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The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process: How to Turn the Current Mess Into a Success

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The Obama administration's intense efforts to restart serious negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians have stalled once again, so far for the last month. U.S. attempts to achieve direct talks have stymied because of characteristic posturing: Once the Israelis agreed to a ten-month moratorium on construction in the West Bank, the Palestinians waited nine months to agree to direct talks, and then insisted they would not remain unless Israel extended the freeze, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has so far refused to do.

The Obama administration reacted by offering the Israelis a stunning package of American commitments, reportedly including that the US would not ask for another extension of the moratorium, that it would veto any UN Security Council initiative on Arab-Israeli peace during negotiations over the next year, that it would not object to leaving Israeli forces in the Jordan Valley for a prolonged period, and that it would provide additional security guarantees, including more fighter planes, missile defense and satellite access.

But so far the Israelis have refused to budge despite the surprising largesse from Washington so early in the talks. To all this, the Palestinian Authority has remained steadfast -- no return to negotiations until Israel resumes the moratorium. The Arab League gave Israel and the US a one-month deadline to gain a two-to-three month moratorium on construction in the settlements. Since then many Arab parties have proceeded to discuss openly going to the UN over the heads of Israel and the US to gain recognition of a Palestinian state.

The ideal next scenario would be something like the following:

After the month granted to him by the Arab League, which ends on Nov. 8, Netanyahu would agree to extend the moratorium by 60 days. He would do so after acknowledging that with the US guarantees pocketed, and the additional month utilized to assuage his right wing by opposing a renewed moratorium on the one hand, and promoting messages and legislative initiatives -- like the loyalty oath and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state -- on the other, he is in a considerably strengthened political position moving forward. Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, having spent the month flirting with the UN and with the genuine possibility of completely withdrawing from the direct talks, also returns to negotiations by pocketing American commitments to base the talks on the original 1967 lines.

In this scenario, the US, its efforts having appeared futile, would in fact gain resumed talks in the period just after the midterm elections, when presumably it is less fettered by domestic interference.

All of this could conceivably be a logical outcome of a complex peace process that would regain its footing and have a reasonable chance of moving forward.

But what if one or more of the parties errs or oversteps, especially if Netanyahu decides not to accept the moratorium in exchange for the American package? New construction in East Jerusalem and few reports of optimism that Netanyahu will accept the deal begs the question -- if there is no U.S.-Israel deal on a moratorium extension, what now?

The answer is that the Middle East will undoubtedly become, and quickly, a more dangerous place than it is today. With Hamas gaining anti-aircraft missiles and Hezbollah now equipped with weaponry capable of targeting almost all Israeli cities, including Tel Aviv, the emergence of wars potentially far worse than the Israel-Hezbollah War of 2006 and Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008-09 are becoming more likely.

Direct talks without results are no panacea. There is no guarantee of success and they do not automatically prevent war. But talks in progress do provide an excuse not to engage in conflict, and a safety valve to limit hostilities despite the ever-present would-be spoilers including Iran, whose President Ahmadinejad recently threatened Israel from the Lebanese border. Talks in progress also enhance the influence of the U.S., and make it easier for Washington to limit the constancy of instability.

Without talks -- and in an atmosphere of clear and even ignominious failure -- all three parties would be weaker. The United States, with Afghanistan and Iraq already in deep crisis, would be seen as a paper tiger in the region. Despite a host of special incentives offered Israel, it would not have been able to coax the Netanyahu government to accept just a sixty day moratorium on settlements -- a stellar display of weakness. The Palestinians and the Arab states may move on to the UN, to Europe -- and even some to Iran, There would undoubtedly be more violence further undermining American influence in region. All would be unlikely to bring Palestinians any closer to national independence without the support of a strong U.S. and negotiated agreement with Israel. The American image would certainly plummet as a result, and the Obama administration would be reviled for starting a process with great promise and expectations, yet an ill-equipped strategy and shortsighted vision for how to succeed.

For Israel, it would be even worse. Confronted with growing multiple threats from the Iranian camp, including anti-aircraft missiles, missiles capable of attacking cities, and the ever-present danger of an Iranian nuclear weapon, the Israeli government would have chosen to forswear increased American diplomatic support, and critical military aid in confronting these threats, in order to avoid a meager two-month additional freeze on settlements. Even many of Israel's most stalwart friends in the United States would have difficulty fathoming the decision making behind such a refusal. The country's adversaries would be emboldened by Israel's self-isolation and seeming irrationality. Its apparent preoccupation with domestic politics, itself a sign of weakness, is a clear demonstration of a lack of commitment and national priority for this process.

Moreover, if Israelis do not renew the freeze, even temporarily, then the United States will be freed of its proposed commitments, such as withholding a veto at the United Nations Security Council over the next year on resolutions involving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process or promising not to request any further moratoria on settlements. Should, in the end, the Israelis reject the American offers, it would free Washington to pursue any strategy it prefers. Indeed, it would liberate the Obama administration more broadly than would have otherwise been the case, with the Israelis, in a sense, having unleashed Washington themselves.

The Palestinian Authority would also suffer from a breakdown of the talks. Already with a tenuous political mandate, without a viable peace process the leadership of Abbas and Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad will be further questioned. With Palestinian refusal to enter talks, the Palestinians are likely to face tensions with the United States, their chief benefactor in pursuing Fayyad's state-building effort. Going to the U.N. and others to sidestep the United States will unlikely prove to be fruitful, and may only make matters worse. In short, without negotiations, the Palestinian leadership will be without a viable strategy, and faced with unprecedented internal pressures.

While Israel would likely take the brunt of the blame from the international community for a breakdown in talks should it refuse the American guarantees, the Palestinians will also be faulted. It is they who wasted nine of the ten months of the Israeli freeze in diplomatic stalling, only to now insist on an extension of the moratorium. By doing so, the Palestinians have jeopardized prospects for negotiations aimed at creating their state in order to propound a principle of a settlement freeze that would be irrelevant should talks succeed.

Clearly it is in the interest of all three parties to resume direct talks with an Israeli extended moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank. Although the Middle East is famous for everyone putting ideology before rationality, let us assume that in this case the Israelis and Palestinians do indeed reach agreement on returning to direct talks under American auspices before -- or even after -- the Arab League deadline. What then?

If the 60-day deal is to jumpstart a meaningful process, it must serve to change the nature of the agenda and the American strategy for leading the negotiations. Over the past several months many in Washington have promoted the idea of an "Obama Plan," in which the president would reveal his preferences on all the core issues from Jerusalem, to refugees, to final borders, to Israeli security. Then, either the parties would have to "take it or leave it" or the negotiations would revolve around the Obama points themselves. The president has publicly rejected this option for now, and with only a 60-day deadline, it makes no sense. Under the gun of so short a target, an Obama Plan would wreck the talks before they began as both sides would likely object to one point or another and refuse to proceed, wasting precious time the parties would no longer have.

Instead of a Plan, administration figures, especially Mideast envoy George Mitchell, have hinted that when direct talks resumed the focus would be on getting a framework agreement in which there would be concurrence on all the core issues (Jerusalem, refugees, borders, security) before practical steps were taken. In other words, the parties would agree on the end point, but then they would start implementation afterward. This strategy was always problematic, given that this approach would invite spoilers on both sides who rejected the basic principles on which there was agreement to torpedo the accord before there was ever any concrete achievement.

But if there's a two-month deadline, then there's no time for frameworks or designs. There has to be a product, a deliverable upon which to build. A concentration on borders is the logical place to start. The maneuvering by all three parties since the Obama administration began has made settlements the central issue. To move forward, this issue must be finessed or resolved indirectly. There is precedent for this approach: the second phase of the roadmap, which called for a Palestinian state on provisional borders. But the Palestinians have always rejected that idea because they feared that if they had recognition of a Palestinian state within part of the territories Israel occupied in 1967, they'd never get anything else.

Obama and his team would have to overcome this Palestinian fear -- and Israeli reluctance under the current coalition government to withdraw from any territory -- by addressing the basics of the border question through concentrating on settlements. The goal would not be a complete accord on all details of a final deal on borders, but instead would have to be an agreement on the blocs that Israel will keep in a final settlement, where 80 percent of the settlers live and which are largely dispersed along the 1967 border. That will mean that Israelis can, beginning on the 61st day, build in those areas, but the moratorium elsewhere will have to continue, with an agreed commitment that the other settlers will have to leave according to a timetable to be determined. This would also be an opportunity to address reparations and incentives for those settlers who would be departing.

Skeptics will claim that a basic agreement in principle on which settlements are going to stay in Israel and which are going to be evacuated, is not possible in 60 days. Indeed, in theory it would be nice to tuck the settlements into a larger context of other issues as well. But the Obama administration's early insistence on a freeze, the Netanyahu coalition's initial refusal to extend the freeze longer than two months, and the Abbas position that he will only return to the talks with a renewed moratorium leaves the U.S. no choice.

So why should and might the parties accept this idea?

For the U.S., the Obama administration cannot emerge from the 60-day talks without an agreement -- any agreement -- that will allow the talks to continue, and settlements are now the major impediment to that.

For the Palestinians, delineating the future of the settlements (those that will stay and those that will not) and agreeing on a 1-1 swap would mean agreeing on the basis of the Palestinian state. Much would be left, of course, including Jerusalem and refugees, the final delineation of borders, and Israel's security needs, but a major breakthrough would have been achieved. The alternative would be a complete breakdown and the loss of a chance at a Palestinian state in the near term, the strengthening of Hamas, and a probable Israeli construction spree after 60 days.

The Israelis are the most problematic here. Israel's gains in a 60-day deal are potentially enormous. They achieve U.S. and Palestinian acknowledgment that in any deal 80 percent of the settlers would remain where they are. They obtain American agreement for construction to continue unfettered and permanently in these areas. They would gain American agreement, already conferred but now official, that Israel would retain a presence on the Jordan Valley for security protection for an extended period.

But the Israeli right would finally have to give up its fantasy that it can retain the entire West Bank permanently. The 20 percent of settlers outside the settlement blocs would not be able to expand their settlements and would know they would have to leave, sooner rather than later. This will cause turmoil inside Israel, and would force the country to confront its most delicate political problem. The coalition may well collapse. Political careers would be at stake. This is a great deal to ask of any country, let alone Israel under the leadership of Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has developed a reputation for being risk-averse.

But a number of errors and inadequate strategies by all of the parties have brought themselves to the point where a two-month settlement freeze will create almost inevitably pressures for the agreement on those settlements Israel will keep and those that it will not retain.

This is not an ideal solution for either side. It puts pressure on the Israeli ruling coalition almost to the breaking point. It also brings the Palestinians to a plateau that they have feared for years. But the insistence on a freeze by the Palestinians and the odd maneuvering by the Israelis has resulted in the very scenario that both feared most: a partial and interim territorial agreement for the Palestinians and a concentration on the settlements for the Israelis. Yet, if the parties are to have any chance of success, such an agreement is likely to become the only choice for progress. In the end, this would be a major achievement, but it would not be what any one of the three parties to the talks sought out to achieve in the near term.

The U.S. cannot turn back now. If it did, its diplomatic role as chief mediator would be emasculated. And that recognition actually should give the Obama administration a peculiar strength. The administration has placed itself with a cliff at its back; it cannot step backward. The fact that if it were to stumble backward over that cliff both the Israelis and Palestinians would suffer grievously gives this sixty day deadline a chance. And it would be wrong to ignore that what is being accomplished here: The principle of a swap of territory equal in size is critical, and so is agreement on the withdrawal of the final 20 percent of the settlers who do not live in the settlement blocs.

The conflict cannot be solved in 60 days. With a great deal of luck and skill, the best the Obama administration can do is to get the settlement burden off everyone's back, and move on to addressing the rest of the key issues the two sides confront. Considering that the settlements are the ideological heart of Israel's right wing, that is no minor accomplishment. If in 60 days it is agreed which basic areas Israel will retain in the West Bank and which settlers will have to leave and the principle of a 1-1 swap is reached, there will be enough agreement to allow the talks to continue, with new momentum. That will be reason to celebrate, especially given the harsh alternatives to agreement and after the prolonged process that would have brought us to that point.