A Plan of Attack For Middle East Peace

In the remorseless logic of the Middle East, war is diplomacy by other means. This was true when Anwar Sadat launched a surprise attack on Israel in October 1973, a move that gave him the credibility and stature in the Arab world to make peace six years later with the Jewish state. It is also true today as Israel continues its assault on Hamas in Gaza, attacks that were prompted by Hamas missile strikes on Israel. The recent violence has reportedly cost more than 400 lives and left over 2,000 wounded; on Saturday, Israeli ground forces began moving in. Much of the outside world, not without justification, views the Gaza campaign as yet another atavistic explosion of Arab-Israeli violence that will, once again, set back the efforts for peace. But these strikes were not simply a reaction; they were a calculation.

Indeed, an Israeli source intimate with Olmert's thinking, speaking anonymously in order to speak freely, says the prime minister went into Gaza with a two-tiered set of objectives. The first was simply to stop the missiles Hamas was sending into Israel and to force a renewal of the ceasefire that existed until Dec. 19. Olmert's second goal, the source says, is far more ambitious—and risky: the prime minister wants to crush Hamas altogether, first by aerial attacks and then with a grinding artillery and infantry assault. The hope, however faint, is eventually to allow Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah government to reassert control in Gaza, clearing the way in the future for a return to serious peace negotiations. With Hamas out of the way, Olmert believes there is a chance that Israel and the Palestinians can put flesh on the outlines of a comprehensive peace plan he negotiated with Abbas over the past year.

Wishful thinking? Probably. After so many failed attempts, the phrase "peace process" has little meaning. Olmert's own motives in Gaza may have as much to do with domestic politics as foreign policy. Badly weakened and facing possible corruption charges, he has been grasping to rescue his tarnished legacy. But the fact that Olmert wants to negotiate, and that Abbas wants to negotiate, underscores the stubborn, maddening fact about the Israeli-Palestinian relationship: there is only one path to peace, and both sides know what it is—and yet neither side has been willing to take it. The violence, the bombings, the threats and counterthreats are all the more exhausting and senseless because they are, essentially, an elaborate delaying tactic. The broad contours of a peace were laid out eight years ago when President Bill Clinton brought the two sides together at Camp David and tried to broker a historic deal. The current Olmert "shelf plan" is remarkably similar to the Clinton parameters: a two-state solution in which Israelis and Palestinians make painful compromises on the core issues of territory, security, Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees. The 2000 talks collapsed partly because time ran out on Clinton's term and partly because neither side had the political clout to sell the deal back home. Bush, fixated on Iraq and terror, has paid little mind to the conflict until recently.

There are many difficult details to be worked out: the exact borders of a two-state compromise; the fate of Palestinian refugees; the future of Jerusalem. President Barack Obama and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, will now inherit these challenges. They cannot simply pick up where Bill Clinton left off. The strategic context in the region has changed profoundly—for the worse. George W. Bush's war on terror has diminished American credibility in the Arab world. Moreover, the leaders of those Arab states that are closest to the United States have lost legitimacy, challenged by popular opposition at home. Meanwhile a Shiite government in Baghdad, the first in half a millennium, along with the rise of Iran, has increased Shiite-Sunni tensions throughout the Middle East. (On the bright side, Iran's enhanced influence in the region means that the West has a powerful incentive to break up the alliance between Tehran and Damascus. Real progress with Syria could have a positive effect on Israeli-Palestinian talks.)

At the moment, the greatest impediment to peace is Hamas, the terrorist group that won power in Gaza through elections in 2006. The rise of a rejectionist "Hamastan" in Gaza has left Palestinians divided between Abbas's more moderate Fatah government and radical Hamas leaders who encourage violence and believe Israel itself should not exist. Hamas rose by exploiting the misery and grievances of the Palestinians. The challenge for Palestinians and Israelis who desire peace is to make Hamas irrelevant in the eyes of its supporters by offering them something more tangible than revenge.

The suspicion of many Israelis—sometimes justified—that Palestinian leaders are interested not in peace but in Israel's destruction has been another powerful obstacle. Israelis warn against becoming freiers. The word is Yiddish for "suckers," but it carries deeper psychological freight in a country that grew out of the ashes of the Holocaust and has absorbed "never again" as its mantra. The Palestinians harbor similar resentments at having repeatedly drawn the short stick of history. As many of them see it, the land of Israel is land that the world stole from them in 1948, leaving them without a home. At Camp David, Yasir Arafat refused to finalize a peace agreement with Israel, claiming that to do so would be to court assassination by his own people.

There are no options other than a comprehensive agreement that creates two sovereign states, Israel and Palestine, warily coexisting side by side. Lately, some Palestinian intellectuals have been making the case for a single, binational state—an idea that could have even more currency in the aftermath of Israel's military action in Gaza. But from the Israeli perspective, such a one-state solution would be disastrous, for it would terminate the founding principle of the country as a Jewish homeland.

President-elect Obama may have hoped he would have time to develop an approach to peacemaking in the Holy Land. But as usual, the schedule is dictated by facts on the ground. It is unclear how engaged Obama can be in the Middle East in the early months of his administration; his first priority will be fixing the American economy. What Obama can't delay once he takes office is forcefully recommitting the United States to a two-state solution and the basic framework for peace that already exists.

During the presidential campaign, Obama's detractors tried to cast doubt on his loyalty to Israel. It was a political ploy, since Obama has spoken out forcefully in Israel's defense. Yet many Israeli and American Jews hope Obama will be willing to deliver the sort of tough love to the Israelis that Bush, reflexively defensive of Israel, refused to do for eight years. The president must be willing to pressure the next Israeli prime minister to make difficult concessions for peace. The Israelis may be more open to such pressure now than they were in the past. Time is no longer on their side. Arab birthrates are rising. By most estimates, if Israel insists on maintaining control over the West Bank, the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea will be majority Arab in years to come. Thus, the only way for Israel to stay a Jewish state is to make way for a Palestinian state. Early signs are that Obama intends to play this role of loyal but critical friend—and in that sense will be, as the joke goes, "good for the Jews."

The new president and his team will be able to rely on ideas derived from the work of negotiators who have struggled, with the patience of Job, to find a middle ground. There is room for refinement and improvement. The haggling will be epic. But in the end (if there ever is an end), any lasting agreement for peace will probably look something like this.

Article I: Territory
Ever since Israel blitzed the Arabs in 1967's Six Day War—taking the Sinai and Gaza from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria and the West Bank from Jordan—"land for peace" has been the guiding principle of any comprehensive deal. It remains the only option. Israel has already withdrawn from Gaza; it must now pull out of the vast majority of the West Bank. Palestinians will establish their homeland in these two swatches of land. In return, the Palestinians and other Arabs will formally renounce their claims on the Jewish state and recognize its right to exist. But there will have to be some adjustments to the pre-1967 borders. Israel and the Palestinians should swap equal amounts of land, allowing a majority of the roughly 270,000 Israeli settlers now residing in the largest of the West Bank settlement blocks to stay where they are while remaining under Israeli sovereignty. Israel in turn would give up a land corridor connecting Gaza to the West Bank and allowing for the free flow of people and commerce between the two. There is one additional challenge that did not exist when Clinton laid out his original proposal in 2000: the Israelis have erected a security barrier that puts a full 8 percent of the West Bank on their side of the fence. It has already changed the way Israelis think about the borders of their nation. "The security barrier is creating new conceptual and spatial contours in the Israeli imagination," says Daniel Levy, a former Israeli negotiator and now a senior fellow at both the Century and New America foundations. But for any deal to succeed, the barrier would have to be torn down or, at the very least, moved.

Article II: Security
Back in 2000, this was the most straightforward of the issues to be worked out. Both sides generally agreed that the new Palestinian state would have to be largely de-militarized. Palestinian forces would be allowed to maintain light arms to enforce domestic law and order but would not have an offensive capability that could in any way threaten Israel. The Palestinians would have sovereignty over their airspace, but it would be limited to civilian aviation. Yet the violence of the last eight years—not only between Palestinians and Israelis but also between Fatah and Hamas forces—complicates the security equation. The Israelis are now more skeptical that Fatah is strong enough to assume responsibility for security. A more feasible approach would be to put a NATO-based international force in the West Bank that would later transfer control to the Palestinians. Obama might well go for this; his designated national-security adviser, retired Gen. James Jones, developed the idea while serving as Condoleezza Rice's envoy for Palestinian-Israeli security issues. As far as Israeli forces are concerned, they would be able to withdraw from the strategically important Jordan Valley over a longer period of time, perhaps three years. Israel would be allowed to maintain a number of warning stations on Palestinian territory. Finally, Israel would allow the Palestinians to have sovereignty over their borders and international crossing points. But these borders and crossing points should be monitored by an international presence.

Article III: Jerusalem
The sacred "City of Peace" is at the very heart of the 100-year conflict: how to divvy up rights to a holy place with too much history and not enough geography. In 2000, Clinton's deft diplomatic skills helped demystify Jerusalem. He asked Israeli and Palestinian mediators to come up with a list of 60 basic municipal responsibilities they could share, from garbage collection to mail delivery. There was remarkable consensus. By moving the conversation from the sacred to the mundane, the exercise isolated the practical issues of running a city from the abstract and emotionally fraught issue of sovereignty. Clinton's seductively simple notion was this: in occupied East Jerusalem, he said, "What is Arab should be Palestinian and what is Jewish should be Israeli." This is just as relevant today. So is the principle from Camp David that Jerusalem must be divided—but shared, and it must serve as a capital to both states.

One of Clinton's solutions will likely have to be dialed back. His concept of split-level sovereignty for the holiest parts of Jerusalem are too incendiary. Jews know the area as the Temple Mount, the site where the ancient temple once stood. It is revered by Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, the place where Muhammad ascended to heaven on a white steed. Clinton proposed Palestinian sovereignty over the Haram and Israeli sovereignty over the entire Western Wall, part of which runs beneath the Muslim quarter of the Old City. Today, it is very unlikely that either side would accept such a division. But there are other creative solutions. One is a proposal in a new book by Martin Indyk, Clinton's ambassador to Israel at the time of the 2000 summit. Indyk recommends that the Old City be placed under a so-called "special regime," with Israeli and Palestinian governments sharing sovereignty over the territory. But the religious sites inside the Old City walls would remain under the control of the respective Muslim, Jewish and Christian religious authorities without any actual designation of sovereignty. Alternatively, Indyk suggests, the entire Holy Basin—the Old City and religious sites—could be placed under international supervision, with religious authorities controlling their holy places.

Article IV: Refugees
This may be the most difficult problem to solve. What will become of the Palestinians who fled or were forced from their territory in 1948, and their descendants? There are as many as 4 million refugees living in camps on the West Bank and Gaza and in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. They are poor, stateless and angry. For half a century they have waited, believing that one day they will return to their homes. Throughout the years of negotiations, Palestinians have demanded a "right of return." But to Israelis, the notion implies an admission that they are responsible for the refugee crisis and the historical injustices leveled against the Palestinians. Israelis, offended at the suggestion that their country was born in sin, have drawn a clear line.

Israeli leaders have been willing to accept a partial solution: some refugees living in the camps would make homes in the newly established state of Palestine. A small, symbolic number would be permitted to move to Israel. For this to work, refugees living in camps in Syria and other foreign states would have to be allowed to stay if they chose, and be granted citizenship in their adopted countries—the Arab host countries could not demand that all of the refugees return to Palestine, where they would overwhelm the budding state. And the refugees must be granted a window of time—perhaps three to five years—to petition international courts for compensation for what they have lost, perhaps as part of a massive regional redevelopment plan.

But how to salve the wounds of Palestinian grievance? One intriguing solution is offered by writer Walter Russell Mead in an essay in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. Mead argues that though Israel must take some responsibility for the Palestinian tragedy, the entire nakba, or catastrophe, "cannot simply be laid at Israel's door." Israel must acknowledge its part in the events of 1948, but the international community must take "ultimate responsibility" for the 60-year-old crisis. In this way, the world would acknowledge that the Palestinians have indeed suffered a historic injustice, but obviate the need for Israel to bear full responsibility. "This is a way to confer dignity on the Palestinian people," says Levy—a crucial step toward securing an elusive peace.