Time For Palestinians To Present Their Own Peace Plan

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The Palestinian leadership has publicly responded to President Trump’s so-called peace proposal with “a thousand no’s.” So far, so predictable. But if President Mahmoud Abbas has any hope of limiting the damage from the Trump plan—which gives Israel license to annex large parts of the West bank and leaves the Palestinians at best trapped in an unworkable Bantustan—he needs to craft a more serious rejoinder.

U.S. officials have invited the Palestinians to come up with a counteroffer; Arab and European governments would welcome one that validates their opposition to the Trump plan and continued commitment to the two-state framework. Abbas has said he will present a proposal in the next couple of weeks, likely at the United Nations.

The momentum is on his side. The Europeans have rejected the plan, pointing out that it is utterly at odds with international law, existing agreements and understandings. There was some initial ambivalence from the Arabs: Seeking closer ties to Israel in their confrontation with Iran, some Arab countries had hoped to embrace the proposal. Ambassadors from the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Bahrain were present at the launch ceremony. But an Arab League summit unanimously rejected the proposal as “unjust,” and warned Israel not to proceed with its annexation plans. The Arab position was reiterated by the 57-state member Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

The Trump plan poses the greatest threat to potential Palestinian independence in decades, yet it has also strengthened Abbas’ authority at home by uniting the political factions, including Hamas, in opposition to it and, perforce, around his national leadership.

The stage is perfectly set for Abbas to present a bold new Palestinian vision for peace with Israel. The easy, and wrong, thing to do—and going by his track record, what he is most likely to do—would be to simply frame the Palestinian position as a vague, two-state formula based on UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, and the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. This was exactly the position he took at the UN last year, but times have changed dramatically.

A reprise of that speech might be politically popular with Palestinians, where Abbas would be seen as sticking to their national talking points. But it would achieve nothing for them: the Trump plan has already altered the political landscape, and it may not be long before Israeli annexation irreversibly changes facts on the ground too. 

To undermine the Trump initiative, Abbas will need to show political courage and leadership—and flexibility. His own plan should embrace significant compromises on key final-status issues.

If he can’t produce a detailed conceptual map of proposed borders for the Palestinian state—those details would require negotiating with Israel--Abbas can at least identify some of the Jewish settlements that Palestinians are willing to trade for equal areas of unpopulated land in Israel, and a transit corridor to Gaza. He can concede that most Palestinian refugees will have to make do with compensation and citizenship in a Palestinian state rather than a return to what is now Israel. (He can cite himself as an example of this, as he has in the past.)

He can commit to reasonable security arrangements and a non-militarized state along Costa Rican lines—with police and security forces but no standing military, and committed to staying out of all conflicts—but  not one controlled or surrounded by Israel.

And he can affirm that Jerusalem would serve as the capital for both Israel and Palestine.

But Abbas should also insist that the Palestinian state be fully sovereign and in control its borders, airspace and electromagnetic spectrum and coastline.

Finally, he should agree that such an understanding would be an end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to all claims against each other.

All this would be entirely consistent with the positions the Palestinian leadership has presented at the negotiating table for decades, but has never honestly explained to its own public. As a result, such a plan would be controversial among Palestinians, but Abbas should point out that the Trump proposal is a national emergency, requiring the breaking of some political taboos.

At the UN, Abbas should also hold up a copy of the signature page of 1993 Declaration of Principles, signed by the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Israel and the U.S., and note that it is formal and binding. He can easily demonstrate that his vision is entirely consistent with its provisions while the Trump proposal is not. All negotiations, he should insist, must be based on this signed and agreed-upon framework, and not some new diktat from the White House.

If Palestinians respond with such a serious counteroffer, they will reinforce Arab and European opposition to the Trump proposal, and make any Israeli annexation effort far more difficult and costly. They will also greatly strengthen the hands of those in Washington who are committed to restoring sanity and viability to U.S. policy on Israel and Palestine.

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

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

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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