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Shai Baitel Headshot

The Worst Possible Option

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When the brightest minds and influential people come together, solutions and strategies should be found, even for very difficult cases, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Or are we stuck, in this case, with the definition of insanity, attributed to Albert Einstein? According to this definition, insanity would be doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

So these people came together in Israel. There is no doubt that the Herzliya Conference, held by the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy & Strategy and the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), is Israel's -- and perhaps the region's -- most important gathering of government representatives, public institutions, think tanks and research institutes from around the world. The list of participants is long and reads like a Who's Who, gathering to discuss strategic directions and policy solutions.

As is always the case with high-level summitry, the truly interesting discussions take place in the hallways. At the same time, the prepared speeches, even if off-the-record, are rarely as daring as one would hope. So it was instructive to hear participants from across the spectrum voice their frustration about the current state of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

A lot has been written about the fact that 'process' is sort of a misnomer in the face of any lack of progress. At the same time, the parameters are changing and being changed by the two parties. The claims that time was in favor of Israel or the Palestinians simply lack any basis in reality. Whoever agrees that the preferred solution to the conflict are two-states-for-two-peoples needs to realize that this possibility to implement is gradually slipping away while no progress, however small or incremental, is being made. And this realization was the bottom-line of many hallway discussions in Herzliya. Time is nobody's friend here, it was agreed. Something constructive needs to happen. Fast.

An honest analysis of the current stalemate that does not spare either side from criticism is needed. It is already instructive to point to a few important issues. On one side we have Israel. The Israeli government continues to annoy friends and foes alike with continued construction in the West Bank and areas of Jerusalem many think of as belonging to East Jerusalem and possible future capital of a Palestinian state. And while construction in the settlement blocks often only serves to provide for natural growth within existing settlement parameters it still is not helpful. Even worse are settlement outposts that go up in defiance of Israeli law and are not subsequently dismantled. So settlements are not an obstacle to finding a solution that divides the land but the Israeli government would be hard-pressed to argue that these are contributing, well, constructively to bringing about a two-states-for-two-peoples solution. They limit options and smack of defiance. And while both the devotion of the settlement movement and the love of the Land is admired, even Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to have realized this reality.

Moreover, even construction adjacent to the Green Line in Israel proper is problematic as it undermines options for the crucial negotiation element of land swaps. It seems widely accepted that the settlement blocks will stay with Israel. There will not be a complete evacuation from the West Bank as was the case in Gaza in 2005. However, in such a division of land, such swaps that trade settlement areas for similarly sized land of Israel proper, are the only option acceptable to Palestinians to assure contiguity to their future state. So construction next to the Green Line, within Israel, also seems defiant and is limiting options as well.

Even though a poll of highest scientific standard showed that more Palestinians in East Jerusalem would prefer to become citizens of Israel rather than citizens of a new Palestinian state it is clear that the Palestinian side will insist on a division of Jerusalem, with East Jerusalem slated to become the future capital. Israel's 'eternal and united' Jerusalem policy, while well reasoned, is also detrimental to breaking the current gridlock. Israel and a future Palestine need to be disentangled as much as possible.

This needs to happen now, even as Israelis are feeling relatively secure and are enjoying an admirably robust economy. It is imperative for Israel to do its part to start preparing for this disentangling. After all it is confirmed time and again that this is what Israelis want. The Israeli government needs to reconsider its priorities. Advocates for Israel might argue to continue down the current path. In that case, however, they would not be advocates for the two-states-for-two-peoples.

What about the Palestinians? Far from being guilt-free they prove that they do not have the vision and the guts making tough, necessary choices. Awful incitement and indoctrination against Israel aside, the Palestinian leadership does not show, well, any leadership to narrow the gaps between them and Israel. West Bank Palestinians are enjoying, reasonably, modest economic success and income. Despite recent discontent among Palestinians at eroding prices and tax increases, the administration of Salam Fayyad, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority (PA) has proven apt at building institutions, assuring the semblance of law and order, and encouraging economic growth.

So PA president Mahmoud Abbas is in no rush to rattle the proverbial cage and prepare the population for inevitable concessions. Rather, he seemed convinced that further antagonizing Israel -- and Israelis -- through the ill-advised campaign for a unilateral declaration of a state of Palestine at the United Nations would be a smart move. Not so. It is Israel that saves his area of his body on which he sits time and again through essential military intelligence and security cooperation. To this day, Palestinian areas without Israeli support would fall to Hamas faster than Abbas could say 'shukran.' He seems convinced that Israel needs him more than he needs Israel. This is not the case, however.

Speaking of Hamas, it remains the more plausible option to achieve Palestinian unity through its defeat rather than reconciliation between Abbas's Fatah faction and Hamas. Be it as it may: The split of the Palestinian people and its leaders in the West Bank and Gaza is one of the big tragic realities that the Palestinians brought about all by themselves. That problem needs to be resolved without endangering the goodwill of those who have and continue to prop up the Palestinians.

Much more could be said. However, in short, both sides of the conflict are doing nothing constructive to bridge gaps and are busy making excuses for not doing so. This is a sad state of affairs. At the same time, the United States and Europe seem to be taking the proverbial eyes of the prize -- the two-states-for-two-peoples solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Exhausted at the current gridlock and with tremendous economic and political woes at home the pressure, the attention, and the urgency seem to ease off. The Quartet (the United States, European Union, United Nations, and Russia) has never been less relevant to moving the process forward. Their influence in this region of political turmoil is be waning.

What can be done? What should be done? The best thing would be to think beyond clichés and avoid Einstein's 'doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.' Both parties need a new and different peace paradigm. This new paradigm is an interim agreement, which -- as a sage observer put it -- would deal with the doable issues first. These include borders, settlements and security. This makes sense because we know the outlines of a solution to these issues. Such an agreement must unlink from the tougher issues, such as holy places and the right of return. This makes sense because we do not know the outlines of a solution to these issues. It was Abbas, after all, who proclaimed that there never was a temple in Jerusalem.

Not fighting for, not preparing for, and not demanding such an interim agreement would be the worst possible option. It holds the promise of renewing hope on both sides and the desire to tackle more negotiations. It holds the promise of re-energizing those forces on both sides that aim at removing obstacles that are struggling on both sides to be heard right now. All the while the influential participants only dare to speak that truth in the hallways of the Herzliya Conference. It's time to speak that truth to those who make the decisions.