For nearly three years now, since the demise of negotiations between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas, there have been no serious Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The reasons center on the apparent recognition by both Abbas and Olmert’s successor, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, that the gaps separating them on issues of substance are too wide to justify the political risks entailed in rejoining a serious negotiations effort. Lest we conclude that Olmert succeeded where Netanyahu never tried, it must be recalled that the Olmert-Abbas talks also ended in failure, with Abbas noting specifically that "the gaps were too wide."
Considering the nature of both those gaps and the political risks on both sides, there has in recent years been only one conceivable intermediary, the Obama administration. It too has to be held accountable for this failure.
Over the past two and a half years, both Abbas and Netanyahu, in seeking to evade the opprobrium of failure, have struck out in new directions. Abbas has chosen the route of internationalization by seeking to crown a successful Palestinian state-building effort in the West Bank with United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state in September. He is aware that this is a dangerous path to follow, but claims he has no alternative. Lately he has also adopted the route of Palestinian unity, even though both he and his new-old partners, the Hamas leadership, are chronically uneasy with one another. Abbas also threatens periodically to resign, and hints on occasion that anything less than total success in September will precipitate a new intifada. All these moves dovetail nicely with the atmosphere of Arab revolution surrounding Israel and Palestine together.
Netanyahu appears to have concluded that Israel’s growing international isolation, which could worsen after September, is both inevitable and tolerable as long as he nourishes his coalition with settlement activity and maintains a strong support base in the US Congress, key Israeli and American constituencies and a few important European countries. He cites the chaos in the surrounding Arab world as justification for taking no initiative for peace. By concentrating on the demand that Israel be recognized by the PLO as a Jewish state, which he knows to be a non-starter, he believes he can weather whatever storms are brewing at the UN, in the West Bank and in the surrounding Arab world.
The depth and substance of the current stalemate are profound. Hence it is hard to understand why the international community, led most recently by French and American initiatives to renew negotiations, is wasting time, energy and prestige on a negotiations-renewal effort so obviously doomed to failure. Parties of good will in the US, Europe and the Arab world would be much better off recognizing that no peace process is possible at present, and that the Arab UN initiative offers a certain potential for progress.
There are three components that must be included in any new UN resolution for it to meet the approval of the Palestinian and Arab leadership: statehood, the 1967 lines and a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. Why not begin here, then add components to the resolution that could render it acceptable to most Israelis and to many of Israel’s supporters.
The resolution would recognize Israel as a Jewish state (harking back to UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1947), prescribe land swaps that leave settlement blocs inside Israel, and offer long overdue international recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. It could comprise a demand that following recognition, Israel and Palestine resolve all outstanding issues through negotiations, beginning with borders and security. This approach would recognize that the refugees issue and the fate of the Jerusalem holy basin and other holy sites would be far easier to deal with when contemplated by two sovereign states with mutually recognized boundaries. The need for Hamas to meet basic international demands in order for the Gaza Strip to become part of the new Palestinian state would be noted. The new resolution could conclude with recognition of Israel’s legitimate security needs and a demand that the Arab world respond to the agreed emergence of a Palestinian state with elements of normalization and security in its relations with Israel.
Instead of reacting to the Arab UN initiative with yet more pathetic attempts to jump-start a dead peace process, why shouldn’t the international community begin to consider leveraging that very UN initiative into a win-win proposition for both Israelis and Palestinians? The outcome can only be better than what currently awaits us in September.