New approach to the Arab-Israeli peace process

As the crisis over the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers continues, it is not too early to begin to think about new options no matter what the outcome of this tragic development. When the dust settles, there is a good chance that the Palestinian “Unity” cabinet will have collapsed, that Hamas and Fatah will once again go their separate ways, and that at some point the Israelis and the PLO will re-enter talks.

But why would the next negotiations be any more successful than those conducted by Secretary of State John Kerry that broke up in April?  Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will still be cautious; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, sphinx-like in his thinking, will still have coalition problems; and naysayers on both sides - terrorists, Hamas, settlers - will still enjoy a spoiler's paradise to jeopardize talks at every juncture.

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We need to try a new approach toward Israeli-Palestinian accommodation if and when the opportunity arises, and one has been handed us by the Leader of the Labor Party, Isaac Herzog.  He has just broken Israeli tradition and, from the opposition, issued his own peace plan. The proposal is remarkably similar to the plan presented by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Abbas in September of 2008.  The basics of Herzog’s proposal are reflective of the Clinton Parameters, with final borders based on the 1967 lines with land swaps; a demilitarized Palestinian state; the refugees would go to Palestine with a limited number to Israel determined by the Israelis; and in Jerusalem, Jewish neighborhoods would go to the Israelis, Palestinian areas to the Palestinians, and East Jerusalem would be the capital of Palestine with the municipality united and a “special regime” in the holy basin.

This is the best offer the Palestinians are going to get, perhaps ever.  It provides them a state of their own with viable borders, and achieves every major objective they have any chance of gaining.  If the Palestinians can’t accept this deal, there’s little hope of pulling one off any time in the near future.  The Israelis might as well move on, on their own.

At the appropriate time, the U.S. should welcome Herzog’s proposal, especially since it originated in Israel instead of in Washington.  The Administration should then ask Abbas to endorse the plan, or at least accept it in principle, and thereby offer his people the possibility of peace when he runs in the upcoming Palestinian elections, scheduled to occur within the next six months.  Abu Mazen is no position as a result of the kidnappings to hang tough, so despite the unfortunate circumstances, there is a better chance than usual that he might act positively to further separate himself from Hamas.

There are some who believe that Fatah will lose if Abbas accepts such a plan, even in principle. But if so, then why should Israel negotiate with the Palestinians at all?  If an Israeli plan suggested by the head of Israel's opposition is not worthy of Palestinian consideration, then what is?

In this scenario, the next step is for the administration to ask Netanyahu to also accept the principles of the plan, to call an election or referendum, and to negotiate with Abbas to hammer out the details. 

The U.S. will also have to change its game by promoting an international effort to engage government figures and respected Arab and Jewish leaders to convince first the Palestinians and then the Israelis to accept the principles.  The engagement of major Arab figures will enhance this effort for both sides.

For Abbas, public engagement of Arab leaders provides sorely needed political cover for his engagement with Israel, especially since the kidnappings.  Furthermore, his accepting the plan before Netanyahu will dispel the impression that he's never met a plan he liked. It will also make it much harder for Netanyahu to dismiss the plan, or to credibly tell Israelis they have "no partner for peace."    The United States should also make it clear to Abu Mazen that if he does not accept the plan, or at least offer a comparable one of his own, it will encourage the Israelis to pursue either one of the many unilateral ideas that have been suggested, such as the recent proposal from Finance Minister Yair Lapid, or a transition agreement such as the one proposed by the highly respected Israeli journalist, Ehud Yaari.

This approach provides a strategy that has a better chance of transforming Israeli and Palestinian perceptions than another Kerry-style initiative that waits for a possible breakthrough after months of disappointment.  If the two sides agreed on the Herzog plan, they would have a framework in which to proceed; Abbas would be working within the framework of an Arab peace effort; Netanyahu would be able to demand left-wing support for his government in the event of right-wing rejectionism; and, the US would have a sturdier framework from which to operate.

Beyond the many other options being proposed, none would be as appealing for both the Palestinians and the Israelis.  The U.S. administration should let them know it.

Spiegel is a professor of political science and the director of the Center for Middle East Development at the University of California, Los Angeles, and an Israel Policy Forum scholar.