It is often said by mediators that a good deal between two sides is one which leaves each side equally unhappy. That is the essence of a negotiated settlement where two parties have diametrically opposing demands and are trying to find a peaceful way to resolve their differences. Indications are that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to find a way to come to some of these middle ground positions in an effort to present a plan to Israel and the Palestinians that has some chance of acceptance.
Certainly, there is no shortage of naysayers on either side of the conflict. Israeli cabinet ministers Naftali Bennett and Ze'ev Elkin have been pushing Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to walk away from the talks and reject Kerry's imminent proposals. Similarly, officials on the Palestinian side of the table, including PLO Secretary Yasser Abed Rabbo have indicated that Kerry's proposals will not be acceptable to any Palestinians.
At the same time, there are a number of high ranking Israeli cabinet ministers, including Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid who maintain that a deal that is acceptable to Israel is within reach. Any such deal, from the Israeli side, could necessitate a change in the current Israeli government. Given statements made by Minister Naftali Bennett, he and his party would leave the government rather than agree to the type of peace plan being presented by Kerry. On the other hand, there is significant skepticism in Israel that the Palestinians will accept this type of deal, even if Kerry can get the Israelis to agree. Moreover, Israelis have real concerns as to whether the current Palestinian leadership could deliver the type of "peace" contemplated by the agreement. Statements by various Palestinian officials seem to suggest that this type of deal will not be good enough and the Palestinians will reject a U.S. brokered proposal, yet again.. But that remains to be seen.
What are some of the key issues?
1. Recognition of Israel as a Jewish State and Resolution of the Palestinian Refugee Issue.
In a sense, these issues are very closely related. From an Israeli perspective, the UN partition plan in 1948 contemplated a two state solution - one state for the Jewish people and one state for the Palestinian people. There can be little historical dispute that the Palestinians rejected the plan and declared war on Israel. Over the course of that war, some areas were seized by Jordan and Egypt that would have been parts of the Palestinian state. Other areas were captured by Israel and many Palestinians fled those areas. Yet between 1948 and 1967, the Palestinian and pan-Arab animus was still directed at Israel with the goal of eliminating Israel's existence. Such was the Arab rhetoric leading up to the 1967 war and the 1973 war - and for many years afterwards. It is still the rhetoric of Hamas.
The reason that Israel has insisted on recognition of Israel as a "Jewish state" as part of a peace deal is to signify that both sides accept a two state solution as a permanent peace deal. It is not a stepping stone towards greater conflict. Israel would recognize a Palestinian state with all of the trappings that a state might have, subject to security considerations. The Palestinians would be expected to do the same and would agree to Israel's right to exist.
What does a two state solution really mean? It means that each side gives up its dream, goal or aspiration of taking over all of the territory held by the other side. It also means that each side solves its own refugee problems within the borders of its territory. For the Palestinians, this type of deal should leave them free to bring every single Palestinian refugee, from across the world, to the nascent Palestinian state, if they so choose. Should that not be the purpose of a two state resolution? Since 1948, Israel has absorbed millions of refugees, including Jews who were no longer welcome in Yemen, Egypt, Syria, Iran and other Arab countries. The Palestinians will need to do the same and absorb the Palestinian refugees in their new state.
Most Palestinians have continued to demand the "right to return" to Israel. This insistence is nothing more than a rejection of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state and the expression of an intention to override Israel demographically. It is, quite simply, for Israel, a non-starter. If, as some suggest, Palestinians continue to insist that a large number of Palestinians be permitted to return to Israel rather than the new Palestinian state, this would be a deal breaker, in my view.
2. Status of Jerusalem
Under the U.N. partition plan, Jerusalem was going to become an "International City." It was never envisioned as part of the Palestinian state and certainly not its capital. Between 1948 and 1967, much of Jerusalem was held by the Jordanians, with little push by the Palestinians to declare it the capital of Palestine. In 1967, Israel recaptured parts of Jerusalem, including the old city and ultimately annexed most of the city. Regardless of what some countries in the world might formally maintain, Jerusalem is not "occupied territory" as defined under the Geneva conventions. It was not legally held by Jordan nor was its status clearly defined. Since Israel has controlled Jerusalem, from 1967, the holy cites have been fully accessible to the different religious groups that claim access to them. The Muslim Waqf has controlled the Al Aqsa Mosque and Christian holy cites have been overseen by Christian authorities. This contrasts with the picture that existed in Jerusalem between 1948 and 1967, during which time Jews were barred from attending the Jewish religious cites in old Jerusalem.
One of the key Palestinian demands is that East Jerusalem, including the Old City, become the capital of the new Palestinian state. Once again, this is something that is simply not going to happen any time soon. There would be no political will in Israel for dividing Jerusalem and certainly no appetite for Israel to relinquish the one place in the world that is holy to the Jewish people. So Secretary of State Kerry has proposed using suburbs of Jerusalem, including Kafr Aqab or Abu Dis and calling those suburbs "Greater Jerusalem" or some other terminology so that "Jerusalem" can still be listed as the Palestinian capital. While this would be unpalatable to many on both sides, it may be a reasonable resolution of the issue, especially when combined with the fact that Palestinians would continue to control the Muslim religious sites in Jerusalem as they do today, even though the Dome of the Rock sits on the very spot that was once the Holy Temple.
3. The Settlements, the Border and Security
The United States has proposed a formula involving an approximate total amount of land for each side, equal to the 1967 borders. The idea of "land swaps" would mean that Israel would keep the largest major settlement blocs while giving up other areas to the Palestinians. There are certainly many on both sides who oppose this proposal entirely.
Many Palestinians have demanded that Israel withdraw, entirely, from all land that Israel has held since 1967. This would include major residential blocs, some of which were inhabited by Jews before 1948 (such as parts of Gush Etzion). Some Israelis have demanded that Israel retain the vast majority of the West Bank and refuse to agree to turn over any territory, whatsoever. Neither side is likely to get everything it is after in a negotiated settlement.
Media reports suggest that the settlement issue would be resolved through a number of approaches. Under Kerry's proposals, which have not yet been formally announced, Israel would keep or annex the largest settlement blocs, but it would also agree to evacuate some areas of the West Bank on which there are now Israeli settlements. Palestinians would receive other territory, with the total territory under Palestinian control for the new state the approximate equivalent of the 1967 borders.
The real challenge is security here, particularly security for Israel and even for Jordan. Israel can ill afford, from a security perspective, to agree to the establishment of another fundamentalist terror-sponsored regime on its borders. After Israel evacuated Gaza, the Gazan people promptly elected the rejectionist, terrorist group Hamas as its leadership. Shortly afterwards, Hamas began lobbing rockets at Israel. A repetition of this, in a different area, would be entirely unacceptable to Israel and would threaten Israel existentially. Kerry's plans have apparently floated various approaches to address this security concern including a continuing, but gradually lessening Israeli presence in the Palestinian state or some type of U.S. presence. This could present one of the greatest challenges for Israel and one of the biggest leaps of faith that Israel would have to make to agree to a deal.
Israel has a very small margin of error here the wrong decision or concession on security issues could be suicidal. That is not to say that this is the plan of the current Palestinian leadership. But looking at events in Syria, Egypt and other Arab countries in the Middle East, it is reasonable for Israel to insist on security measures that will be honoured and verifiable, irrespective of the type of Palestinian government that might get elected. Some of these precautionary security terms are likely to be unacceptable to the Palestinians and that is where Kerry is working with both sides to try to find some way to reach a deal.
There are, of course, numerous other issues. After all, many books have been written about this issue, from various historical, political and other vantage points. I have reviewed some of them elsewhere on this blog.
The real question is what is going to happen now - and will anything come of this. Most Israelis apparently remain unconvinced that a deal will be possible, according to recent Israeli surveys reported on by YNet News and Haaretz. Many Palestinians have signified that they would view this type of deal as a "sell-out" and would reject it entirely. So it is far from clear that there will be any kind of resolution. Nevertheless, here are a few possibilities:
1. Israel could agree to the deal, whether unconditionally or with some reservations. In order to do this, it appears that Israel's government would change, at least somewhat. It is likely that Bennett would leave the government and that Labour, under the leadership of its recently elected new leader Yitzhak Herzog would join. It is unclear whether some or all of the "Yisrael Beitenu" MKs would leave the government and if they were to leave, whether Netanyahu could still cobble together a majority that would support the deal. If a Netanyahu-led government were to support the deal, my sense is that a deal could also win support in an Israel-wide referendum, even if the margin of victory was slim.
2. Israel could agree to the deal, as above, but the Palestinians could reject it, either in connection with the ongoing talks or as part of some form of referendum. This is probably the outcome that most Israelis anticipate, although there are signs that Abbas may be prepared to agree to a proposed deal, even if he does so conditionally or with some reservations. It is unclear what the Palestinians will do if these talks fail. They may look to the world community to try and exert economic pressure on Israel by advocating boycotts and divestment. Some countries in the world have already been susceptible to these overtures. Or they may declare a third intifada. Either of these approaches would likely be disastrous for both Israel and the Palestinians and would probably set back a peaceful resolution by another twenty or thirty years, at least.
3. The Palestinians could agree to the deal, as above, with some reservations or unconditionally. However, Bennett could then cause the collapse of the government and Netanyahu could prove unable (or unwilling) to put together a coalition that would support the deal. This could result in new elections in Israel or it could bring about a new right wing government that includes the religious parties and that has no interest in any type of peace deal. In this scenario, (i.e. if the Netanyahu government were to fall) my guess would be that we would see a new election fairly quickly, though I am not about to predict the results. It seems to me unlikely that Netanyahu would cling to power by cobbling together a far right -wing government. I think he would be more inclined to hold an election.
Stepping back from all of this, there are many reasons for pessimism and it seems unlikely that we will see an Israel-Palestinian peace deal any time soon. There are so many complicated issues, so much "bad blood," and so much hatred. Yet, as I have told some of my friends, we are living in an age which has seen the collapse of the U.S.S.R; a peaceful resolution of the dispute in Ireland; the end to South African Apartheid; and many other world changes that people would have believed to be possible in our lifetime. So maybe, just maybe, a peace deal between Israel, the Palestinians and the neighbouring Arab states will be another one of those historical moments.
It seems to me that both sides need this type of deal if they truly wish to avoid sentencing their children and grandchildren to generations more of bloody conflict.