The current “pause” in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has allowed a number of unworkable and unachievable ideas to surface. One idea being advocated by an Israeli minister would have Israel annex 60 percent of the West Bank and grant autonomy to the Palestinians in the remaining 40 percent. Another idea, proposed by a Knesset member, suggests a three-state solution. A third idea making the rounds among some within both Palestinian and Israeli circles focuses on the one-state solution.
A fourth idea from a former settler leader proposes a “non-reconciliation” process that focuses entirely on ameliorating living conditions for Palestinians. And a fifth idea tries to make a virtue of the status quo: In the words of an Israeli minister, “There is no basis to the perception that the status quo is a bad thing.”
Quite incredibly, few are advancing the one idea that makes sense: namely, that Israelis and Palestinians, with determined U.S. assistance, take the hard but necessary decisions to make the two-state outcome succeed.
Instead of facing up to such decisions, the two parties and the United States have resorted to the “blame game,” marshaling traditional arguments and leveling traditional accusations. To be sure, most of the arguments and accusations are true. But none of the parties, including the United States, has engaged in a moment of introspection, focused not on what the others did or failed to do, but rather what each party itself could have done to help the process move forward.
The promising launch of Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomacy last summer offered hope that lessons of the past had been studied and assimilated. Rather than follow in the footsteps of many of his predecessors who focused single-mindedly on getting the parties back to the negotiating table, Kerry set out to create a sound structure of peacemaking.
General John Allen was brought in to look into the security requirements of the parties. The Arab Quartet visited Washington to reiterate and modify slightly the important Arab Peace Initiative. Kerry supported a World Economic Forum commitment to fund Palestinian economic development so as to help assure that the new state of Palestine would not be born as a failed state. And Kerry elicited commitments from the Palestinians and the Israelis to some confidence-building measures for the first critical nine months of the process.
With these elements in place, Kerry then tried to negotiate a framework or terms of reference for negotiations. It is here that the process derailed after the United States failed to anticipate and deal with three hurdles.
First, while recognizing that the effort to negotiate terms of reference was important, the Americans should have understood from previous experience that there was no way the parties would reach agreement.
The starting positions of the parties were — and are — too far apart, and the politics in both societies were — and are — too fraught to expect that either side would move substantially from its opening position. The negotiations process could thus help to define the distance between the formal positions of the parties, but could not be expected to produce agreed terms of reference.
Second, according to press reports, whose accuracy is unknown, it appears that the U.S. team made the same mistake in 2014 that the United States made in the 1990s: namely, to pre-negotiate with Israel in order to satisfy core Israeli requirements and then to try to market these positions to the Palestinians. This failed in the 1990s, and it failed again now.
The United States reportedly agreed with Israel’s demands that the Israeli military presence along the Jordan River remain for a very extended period; that East Jerusalem not necessarily become the capital of Palestine; and that the size of the settlement blocs that Israel would retain would be larger than expected. If these press reports are true, it is no wonder that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas shut down when confronted with these American-endorsed Israeli positions.
Third, when these negotiations over the terms of reference collapsed and when both sides violated the confidence-building commitments they had undertaken a year ago, the United States failed to take the one step that could have been — and can still be — transformative: namely, to declare as U.S. policy a set of bold, forward-looking terms of reference that would require both sides to look beyond their current comfort zones, and to aim them toward a fair and reasonable negotiated outcome.
These American terms of reference or framework would have to go far beyond the opening positions of the parties. They would represent U.S. policy positions going forward, and they would represent a new basis for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict.
It is not too late to turn this pause in peacemaking into a push forward. If the United States acts forthrightly, with determination and creativity, it will not only put an end to the proliferation of bad ideas, but more importantly it will inject life into a moribund peace process. Strong and determined American leadership can help prevent the situation on the ground from worsening over time, and can create a substantive beacon to which the parties can head when they decide to sit down and negotiate.
The time for the United States to act is now.
Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and to Israel, is a professor of Middle East policy studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.