An Alternative Approach Toward Mideast Peace

Here’s a compromise between Israelis and Palestinians that could possibly save the two-state solution.

The long wait for the Donald Trump’s supposed Israeli-Palestinian peace plan hasn’t ended yet, but last week’s Bahrain conference shows a fundamental flaw in Jared Kushner’s thinking. He hopes that economic development will be so welcomed by the Palestinians that they will forgo some of their longest-held political goals.

The president’s son-in-law offered a $50 billion aid package that would fund 179 infrastructure and business projects in the West Bank and Gaza, but with no guarantees over who would pay for them. While economic growth is something the Palestinians sorely need—their overall unemployment was around 31 percent in 2018, according to the World Bank—the notion that they will settle for more money at the expense of their national aspirations is folly. The Palestinian people want a political solution that addresses their desire for an independent state, along with a just outcome to the refugee issue.

Yet Israel’s last election—and recent comments from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s allies in the Trump administration—show how attached Israel has become to maintaining the West Bank settlement enterprise. During his reelection campaign, the Israeli premier promised to never withdraw from any of the settlements—not simply the large blocks near the 1967 border, which Israel would likely retain under any agreement, but any of the settlements scattered throughout the West Bank, including isolated outposts. He vowed to unilaterally annex those settlements, which would kill any hope for an eventual two-state solution.

That would come at a steep price for Israel. Continued control over the West Bank would undermine Israeli democracy and, in the words of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, make Israel less secure by making it more vulnerable to attacks from within.

But perhaps there is a way for Israel to recover from the strategic mistake that multiple Israeli leaders have made by inserting more settlers into the Palestinian territories. (Forced removal does not seem like a promising resolution: it took more than 50,000 Israeli troops to uproot 10,000 settlers in Gaza; there are now more than 400,000 in the West Bank).

Like with all political disputes, Israel will need to settle on some compromises with its Palestinian neighbors. Part of America’s role as a mediator is to figure out which ones to push. There may be one that our own diplomats haven’t thought about.

Just as Israelis have exacerbated the conflict through settlement building, the Palestinians have made it more difficult to reach a viable outcome by insisting that millions of Palestinian refugees, including all of their descendants, could move to Israel, which would abrogate Israel’s Jewish character by making it an Arab-majority state.

But what if the United States introduced a new concept that, if implemented, could restrain the two sides’ worst impulses and preserve the possibility of a two-state solution? What if it pushed for a tradeoff in which the number of settlers who could stay in the West Bank would have to equal the number of Palestinian refugees who could return to Israel?

The Trump administration won’t be rushing to include such a proposal in its peace plan—if any peace plan is ever released. The White House seems determined to do whatever it can to undermine the possibility of a Palestinian state. But a future Democratic administration might be looking for new ideas to resuscitate the moribund peace process. And this may be a good start.

Historically, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have focused on the notion of trading West Bank territory on which settlements sit for equally sized portions of Israel proper. But, on its own, that idea clearly hasn’t led to an agreement. In 1999, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was willing to accept President Bill Clinton’s proposal for a land swap with the Palestinians that would have placed 80 percent of the West Bank settlements within Israel. While Clinton came painfully close, he didn’t strike a peace deal, thanks to the duplicity and intransigence of Yasir Arafat. Nevertheless, that proposal still remains achievable, and it would allow Israel to retain control over the settlements near the 1967 border. But that would still leave 90,000 settlers in the rest of the West Bank. And no prime minister in today’s Israel would commit political suicide by evicting that many Israelis.

Instead, a more practical solution would be for those people to remain in their homes without eroding the feasibility of Palestinian sovereignty. Obviously, the Palestinians would not prefer 90,000 Israelis remaining in their nascent state. But if this arrangement could result in the immediate creation of a Palestinian state, it could also come with a tantalizing bargain: the exact number of settlers that would remain in Palestine would have to equal the number of Palestinian refugees allowed to live in Israel. That would be a colossal improvement from past offers Israel has made on Palestinian refugee resettlement. Ninety-thousand is a lot more than the 6,000 Ehud Olmert offered Mahmoud Abbas in 2008. It’s also a lot fewer than the 5.4 million the United Nations recognizes as registered Palestinian refugees who, if relocated into Israel proper, would end Israel as a Jewish state.

There are still many other barriers standing in the way of a peace agreement. Not the least of which is a way to reconcile the final status of Jerusalem and the borders. But Israel also has legitimate security concerns that would need to be addressed under any accord. (Former Secretary of State John Kerry and General John Allen devoted much of their attention to this issue in their attempts to strike a peace deal.)

The elephant in the room remains Hamas, which is committed to Israel’s destruction. The Islamist group is the main player that perpetuates the conflict by carrying out acts of terror and demanding the full “right of return” for Palestinian refugees—a demand that is, essentially, as I have said, an attempt to get rid of Israel. But Hamas also poses a more practical problem. Israel rightfully worries that if it withdrew from the West Bank, Hamas would take control of that territory, much like it did in Gaza. Any peace agreement would be undermined if Hamas were to rule over a Palestinian state. That would not only be bad for Israel, it would also be bad for Palestinians, as the humanitarian disaster in Gaza so clearly demonstrates. Both Israel and the Fatah-ruled Palestinian Authority would need to come to a mutually beneficial arrangement that allows them to coordinate on security without diminishing Palestinian independence.

Still, a peace agreement that fulfills the desires of both sides—a sovereign state of their own—and improves the quality of life for Palestinians would be the best disinfectant against the lure of Hamas. The package that Kushner offered in Bahrain seems promising, but economic gains are no substitute for the fulfillment of political goals. If a future administration treats the issue seriously, a tradeoff between Israeli settlers and Palestinian refugees might be the least bad option to revive a chance for having two states for two peoples.

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James P. Rooney

James P. Rooney is an attorney in Boston and the president of Massachusetts Citizens Against the Death Penalty.