Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

A First Step to Peace: Calm Angers, Then Talk | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Israel’s separation barrier dividing east Jerusalem, left, from the West Bank village of Anata. CreditThomas Coex/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Let’s face it: Current political realities have made a final status agreement between Israelis and Palestinians unachievable now. So Israelis need to focus instead on creating conditions, on both sides, in which an accord might be possible in the future.

To be sure, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’s visit to Israel last month and President Trump’s meeting on Wednesday with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, could lead to new talks.

But even if they do, resumed negotiations now would almost certainly fail — or boomerang. Every other attempt at direct, bilateral negotiations has failed, and violence has often followed. Each disappointment, in turn, only deepens the profound mistrust and misunderstandings between the leaders on both sides, which further erodes confidence among Israelis and Palestinians that peace can ever be attained.

In short, the peace process is broken.

Yet it remains true that only a two-state solution can safeguard the Zionist dream — a state that is Jewish, democratic and secure. A unitary state would no longer be Jewish if a majority Arab population controlled it, nor a democracy if a Jewish minority ruled an Arab majority. It would instead be a breeding ground for prolonged civil war.

Therefore, the goal of securing a comprehensive peace agreement needs to be set aside for now, and preserving hope for a two-state solution be made the objective. The immediate goal should be a realistic interim arrangement that could calm antagonisms and improve prospects for a political and psychological climate on both sides that would allow a two-state peace deal sometime in the future.

The Commanders for Israel’s Security, a network of 270 retired Israeli generals who have served at the highest echelons of the Israeli military, police and intelligence forces, has developed a program for such an arrangement. Its pragmatic proposals would immediately improve Israelis’ security, halt and reverse the erosion of conditions for a negotiated two-state solution and enhance Israel’s regional and international standing. At the same time, it would improve living and economic conditions for Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. And it can be put into practice now.

The program would allow Jewish settlers now in the West Bank to remain where they are, pending a final agreement, with the Israel Defense Force the only military force west of the Jordan River. But construction beyond built-up areas in the major settlement blocs, where 80 percent of settlers reside, would be prohibited, and Israel would acknowledge that the 92 percent of West Bank land east of Israel’s security barrier would be included in a future Palestinian state.

Israel would close gaps in that security barrier, but also reroute segments of it to minimize the disruption of Palestinian lives.

Building on the successes to date of Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation, the Palestinian police force would gradually expand its coverage to include some 700,000 Palestinians who now have no police protection. This would be accomplished by redesignating segments of the West Bank now under full Israeli civilian and security control (about 10 percent of the land) to bring them under Palestinian civil and administrative control. The expansion would produce greater Palestinian territorial contiguity.

Perceiving a current alignment of regional interests among Israel and moderate Sunni Arab states, Israel would accept the Arab Peace Initiative offered in 2002, with reservations, as a basis for future negotiations.

These and other steps can be taken independently by Israel today. They do not entail dismantling any settlements or evacuating any Israeli soldiers before an agreement is negotiated. Nevertheless, they would halt the descent into a one-state nightmare, even as they improved Israel’s daily security.

While the commanders’ proposal — which is endorsed by our organization — would not bring a final settlement now, it would increase public confidence among Israelis and Palestinians that a lasting peace is, indeed, possible by tangibly improving their daily lives. For Israelis, it would reduce border infiltration that enables terrorism. For Palestinians, it would improve their economy and daily life, not just by making their land more contiguous, but also by expanding the role of their own police in guarding their security.

And for both sides, freezing the expansion of Israeli settlements would enhance hope for the possibility of reaching a two-state solution.

Ultimately, the improved atmosphere for talks could facilitate negotiations on two tracks — between Israelis and Palestinians to separate into two states, and between Israel and Arab countries to achieve normal relations and a regional security structure.

The commanders’ group realizes, as do we, that this will not be easy; provocateurs on both sides would seek to prevent a two-state solution. However, an extended period of calm and a reduction of points of friction would reduce the ability of these spoilers to influence policy and public opinion. Over time, a new atmosphere would enable leaders to resist provocation and move toward a negotiated final status agreement, buoyed by their publics’ desire to live in two separate states, and their confidence that it is possible.

The United States would do well to support this plan, encourage Israel to carry it out, and call on the Palestinians and moderate Arab states to reciprocate toward Israel with equally constructive steps.

(The New York Times)