Ask James Baker
A practical way to get out of the current Israeli-Palestinian deadlock is to plan an international conference marking the 20th anniversary of the Madrid Conference.
The silence that characterizes the Israeli-Palestinian political process is deafening in its totality. Each side is firmly entrenched in its positions and resolutely convinced that it is right. The Palestinian leadership has presented its requirements for a two-state solution, but is not ready to return to the negotiating table as long as Israel continues to build settlements in the West Bank. For its part, Israel's current leadership is not willing to present its peace plan and demands a return to the negotiating table without preconditions, not even a partial building freeze.
The Obama administration is in disarray as it confronts the situation in the greater Middle East: It is committed to leaving Iraq and Afghanistan, friendly regimes are collapsing, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to be a reason, or pretext, for anger at the United States, making it difficult for moderate Arab leaders to fill the vacuum vis-a-vis Iran that will be created after an American withdrawal from the region.
The right approach, in my view, would be to accept Israel's position on negotiations without preconditions and the Palestinian view regarding the need for each side to present its comprehensive vision for a solution, with the intention of achieving peace based on the 1949 armistice lines between Israel and Jordan, and in the spirit of the Clinton parameters of 2000, and the informal Geneva Initiative of 2003. But such a solution is unrealistic right now.
Netanyahu's government is not ready to pay even the minimal price demanded by the pragmatic Palestinian leadership of Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad. The Palestinian leadership is not able to coerce Hamas into accepting its authority and thus cannot include Gaza in any perceivable solution. Thus, even if the two sides were able to sign a permanent agreement, as I hope, it could only be implemented in the West Bank.
A practical way to get out of the current deadlock is for the U.S. to plan an international peace conference for this coming October 30, which will mark the 20th anniversary of the Madrid Conference, and dedicate the time until then to preparing a detailed and agreed-upon invitation to the gathering. As was the case with Madrid, no decision would be made during this conference. Conclusive and parallel negotiations would take place immediately after between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, Syria and Lebanon, as well as multilateral negotiations in which Arab states, Israel and other countries from around the world would convene to deal with issues like water, the environment, refugee rehabilitation, arms control, and economic operations in the Middle East.
My advice to the Obama administration would be to consult with former Secretary of State James Baker, who achieved the unbelievable two decades ago when he brought together for the first time the Israeli leadership with the Palestinian and Syrian leadership. (During the Geneva Conference convened by Henry Kissinger after the Yom Kippur War in December 1973, the Palestinians were not invited and the Syrians refused to participate. ) Baker's greatest contribution was to assure the involved parties that there would be no surprises during the event, and no votes taken - only speeches in the conference hall and press conferences outside of the meetings.
All the substantial content of the conference was condensed into the agreed-upon invitation in which two sponsors, the United States and the Soviet Union, laid out the principles that would serve as a basis for the discussions, how the negotiations would be handled after the gathering, and even a date for when those negotiations would be launched.
That original invitation also stated that the international conference could "reconvene only with the consent of all the parties." Now is the time to implement this. Perhaps it is naive to suggest, but it might be a wise move by the administration to ask Baker to repeat what he did 20 years ago - to come to the region to discuss such a conference with Israel, the PLO, Syria and Lebanon. With their help, he could update the basis for renewed negotiations, considering that in the intervening years, a peace agreement has been signed between Israel and Jordan, the Palestinian Authority has been established as a result of the Oslo agreement, and the Quartet (U.S., Russia, EU and the UN ) has been established. The process of preparing the invitations will push the parties into new involvement in resolving the Israeli-Arab conflict and to enter into the negotiations that will be renewed as a result - if only because when parties sit and talk with each other, the chances of finding a solution are much better than when they remain stagnant.
Yossi Beilin served as a minister in the cabinets of Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak.