The best of a bad lot?

The good news first: after more than a year wasted over trial and error in United States foreign policy, President Barack Obama has set the Israeli-Palestinian process back on track. The bad news is that for the first time in close to two decades, Israelis and Palestinians will be talking indirectly to one another.

The White House has had no sense of urgency with regard to resolving this dispute. Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan presented--and still do--a pressing series of headaches, thus consuming the administration's attention. Moreover, Obama's inner circle has been oblivious to the fact that while pressuring the Israeli government there is also a need for a binding, continuous, disciplined negotiation process. Indeed, there exists only one acceptable facilitator that can impose such a process on the parties and ensure that neither of them deviates from it: the United States.

My hope is that despite all the difficulties and obvious spoilers, the Obama administration will from now on stay hands-on for the whole course. After all, the two-state solution is by no means in the interest of Israel alone: it is clearly in the interest of the United States as well as the rest of the international community and the Arab world, in order to foster global stability.
The bare minimum that proximity talks might aim at attaining is that they serve as a springboard for restoring, little by little, some trust between the parties. A negotiating process, albeit an indirect one for a limited period, should interject hope into the cynical, frustrated and mistrusting political environment in both constituencies.

Polls consistently demonstrate that Israelis overwhelmingly support the two-state solution. But this majority does not echo politically. Israelis are starting to realize this, and groups like Blue White Future and the Council for Peace and Security are getting their act together to change the course. They say: we are Israeli, Jewish and Zionist and refuse to apologize for it; ending the conflict with the Palestinians will secure Israel in recognized boundaries, thus ensuring its democratic character and Jewish identity. Time is running out for the two-state solution.

There are long odds for the talks to tackle substantively the core issues. Yet don't we all know what a final agreement will ultimately look like? An interlocking resolution of the issues of Jerusalem, the holy sites, the refugees, territory, borders and settlements and security through a negotiated agreement holds no surprises. The Clinton parameters spelled out the basic practicable compromise almost a decade ago. In fact, from the outset of the peace process each and every political initiative to end the conflict has led to the same fundamental solutions.

Moreover, several track-two and NGO projects and other channels of research and dialogue have produced valuable outcomes in recent years. These include studies on boundaries, territorial swaps, options for arrangements at the holy sites, a special regime in the Old City of Jerusalem as well as comprehensive compensation and rehabilitation mechanisms for the refugees. In due time, these thorough plans may well be incorporated into official channels of negotiation and, subject to staff work and processing, serve as toolkits for the parties.

Based on these developments, should we expect Obama to present his own plan? By no means, and certainly not yet. There is no benefit in laying out so early in the process a plan that risks rejection by either party, which as a consequence would seriously decrease Obama's leverage. If the parties do make progress and there is a reasonable chance of reaching partial agreement on territory, security and the establishment of the Palestinian state, only then should the president present his bridging proposal and further address the parties' differences.

It might then be a good idea for the president to provide a regional setting for the bi-lateral negotiations, such as the contours of the Arab Peace Initiative. The US should encourage Israel and the Arab League states to explore common ground in expanding the scope of a hoped-for Israeli-Palestinian agreement. In that context, Israel should acknowledge the API's significance and state that it could be a framework for further talks. Arab leaders should tell their constituencies that no agreement would allow a significant return of refugees to Israel.

Parallel to the talks, the positive traction of changing realities on the ground should continue. We have recent examples of cooperation in security, trade, economy, agriculture and industry in the Jenin and Nablus areas. Little is known about the scope of the Israeli-Palestinian economic turnover: four billion dollars in 2009. Thanks to the excellent work done by General Dayton's team and other missions, the daily lives of Palestinian inhabitants in these areas have dramatically improved. Combined with PM Salam Fayyad's institution-building, the bottom-up approach provides tangible testimony to prospects for peaceful coexistence.

Last but not least, Israelis and Palestinians need to prime their constituencies and prepare the ground for acceptable and legitimate compromise. We need to gradually ready the hearts and minds of our publics for transformation. This requires intensive and open public discourse, internal dialogue and hard work, along with a tight security environment. Only when the public mindset has overcome its initial resistance and accommodated to change, will public opinion be supportive. Only then will the respective leaderships feel they can count on popular support for the decisions to be taken on the road to peace.

Attorney Gilead Sher was head of bureau and policy coordinator for PM Ehud Barak. He served as co-chief negotiator in 1999- 2001 at the Camp David summit and the Taba talks. His book "The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Negotiations, 1999-2001: Within Reach" was published by Routledge in 2006.

Published in ©, May 2010