NEW YORK – According to recent reports, U.S. President Donald Trump is going to unveil a Middle East peace plan early next year. Last month’s unannounced visit to Saudi Arabia by three top White House aides — Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt and Dina Powell — to discuss this plan, along with Vice President Mike Pence’s announcement that he will visit Jerusalem, Ramallah and Cairo next month, give the reports credence.
As Israelis who have served at the forefront of our country’s security, diplomatic and economic ventures, we want the Trump administration to succeed in this effort. The absence of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, or at least genuine progress toward one, jeopardizes Israel’s security and its status as the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people.
Moreover, a coalition of moderate Arab countries and Israel, which would be the most effective regional vehicle to counter Iran, is simply not possible without advancement on the Israeli-Palestinian track.
To make this happen, the White House needs to understand the failures of the past and the counterproductive steps it has taken so far. Three of these stand out.
First, Trump’s refusal to declare his administration’s support for a two-state solution — starting with his dismissive comment in February that “I’m looking at two state and one state, and I like what both parties like” — is counterproductive and needs to be rectified.
We Israelis cannot accept a one-state future. That “solution,” whereby all inhabitants of the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River live together in one political entity, can lead only to civil war, as in Syria, or to a Middle Eastern version of South African apartheid. Either outcome will spell the end of Israel as the democratic Jewish homeland and intensify Muslim-Jewish violence, which will metastasize beyond the Israeli-Palestinian arena, becoming another crisis the Trump administration will have to confront.
In addition, the majority of Israel’s Knesset and Israelis (and Palestinians) favor a two-state future, even though Washington focuses on the rejectionists in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition.
Second, past attempts to attain an agreement failed primarily because of their nearly exclusive reliance on bilateral negotiations. The goal somehow became just getting the two sides to the negotiating table.
Instead, the Trump team must acknowledge that a comprehensive peace agreement is not possible in the near future, and use an incremental approach: moving the parties toward a reality of two states for two peoples, without shutting the door on negotiations aimed at reaching an accord. This entails pressing Israelis and Palestinians to take constructive steps independently to preserve conditions for a two-state solution and gradually create a two-state reality, arresting the slide toward one-state.
Israel, for example, should declare it has no sovereignty claims over areas east of the security barrier it built in the West Bank, although it requires a security presence, such as along the Jordan River.
And the Palestinians should do more to counter terror and incitement against Israelis and end their campaign for a global boycott of Israel.
Third, contrary to Netanyahu’s assertions, settlements pose a major obstacle to progress. Trump should learn from one of his predecessors how to overcome this hurdle: Identify the main settlement blocs adjacent to the 1949 armistice lines (the so-called Green Line) and the Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, where some 80 percent of the settlers live, and then differentiate these areas from the isolated settlements. U.S. President George W. Bush made this distinction in his 2004 letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Regrettably, the current Israeli government is trying to erase this differentiation. The Trump administration should resist this attempt and make sure that Israel will demarcate its future borders based on the June 4, 1967, lines, along with territorial swaps, keeping the main settlement blocs under Israel’s sovereignty; halt all settlement construction in areas east of the West Bank security fence; provide full equal rights for all residents within these borders, and allow sufficient space for creating a state for the millions of Palestinians outside its borders.
This approach will require the eventual relocation of some 100,000 settlers to areas within the future borders. This is not insurmountable, as settlement supporters claim. Rather, a comprehensive survey of settlers commissioned by the nonpartisan organization we founded, Blue White Future, and released in 2014 found that, if compensated, nearly 30 percent of these settlers would voluntarily relocate even without a peace agreement, and many others would follow after one was signed.
In addition, the administration’s proposal should allow Israel to keep its military forces in the Palestinian territories until an agreement is reached. And finally, the U.S. will need to marshal regional support for this plan.
As every U.S. president since Richard Nixon has found, this peace process is a difficult undertaking. But Trump and his team must also recognize that the Israeli-Palestinian status quo is untenable. He needs to set his sights on a clear, stated objective — two states for two peoples — and aim to move both sides closer to that reality.
This approach is the best chance for bringing some stability to the Middle East, enabling a strong regional coalition to thwart Iran, and assuring Israel’s future as a secure, Jewish and democratic state with a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside it. That might not be the “ultimate deal” Trump craves, but it would constitute a historic achievement.
Ami Ayalon is a former director of the Israeli security agency Shin Bet. Gilead Sher was an Israeli senior negotiator at the 1999-2001 Camp David talks. Orni Petruschka was co-founder of Chromatis Networks and Precede Technologies.
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