Richard N Haass: Rejection of peace plans has not served Palestinians well

Richard N Haass: Rejection of peace plans has not served Palestinians well
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during an event with President Donald Trump in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, January 28, 2020, to announce the Trump administration's much-anticipated plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon).

History suggests any peace negotiation has only a small chance of succeeding, because agreement requires compromise, which in turn requires leaders willing to make concessions and sell them to their publics. When it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict, neither condition seems to exist, writes Richard N Haass.

Enough time has passed to read and digest all 180-plus pages of what the US government calls “Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People”.

It is also referred to as the latest American peace plan for the Middle East. Except it is not. The proposal — overseen by White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, and released by Trump on January 28 — is not a plan for peace. If it were, it would not have been developed by the US and Israel without meaningful Palestinian input. It would not have been released with a just-indicted Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu standing by Trump’s side, in the midst of the US president’s impeachment trial and are-election campaign.

To be fair, the plan does include a number of desirable features. It calls for two states, the only approach that could satisfy Palestinian nationalism and allow Israel to remain democratic and Jewish. It allays Israeli security concerns. And it is realistic: it recognises that the more than 1m Palestinian refugees can be accommodated only in a Palestinian state and that the large settlement blocs containing hundreds of thousands of Israelis must become part of Israel.

These pluses, though, are more than offset by the plan’s overwhelming pro-Israel bias. The Palestinian state would exist on only 70% of the lands occupied by Israel since 1967. Israeli territory would surround the entire Palestinian state. Israel would be sovereign over all of Jerusalem, while the Palestinian capital would be located in the city’s outskirts. Israeli settlements would exist in the Palestinian state.

What is more, the plan requires the Palestinian entity to be a full democracy with world-class financial institutions before it could become a sovereign state. The country, including Hamas-controlled Gaza, would need to bedemilitarised. Israel would determine when the Palestinian state had fulfilled these criteria.

This is a recipe for a state in principle but not in practice.

Just as important is what the plan does not include: a process for realising it. Instead, Kushner is counting on Arab states, fed up with the Palestinians and quietly working with Israel to counter Iran, to pressure the Palestinians into accepting his offer.

It is true that the Arab governments are preoccupied with Iran and have grown weary of the Palestinian cause. But their domestic politics will never allow them to force the Palestinians to accept Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem or the annexation of land.

Rejection of the plan by the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation underscores this political reality.

Kushner further misreads the situation by hoping promised economic aid will lead Palestinians to demand their leaders accept the plan. No amount of money will prompt Palestinians to sacrifice their national aspirations.

It would be understandable if the Palestinians rejected the plan outright. Like most temptations, though, this one ought to be resisted. Serial rejection of peace proposals has not served the Palestinians well.

Nor has the passage of time. Israel has thrived; the Palestinians have not. What is on offer today is much less than what was on offer in the past. The lesson is that what is imperfect can become more imperfect.

Palestinian leaders would be wise to call for direct negotiations with Israel. There is no need for the US to be present.

The Trump administration is so blatantly in Israel’s camp that it has effectively forfeited America’s traditional role as honest broker.

Negotiations could be based on the new proposal or on other ideas. Both sides would have to commit not to undertake any unilateral action in advance of or during the talks to implement selective aspects of the Kushner plan.

Among other things, this would stop Israel from proceeding with any annexation of territory. For their part, the Palestinians would eschew calls for violence.

History suggests any peace negotiation has only a small chance of succeeding. Agreement requires compromise, and compromise requires leaders who are both willing and able to make concessions and sell them to their respective publics. It is not at all clear these conditions of ripeness exist.

This bleak assessment could change in the wake of Israel’s March 2 election. It is possible a new government and prime minister will forego unilateral action and be willing to offer the Palestinians more than is in the White House plan. If so, the Palestinians should seize the opportunity and negotiate in good faith.

Richard N Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, previously served as director of policy planning for the US State Department (2001-2003), and was President George W Bush’s special envoy to Northern Ireland and coordinator for the future of Afghanistan.

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