Is A Middle East Peace Deal Possible?

It’s safe to say the prevailing attitude of knowledgeable Americans–and perhaps Israelis and Palestinians, at least since 2000–on hearing of new Middle East Peace Talks is one of weary cynicism. We’ve heard it all before, for decades, and we’ve recently heard conservatives in this country discard the whole idea of a peace settlement, or of a real Palestinian State, for that matter, as a contemptible sellout of Israel.

With similar expectations greeting Secretary of State John Kerry’s new round of negotiations, I was interested to read Ben Birnbaum’s outline at TNR of a possible settlement that even Bibi Netanyahu might feel constrained to accept.

Birnbaum does not consider borders and settlements (very nearly resolved in 2008) or “security” (less and less a concern of the Israeli military) a likely deal-breaker, except insofar as Netanyahu has made these issues fetishes in public pronouncements on conditions for an agreement. The “right of return,” however, is a big problem. Birnbaum thinks Israel could get an agreement for a “symbolic” repatriation of Palestinians that would only lift the Arab percentage of Israel’s population from 20.6 percent to 21.2 percent. More importantly, Israeli politicians would have to accept that no Palestinian referendum on an agreement without an accommodation of the “right of return” will have a chance of passage.

But it’s Jerusalem that Birnbaum considers the trickiest problem.

Dividing the country’s capital was until recently considered an extreme position in Israeli politics—rejected in the nineties even by the leftist Meretz Party—but since Barak broke the taboo in 2000 (and Olmert broke it again in 2008), it has become increasingly mainstream, albeit still controversial. Dividing Jerusalem is, of course, much harder than it sounds. Since reuniting the city in 1967, Israel has built a dozen Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, making that part of the city a patchwork of Arab and Jewish enclaves…. Any compromise on this issue would be along the lines that President Clinton proposed at the end of his presidency: Jewish neighborhoods under Israeli sovereignty; Arab neighborhoods under Palestinian sovereignty…..

The Old City and its environs—the “Holy Basin”—presents its own challenge. In 2000, Clinton sought—as with the rest of the city—to draw a line on a map showing where Israel ends and Palestine begins, but the effort ran aground on the difficult question of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, the site currently of two Muslim holy places (the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque) and formerly of the First and Second (and some hope, Third) Jewish Temples. Olmert proposed a creative solution that would see this delicate part of the city controlled by a five-nation consortium consisting of Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States; Abbas reportedly accepted this in principle, though the two disagreed over the size of the area to be internationalized.

In the end, suggests Birnbaum, it’s the packaging of compromises into a comprehensive agreement that the people (if not always the politicans) want that could create a breakthrough on Jerusalem and other issues:

Polls consistently show that in a vacuum Israelis oppose dividing Jerusalem. But when presented with it as part of a package that would end the conflict, they accept the package by a two-to-one margin. Palestinian polls, though less overwhelming, show a similar phenomenon. Compromises on refugees and other issues are seen as distasteful but palatable as part of a deal that ends the occupation and creates a viable Palestinian state.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.