families to relocate into Israel proper, should they wish to (recent polls suggest around 40 percent of the settlers residing outside the settlement blocks would relocate if such a law is passed). Such changes could occur without taking any significant security risk and would open the door to more ambitious peacemaking.

But leaders on both sides would not actually pursue such steps unless they can demonstrate immediate tangible rewards to their population for doing so. Luckily, such rewards can come from third parties. This is particularly true in such a process in order to overcome the asymmetry between Israelis and Palestinians. Ramallah needs some improvement on the ground so it could win the support of its public for deeper educational reforms, promote education for peace, and fight extremists in Palestinian society. It is the careful orchestration of the sequencing and scope of such rewards that should be the pivotal effort of peacemaking in the foreseeable future.

The Arab League and the European Union have so far only committed to reward comprehensive peacemaking, and major upgrades of bilateral relations with the U.S. and Russia are postponed until comprehensive peace, instead of being leveraged to motivate a major stride toward a two state reality. While some major rewards need to be kept until comprehensive peace is achieved, this approach of keeping them all to the end is an unwise use of their political capital: it is insufficient for actually generating movement towards peace. We must liberate peacemaking from the "nothing is agreed upon until everything is agreed upon" straightjacket.

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What we need today is a conversation about the kind of international and regional rewards that the parties would secure if they were to take major policies that fall short of ending the conflict, but significantly improve the situation. Currently the sense in Israel is that even if the Knesset passed an evacuation-compensation law—a major step both politically and financially—the basic reaction of European and Arabs states would be "What about the rest?"

But an Israeli leader who has to explain to his public why to incur such costs would need to demonstrate that this yields concrete gains. The notion that such steps are in line with Israel's long-term strategic interests is insufficient. This because if full resolution is impossible, as many Israelis believe, then the risks of making partial progress towards them may in fact worsen Israel's situation rather than improve it.

Russian security assurances to Israel regarding southern Syria, U.S. bunker busters, Israeli diplomatic presence in parts of the Arab world and International recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people should be explored as the most ambitious rewards for Israel. Each of them alone could jump start major progress.

But a process would likely commence with smaller ones and there are many. Could international donors to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East catalyze more tolerant education in refugee camps? Could an upgrade to the PA-EU association agreement happen in tandem with the PLO changing its Convention to accord with the two nation-states solution? Could one organize public statements from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan - by their rulers, grand muftis or chief Qadis—to the effect that the land between the River and the Sea is not Waqf land in spite of Hamas's claims and that this is why the Arab Peace Initiative is religiously correct? Such changes would enable Israeli leaders to implement in parallel far reaching steps in the West Bank—considerably more ambitious than common wisdom suggests.

The relevant question is not about comprehensive peace, but about the next few packages of major steps towards it. If Israelis and Palestinians will know that such possibilities exist, they would push their leaders to pursue them. If Netanyahu and Abbas do so, my Labor Party would support them. If Netanyahu continues talking the two states talk, but not walking the walk, then faced with such clear opportunities Israelis will replace him next time they go to the ballot box.

Hilik Bar is the Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, the Secretary General of the Labor Party and the Chair of the Two State Solution Caucus at the Knesset