"the leaderships in both Jerusalem and Ramallah appear to share one common goal: finding a comfort zone, a place where the peace process can continue ad infinitum, and hard decisions can be avoided" — Correct

May 10, 2009

In News

By Daniel Levy

The morning after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finds his own formula for embracing the two-state solution – perhaps in Cairo next week or in Washington the week after – will we wake up to a new Middle East? I somehow doubt it. There may be internal political criticism (which Netanyahu can harness) and some may call his move courageous, but the focus will soon shift to settling into a diplomatic process in which the ultimate goal of two states is never reached.

With renewed American interest in delivering a two-state reality, the leaderships in both Jerusalem and Ramallah appear to share one common goal: finding a comfort zone, a place where the peace process can continue ad infinitum, and hard decisions can be avoided.

Netanyahu’s proposal for three negotiating tracks with the Palestinians (economic, security and political) fits neatly within that comfort zone. While a vigorous discussion with the Obama administration over settlements and mutual steps to be taken by Israel and the Arab states to advance the Arab peace initiative gradually might appear less convenient for Netanyahu, this, too, will have a comforting familiarity to it. It’s easy to envisage endless months spent (wasted) on the sequencing of who goes first, on the scope of limitations for settlement expansion, and on the time-honored tradition of mutual recriminations and blame games.

Despite their desperate situation, such a reality has the quiet trappings of a comfort zone for the Palestinian Ramallah-based leadership, too. The bills are paid by donor countries, the political life-support tubes remain firmly attached. The PLO might even succeed in goading the U.S. into an occasional public spat with Israel. The Arab states can grandstand over the injustice of it all, while the resistance movements will decry the hypocrisy of the West and the impotence and complicity of the so-called moderate Arab regimes.

If simply declaring the two-state solution as a goal, but doing nothing meaningful to achieve it, is so convenient and comfortable for all concerned, then why not just go with the flow? One reason is that the narrow interests of political leaderships don’t necessarily accord with their respective peoples’ broader needs, with the desire for regional stability and certainly not with U.S. national interests. Business as usual, postponing the two-state solution, may well place that option beyond reach, feeding radicalization, encouraging the eruption of greater violence – as witnessed recently in Gaza – and crippling American efforts elsewhere in the region.

Today’s fault line on the two-state solution is not about declarations – whether by Netanyahu or anyone else. It is about what one might call the “comfort zone” versus the “decision zone.” Consequently, the two critical questions have become: How does one negotiate a two-state solution, and how does one implement a two-state solution? The comfort zone leaves the negotiations up to the parties alone, with their endless bilateral wrangling, and it conditions implementation on the Palestinians meeting a high bar for proof of self-governance capacity. Entering the decision zone would change that equation. The parties can continue talking, but reaching a solution becomes externally-driven, being U.S.-led and involving back-to-back consultations with all the key actors, Israelis and Palestinians included. Likewise, implementation of the two-state solution is no longer conditioned on incubating Palestinian self-governance while under hostile Israeli occupation. Instead, the international community assumes responsibilities and creates a partnership for a period of time, as it did in Bosnia, East Timor and elsewhere, thus playing a decisive role in filling the security and governance vacuum.

Entering the decision zone involves hard choices for all concerned. The Palestinian Authority leadership in Ramallah will be asked to accept a heavy international footprint (notably in the security arena) during the early years of statehood, and a far-reaching practical compromise on the refugee issue. Hamas will be asked to acquiesce to this outcome as constituting the conditions for a long-term hudna, or cease-fire (yes, Hamas will have to be engaged, whether directly or indirectly, and guaranteed full political participation in exchange for reciprocal obligations).

The Arab states would be expected to make good on the Arab peace initiative and to establish normal relations with Israel. In this respect, the two-state solution should be part of a comprehensive regional approach also addressing Israeli-Syrian and Israeli-Lebanese peace. Iran should be pushed to make good on its own commitment to accept any outcome agreeable to the Palestinians, and if it refuses, then Iran will become a lone voice, no longer able to rally popular regional support for its rejectionism.

Israel, of course, will be asked to dismantle the infrastructure of occupation and cease its control over the West Bank and East Jerusalem (reciprocal and minor modifications to the 1967 lines will have to be delineated alongside other practical and thorny arrangements).

Only the U.S. government can lead this process, invest in it politically, and drive home a resolution to the conflict – which itself will entail international and notably European and NATO support, incentives and active involvement.

Making the transition from the comfort zone to the decision zone will by definition be unnerving and disruptive, but in reality, there is no comfort in continuing a process whose design guarantees that the conflict will be prolonged and that the two-state solution will never be reached.

Daniel Levy, a senior fellow at the New America and Century Foundations, was previously an adviser in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, and the lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative.