American Secretary of State John Kerry has invested a great deal of time and effort to restart a meaningful negotiating process between the Israelis and Palestinians. However, he faces formidable obstacles that many commentators believe will preclude success despite all his efforts. Those obstacles are better appreciated if we look at the deal offered in 2008 by then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority and to this date, neither accepted nor rejected by Abbas. Under the terms of that offer, Israel would retain the important settlements in the territories connected to Israel, which includes some 200,000 settlers but would still be required to move about 100,000 settlers from their present homes in order to provide the Palestinians with the territory that would be part of the Palestinian state. We have seen how aggressive the resistance of the settlers has been even to small numbers being moved. One can only imagine the level of protest - probably accompanied by violence - that carrying out the Olmert deal would involve. It would be naïve to think that moving that many settlers could be accomplished without action by the Israeli military force and is likely to result in some religious leaders exhorting their followers in the IDF not to carry out such a mission. Add to this, that while Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has stated that he supports a two-state solution, he certainly has shown no enthusiasm for a Palestinian state.
At the same time members of his Likud party and important elements of his governing coalition - particularly Naftali Bennett of The Jewish Home party - have publicly expressed their antipathy to a two-state solution. Even his major centrist coalition partner, Yair Lapid, has favored delaying the final implementation of a two-state solution until after an interim period of three years during which the Palestinian state would have temporary borders and has stated that no part of Jerusalem should be the capital of a Palestinian state. Finally, it should be noted that while the polls show that Israelis generally approve of a two-state solution, their primary focus is on internal matters and they have little interest in resolving the Palestinian issue.
To overcome such large obstacles, the Israeli public must have a compelling reason for believing that a deal with the Palestinians is essential to Israel's security. The argument that if a two-state solution is not reached it may lead to a bi-national state that challenges Israel's continuation as a Jewish or democratic state, while a potent argument for pundits thinking about the long-term future, is hardly the immediate emotional argument that can move the Israeli population. What might be effective is to show the Israelis that a deal with the Palestinians is a basic building block of a defense against the immediate and serious threat to their security from Iran and Hezbollah.
The late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was one of Israel's most respected strategic thinkers, explained his decision to move forward on the Oslo Agreement and deal with Yasser Arafat, as a strategic imperative for Israel to prepare to face its most dangerous foe - Iran. We must make peace with our immediate neighbors, he told me, in order to be able to confront Iran. He feared that if Iran developed a nuclear capability, it would use it as a threat to mass population centers. "If we have nuclear weapons and Iran threatens us with nuclear weapons, which one of us will blink? We who care about life or the mullahs who do not care about life?"
The expanding sectarian conflict in the Middle East between Sunni and Shia adherents - in Iraq and Syria - offers an important strategic opportunity for Israel in confronting Iran. On one side is the leading Shiite supporter Iran, which has openly called for Israel's destruction and is on the path to developing a nuclear capability that represents an existential threat to Israel.
Standing with Iran and getting advanced weapons from it directly and through Syria is Hezbollah, another implacable enemy of Israel. Lining up on the other side opposing Iran, are the major Sunni Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia, together with other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as Jordan and Turkey. Strategic thinkers in Saudi Arabia have long seen Iran's aim at regional hegemony as a threat to the Saudi Kingdom. They made clear, at a meeting I had with very senior Saudi officials in 2008 that I describe in my book, An Entrepreneur's Journey: Stories From A Life In Business And Personal Diplomacy (p. 319) that if Israel would end the conflict with the Palestinians, the Saudis would welcome the opportunity to join with Israel against Iran's aggression. As I also noted in the book, this was the same message I received from Jordan's King Abdullah in a meeting in 2012. The recent statement by the Arab League that its members have expanded the Arab Peace Initiative may well be a message to the Israeli government and its people underscoring that goal. The Arab Peace Initiative was originated in 2002 by then-Saudi Crown Prince (now King) Abdullah after a meeting with the Board of the Middle East Project of the Council on Foreign Relations. It called for comprehensive peace and fully normalized relations between Israel and all 22 Arab states in return for Israel's withdrawal from all occupied Arab territories, solely based on the 1967 borders. However, on April 30, Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim, who headed the Arab League delegation, said that he backed Obama's proposals for a "comparable and mutual agreed minor swap of the land" between Israelis and Palestinians.
Israeli polls showed general support for the Initiative from the public. Israel's lead peace negotiator Tzipi Livni praised the "important" concession and 52 opposition members in Israel's parliament signed a petition requiring Netanyahu to formally address the Arab League peace plan. Still, Mr. Netanyahu dismissed it, noting that the issue is not territorial but the willingness of the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jews. And despite the favorable polling data, the Israeli public apparently is not treating it as significant. On the other side, top PLO official Saeb Erekat, gave it little importance, noting that minor agreed border modifications were already part of the Palestinian position.
It is clear that convincing the Israelis to engage with the Palestinians in a serious negotiation will require more from the Arab states than just a change in the formulation of the 1967 border deal. To have any success moving the Israelis, the Arab League, with the support of the United States, should make it clear that they are presenting a strategic opportunity for Israel, by resolving its conflict with the Palestinians, to join with the major Arab states to confront Iran. This would present Israel with important military and positional benefits. The least of these would be the ability to freely fly over Arab areas that allow it to more directly reach Iranian targets with reduced refueling requirements. From the United States' perspective, an alliance of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other American allies in the Middle East offers a valuable opportunity for coordinating any response to Iran. This is particularly important now that the government of Bashar al-Assad, with the support of Iran and Hezbollah, seems to be prevailing in the civil war in Syria. Finally, it is conceivable that Iranian leaders, seeing the array of nations lined up against them might back down on their drive for nuclear capability, which no amount of sanctions seems to be achieving. Bringing Israel and the Sunni Arab nations together which also furthers American policy interests would be a worthy effort by Secretary Kerry.
It should also be recognized that from the Palestinian point of view, the Olmert offer of 2008 would raise many tough issues. Apart from the revision of borders to provide land swaps for land now holding settlements that would become part of Israel proper, and apart from requiring the Palestinians to share Jerusalem as a capital it would end the possibility of any significant number of Palestinian refugees ever being allowed to return to Israel. And, although polls show that few Palestinians actually want to return to live in Israel, the termination of the dream held by many for such a long time would be traumatic and allow those opposed to the deal to attack it ferociously and perhaps result in physical attack on Abbas, himself. Moreover, any deal would require some reconciliation of Abbas-led Fatah with Hamas, which governs Gaza and continues to deny Israel's right to exist as a state.
Thus, there will also have to be much more incentive for the Palestinians to give up their dream of a right of return than just another form of governance - especially as so many of them are already reflecting satisfaction with being part of some form of Israeli entity. One incentive may be to offer them a credible program for a significant economic improvement in their lives.
In view of the obstacles to a successful peace negotiation, the United States has to recognize that the parties will continue to balk at Secretary Kerry's effort to bring them to the negotiating table. If the incentive for Israel to join with the Sunni Arabs against Iran and Hezbollah does not work to advance the peace process, one path available for the United States is to take a much more proactive position of the kind I described in my Huffington Post blog entitled "Needed: A New Approach to Resolving The Israel-Palestinian Conflict." That would entail placing a specific deal before the parties based on Prime Minister Olmert's 2008 offer, followed up by involving the UN. Realistically, such a course is unlikely since it would require the Obama administration to pay too heavy a political price. The alternative is for Washington to abandon the effort until the parties themselves are ready to make a deal and free Secretary Kerry to focus on other parts of the world, such as the announced "pivot" to Asia, that also demand his attention.