As Jared Kushner arrives for talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah, joining President Donald Trump’s special international negotiations advisor Jason Greenblatt, amid reports that the U.S. administration is doubling down on its determination to reach an ‘ultimate’ peace deal to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it would be worth their while considering carefully what strategy is most likely to actually bring not only rhetorical declarations of success, but genuine peace and quiet.
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What can we learn from experience about what actually makes a Mideast peace deal achievable – and one that sticks? And how can negotiations ensure the buy-in both of Israeli public opinion, and even of the current government?
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We have to start by exposing some of the misinformation and misunderstanding surrounding previous deals signed by Israel.
The Oslo Accords, a watershed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, now have a controversial reputation among many on Israel’s right. They have been branded as criminal by the Israeli right because of the subsequent terror wave and casualities.
But the success or failure of historic initiatives cannot be determined by casualties alone. Israel's War of Independence saw 6,000 Israelis killed and tens of thousands wounded (out of a population of 600,000). The six years following the Six Day War saw 247 Israelis killed in terror attacks. The six years following the Oslo Accords saw 270 Israelis killed (of a population double that of 1967). The six years following the collapse of the peace process after the 2000 Camp David Summit saw 1083 Israelis killed. Which were failures? Successes?
In fact, Oslo was been the third important grand-strategic achievement of the Zionist project since the Balfour Declaration. The first was the establishment of the State of Israel, which provided the Jewish people with the agency to defend themselves for the first time in 2,000 years. The second was the peace with Egypt, which eliminated Israel's immediate existential threat and set the stage for future pan-Arab pragmatism towards Israel. Without the peace with Egypt there is no peace process – with the Palestinians, the Jordanians, or any Arab country.
Madrid/Oslo is the third achievement. The Madrid Conference in 1991 gave birth to Oslo and Madrid/Oslo is, in effect, the same historical event. What was achieved?
1. The Soviet Union re-established diplomatic relations which eventually facilitated the aliya of over one million Russian Jews, whose engineering and scientific skills contributed to Israel becoming a high-tech powerhouse.
2. China and India established diplomatic relations, resulting in East Asia becoming Israel's second biggest trading partner after the European Union, surpassing the United States.
3. 71 countries established diplomatic relations between 1991 - 2000. These included 30 African countries and six former Soviet Muslim states.
The Vatican established relations in 1993 – an historic political and theological about-face.
4. Israeli trade offices opened in Morocco, Oman and Qatar. The Gulf states cancelled the Arab boycott in 1994, which had cost Israel's economy $40 billion ($80 billion in today's money).
5. Peace with Jordan was formalized in 1994. This had a supplemental impact. Many countries decided to establish relations on the basis of "Well, if another member of the Arab League has established relations, why shouldn't we?" The Egyptian case might have been an anomaly, but peace with Jordan was decisive for many.
6. Oslo upgraded Israel's free trade agreement with the European Union, improving Israel's competitiveness in EU markets.
7. The Madrid/Oslo decade saw Israel's population increase by 35% from 4.7 million to 6.3 million.
8. A trickle before the 1990s, foreign investments became a flood. Foreign exchange reserves increased appreciably. The foreign debt ratio declined from 25% of GDP to 9%.
9. The "Zionism is Racism" UN resolution was revoked and Israeli sports teams were accepted into European associations.
Many countries were already looking for an excuse to establish relations – Madrid/Oslo provided that excuse. It "motivated" Jordan to formalize their relations with Israel in order to neutralize the "Jordan is Palestine" meme that had been resurrected in Israel. The Gulf states were more concerned with the Ayatollahs' Iran than with the plight of the Palestinians (not much has changed).
The Iranian threat, has primed many additional Arab League countries to consider formalizing diplomatic relations with Israel. The Saudi peace initiative and increasing de facto security cooperation vis-à-vis Iran supports this view. But there must be some movement in the peace process in order to enable these countries to justify such a step to the Arab street.
A policy of conflict mitigation (rather than resolution) should replace the present futile search for a final status deal.
The Palestinian rejection of Ehud Barak's offers at Camp David in 2000 and their subsequent rejection of even more generous offers by Ehud Olmert indicate that the "ultimate deal" that President Trump dreams about is unrealistic. A policy that strives for peace and quiet rather than peace would have a better chance of success.
The comprehensive "land for peace" ambition would be replaced by an incremental "a little land for a little peace" – a positive mission creep. This would include redesignating the West Bank’s present divisions.
Israel could expand Area A, under full civil and security control of the Palestinian Authority, and with no Jewish population, from 22% to 30% in exchange for formal diplomatic relations with several Gulf countries, and then to 40% for several more. Recent reports of a document drafted by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates indicates this is possible. For a simple freeze on settlement construction and easing trade with Gaza the Gulf states would enable direct telecommunications, trade relations and opening airspace as well as grant visas to Israeli businessmen and athletes, even without any West Bank redesignation.
The aim would be to make Area A as contiguous as possible and dramatically reduce the number of Palestinians Israeli security forces interact with daily. Israel would achieve:
1. Diplomatic relations with 7 or 8 additional Arab countries
2. Liberation from managing a resentful population, lessening tensions as well as negative PR (something we should strive for unilaterally in any case)
3. Additional foreign investments from Gulf state businesses and sovereign wealth funds
This would facilitate the strategic upgrading of Israel's ability to deal with the last threat to its very existence – Iran. It is clear that the Arab motivation for this initiative is their existential fear of Iran and the realization that the only reliable long-term security partner they have is Israel. This is an historic window of opportunity.
There would be substantial security challenges for the IDF inherent in such a policy. No question. But strategic and grand-strategic benefits must always supersede tactical challenges. Unlike Oslo there should be no nave enthusiasms of the kind that made Israel unprepared for the terrorist onslaught that ensued. If this incremental method is successful we might move onto an additional phase. We must not nullify any option for a final settlement. We must only seek to make the interim period as manageable as possible; to enable the parties to get used to the mutual benefits of peace and quiet.
Israel enjoyed a PR honeymoon during the Madrid/Oslo decade. Israel's status in international organizations improved. The number of UN debates and resolutions pertaining to Israel and the Middle East declined. Israelis were elected to senior positions in various United Nations agencies. This honeymoon ended following the Second Intifada. But it is an instructive example of how a peace process – any peace process – becomes a grand-strategic asset for Israel.
Tsvi Bisk is an Israeli/American futurist, social researcher and strategy planning consultant. He is Director of the Center for Strategic Futurist Thinking. His most recent book is The Suicide of the Jews: A Cautionary Tale (2015).