While revolutionary fever sweeps through the Arab world, the Mideast peace process remains frozen.
President Obama, burned by early peace efforts, is preoccupied with myriad other problems. Israeli leaders are struggling, with scant enthusiasm, to turn out a new peace proposal.
Uncertainty about the outcome of the Arab Spring makes Israel and Washington uneasy about resuming peace efforts. But Mideast events are moving so swiftly that inaction carries greater risks.
As Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said last month, Israel will face “a diplomatic-political tsunami” in September: If the peace process remains inert, the United Nations will probably vote to recognize a Palestinian state encompassing all of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. “Paralysis, rhetoric, inaction will deepen the isolation of Israel,” Barak says.
So it’s significant that a group of prominent Israelis, including former heads of the Mossad and Shin Bet (the external and internal intelligence services), have just put forward a new peace plan in hopes of prodding their government.
The group, which also includes former military men, scholars, and businessmen, said it was responding to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, a groundbreaking proposal that never got traction in Israel. That plan called on all Arab states to recognize Israel in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders and a settlement of the Palestinian refugee issue on which both sides agree.
The Israeli group is calling for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, with small territorial swaps. It also calls for Israel to return the Golan Heights. The quid pro quo would be an end to all Arab claims against Israel and full peace.
One of the plan’s backers, former Shin Bet director Yaakov Perry, told the Jerusalem Post that the West Bank status quo presented a mortal threat to Israelis. He says the group wants to counter Israel’s growing international isolation and dispel the notion that the Jewish state is opposed to peace talks.
I think this Israeli initiative serves other important purposes as well.
First, it reminds us that the only territorial basis for an Israeli-Palestinian peace is the 1967 borders with small adjustments. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejects this framework, saying it predetermines the final outcome. But this is the basis on which previous Israeli leaders conducted talks for more than a decade. This is also the basis on which Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, came close to a deal with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in 2008.
Few Americans are aware of the progress Olmert and Abbas made on defining a future Palestinian state’s borders: Olmert suggested Israel keep 6.3 percent of West Bank land so as to hold on to some settlements, and Abbas offered 1.9 percent, with a compromise possible. The two sides were hung up over whether Israel would keep the large settlement of Ariel, which protrudes like a finger into the waist of the West Bank and makes territorial contiguity difficult.
Olmert and Abbas also agreed that a Palestinian state would be demilitarized, possibly with NATO troops on its border with Jordan. They agreed that Jerusalem would include the sovereign capitals of both states, and they came up with the creative idea of assigning control of Jerusalem’s holy places to a committee of five countries: Palestine, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Israel.
The two leaders were still working on the thorny issue of refugees (on which much progress had been made during negotiations when Barak was prime minister, in 2000 and early 2001). Unfortunately, the talks petered out after Olmert announced he would step down due to a corruption investigation, and after the 2008 Gaza war began.
However, the Israeli initiative reminds us that there are negotiating precedents to build on. It makes no sense to start over from scratch, as Netanyahu has tried to do, and reject progress made by previous Israeli leaders. Nor would it make sense for Netanyahu to propose — as many expect — that an interim Palestinian state be declared on little more than 40 percent of West Bank land (minus East Jerusalem). This would only reaffirm an untenable status quo.
And, finally, the new Israeli plan reminds us that the Arab Peace Initiative is still alive — barely. Its chief sponsor, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, is still on his throne, but old and ill. His support is critical, but he might not be around for much longer.
Many will argue, of course, that the downfall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and other uncertainties in the region, make it too dangerous for Israel to gamble territory for peace. Perry, the former intelligence chief, begs to differ.
He argues that, under current conditions, Israel won’t have the option of standing still, so it is better to get in front of international pressure. He believes that the Arab upheavals have created “an excellent opportunity” for Israel to present new ideas that may appeal to an emerging generation of Arab reformers.
Israel does not have the luxury of “sitting on the sidelines anymore,” he told the Jerusalem Post. There are big risks involved, but they are not as great as the risks of doing nothing.
I believe he is right.