By Gilead Sher, JTA
TEL AVIV — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told European diplomats he will resume negotiations with Israel on a two-state solution after the United Nations votes in November on a Palestinian request for “non-member state” status. What’s most interesting about the widespread reportlast month is that Abbas made no mention of his longstanding demand for Israel to halt West Bank settlement construction, which Israel has refused, before peace talks resume.
But attempts at negotiation have failed for more than three years while the Iranian nuclear threat has pushed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict off the international agenda.
That’s why a new approach for tackling this conflict is needed — one that would give the parties a sense of progress and hope, and facilitate a return to negotiations. It would aim at attaining transitional arrangements, such as a partial, phased or interim agreement, rather than a permanent-status agreement.
One new approach, developed by Blue White Future, a nonpartisan Israeli organization, entails constructive unilateral measures by Israel and/or the Palestinians, mutually coordinated in certain cases. This would diminish the conflict by gradually creating a reality of two states.
A unilateral measure is constructive if it does not contradict the vision of two states for two peoples — even more so if it promotes this vision — and if it does not obstruct a return to negotiations. It is not contingent on a renewal of negotiations or on progress in talks. Instead, these steps would proceed in tandem with efforts to negotiate a settlement, with borders based on the June 1967 lines with territorial swaps.
For Israel, it is important to implement these measures precisely when it is not subject to pressure from violence and terrorism, as it currently is not.
For example, Israel should implement a voluntary evacuation-compensation plan — and pass laws — for settlers living east of the security fence so that those who wish can begin relocating to within Israel proper or to the settlement blocs that will become part of Israel in any land-swap agreement, even before an agreement is reached. According to recent polls, nearly 30 percent of these 100,000 settlers would accept compensation and quickly relocate into Israel proper.
Israel also should put into place a construction freeze east of the security fence and in the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Construction in the main settlement blocs and the Jewish neighborhoods in the Jerusalem region may continue.
This plan does not include the mandatory removal of settlers. The Israeli Defense Forces will remain in the areas where Jewish communities are located and that have been voluntarily evacuated. Only after a long and monitored period of quiet will Israel withdraw its forces and consider the presence of an international force in the evacuated territories. The IDF will maintain its freedom of action in these areas. This will prevent the creation of a security vacuum and avoid the serious mistake made in 2005, when Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip, which then became a launching pad for rockets and missiles targeting Israel.
Through this constructive unilateral approach, which does not depend on a Palestinian partner or on progress in the political process, Israel will affirm that its policy is driven by choice and for the sake of its national interests.
What’s more, by promoting a reality of two states, Israel will deliver a message to the Palestinians that it does not see its future in territories east of the security fence and does not oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state. But Israel’s continued construction in the settlement blocs also will deliver a message: Return to the negotiating table. Otherwise, a reality of two states whose common border is the route of the security fence or any similar route decided by Israel will take hold.
The Palestinian Authority’s seeking U.N. recognition and constructively building institutions of statehood in the West Bank are unilateral steps. Neither contradicts the two-state vision. Though Israel and the Obama administration object to the bid for statehood, it provides opportunities they should explore.
If negotiations resume, they should be based on a “what has been agreed will be implemented” principle. This will replace the “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” formula and smooth the path toward transitional arrangements and partial, gradual agreements. This will enable progress to be made on core territorial and security issues without discussions of Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees holding up progress.
Given the slide toward a binational state, Israel must take control of its destiny by taking constructive unilateral measures to ensure its future as a democratic Jewish state secure in its borders.
The U.S. president should support this approach, as it is also in America’s interest. It would encourage steps aimed at facilitating an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and reducing tensions in the Middle East, thereby improving the environment for dealing with Iran’s nuclear threat.
(Gilead Sher, co-founder of Blue White Future in Israel, was Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s chief of staff and Israel’s co-chief negotiator with the Palestinians in 2000 and 2001. He is a senior research associate at the Tel Aviv Institute for National Security Studies.)