The Obama Peace Plan

April 08, 2010 12:28 pm ET — MJ Rosenberg

The Obama administration is considering abandoning its support for indirect Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in favor of direct negotiations based on a plan the United States would lay on the table.

It's a great idea.  Indirect negotiations are a good device for achieving nothing.   They would also constitute a step backward from the direct negotiations which have been the norm for 15 years.

This is not to say that those direct negotiations succeeded.  But they came close.  By the summer of 2000, after three years of CIA-brokered security negotiations, terrorism had been licked (without the construction of a wall) and the two sides were close to a final status agreement.

Those three years represent the best years in Israel's history, as anyone who was there during the period can tell you.  Not only was there virtually no violence (and hence no fear of violence), but Israeli-Palestinian relations were so good that the traffic lines of shoppers heading to the West Bank for the weekend bargains were formidable.  Naturally, the Palestinians loved having the Israeli market coming to them.

As for Hamas, the Palestinian Authority -- working with the United States and Israel -- neutered them.

Peace would have been achieved at the Camp David summit in 2000 were it not for Yasir Arafat's delusions, Ehud Barak's palpable contempt for the other side, and the American mediators' one-sided support for Barak's demands. As one member of the US "peace team," Aaron Miller wrote, the Americans acted not as honest brokers but as "Israel's lawyers."  The Camp David failure led directly to the second intifada and its horrific violence. (It's all here.)

Nonetheless, the negotiations at Camp David came very close and even closer at Taba a few months later.  They came so close, in fact, that the terms reached pretty much match the proposal that Obama is considering laying on the table now.

According to today's New York Times, the Obama plan would track the so-called "Clinton Parameters," the plan devised by President Clinton during his last days in the White House.  He believed that his parameters represented the positions both sides could live with. He believed (and still does) that his parameters offered the basis for a peace treaty which, following negotiations, could be implemented.

They probably would have been too if Clinton had a few more months in office.  But he didn't and the next administration was not - except for Secretary of State Colin Powell and his team - interested in pursuing negotiations. Unfortunately, Powell's efforts were sabotaged by Elliot Abrams, a Likud-backing White House aide, who admitted using his position to make sure that Bush administration efforts to achieve peace (except on Israel's terms) were blocked. (Naturally, Abrams -- convicted of lying to Congress in 1991 -- is the leader of the effort to block Obama's plan now).

Nonetheless, the Clinton plan is back, or something very close to it, and it could soon be redubbed the Obama-Clinton Parameters.

Here is the plan Obama is considering, as reported in the New York Times today, along with my thoughts:

First, Palestinian officials would have to accept that there would be no right of return for refugees of the 1948 war that established the Israeli state, and for their millions of descendants. 

Palestinians understand that and have no expectation that millions of refugees would return to Israel.  Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem would become citizens of a new Palestinian state.  Those outside would have the option of becoming citizens of that new state.  A symbolic number (a few thousand) would be allowed to return to Israel itself, with Israel having a veto over any and all applicants for citizenship in Israel.  The Obama position is identical to the Israeli position.

Rather, the Palestinians would have to accept some kind of compensation.

Again, this is the Israeli position too.

Second, the two sides would have to share Jerusalem - Palestinians locating their capital in the east and Israelis in the west, and both signing on to some sort of international agreement on how to share the holy sites in the Old City.

This is not hard to accomplish.  Israel unilaterally expanded the size of Jerusalem by 300% after the 1967 war, to include dozens of Palestinian villages.  They should return to the Palestinians.  The Old City, holy to three faiths, would be shared  with outside (probably American) monitors making sure that Jerusalem remains one city, open to all.

This is acceptable to Palestinians but strongly opposed by the Israeli right, settlers, and some Israeli centrists.

Third, Israel would return to its 1967 borders - before it captured East Jerusalem and the West Bank in the Six-Day War - give or take a few negotiated settlements and territorial swaps.  

In other words, Israel would get to keep the settlement blocks adjacent to Israel but would compensate Palestinians with territory elsewhere so that the Palestinians would maintain Arab control of the 22% of historic Palestine it held prior to the Six Day War of 1967.  Israel would retain 78% of historic Palestine, as prior to the war and which represents land allotted to Israel under the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan plus the lands Israel won in the subsequent war for independence.  The Palestinian Authority accepts this as does a majority of Israelis.

Fourth, the United States or NATO would have to give Israel security guarantees, probably including stationing troops along the Jordan River, to ease Israeli fears that hostile countries could use the Palestinian state as a springboard for attacks.

The Palestinians have not agreed to an Israeli presence along the Jordanian border, which is a clear infringement on Palestinian sovereignty -- as is the requirement that the Palestinian state be disarmed - but Israelis insist on both and the Obama administration agrees.

And finally, Arab neighbors like Saudi Arabia would recognize Israel.

Under the terms of the Saudi Peace Initiative, every Arab state in the world would sign a peace treaty and normalize relations with Israel in exchange for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the '67 territories.

At this point, there is no proof that the President will go ahead with this plan.  But it is telling that he would consider putting it forth before resolving the conflict with Prime Minister Netanyahu over settlements. 

In fact, going with this plan is a way of end-running the settlement issue and getting right to negotiations that will end the whole conflict. 

It won't be easy.  Prime Minister Netanyahu will balk but he has, in fact, endorsed the two-state solution and he, more than most, knows exactly what it entails.  Then there is Hamas, which controls Gaza.  It will be up to President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad to get its authorization to negotiate not only over the West Bank but over Gaza, too.  In the past, Hamas leaders have said that they would allow Abbas to negotiate for all Palestinians in his capacity as Chairman of the PLO.

The really good news is that the President is moving ahead.  It's not that he has forgotten about the settlement issue and the recent blow-up over it, but he is going back to the vision for Middle East peace he offered in Cairo last spring:

"The Arab-Israeli conflict should no longer be used to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems.  Instead, it must be a cause for action to help the Palestinian people develop the institutions that will sustain their state, to recognize Israel's legitimacy, and to choose progress over a self-defeating focus on the past....

"America will align our policies with those who pursue peace, and we will say in public what we say in private to Israelis and Palestinians and Arabs We cannot impose peace.  But privately, many Muslims recognize that Israel will not go away.  Likewise, many Israelis recognize the need for a Palestinian state.  It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true....

"Too many tears have been shed.  Too much blood has been shed.  All of us have a responsibility to work for the day when the mothers of Israelis and Palestinians can see their children grow up without fear; when the Holy Land of the three great faiths is the place of peace that God intended it to be; when Jerusalem is a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims."

Now is the time to realize the vision.  And that means laying the American plan on the table.  All friends of Israel, and of Palestine too, should support it.  The alternative is the end of the two-state solution and everything that collapse would entail -- including the end of Israel as a democratic and Jewish state.