***Updated December 24, 2017***
Recent regional political changes have seemingly lessened or even removed pressure from Israel to pursue a “two-state” solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the near future. While it may be true that there is now less pressure on Israel to make major concessions in regard to that conflict, the primary impetus for the entire process remains in place.
The recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel by the United States, expressly leaving Jerusalem’s exact boundaries as a part of negotiations, does not truly alter the situation at all, nor have any UN or UNSC resolutions affected the situation, though weakening overall support for anti-Israel resolutions in the UN General Assembly may increase pressure on the Palestinians to compromise going forward. There are limited possible paths to a resolution that provides security and prosperity for Israel as a whole with safe and secure access to major Jewish holy sites in Jerusalem specifically.
By the early 1990s, most Israelis realized that some form of separation between the Israeli and Palestinian populations was essential for the future well-being of Israel. Furthermore, it was understood that the most reasonable way to accomplish that goal was to promote the creation of some sort of Palestinian state. This has not changed. A significant majority of Israelis continue to hold this general view, but some specifics have changed
Most Israelis now believe that more stringent security measures must be put in place today than would have been considered essential in the year 2000, 2007, or even 2010. Events in Gaza since the year 2000 and events in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Iran since 2009, along with changes in the way terrorism is conducted, have dramatically changed the security requirements that Israel will require on the Jordanian border and for ongoing security requirements within the West Bank.
Jordan is in a worse diplomatic and strategic position today than it has been during past negotiations. An incident involving a guard of the Israeli embassy killing two people in the wake of the conflict over metal detectors and cameras being placed by Israel outside of the Al Aqsa Mosque has left Israel’s embassy in Amman closed. Jordan officially refuses to allow it to reopen until “justice is served” against the guard. The guard argues that he was attacked and was defending himself. Israeli PM Netanyahu received the guard as a hero and people in Jordan, who see him as a cold blooded murderer, were enraged, among them King Abdullah. Jordan is host to a large Palestinian population which is a long term threat to the Jordanian Monarchy and advocates against the Israeli-Jordanian peace that already exists. So not only are current relations tense, but they are unlikely to easily improve soon.
Most people now believe that Gaza and the West Bank will likely remain separate political entities to a significant extent going forward. This is true even after “reconciliation” that involved the Palestinian Authority taking over official border control to appease Egypt. The leadership of Gaza, Hamas, has been in a heated military conflict with Egypt that in recent months has lessened somewhat but remains tense. Hamas would have to be removed from power before Egypt’s anti-Muslim Brotherhood government substantially improves relations with Gaza. The current answer to that problem is neither invasion, nor imposition of rule by the Palestinian Authority lead by Mahmoud Abbas. It is instead, the installation of Mohammed Dahlan.
Mohammed Dahlan is a nationalist political rival of President Abbas. Dahlan has a long history in Gaza, having been born in Khan Younis and having been the leader of Fatah in Gaza. Since 2001, when he called for reforms in the Palestinian Authority, he has been on the outs with Fatah’s West Bank based leadership. Israel, Egypt, and the UAE all see him as a good alternative to Hamas in Gaza, while Hamas itself may see him as better than the Palestinian Authority. Time will tell if a compromise that brings Dahlan into some sort of significant position of power in Gaza will be effective in bringing about positive change for the people of Gaza, for Israel, and for Egypt.
In the meantime, claims of authority over Gaza by the Palestinian Authority are not based in the PA’s ability to govern there, but instead out of the belief that the West Bank and Gaza are remnants of a larger entity, Palestine, that should remain connected. This narrative has necessitated solutions to the conflict for the Palestinians that do not prioritize the needs of the people of the West Bank as opposed to Gaza and at the same time result in harsh policies by the Palestinian Authority against the population of Gaza, such as shutting off their electricity or denying medical care.
In regard to an achievable solution on the whole, however, what I originally proposed in 2014 largely remains what I would propose today. Some things that I suggested at that point in time might be necessary, now are unquestionably so.
The reality continues to be that what is possible for Israel to concede in regard to resolutions of the conflict is not enough for the Palestinian side to prioritize reaching an agreement over and above continuing to fight; and what is demanded by the Palestinian side is seen as more harmful by Israeli leaders than continuing to face violence and anti-Israel activism.
Israel’s improved relations with the Sunni Nationalist powers and the BRIC nations, Brazil, Russia, India, and China (I left out South Africa on purpose), have resulted both in an improved likelihood in achieving a good solution for Israel and in a reduced need to try to do so.
This all said, the idea that there is an obvious solution to the conflict with generally agreed upon parameters that could be easily achieved misrepresents the reality. Here are five major issues:
- There is no solution that addresses the realities of Jerusalem that can please both sides and many possible solutions would result in nightmare scenarios for the future.
- While the “Right of Return” of Palestinian refugees to homes in Israel is almost certainly not a viable possibility, no alternative is likely to be politically, much less religiously, acceptable to Palestinians.
- There may have been discussions about “territorial swaps based on the 1967 lines,” but there are numerous problems that are obfuscated by that simple summation.
- Movement of people between Gaza and the West Bank may be necessary for Palestinian unity, but it is a security nightmare for both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and more recently for Egypt and Jordan.
- Finally, Israeli control over the Jordanian border seems to be mandatory for the foreseeable future in order to meet the security concerns for Israel, Jordan, and a future Palestinian state in any form.
Let’s start by looking at the last of the five. International forces have all failed miserably to halt sectarian violence. Suggestions that any international force could step in and prevent Islamic militants from moving into the West Bank and causing problems for both the Palestinian Authority and Israel are laughable. International forces in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Sinai, Sudan and other places in the region have proven incompetent in maintaining security, preventing rearming of militant groups, or even in preventing major wars and genocides. This means that any agreement will necessarily have Israeli troops on the Jordanian border for a long time into the future and it will be unreasonable to set any final date by which that would be forced to end.
Movement between the northern and southern West Bank could be easily ensured, even if direct access between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea was maintained. However, with the level of militancy in Gaza at present, traffic between the two Palestinian territories will need to be closely monitored. There is no way that people could simply be allowed to travel through Israeli territory on their way to and from Gaza at this point. Remember that Egypt has regularly sealed off its own border with Gaza because of threats coming from Gaza and that Israel has fought multiple wars with militant groups based in Gaza. There are ways to substantially increase economic cooperation between the territories, but because of the weaponry available in Gaza, all shipments to Gaza and even from Gaza will need to be closely monitored for years going forward from a peace agreement.
Palestinians themselves may be concerned about Hamas supporters living in the southern West Bank bringing their militancy to the north, but that would likely be an internal Palestinian issue rather than something to negotiate.
It is also the case that Israeli control over the Jordanian border enables less stringent controls on the Israeli-West Bank border. Without Jordanian border control, more stringent security would need to be put in place on the internal border in light of terrorist threats, and that would severely harm economic interaction between the two nations and do grave harm to tourism within Palestinian areas, as it does now when border security is increased.
The basis of the idea of “territorial swaps” is that the Palestinians need enough territory and the proper kind of territory to form a viable state. It is not that the Palestinians are entitled to all of what was Jordanian occupied territory 1948-1967. The latter concept is an impediment to negotiations, for among other reasons, because it violates the most basic concept of the negotiations, that Israel must have secure borders after a peace agreement. Without them, future violence is ensured and any agreement that the two sides reach will not be worth the paper on which it is written. The 1967 lines were far from secure.
The Separation Barrier, with some possible exceptions, runs along the path that provides the necessary security against terrorism that Israel requires. Thus it is the current route of the Separation Barrier, not the 1967 lines, that is the most viable basis for negotiations. There are opportunities for that path to be altered during negotiations and some Israeli settlements may end up on the Palestinian side following such negotiations.
It is certainly the case that new settlements and outposts constructed on the Palestinian side of the barrier create new impediments to making any solution work for the Israelis, because it increases the cost of what would have to be yielded in a final status agreement.
The idea of “territorial swaps” itself is problematic because it specifically implies two falsehoods. First, it implies that the Palestinians have a right to negotiate from a position that they never held, namely authoritative control over the West Bank, and that their claim to that much land, much less all of that specific land, is superior to Israel’s claim to it. While there may be public sentiment to that effect across much of the world, it is a legal fiction. Control of the land is an obviously essential characteristic of any valid claim to it. Legal control passed from the Ottomans to the British to Jordan to Israel with each in turn applying its control over the laws and population of the territory, demonstrating control.
Moreover, the concept of “territorial swaps” would involve trading one piece of land for another. Would the Palestinians really consider land near Gaza or abutting the southern West Bank as equivalent to neighborhoods around Jerusalem or in the Galilee? Of course not. The presentation of this concept as a simple basis for negotiations is then flawed.
The Right of Return would seem to be the easiest of the problems to overcome. There is no way that Israel can bring in hundreds of thousands, much less several million, Palestinians and maintain the character of Israel as a Jewish state. Neither can Israel bring in hundreds of thousands of people hostile to its existence and not face civil war and strife. Reasonable alternatives to the Right of Return include restitution, but any financial settlement for properties would likely be far less than actual value today and would certainly not be preferable in many cases to ownership of the land. By way of comparison, Holocaust survivors have received millions of dollars in restitution for losses which at the time of the restitution agreement were worth well into the tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars.
Those who see the conflict as an Arab-Jewish one, rather than an Israeli-Palestinian one, might well insist that restitution be paid by Arab nations to the Jews whose properties they seized. They argue that the net result would be that Arab nations would be required to pay out more in restitution to the Jews than the Jewish state would to the Arabs.
Finally, there is no resolution to the situation of Jerusalem that will please both sides and there are few solutions that will maintain the security of the city, its economic and civic viability, and access to its archaeological and holy sites for people of all faiths. Jews will be able to securely access the Old City of Jerusalem with its holy sites only if they remain under Israeli sovereignty.
Furthermore, there is no way to maintain security in the area of the holy basin specifically, the area centered on the Temple Mount, unless Israel controls the entire basin from the top of the hill of the Mount of Olives to the west. Neither is it possible for Silwan, to the south of the Temple Mount, to be under Palestinian control for the same reason. To be honest, the entirety of City-of-David-connected Silwan should be a nationally controlled archaeological park and a major tourist site [It is now privately owned by the City of David organization]. The area between the northern access to the Temple mount and Hebrew University on Mount Scopus also must realistically remain under Israeli sovereignty or Hebrew University will be cut off from the rest of Jerusalem.
One could argue, and many do, that the neighborhood of Isawiya, northeast of Mount Scopus, could be put under Palestinian sovereignty along with areas to the southeast of Silwan such as Abu Dis. The area known as E1, between the large Jerusalem suburb of Malei Adumim and Mount Scopus, also abuts Abu Dis and is an obvious connector between the southern and the northern West Bank.
E1 is an area that would make sense to be included in the territory of each side, but to place it on either side of a barrier would create a major problem. If it is on the Palestinian side, Malei Adumim becomes an island, surrounded by Palestinian territory. No Israeli government could allow this. If E1 remains Israeli, someone traveling from Bethlehem to Ramallah through Abu Dis and Anata would have to travel at least ten additional miles to do so, going around Malei Adumim unless a road were constructed that allowed for travelers to cross from south to north through E1. Such a road or tunnel would become essential in such a scenario. Meanwhile, northern Jerusalem’s near suburbs like Ramat Shlomo are certain to remain on the Israeli side in any reasonable peace agreement.
What is holding up the possibility of any agreement in the near future is not willingness on the part of Israel to make concessions, but a willingness on the part of the Palestinian side to admit the reality of what I discussed above. This means that no amount of pressure brought on Israel by European nations or the United States can realistically do anything to advance the peace process. The only effect of such pressure is harm to Israel. In order to advance the peace process, America and European nations need to help the Palestinian side reach an understanding of a reasonable resolution that is viable. Things like recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital are steps in this direction.
Admittedly, once the Palestinians are in a position to agree to the necessary compromises, the make-up of the Israeli governing coalition will become more important in moving forward. With a final status agreement possible, the Israeli left would be much more willing to make necessary concessions to work with the Center Right of the political spectrum in order to help it become a reality and the Israeli electorate could well shift support to parties who would more strongly pursue an agreement.
You will note that this solution might be considered a 2 1/2 state solution with Israel and Gaza as completely separate political entities and the West Bank as a semi-separate entity within the security control of Israel. I believe that it is time to think outside of the box and that those who continue to insist on full independence and full border control for the Palestinians in the West Bank are actually doing grave harm and putting off the prospects of peace.
For the most part, Israel has already accepted a significant majority of what it can and must concede for peace. The question is simply, “Will the Palestinian side choose to accept what is reasonably possible at the negotiating table if it is offered?” The answer to that depends on which is more painful, accepting a peace they don’t like or continuing to fight a battle that cannot be won and at the cost of suffering and death in every generation.