There’s Still Hope for Israeli-Palestinian Peace

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- U.S. special envoy Jason Greenblatt, a principal designer of President Donald Trump’s promised Middle East peace plan, resigned last week, having never revealed a word of the mysterious plan or presided over a minute of actual negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. It’s clearer than ever that the administration's rethinking of U.S. Mideast peace policy has been a crushing failure. The question now is how to move beyond it.

There’s a mess to be cleaned up, to be sure, one that was created by the Trump peace team, headed by presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, when it smashed the agreed-upon basis for talks by recognizing Israel's sovereignty in Jerusalem, without distinguishing between the West and East parts of the city. The team also cut off diplomatic relations with the Palestinians, leaving the U.S. as the only major world power without direct ties to one of the key parties. Indeed, the administration cut off all aid to anything and everything Palestinian, including security forces, health and education programs, and even people-to-people peace programs.

Worst of all, the White House endorsed Israel’s sovereignty in the Golan Heights, thus encouraging Israel to annex more occupied territories.

Meanwhile, Kushner, Greenblatt and David Friedman, the American ambassador to Israel, made it clear their boss no longer endorsed a two-state solution and would push only for what they have vaguely called Palestinian “autonomy,” presumably within an unequal Greater Israel. That’s obviously a nonstarter, not only for the Palestinians but also for Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Arab countries.

In all this trouble-making, the White House has followed its Obamacare playbook: Repeal, but don't replace. Destroy the existing, agreed-upon framework for negotiation toward a two-state solution without bothering to propose an alternative.

If the goal is to build a new consensus for a Greater Israel, it means open-ended conflict into the foreseeable future, and it forecloses the prospect of a robust alliance between Israel and Gulf Arab countries against Iran.

But it’s not too late to resurrect America’s commitment to a two-state outcome, even if it has to wait for the next U.S. president.

Washington should begin by clarifying that its recognition of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem applies only to West Jerusalem and not to occupied East Jerusalem, whose status must still be determined by negotiations. It should then re-endorse the 1993 Oslo peace accords, and the United Nations Security Council resolutions — all approved by the U. S. — that call for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

The U.S. should especially reiterate its support for Security Council Resolution 2334, which demanded an end to Israeli settlement expansion. Israel needs to hear that America will not endorse additional annexations or major settlement activity.

The Arab states should be reassured that the U.S. continues to share the broad goals of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative: the full integration of Israel into the region and the establishment of a Palestinian state — though that should not mean plunging headlong into a quixotic effort to achieve immediate change. The building blocks for a peace agreement on both sides need to be carefully developed.

Diplomatic ties to the Palestinians must be restored and the Palestine Liberation Organization mission in Washington, reopened. There’s no need to move the American Embassy back to Tel Aviv from West Jerusalem, but the U.S. should reopen its consulate in East Jerusalem, its diplomatic mission to the Palestinians.

It is also important to stop the situation on the ground from further deteriorating. That means selectively restoring aid to Palestinians, targeting on-the-ground efforts to improve the quality of life in the West Bank and building civic, social and political institutions. The Palestinian justice system, in particular, needs urgent attention to promote the rule of law.

Also imperative is to seek a solution to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza that doesn’t unduly empower the militant group Hamas.

The crucial truth is that Israeli-Palestinian peace is still possible, despite the terrible situation the Trump administration inherited and the untold additional damage it has done. But it will require that the framework for peace be salvaged. The appalling alternative is to wait for another explosion of violence, which is otherwise unavoidable.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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