No time to lose in the Middle East peace process

During the last two years, Israelis and Palestinians have not marked an inch of progress towards the hoped for two-state solution. It is high time the international community mobilised serious efforts in that direction.

Israelis and Palestinians spent years negotiating the intertwined core issues of Jerusalem, the holy sites, the refugees, territory, borders and settlements, and security. I believe that we know what a final agreement will ultimately look like. Since President Clinton's parameters were laid down in December 2000, every political initiative to ending the conflict has led to the same fundamental solutions. The recent leak of Palestinian documents proves it.

It seems that there has never been a shortage in ideas, plans and initiatives. Moreover, the convergences between the parties throughout this period have been apparently more substantive than publicly revealed to date.

In Israel, time is running out for those who want to secure a Jewish and democratic state within recognised boundaries alongside a demilitarised Palestinian state. True, polls consistently demonstrate that Israelis overwhelmingly support the two-state solution. But this majority has not been heard politically. Israelis are starting to realise that, and are getting their act together to change this discourse. They say: we are proud to be Israeli, Jewish and Zionist, and refuse to apologise for it. We would like to secure this identity for generations – and, for that purpose, a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel is imperative.

In the absence of a capable leadership in the Middle East, a series of conditions should be considered by the US and its allies in this endeavor in order to reverse the course of the process for the benefit of all parties concerned.

First, there is a need to combine the bilateral approach with a regional one, thus establishing a supportive Arab coalition for a possible Israeli-Palestinian agreement, and providing further opportunities for negotiations and trade-offs. To the detriment of the PLO, Israel's interlocutor since Oslo in 1993, Gaza is governed by Iranian-backed Hamas, a brutal terrorist organisation, dedicated to the destruction of Israel. It is only under a regional framework that the Gaza timebomb could possibly be addressed. The 2002 Arab Peace Initiative represents a significant and strategic shift in the Arab League's approach to resolving the dispute. It should serve as a basis for further negotiations.

Second, it is crucial to win the individual and collective hearts and minds of the peoples in the region. We need to prepare the ground ahead of time for tough decisions to be taken towards peaceful co-existence. It is essential gradually to change the public's mindset by creating a new vocabulary, a fresh discourse, even if that means tackling what were once taboos. Until today, little thought was given to the preparation of public opinion. Media coverage focused on what the respective parties are likely to be giving up, rather than on the benefits of peace. And so mutual hostility continued unchecked.

Third, the architecture of the Oslo process must be reframed. It seems essential to change the "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed" paradigm of Camp David, Taba and Annapolis – into "what has been agreed should be implemented". Such an approach would open the way for an agreement on boundaries, security, statehood and the economy. Subsequently, the negotiations over Jerusalem and the refugees will continue in a state-to-state fashion.

Fourth, seeking the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be based anymore on falsified grounds, distorted truths and double standards vis-à-vis Israel, thus encouraging anti-Israel terrorism. Pursuing Israeli settlement relocation, within a final territorial agreement, should follow 1967 United Nations security council resolution 242. The resolution was drawn up by Lord Caradon, UK representative at the UN who stated:

"We didn't say there should be a withdrawal to the [19]'67 line; we did not put the 'the' in, we did not say all the territories, deliberately… We did not say that the '67 boundaries must be forever; it would be insanity."

The British foreign secretary at the time, George Brown, said:

"I have been asked over and over again to clarify, modify or improve the wording, but I do not intend to do that… Before we submitted it to the council, we showed it to the Arab leaders. The proposal said 'Israel will withdraw from territories that were occupied', and not from 'the' territories, which means that Israel will not withdraw from all territories."

And finally, tangible coordination on the ground should be promoted, enabling the bottom-up progress to sustain a political dialogue. Since 2007, we have seen in the West Bank a genuine Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation. In that climate, self-interest starts to supersede mistrust between the parties, as has been demonstrated in steady economic growth, rapid institutional development and improved welfare.

It is essential that President Obama should find without delay a mechanism to resume negotiations between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. Yes, all three face a different set of domestic problems, but the US president should insist on maintaining a rigid negotiation framework with a binding agenda from which the parties cannot be allowed to depart. There is a reasonable chance of reaching a partial agreement on territory, security and the establishment of the Palestinian state within the president's remaining effective term.

The two-state solution is not only in the interest of Israel: it is clearly in the interest of the United States, Europe and the moderate Arab world to enhance global peace and stability.

Published in, January 24, 2011