Rethinking Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking post corona days

Op-Ed for “Black Sea Strategic Research Center” (KASAM) by

Mr. Yehiel Hilik Bar (Former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset)

Covid19 came as a surprise to most of us, and yhe world is changing nowadays like we never knew before. However, this crazy “Corona period”, gave us all also some time to relax, think, and mainly to rethink about some of the major challenges we are facing, each one in his own circles, his family, his society, and his state. One of the biggest challenges we have in Israel and in the Middle East, is the long old Israeli Palestinian conflict. It seems like we forgot about it, but he is here, and the challenge of resolving this conflict is still around.

Just a moment before the Corona, President Trump put on our table his plan to solve the conflict, AKA “The Deal of the Century”. This plan have many advantages and many disadvantages. It have numerous obstacles but also some  opportunities.

President Trump’s plan which seems like it was dooms to fail before it was even born, together with the failure of the Obama administration’s efforts to deliver a breakthrough on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, invites a paradigmatic rethink. In the last decade, both President Trump, Senator Mitchell and former Secretary of State Kerry have failed to mediate even a framework agreement between the Israel and the PLO. Israelis and Palestinians have only grown more hostile toward and distrustful of the other during these efforts. The principal error of US mediators has been the exclusive focus on negotiating an immediate final status agreement. All or nothing – and now. That is not necessarily the only way to go.

I have been arguing for years, including in the diplomatic plan I have published in July 2015, that generating an actual movement on the ground toward a two states reality, is a necessary parallel process to our attempts to achieve a final status agreement.

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

Peacemaking in 2020 requires a conductor whose primary goal would be orchestrating and coordinating serious movement toward a two states reality – on the ground – as opposed to resumption of only final status negotiations.

I agree that a final status agreement and end of all mutual claims should be and have to be the final result, however there’s steps we can and should take on the way there. Given the high degree of mutual denial and hostility between Israelis and Palestinians, international and regional stakeholders need to, maybe have to, pool their resources into a menu of rewards which the parties will secure in case they pursue major steps in the right direction.

The fact is that Israel and the PA can do a lot in order to generate a different, better reality: one in which there is less violence, less suffering, and a stronger political will to continue toward a comprehensive peace agreement. For example, PLO funding for the families of terrorists, bigoted teaching against Jews in Palestinian mosques, single simplistic narratives 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 and encourage the building of several large Palestinian cities with affordable housing in area C and more broadly allow an expansion of the Palestinian Authority into much of Area C (policing, access to agricultural lands, economic activities, etc). The Knesset can pass an evacuation-compensation law allowing settler families who so desire to relocate into Israel proper. Likewise, educators in Israel who deny Palestinian statehood are not helping peace. Such changes can occur without taking any significant security risk, and will open the door and the way to a more ambitious peacemaking.

However, today leaders on both sides will 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. 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 US and Russia are postponed till comprehensive peace, instead of being leveraged to motivate a major stride toward a two states reality. This is 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.

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 which 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 will 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 some progress towards them m, may in fact worsen Israel’s situation rather than improve it.

Russian security assurances to Israel regarding Southern Syria, US bunker busters, Israeli diplomatic presence in parts of the Arab world and European recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people should be explored as most ambitious rewards for Israel. Each of them alone could jump start major progress. The real and relevant question is not necessarily how to achieve a comprehensive peace deal tomorrow morning, but more about what should be the next major steps towards it. If Israelis and Palestinians will know that such possibilities exist, they will push their leaders to pursue them. If Netanyahu and Abbas do so, Their people will support them. The desirable Israeli Palestinian Peace is definitely possible. The question is which path both parties will choose to walk, and how both leaderships will create a possible path, separately – and maybe also, together. To do so is just a matter of decision, and that decision is in our hands.


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