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A New Approach to the Israeli-Palestinian Proximity Talks

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The idea sweeping Washington over recent weeks has been the notion that the President should release an Obama Plan, or a set of Principles, or a Statement, outlining where the US stands on all the core issues in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute (Jerusalem, refugees, borders, and security). The National Security Advisor, James Jones, and many of his predecessors reportedly favor it; so do many Mideast specialists and former officials. This is a very appealing notion especially given the frustrations the US now confronts in trying to get both sides to talk, even indirectly, in "proximity talks" to be conducted by the United States. Since the administration has not been able to start negotiations, shake the two sides up, the argument goes, and force them to focus on the issues instead of the procedures for moving forward. Just shove an American conception in their face, and they'll start paying attention alright.

There is no question that bridging proposals or American ideas privately presented can save talks, and will undoubtedly be necessary earlier rather than later once negotiations begin. The Clinton Parameters that such a plan might resemble were privately presented to the two sides in the last few weeks of the administration. They might actually have worked if the parties had reached that stage earlier in the President's term. But in a situation in which the two sides, especially the leaders, distrust each other, are suspicious of the Obama camp, and are preoccupied with their internal problems, the chances of either accepting an "Obama Plan" are slim indeed. The far more likely scenario is that both sides will reject the President's approach out of hand, leaving him weaker than before and less able to organize talks. Once the President has released his own "plan" -- and it is rejected -- where do we go from there?

Instead, I propose another approach. The Obama administration has been right to press for the proximity talks that have been stalled for many weeks, while the US and Israel debated Israeli construction in East Jerusalem. But now that the Prime Minister appears to have quietly imposed a de facto freeze on building in East Jerusalem, the talks finally appear about to begin imminently. This is good news, but the US should pursue them on the basis of a new agenda.

Instead of focusing on the central issues for finally resolving the conflict, the discussions should build on several useful and intriguing recent proposals from Palestinians and Israelis alike, to create a fledgling Palestinian state quickly, and then build on that achievement to address the core issues in a new and rejuvenated set of direct talks.

And what are these ideas? Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad has proposed using the advances Palestinians are making on the West Bank in institution building from security to economic structures to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state in 2011. Shaul Mofaz, the hitherto hard line Israeli former Minister of Defense, is suggesting "the immediate establishment of an independent disarmed Palestinian state," followed by a guarantee of discussions on final status issues. He suggests quickly expanding the areas of the West Bank where Palestinians are largely in control so that the Palestinians will have "60% of the territory of the West Bank and 99% of the population." Ehud Yaari, Israel's leading TV analyst on Arab affairs, suggests "immediately negotiating the establishment of a Palestinian state within armistice boundaries before a comprehensive peace is secured..."

All of these ideas propose an early Palestinian state in a portion of the West Bank as a prelude to final status negotiations, which they would see as invigorated and more viable once a proto Palestinian state existed. Yaari talks about the evacuation of about 40,000 to 50,000 settlers; Mofaz refers more vaguely to compensation and evacuations of settlers. Yaari thinks Hamas would go along quietly with his approach; Mofaz is ready to talk to Hamas if it is elected again by the Palestinian public and he is ready to consider an international force from western countries if necessary at the outset. All of these proposals try to address and overcome longstanding Palestinian fears that a partial state will be a substitute, not a precursor, of a final settlement by guaranteeing further talks.

These are all challenging ideas, and they differ markedly from current American policy. All of those who make these proposals and others who offer other ideas admit that the leaders on both sides do not currently accept these concepts, and the one exception, Fayyad, has a very small popular base. But they all offer more chance of genuine achievement under current conditions than basing our policy on either a premature Obama Plan or on devoting the proximity talks exclusively to core issues.

Now that proximity talks are an imminent possibility, let's try something that has a much better chance for success. Let's work with the Israelis and Palestinians to begin to create a Palestinian state now, and then finish the job in direct negotiations that will then have a far better chance of triumph in a new atmosphere.