A solution is possible
Middle East negotiations have failed. But the US can make a final deal stick
Hussein Agha and Robert Malley
Friday March 29, 2002
Since the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and the outbreak of the second intifada, two propositions have gained wide acceptance. The first is that a comprehensive solution to end the conflict has already been attempted - and at this point, if tried again, can only fail. The second is that an interim solution is the only way out of the current crisis. The mounting death tolls on both sides seem to confirm that conflict management rather than conflict resolution should be the order of the day.
In fact, now is precisely the time for a US-led international coalition to put forward an end-of-conflict deal. History demonstrates that the incremental method has failed. Yet because Israelis and Palestinians did not reach an agreement at Camp David in 2000 or at the talks in Taba, proponents of moving toward a final agreement immediately are dismissed as naive or out of touch.
In truth, however, the final-status negotiations in 2000-1 were not a departure from the approach that had prevailed since 1993, but rather its culmination. No common principles guided the discussions; instead, a vision was meant to emerge from an incremental process of give-and-take. As a result, neither side was able to rebut its domestic opponents or rally potential supporters behind a comprehensive vision.
Negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians have now reached the point of diminishing - even negative - returns. Rather than bringing the two sides closer, negotiations serve to play up remaining disagreements and to play down the broad scope of actual convergence. The time for negotiations has ended. The parties must be presented with a non-negotiable final agreement.
The case for seeking a comprehensive deal depends on whether it is possible to design a package that both sides can accept. Israel's basic interests are to preserve its Jewish character, safeguard its security, acquire international recognition, maintain its links to Jewish holy sites and establish that the conflict with the Palestinians and Arab states has ended once and for all. As for the Palestinians, their basic interests can be defined as living in freedom, dignity, equality and security; ending the occupation and achieving national self-determination; resolving the refugee issue fairly; governing the Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem; and ensuring that any deal is accepted as legitimate by the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Past Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and informal discussions show that a solution does exist consistent with both sides' needs. The key concept on the territorial issue is swaps: Israel would annex a minimal amount of land in the West Bank and in return provide Palestine with the equivalent amount of land from Israel proper. Israel would incorporate a large number of its West Bank settlers and the Palestinians would achieve their goal of 100% territorial restitution. On security, the essentials are the non-militarisation of the Palestinian state and the introduction of a US-led international force along the border with Israel. Solving the problem of Jerusalem will require a deal based on demographic and religious self-governance.
This leaves what is perhaps the most vexing problem of all: the Palestinian refugees. With one side clamouring for their right of return and the other adamantly rejecting it, it seems like one on which no compromises are possible. Throughout the 2000-1 negotiations, the Palestinians underestimated the degree to which Israelis associate even a theoretical Palestinian right of return with the prospect of the end of Israel as a Jewish state. The Israelis, for their part, have belittled the seriousness of the Palestinians' demand. With two-thirds of the Palestinian people still living as refugees, the sense of injustice at being evicted from their land pervades Palestinians' national consciousness and has defined their struggle, even more than the desire to establish an independent state.
A solution that appeared to ignore the demands of the refugees would be inherently unstable. It would have questionable legitimacy, would undermine the new Palestinian state, and - most alarming from an Israeli perspective - would leave open the prospect that a sizable number of Palestinians would decide to carry on the struggle.
But a stable and durable accommodation is possible. Refugees should be given the choice to return to the general area where they lived before 1948 (along with the choice to live in Palestine, resettle or be absorbed by their current country of refuge if the host country agrees). Many of the refugees want to go back to their original homes. But these homes, and in many cases the entire villages where they were located, either no longer exist or are now inhabited by Jews. The next best option from the refugees' own perspective would be to live among people who share their language, religion and culture - that is, among the Arab citizens of Israel. Israel would settle the refugees in its Arab-populated territory along the 1967 boundaries. Those areas would then be included in the land swap with Palestine and end up as part of the new Palestinian state.
Together with generous financial compensation, this solution would promote several key interests. Palestinian refugees would carry out the right of return. Although they would not return to their original homes, the refugees would get to live in a more hospitable environment - and one that would ultimately be ruled not by Israelis, but by their own people. For Israelis, meanwhile, it would improve the demographic balance, since the number of Arab Israelis would diminish as a result of the land transfer.
Some Palestinians might argue that such a plan represents a sleight of hand, disguising resettlement in Palestine as a return to their pre-1948 lands. But do the refugees actually want to live in Jewish areas that have become part of an alien country? Would they rather live under Israeli rule? And short of calling into question Israel's Jewish identity, is there any other way of implementing the Palestinian right of return?
Lurking behind every dispute over an Israeli-Palestinian deal is the problem of its implementation. Achieving a lasting final-status agreement now will require some means to persuade both parties that this time commitments will actually be upheld. An international force would help provide such assurances. The paradox is that, although the outlines of a solution have been understood for some time, the way to get there has eluded all sides. Achieving such a deal will require the intervention of outside actors. Led by the US and sanctioned by a UN security council resolution, the effort should involve a broad coalition of European, Arab and other countries capable of providing security, as well as economic and political support, to Israelis and Palestinians. Some will argue that anything coming from the outside will be viewed as a foreign imposition and therefore be rejected. However, if the deal is based on Israeli-Palestinian discussions it will not be viewed as imposed; and if it is fair, it is unlikely to be rejected. Moreover, ratification should be based on popular referenda in Israel and among the Palestinian people.
The point now should not be to accommodate Israeli and Palestinian leaders' limitations; it should instead be to make the limitations of both sets of leaders irrelevant. The time has come for an effort that is neither top-down nor bottom-up, but outside-in: the forceful presentation by external actors of a comprehensive, fair and lasting deal.
Hussein Agha is senior associate member of St Antony's College, Oxford and has been involved in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over many years. Robert Malley was President Clinton's Special Assistant for Arab-Israeli Affairs between 1998 and 2001. A longer version of this article will appear in the May issue of Foreign Affairs.
©2000 Palestinian Development Research
The page was last modified on April 20th, 2002 by Marc Lanteigne and Rex Brynen.