A lot of conflicts are in play at the moment around the world, but none more important than the Israel-Palestine conflict. It is the world’s longest-running major conflict at 60+ years, and it has symbolic importance far beyond those directly affected. With the UN General Assembly set to open next month, Palestine is rising to the top spot on the world agenda.
On the surface, the prospects for settlement look bleaker than ever. Israel has a right-wing government that seems uninterested in peace, a settler movement strong enough to shoot down any proposal to give up control of land, and a public that still loves peace but has grown wary. After all, when Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon (2000) and from Gaza (2005), those areas became staging grounds for rocket attacks on Israel by Islamist militants — Hezbollah and Hamas, respectively — and new wars followed in response (2006 in Lebanon; 2009 in Gaza).
Palestinians for their part have a weak governing authority with a moderate President elected in 2005 (whose term should have expired in 2009) controlling the West Bank and an armed faction, Hamas — also elected, in Parliamentary elections in 2006 — controlling Gaza. The Palestinian public is also peace-loving but extremely wary after generations of occupation.
But here’s the thing. The next steps will not be incremental. Israel will not withdraw from some bits of territory and close a few settlements. Palestinian radicals will not gradually diminish the rocket fire into Israel. None of that would make any sense. The only deal that can work is a big deal. And we know what that deal looks like, too. It is based on a return to the 1949 cease-fire lines that held before the 1967 Six Day War, with swaps of territory to put major settlement blocs within Israel and compensate Palestine with equivalent territory elsewhere along the line. This concept, recently articulated by President Obama, has been endorsed by past Israeli and Palestinian governments, and even the current Israeli government is coming back around to it.
The United Nations, which sets the blueprint for what the great powers can agree on in solving world problems, has never endorsed the concept, but Tom Friedman sensibly proposed in June that the Security Council do so. The outside powers all support it, and public opinion would back it overwhelmingly in the context of an overall peace deal.
In January 2001, following up on the failed Camp David II talks hosted by Bill Clinton, negotiators from Israel and Palestine met in the Egyptian town of Taba. They came within a hair of resolving all the major issues. OK, a thick hair, but nonetheless tantalizingly close to agreement. In the end, they ran out of time. Clinton left office and George W. Bush did not have the same drive to finish the work, and the left-leaning Israeli government lost elections to a right-leaning one.
The deal looks like this: (1) Borders. Israel would get 5 percent of the West Bank containing 80 percent of the settlers, mostly in big settlements right over the old border. Palestine would get that 5 percent back in land swaps elsewhere. The other 20 percent of the settlers would move. (2) Refugees. Palestinians who have dreamt for generations of returning to homes within Israel, which they fled in 1948 or 1967, would wake up from that dream and get paid money instead. They would settle permanently in the West Bank, Gaza, or another country. (3) Jerusalem. The eastern part of the city with Arab neighborhoods and Islam’s third holiest site (the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosques) would become the capital of Palestine. The rest, including the holy Jewish sites and the Jewish neighborhoods around the city, just over the old border, would be the capital of Israel. The U.S. Embassy, now in Tel Aviv, would finally move up the hill to Jerusalem. Peace talks taking place on-and-off recently, out of the public eye, are not focused on big issues, but details. The big parameters are known.
The tragedy of the past decade for Israel and Palestine — a decade marked by the Second Intifada and the wars in Lebanon and Gaza — is that nothing changed in those parameters for a final deal. Everyone knows what the deal looks like, and it looks the same now as it did in early 2000. In other words, a lot of people died for nothing. Someday, when both sides have the will, they’ll say OK and the deal will happen.
I once saw someone freeze up in fear at the top of a big zip-line, unwilling to take off his harness and climb back down the tower, but unable to move forward a few inches into the jump. Outside encouragement did not help, and he stayed there frozen for a long twenty minutes. And then, for no particular reason, he jumped.
Blog note: In August, when I and my readers are in and out from vacations, I will not blog five days a week as I’ve been doing, but will try for 2-3 times a week. To subscribe to email notifications when I post a new blog, use the box in the right-hand column or at the bottom of this page.