With the Syrian chemical weapons crisis seemingly behind us, it is high time to tackle the most central issue in the Middle East, namely the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These adversaries have been stuck in an endless cycle of violence and failed negotiations. Every time there is progress toward peace, it is stymied by the inevitable setback, transparently engineered by extremists. Only Three's Company has recycled the same plot with such regularity. Even more frustrating, however, is the fact the problem is not intractable, particularly if one accepts that the end point of the process will inevitably leave many people disgruntled, at least in the short term. The prospects for true contentment lie with another generation, far removed from the sordid history of strife.
So, what follows is my recipe for Palestinian and Israeli peace. I am guessing it will engender more discord than agreement, but that just underscores the distinction between peace and quiet. Peace first, then hope for quiet later.
1) Drop the he says/she says routine
Question: Who were the first settlers of modern-day Israel? Answer: No one that is capable of sitting around a negotiating table today.
Let's face it, in that region of the world, primacy claims are a dime a dozen and very difficult to prove. As it turns out, most major Western religions have had some transformative event take place in Israel (or plan to have one in the future). Consequently, many adherents the world over feel that they cannot rest until they claim ownership over their holy places. The only sensible thing to do is ignore all of them. Ancient history is not going to help solve this problem.
There is also a more modern version of quibbling that has to do with the circumstances in which Palestinians came to leave Israel during the establishment of the state (and the ensuing war with the Arab objectors). Palestinians claim that they were forced out of their homes as they fled for their lives. Israelis claim that they left by choice, planning to return once Israel was wiped off the map (which they surmised would happen rather quickly). Who is right? That feels like that is an important question to resolve, but it isn't. Bickering about history is just a distraction from solving the problems of today. This leads to a corollary point:
2) Right of Return? Wrong.
Before Yankee Stadium was built, the Yankees shared the Polo Grounds stadium with the New York Giants (the baseball franchise at the time, not the Giants of current NFL irrelevance). After the new stadium was built, surprisingly, the Yankees started playing their home games there. Importantly, they did not demand to continue playing in Polo Grounds as well, while also enjoying a new stadium of their own. The analogy is far from perfect (as I'm sure many will be quick to point out), yet the point is made. A brand new Palestinian Homeland (presumably the end point of the peace process) seems like an awfully good place to settle Palestinian refugees!
Yes, there are going to be some refugees who are going to be very upset and have to give up their dreams of walking into some Israeli home and taking it over. Well, that's just a fantasy, and an aspiration that will ultimately undermine a final peace agreement. Native Americans aren't going to be taking Manhattan anytime soon either. That's how this world works. Just as there are causalities of war who are heralded, there are casualties of peace who should be lauded, celebrated, and perhaps remunerated (a theme to which we will return).
There are two types of settlements that need to be dealt with. The first is the large settlement cities, which are built up and fully established. There are a few places that fall into this category (I used to live in one actually). It is doubtful that any of these will change hands. Building within the existing borders of these areas does not really have much of an impact, so long as the settlement is large enough to not be under negotiation.
Then there are the smaller settlements, and even the hastily erected stick-a-flag-on-a-hill type of settlements. These should be dismantled (the former), and outlawed (the latter). Expanding these while trying to make peace is nonsensical. I've never been swayed by the Israeli government's argument that no foreign power should have the right to dictate where Israel builds. However, the point is that the outside world should not need to intervene. Israel could commit to peace and police itself, because anyone who isn't thumping an Old Testament can see that it is a bad idea to continue building in the West Bank when the writing is on the wall for a two-state solution. Stiffer penalties should be in order for those who violate these laws to discourage freelance settlers.
4) Jerusalem -- Capital of the World
One of the cornerstone issues is the fate of Jerusalem, a city that is holy to just about everyone. One possible solution is to rename it Camden and see if anyone still wants to claim it as their capital. More practically though, it's pretty clear that the Palestinian State will share Jerusalem as its capital. Years from now, it will fluster junior high geography students from all walks of life; the test question writes itself. It's not as though Jerusalem isn't already divided, so the song and dance about never dividing Jerusalem is a bit empty. That said, access to all holy places for their respective religions needs to remain open. In fact, much of the jurisdiction over the city can remain in place, though not all. If this becomes too contentious and held up in the semantics of dividing the city, then find a feel-good term to describe the new situation. Jerusalem, the World's Capital. It will be good for tourism.
5) Money money money (and education)
So many countries claim to want to be involved in solving the Middle East crisis. Well, everyone can play a role if they put their money where their mouth is. For those who haven't been paying attention for the last 100 years, there is a bit of a terrorism/extremism problem in the Middle East. How do you solve that? With money. At the end of the day, all people are basically created of the same stuff. If you give them a life worth living, then extremism won't feel like such a good option. For instance, you don't see millionaires blowing themselves up on buses or butchering people in malls. You see people who perceive themselves as not having enough to live for here on earth (and then you brainwash them that it will be better in the next world). What that means is that the West Bank and Gaza need to transform into places where someone might actually want to live. It's a tall order, but with the Arab League investing alongside Russia, the U.S., the EU, and whoever else has clamored to be part of the peace process, this goal is possible to achieve.
Concurrently, of course, the education system in the Palestinian territories and Gaza will need to be overhauled to reduce incitement and give kids a chance to develop intellectually. Ultimately, the Palestinian economy will need to sustain itself and that will take intellectual capital as well as financial. Implementing that will require money, and perhaps some monitoring and assistance from educational institutions around the world.
6) It's a reunion!
Last but not least (for my purposes), the Palestinians are going to need to figure out the whole Gaza vs. West Bank thing. Obviously, if both are going to be incorporated into a Palestinian State, everyone will need to sign on. That may seem like a stretch, but remember that when Israel became a state, there were a variety of factions, some rather extreme (though none anywhere near the likes of Hamas). They had to come together in the same sandbox (and it literally was a sandbox back then) and play nice. I guess it helped that they had to fight for their lives first. Nonetheless, Palestinians will need to unify, and pronto. Again, outside money targeted to moderates can help sell this deal.
Ok, there are issues left on the table, water, defensible borders, recognition of a Jewish (and Palestinian) state, etc. But, these can be worked out. After all, during the Clinton administration a plan was in place that almost made it through. The points listed above represent a rough sketch of a commonsense two-state solution. Keep in mind that the true mark of a fair solution is one no one feels particularly good about. Now, yalla, let's get this done.