UCLA political science professor Steven L. Spiegel has just outlined a possible way forward for the faltering Israeli-Palestinian peace talks by attempting to gain agreement on the settlement blocs to be annexed to Israel, where building may be resumed, and those outlying settlements where a freeze would be reimposed. I posted a similar idea in September. This is an abridged version of Spiegel’s long piece in the Huffington Post:
The Obama administration’s intense efforts to restart serious negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians have stalled once again, so far for the last month. U.S. attempts to achieve direct talks have stymied because of characteristic posturing: Once the Israelis agreed to a ten-month moratorium on construction in the West Bank, the Palestinians waited nine months to agree to direct talks, and then insisted they would not remain unless Israel extended the freeze, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has so far refused to do.
The Obama administration reacted by offering the Israelis a stunning package of American commitments, reportedly including that the US would not ask for another extension of the moratorium, that it would veto any UN Security Council initiative on Arab-Israeli peace during negotiations over the next year, that it would not object to leaving Israeli forces in the Jordan Valley for a prolonged period, and that it would provide additional security guarantees, including more fighter planes, missile defense and satellite access.
But so far the Israelis have refused to budge despite the surprising largesse from Washington so early in the talks. To all this, the Palestinian Authority has remained steadfast — no return to negotiations until Israel resumes the moratorium. The Arab League gave Israel and the US a one-month deadline to gain a two-to-three month moratorium on construction in the settlements. Since then many Arab parties have proceeded to discuss openly going to the UN over the heads of Israel and the US to gain recognition of a Palestinian state.
…. While Israel would likely take the brunt of the blame from the international community for a breakdown in talks should it refuse the American guarantees, the Palestinians will also be faulted. It is they who wasted nine of the ten months of the Israeli freeze in diplomatic stalling, only to now insist on an extension of the moratorium. By doing so, the Palestinians have jeopardized prospects for negotiations aimed at creating their state in order to propound a principle of a settlement freeze that would be irrelevant should talks succeed.
Clearly it is in the interest of all three parties to resume direct talks with an Israeli extended moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank. Although the Middle East is famous for everyone putting ideology before rationality, let us assume that in this case the Israelis and Palestinians do indeed reach agreement on returning to direct talks under American auspices…. What then?
…. There has to be a product, a deliverable upon which to build. A concentration on borders is the logical place to start. The maneuvering by all three parties since the Obama administration began has made settlements the central issue. To move forward, this issue must be finessed or resolved indirectly.
There is precedent for this approach: the second phase of the roadmap, which called for a Palestinian state on provisional borders. But the Palestinians have always rejected that idea because they feared that if they had recognition of a Palestinian state within part of the territories Israel occupied in 1967, they’d never get anything else.
Obama and his team would have to overcome this Palestinian fear — and Israeli reluctance under the current coalition government to withdraw from any territory — by addressing the basics of the border question through concentrating on settlements. The goal would not be a complete accord on all details of a final deal on borders, but instead would have to be an agreement on the blocs that Israel will keep in a final settlement, where 80 percent of the settlers live and which are largely dispersed along the 1967 border. That will mean that Israelis can, [after a two month moratorium] beginning on the 61st day, build in those areas, but the moratorium elsewhere will have to continue, with an agreed commitment that the other settlers will have to leave according to a timetable to be determined. This would also be an opportunity to address reparations and incentives for those settlers who would be departing.
Skeptics will claim that a basic agreement in principle on which settlements are going to stay in Israel and which are going to be evacuated, is not possible in 60 days. Indeed, in theory it would be nice to tuck the settlements into a larger context of other issues as well. But the Obama administration’s early insistence on a freeze, the Netanyahu coalition’s initial refusal to extend the freeze longer than two months, and the Abbas position that he will only return to the talks with a renewed moratorium leaves the U.S. no choice. So why should and might the parties accept this idea?
For the U.S., the Obama administration cannot emerge from the 60-day talks without an agreement — any agreement — that will allow the talks to continue, and settlements are now the major impediment to that.
For the Palestinians, delineating the future of the settlements (those that will stay and those that will not) and agreeing on a 1-1 swap would mean agreeing on the basis of the Palestinian state. Much would be left, of course, including Jerusalem and refugees, the final delineation of borders, and Israel’s security needs, but a major breakthrough would have been achieved. The alternative would be a complete breakdown and the loss of a chance at a Palestinian state in the near term, the strengthening of Hamas, and a probable Israeli construction spree after 60 days.
The Israelis are the most problematic here. Israel’s gains in a 60-day deal are potentially enormous. They achieve U.S. and Palestinian acknowledgment that in any deal 80 percent of the settlers would remain where they are. They obtain American agreement for construction to continue unfettered and permanently in these areas. They would gain American agreement, already conferred but now official, that Israel would retain a presence on the Jordan Valley for security protection for an extended period.
But the Israeli right would finally have to give up its fantasy that it can retain the entire West Bank permanently. The 20 percent of settlers outside the settlement blocs would not be able to expand their settlements and would know they would have to leave, sooner rather than later. This will cause turmoil inside Israel, and would force the country to confront its most delicate political problem. The coalition may well collapse. Political careers would be at stake. This is a great deal to ask of any country, let alone Israel under the leadership of Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has developed a reputation for being risk-averse.
…. The conflict cannot be solved in 60 days. With a great deal of luck and skill, the best the Obama administration can do is to get the settlement burden off everyone’s back, and move on to addressing the rest of the key issues the two sides confront. Considering that the settlements are the ideological heart of Israel’s right wing, that is no minor accomplishment. If in 60 days it is agreed which basic areas Israel will retain in the West Bank and which settlers will have to leave and the principle of a 1-1 swap is reached, there will be enough agreement to allow the talks to continue, with new momentum. That will be reason to celebrate, especially given the harsh alternatives to agreement and after the prolonged process that would have brought us to that point.