Aug 3 2013

Where is the Palestinian peace plan?

The current round of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority will unfortunately follow in the footsteps of earlier rounds and end without an agreement. Why? The short explanation is that the Palestinians are simply not interested in establishing an independent state within the pre-1967 West Bank borders. Had they been interested, they could have created a state at least twice in the last dozen years or so.

The long explanation requires some historical background. Israeli offers of a “two-state solution” were twice rejected by the Palestinian leadership: the first was then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s in 2000 and the second was then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s in 2008-2009.

Olmert offered to cede 94 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians (with additional land-swaps); to establish a Palestinian state; to share sovereignty with that state over the old city of Jerusalem; and to enable 5,000 Palestinian refugees to live in Israel, as a symbolic gesture of goodwill. These are the same parameters being discussed in the current round of talks, but history teaches us a lesson. Former Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice recounted in her memoirs “No Higher Honor” the meeting at which she presented this offer to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). He wasn’t satisfied: “‘I can’t tell four million Palestinian [refugees] that only five thousand of them can go home,’” she quoted him as saying.

Abbas’ rejection means that even if the current Israeli negotiators, Tzipi Livni and Yitzhak Molcho, make the same offer (an unlikely scenario, given Benjamin Netanyahu’s positions), the Palestinians would reject it. Abbas listened to the offer – supposedly granting him exactly what he wanted all along – but never got back to Olmert.

In fact, not only did Abbas never get back to Olmert, he never put forward an alternative offer. Several Israeli leaders have presented their peace plans in recent years. An appropriate question would be – is there a counter Palestinian peace plan?

The Arab Peace Initiative from 2002 is usually viewed as the Palestinian peace plan and as Abbas’ official position. But that Initiative remains mute regarding the two thorniest issues: the fate of Jerusalem and of the refugees. The Arab Initiative has no specific reference to Jerusalem’s holy basin, treating it as if it were an uninhabited hill in the West Bank and part of the future Palestinian state. Palestinian control over the city’s old Jewish quarter, including the Wailing Wall which is Judaism’s holiest site, is obviously a non-starter.

The second issue is that of the refugees, regarding which the Arab Initiative calls for a “just” solution. But what exactly is “just”? How many would be considered “just” – 5,000 refugees settling in Israel? 50,000? 5 million? Using the term “just” is highly unusual in negotiations. When selling a car, a seller is not asking for “a just price”; he usually offers a price and the two sides negotiate.

The Palestinian reluctance to put on the table a detailed plan regarding these two critical issues, is telling. The Palestinian refugees never gave up their claim to Israel. Abbas never said what exactly is needed in order to reach an “end of conflict” deal – a basic element in any peace accord. Abbas’ lack of control over the Gaza Strip and fears of a Hamas takeover of the West Bank only complicate the situation further.

What, then, are Israel’s options? Israel’s national security requires the maximum possible separation from the Palestinians in order to guarantee its Jewish and democratic nature. Since a peacefully agreed upon separation within the framework of the “two-state solution” might not be possible, it is time to think of more creative solutions. One such option is to revive the Jordanian-Palestinian confederation – an idea being discussed in Palestinian circles.

In the meantime, Israel must make a starker distinction between its military presence and its civilian presence in the West Bank. As long as no peace deal can be reached and ceding territory in the West Bank can endanger the lives of millions of Israelis, keeping a military presence is both required and legitimate. Only when the Palestinians can fully guarantee a peaceful border, will this situation change. On the other hand, Israel must limit civilian presence (i.e. the settlements) to areas which are sure to remain under its sovereignty in any future agreement.

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