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Path to peace between Israel and Palestine goes beyond its leaders

Path to peace between Israel and Palestine goes beyond its leaders
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There is a growing number of Israelis and Palestinians who have now resigned themselves to the view that peace based on a two-state solution is no longer possible and the current precarious conditions on the ground will become the norm. Others cling to the notion that a two-state solution remains the only practical option but have yet to provide a political framework that would advance the peace process toward that end.

I maintain that although establishing two states remains the ideal solution that could end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, given the prevailing conditions between the two sides, any effort to resume peace negotiations at the present will be doomed to fail.

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The Trump administration must realistically reassess the prevailing operative assumptions of both sides and articulate a new approach and new policy that will eventually advance the peace process that culminates in an agreement.

What is needed is a dramatic change in the dynamic of the conflict to mitigate the current major impediments, without which there will be no solution. Moreover, the prospect of reaching an agreement in the future will become increasingly unlikely, opening the door for renewed violence on an unprecedented scale.

To begin with, we must first recognize that the present Israeli government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not, and will not, support a two-state solution, as he stated repeatedly that there will be no Palestinian state under his watch.

The continued expansion of the settlements under his watch and his vow to never remove Israeli settlements from the West Bank (he has stated that “we are here to stay forever”) must be taken very seriously as it forecloses any prospect for a solution as long as his government remains in power.

Hence, the shift to a center-left government committed to a peace agreement becomes a central prerequisite. To that end, the Israeli opposition parties will have to coalesce and establish a framework for a sustainable peace, which will require painful concessions on both sides.

The Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas is weak, disorganized and laden with corruption and fierce rivalries for power that impede the resumption of peace talks in earnest. President Abbas is not, and will not, be in a position to make any significant concession and politically survive.

What further complicates the situation among the Palestinians is the near-deadly struggle between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, each of whom are seeking a solution to the conflict with Israel on their own terms, which are incompatible and play into the hands of extremist Israelis.

Here too, unless the Palestinian Authority and Hamas reconcile and operate either as independent political parties or mutually embrace new leadership around which they jointly rally (and if the United States fails to remove Hamas from the list of terrorist organizations), there will be no progress on the peace front with Israel.

The lack of trust between the two sides is perhaps the most difficult impediment to mitigate. Trust cannot be negotiated, it must be nurtured, but more than anything else it requires a genuine commitment to peace and the understanding that it cannot be achieved based on a zero-sum approach.

Instead, they must first demonstrate in words and deeds their resolve to reach an agreement by fully cooperating on security, preventing violence, ending the expansion of settlements, engaging in economic development and undertaking social projects involving civil society on both sides.

Obviously, such an initiative takes time, persistence, determination and goodwill to overcome many of the difficulties that will inevitably occur. In addition, many obstacles will be placed on the road to reconciliation by powerful elements on both sides who still want to prevent the other from having an independent and secure state of their own.

The question is, what can be done now to prevent further deterioration in the relationship between them while waiting for a change in leadership committed to peace, which is “sine qua non” to achieving a peace agreement?

The United States and European Union can play a critical role to advance the peace process, provided they divorce themselves of the illusion that peace can be achieved under the present circumstances. They must also come to terms with the bitter reality that the Israelis and the Palestinians are not, and will not, be able to reach an agreement on their own, as history has repeatedly shown.

If President Trump is truly committed to facilitating an agreement and cares about Israel’s future security and wellbeing, he should not simply push for the resumption of peace talks. He must instead focus on creating ripe conditions on the ground, so that once the peace process resumes it would stand a far better chance of succeeding.

To that end, Trump must put all the necessary pressure on the Netanyahu government to halt the expansion of settlements (the sorest point of contention for the Palestinians), insist that the Palestinians end any form of incitement and cease acrimonious public narratives by both sides, while encouraging joint development projects.

This by no means will be easy to implement. But the United States and to a lesser extent the European Union, can force a change in the dynamic of the conflict by resorting to coercion when necessary or incentives where desirable to force both sides to recognize that further worsening of the conflict will be to their detriment.

In any event, the tenure of the Netanyahu government and the Palestinian Authority  will sooner than later come to an end. By taking the measures above, the Trump administration can help promote the rise of moderate Israeli and Palestinian governments united in their resolve to reach a peace agreement based on a two-state solution.

Alon Ben Meir, Ph.D., is a professor and senior fellow in global affairs at New York University and a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute. An expert in Middle East diplomacy, he received his doctorate in international relations from Oxford University and has been actively involved in negotiations between Israel and its neighboring countries over the past two decades. You can follow him on Twitter @AlonBenMeir.