The expectation that President Obama will visit Israel and the West Bank around March 20th has generated renewed focus on how he should approach the Israel-Palestinian issues. Israel's President Shimon Peres has said that the President's visit is a "good occasion" to restart the stalled peace process. At the same time, Obama's press spokesman has said, "while the President is not going with any specific peace plan in hand, the president thinks...it's in the interests of both parties, Palestinians and Israelis to pursue a peace agreement."
This description of the President's approach without "any specific peace plan" and counting on "the interests of both parties ...to pursue a peace agreement" is a prescription for failure to move the process to any resolution. One need only look at two published recommendations in anticipation of the President's visit to appreciate why those kinds of approaches will be ineffective. Dennis Ross, former chief negotiator for the conflict and special assistant to a number of presidents has presented a detailed program of actions each of the parties can take that would help resolve the conflict. (NY Times, March 3, 2008 Sunday Review p.12) This program calls for actions from the Israelis that show they have no intention of expanding into a future Palestinian state and are serious about ending control over the Palestinians while the Palestinians would take actions showing that they accept two states and will be good neighbors to Israel. These, plus other steps, Ross believes would "start a virtuous circle that "would change the dynamic between Israelis and Palestinians."
I have long admired Ross' efforts to bring the parties together, but I fear that his current approach is unrealistic and would take so many years to play out and have the salutary effect he hopes for, that long before the benefits could be realized, the opportunity for a two state solution would have disappeared in further conflict that reaches violence on both sides.
In response to Ross' article, the Israel Policy Forum (of which I was a founder and early president) has maintained (in a March 7th letter to the Times) that the United States must play an active role: "articulating a vision for the end of the conflict. The United States needs to work with each side separately to help each develop and carry out unilateral steps to create a tangible reality of two states for two peoples. This will reinstate trust and pave the way to an eventual agreement."
Over the many years of this conflict, various parties have tried the approach recommended by the IPF to negotiate with each side separately- the United States, for example, working through Dennis Ross and Aaron Miller, and later through President Obama's Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, former Senator George Mitchell and the Quartet on the Middle East (The U.N., United States, European Union and Russia) working through its special envoy, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. There has been no success of any kind to show for all the efforts by this highly talented array of negotiators.
My own view after spending many years dealing with the parties to this conflict, is that far more specificity and proactivity is required if the conflict is finally to be resolved. Here, then, is a recommended approach to the resolution of the conflict. The starting point is the three very detailed plans laying out specific solutions that have been put on the table at various times during this long negotiating period. These are: the offer by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to Yasser Arafat in 2001; the initiative presented by President Clinton based on that offer, spelled out in his speech to the Israel Policy Forum in January, 2001 and the proposal of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in 2008, later referred to by Olmert in a New York Times op-ed article in 2011 and by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in her memoirs. Those plans all specifically addressed the basic issues to be resolved by the parties, namely: the defined borders of the two states, including, in some cases detailed maps showing which Israeli settlements are included in Israel proper and which aren't; security guarantees; the status of Jerusalem as a shared capital; the treatment of Palestinian refugees and the claim of a "right of return;" to be followed by "end of conflict" actions.
As a first step, based on the principles embodied in the detailed plans described above, Israeli representatives working with American representatives should prepare a document spelling out the terms of a peace deal with the Palestinians and a detailed map of the region reflecting those terms. ("Peace Proposal") There should be a fixed time period for conclusion of that first step calculated in months. At the end of that time period, the second stage should begin based on the joint Israeli-US Peace Proposal, or if there is no joint proposal then based on the detailed proposal by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, which was the last proposal placed before the Palestinians.
The second step should involve a negotiation between the Israelis and the Palestinians to see if there are mutually agreed changes to the Peace Proposal. This negotiation also should be time limited to a number of months. The Peace Proposal should be modified to reflect any changes agreed upon by both parties. The resulting document, known as the "Final Peace Plan" should be ready for step three.
In the third step, the final Peace Plan should be submitted to the UN Security Council for approval and then to an up or down vote by the member nations of the UN General Assembly. The original partition was established on November 29, 1947, by the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine or UN General Assembly Resolution 181 which recommended the end of the British Mandate over Palestine and the creation of two states; one Jewish one Arab in Palestine. It is fitting that the Final Peace Proposal be submitted to the UN for approval. There is every reason to expect that the Security Council and the General Assembly, including most Arab nations, would embrace the Final Peace Proposal. This is a way to end the conflict that the Quartet (including the UN and Russia) has worked to achieve and that leading Arab states like Saudi Arabia have said they want so that full attention can be turned toward the threat from Iran. All the nations will know that there will not be another chance. If, for some unaccountable reason the UN does not approve the Final Peace Proposal then the parties will be in no different position than now, and Israel and the United States will be able to face future generations knowing they have made every effort to achieve a lasting peace in the region.
It would be naïve not to recognize that such a proactive approach by the President will face heavy opposition. At the first hint of such action by the Administration, the right wing in Israel, especially the religious Zionists who still yearn for the whole of biblical Israel that involves incorporating the West Bank, will rise up against it. An American president pressing Israel along the lines I suggest will immediately face pressure from American Jewish organizations that support the positions of the Israeli government, particularly when it skews to the right and from members of Congress. Look at the over-reaction to Mr. Obama's quite conventional statement that "the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states." (See my Huffington Post posting on 5/20/11 "President Obama's Speech and the Peace Process: Nothing Will Change") However, the truth is that without such specificity and urgency in moving the parties along a path that does not allow for either party to drag its feet or be captured by its extremist elements, absolutely nothing will happen to resolve this conflict. As President Obama described it in his speech of May 19, 2011, this is a conflict that has "grinded on and on" with "nothing but stalemate." 'The Palestinians will continue to be subjected to Israeli control and never have a state of their own and eventually their unemployed youth like those in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world will explode in protest. The Israelis will be mired in trying to control an ever growing, ever more confrontational Palestinian population. It will face a Palestinian effort to press for a bi-national state and the claim that Israel is an apartheid nation, as it struggles to retain its Jewishness by not allowing the Palestinians to participate in it elections and decision making. And for the rest of the Middle East, the conflict will continue as a festering sore, ready to break open at any moment and providing fodder for Iran and its minions to appeal to the Arab populations. It is past time to end this conflict and only an involved proactive American administration can bring it about.
Mr. Lifton is a businessman and political activist. His book, An Entrepreneur's Journey: Stories From A Life In Business And Personal Diplomacy, has recently been published by Author House.