What Obama can do in Israel-Palestine

by Mitchell Plitnick

The Israeli elections ushered in a record number of new Knesset members, yet the prospects for resolving Israel’s 45-year old occupation of Palestinian land are as dim as ever, maybe even more so. Here in the United States, some noises are being made about trying to renew the moribund “peace process,” but there is little enthusiasm about it. Indeed, most observers do not believe there is any real possibility for progress.

This sort of atmosphere tends to engender two responses. One was presented to me directly by Professor Stephen Walt, co-author of The Israel Lobby, who said:

What the United States, Israel, and the Palestinians need is a peace settlement, not more ‘peace process.’ If Obama is serious, he should lay out a detailed U.S. plan for establishing a viable Palestinian state with appropriate security guarantees for Israel, and he should make U.S. diplomatic, economic, and military support for both sides conditional on their willingness to conform to it. If either one balks, the United States should distance itself and cut off aid.

I didn’t ask, but I feel safe in assuming that, despite the merits of this proposed course of action, Steve is well aware that the chances of this happening are roughly the same as Sheldon Adelson saluting a Barack Obama parade. Still, he is far from alone in advocating for pressure on both sides. Jewish Voice for Peace leads that call from the Jewish community, which is far more divided on this question than one is often led to believe. The global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is growing and having an impact as well, including in the United States. A coalition of mainstream Christian leaders recently called for a review of US aid to Israel. And, of course, Palestinian-American and Arab-American activists continue their own dogged efforts, despite the particular obstacles they face in the US.

The other response, favored in Washington, is to simply say that the time is not ripe and the United States must manage the situation until conditions, particularly  the leadership of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, are more suitable. This view is rooted not only in Israel’s intransigence, but also in the ongoing split between the PA and Hamas, as well as a certain conservatism about any action while the region is in such a state of flux. In fact, it appears that, until something comes about to change the dynamics, this is exactly the course that the Obama Administration is likely to follow.

But there are, in fact, other options, and here’s a modest one I’d like to put forward: Obama could spend the time until other action is politically viable, either domestically or in the region, by working to correct some of the United States’ most grievous missteps. And I suggest he start by walking back George W. Bush’s 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon.

That letter, part of an exchange of such letters between Bush and Sharon, fundamentally altered the nature of negotiations and was instrumental in poisoning the atmosphere around talks between Israel and the Palestinians. However flawed the Oslo process might have been from the beginning, the promises Bush made to Sharon in his letter magnified those flaws immensely.

The significance of Bush’s letter was huge. It didn’t introduce much that was new, but it essentially gave Israel gifts in the form of matters that were supposed to be negotiated. The letter also went further in Israel’s favor with some matters than the Clinton Parameters. Those Parameters were and are the essential basis for Israel-Palestinian negotiations.

The biggest departure Bush made from the Clinton Parameters was on Palestinian refugees. Clinton included at least some acknowledgment of the importance that the Right of Return has for Palestinians and listed five possible destinations for their relocation, one of which was within Israel proper. Bush summarily executed that idea. The relevant text from his letter:

It seems clear that an agreed, just, fair and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel.

To date, this framing has ruled. It has been considered an established fact that refugees would return somewhere other than Israel and that even any token return, as was occasionally discussed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, would happen on an insignificant level.

It was not unfair for an analyst, in 2004, to expect that such would be the outcome. But that would have been an expected result of negotiations, not an established fact preceding them. With an American president’s imprimatur, the entire framework of negotiations was changed, and the idea of refugees returning to Israel — something that is anathema to most Israelis and sacrosanct to most Palestinians — was simply decided by fiat in favor of Israel and removed from the negotiating arena.

Another passage has had even more impact: Bush’s assurance that Israel would not go back to the 1967 lines. The Clinton Parameters proposed that Israel keep the “major settlement blocs” as well. But it was Bush’s statement, again, which removed the issue from the negotiating table. In essence, he handed Israel an assurance that it would keep the “major population centers” that had grown up in the West Bank and, ever since then, Israel’s excuse for building in those settlements has been based on the argument that “everyone knows” they are going to remain in Israeli hands anyway. Again, the text of Bush’s letter:

In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion. It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.

Whereas the Clinton Parameters tied the retention of the settlements to a specific (if unbalanced) swap of land, no direct mention of the Palestinians receiving anything in exchange is made here. That has enabled Israel not only to use the US position as a cover for settlement expansion, it has also allowed them to essentially pocket these settlement blocs and negotiate over what else or how big a swath around them would be kept.

There are other points in the letter which are unworkable or inconsistent with international law, existing US policy or both. But those two points fundamentally altered the negotiating framework.

What Obama can do during his second term is walk these points back and return them to the Clinton Parameters. He can cite the Parameters’ five options for the refugees (return to the new state of Palestine or to the areas Israel swaps to that new state, settlement in the states they currently reside in, resettlement in other states or return to Israel) and reaffirm UNGA Resolution 194 as the basis for a resolution, as stated in the Parameters and in the now 10-year old Saudi peace proposal. This would be framed as a basis for negotiation, not as a finished proposal.

On the land issue, Obama could reaffirm the ’67 borders as the basis for talks, with agreed upon modifications that would amount to equivalent value when quality and quantity are accounted for. This does not amount to a map, and allows plenty of room for negotiation, including over the use of the West Bank aquifer, which is fully on Palestinian land but crucial for Israel’s needs.

If, in this context, Obama also reaffirms support for full Palestinian sovereignty and international guarantees of security for both Israel and Palestine, he could also address the condition of a Palestinian state being de-militarized, which is an impingement on Palestinian sovereignty and is a much more bitter pill for Palestinians to swallow than it was in 2000.

Of course, Congress will go ballistic, as will Israel, as the point of all of this is to take Palestinian demands just a little more seriously. But as much as Congress, AIPAC and Israel would like to deny it, that is a sine qua non for any substantive progress at this point and such a proposal would likely play very well in the EU, the UN and even with Russia and China. The Arab League will likely support it enthusiastically.

Obama would have to approach the process gradually and take the time to lay the groundwork for it. But it certainly appears right now that he has that time; he doesn’t seem to have many other cards to play in the Israel-Palestine milieu right now either. This is something that can actually be done and can have lasting effect, well after Obama is out of office. It also opens up a chance to rethink the whole outline of a two-state solution, which is the only thing that can possibly save that idea from the failure of Oslo. Obama would be well advised to try it.

Photo: President Barack Obama walks to his desk in-between meetings in the Oval Office, Oct. 20, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)  

Mitchell Plitnick

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. His previous positions include vice president at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace. His writing has appeared in Ha’aretz, the New Republic, the Jordan Times, Middle East Report, the San Francisco Chronicle, +972 Magazine, Outlook, and other outlets. He was a columnist for Tikkun Magazine, Zeek Magazine and Souciant. He has spoken all over the country on Middle East politics, and has regularly offered commentary in a wide range of radio and television outlets including PBS News Hour, the O’Reilly Factor, i24 (Israel), Pacifica Radio, CNBC Asia and many other outlets, as well as at his own blog, Rethinking Foreign Policy, at www.mitchellplitnick.com. You can find him on Twitter @MJPlitnick.


One Comment

  1. You are offering your own interpretation of the Parameters, not what the actual text indicates. Bush’s letter really doesn’t give the Israelis what they wouldn’t already have under Clinton’s parameters. The parameters stated that the parties should develop a map bringing 80% of the settler blocs within Israel. If anything, they are even more explicit than the Bush letter that Israel will not return to the 1967 lines.

    As to refugees, the Clinton Parameters also stated that ” Israel could indicate in the agreement that it intends to establish a policy so that some of the refugees would be absorbed into Israel consistent with Israel’s sovereign decision.” You present them as giving the option of a return to Israel to the Palestinians, which is not the case. The plain wording of the parameters was that any decision by Israel to admit refugees would be its decision alone, not that of the refugees or other bodies or nations. They impose no obligations to take in any refugees. Even key Palestinian leaders recognized the realities of this issue in the proposed Geneva Plan of 2003. If there is going to be any agreement, the United States will have to make clear that it does not support a Palestinian “right of return” to what is now Israel. Nobody who is truly concerned with helping Palestinains or trying for a settlment would encourage Palestinians to believe anything else.

    Bush’s 2004 letter was a public statement of Administration policy. It also clealry reflected the atttitude of congress. It gave Israel nothing it did not already have under the Parameters. To “walk it back” could lead many Israelis to wonder how sacrosanct the Parameters themselves would be, in the event they come to be seen as an “obstacle” to an agreement that represents “the international consensus”. Israel, or any other US ally could also legitimately ask of what value is any commitment by any US Administration?

    FInally, you remark in passing that congress would “go ballistic”. It would certainly require Obama to burn up an enormous amount of his political capital over what is, in reality, an issue of style and semantics rather than real substance. It would likely strengthen Obama’s congressional opponents, who have already shown what they are willing to do in the case of Hagel and many other, less reported positions that require Senate confirmation. Obama is going to need to work with congress, whether for immigration reform, economics, possible Supreme Court appointsments, etc. Abandoning previous commitments, or even apprearing to call them into question will not strenthen his hand.

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