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Here's What John Kerry's Peace Settlement Will Look Like (Probably)

Paul J. Richards/AFP

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators broke bread Monday tonight at John Kerry’s home, marking the resumption of peace talks that will touch on the five core issues of the conflict: the borders separating Israel and a Palestinian state; the fate of Jewish settlements in the West Bank; security arrangements between the two states; the question of Palestinian refugees displaced in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence (and their millions of descendants); and the status of Jerusalem. It may seem as if Israelis and Palestinians have discussed these issues dozens of times, but this new round of talks—slated to last nine months—will actually be only the third effort to solve them within the context of a final-status agreement. The first two rounds—the 2000-01 talks between Yasir Arafat and Ehud Barak at Camp David and Taba and the 2008 ones between Mahmoud Abbas and Ehud Olmert—were unsuccessful, the former spectacularly so. And yet they were still constructive in many respects, narrowing the gaps between the two sides, shattering popular taboos, and broaching creative solutions to thorny issues.

I wrote last week (and in a March story on the two-state solution) that the good news about these negotiations is that there is a deal that both sides could accept under the right circumstances. The bad news (or good news, depending on how you look at it) is that the space for agreement on all core issues is vanishingly small. If one accepts the premise that Abbas is unlikely to accept less than he was previously offered, and that Netanyahu is unlikely to offer more than what Abbas has accepted, we can predict, issue-by-issue, what an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement would look like in the unlikely-but-conceivable event that this third time proves to be the charm.

Borders and Settlements

Borders and settlements, while technically separate issues, are two sides of the same coin. While Israeli politicians have long stressed the need for “defensible borders,” Israel’s previous proposals on the border issue were all animated by its desire to annex as many settlements as possible and thereby minimize the number of settlers it would need to uproot. The Palestinians, who demand that their state be based on the 1967 lines, have long been open to some “land swaps” in which Israel would compensate them for West Bank territory it annexes with an equivalent amount of land from Israel proper. But they have insisted that the swaps be minor to limit disruptions to Palestinian contiguity.

For decades, Israeli politicians believed that they could convince the Palestinians to make do with less than 100 percent of the West Bank, but in recent years they have edged closer to the Palestinian position. Ehud Barak’s 2000 Camp David proposal, considered far-reaching at the time, offered the Palestinians 91 percent of the West Bank with zero compensation; a few months later at Taba, he upped his offer to 94 percent (plus a three-percent land swap from Israel for a total of 97 percent). Ehud Olmert offered Mahmoud Abbas a total (including land swaps) of 99.5 percent, plus a safe-passage corridor connecting the West Bank and Gaza (Olmert, who proposed a 5.8-for-6.3 percent swap, hoped the corridor would make up for the difference, though he indicated to me that he was prepared to bring the Israeli annexation total down to 5.8 percent). Earlier in the talks, the Palestinian negotiating presented Israel with a 1.9-percent land swap.

The difference between the two positions may sound minor, but it was actually quite large: For Israel, it meant the difference between evacuating 70,000 settlers and some 160,000. The bulk of that 90,000 difference came in five large settlements that both sides called “red lines”: Givat Ze’ev, a northern suburb of Jerusalem; Ma’ale Adumim, an eastern suburb of Jerusalem; Efrat, the largest and easternmost settlement in the Etzion bloc, south of Jerusalem; Har Homa, a neighborhood of East Jerusalem that Netanyahu built in his first term; and Ariel, a Tel Aviv commuter town in the northern West Bank. A number of nongovernmental organizations have issued land-swap proposals seeking to bridge this gap.

The most realistic of these maps, in my opinion, came from the Baker Institute’s 2010 report Getting to the Territorial Endgame of an Israeli-Palestinian Peace Settlement (see Options 1 and 2, with land swaps of 4 percent and 3.4 percent, respectively). Those maps envision Israel keeping the first four of these settlements, which are relatively close to the 1967 lines, and withdrawing from Ariel, which is not (the eastern edge of Ariel cuts nearly halfway into the West Bank). Ariel would certainly be the most politically difficult settlement to give up—it is a small city, complete with a university, an industrial zone, a 500-seat performing arts center, and soon an all-purpose mall—but of the roughly 120,000 settlers who would need to be relocated under the Baker maps, Ariel’s approximately 20,000 residents would be some of the most willing. Unlike the Biblically inspired Jews who live in smaller, more isolated settlements, the vast majority of Arielis are secular “economic settlers”—many of them Russian immigrants—who were persuaded to move there because of cheap housing and government financial incentives. With proper compensation, most would readily move back. The main reason Ariel is difficult is because many Israelis think of it as permanent (Palestinians may malign Israel’s separation barrier, but one of its effects—along with the end of suicide bombings—was to convince the average Israeli that all settlements beyond it would have to go one day).

The Palestinians, by all accounts, will enter these new talks with the same map they gave Olmert. It may take Netanyahu a while to get to where Olmert ended up, if he gets there at all, but perhaps not as long as people think. If the “senior Likud minister” who told Ha’aretz that Netanyahu was prepared to withdraw from “more than 90 percent of the West Bank” is correct, Netanyahu will essentially be entering negotiations with the same opening position as his predecessor.


No Israeli prime minister—and certainly not this Israeli prime minister—will sign over the West Bank without strong security guarantees that will ensure it doesn’t become a launching pad for attacks on the heart of Israel. Fortunately, security is the least difficult issue to resolve. Indeed, Abbas and Olmert essentially resolved it in 2008 (Abbas told Bernard Avishai that the “file was finalized,” and Olmert told me this was “more or less” correct). Israel’s basic demand is that the Palestinians agree to a demilitarized state (no army, no defense treaties, etc.), as well as to some marginal infringements on its sovereignty (such as Israeli overflight rights and access to the West Bank’s electromagnetic spectrum). The Palestinians have shown considerable flexibility on these questions. As Maen Rashid Areikat, the chief Palestinian representative in Washington, told me in 2010, “We will accept any [security] arrangement short of Israeli military presence on the soil of a future Palestinian state.”

That caveat—no Israeli forces—is an important one, for Netanyahu has held fast to the longtime Israeli demand for a long-term military presence in the Jordan Valley, the long stretch of land along the Jordanian border (President Obama split the difference in his May 2011 speech, speaking of the “full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces”). As former Mossad chief Meir Dagan pointed out at a recent conference, the Jordan-Valley demand is somewhat outmoded, dating from a time when Israel had fears of a ground invasion from the east (a fear that basically died after the Gulf War).

Israel still has a vital interest in preventing arms smuggling, to be sure. The question is whether an international force—potentially an American-led NATO one, as was discussed in the 2008 talks—could do the job. Olmert accepted the principle of an international force; Netanyahu has balked at it, often citing the impotence of the United Nations force in southern Lebanon. (Jordan might be able to help Netanyahu save face by allowing some Israeli troops to police the border from its side of the Jordan River).

Netanyahu has said in all public comments about peace talks that security is his top priority. But if he makes peace, he will enjoy the support of the vast majority of the Israeli security establishment, which has gone in recent years from seeing a Palestinian state as a strategic threat to a strategic necessity. As former Israeli military-intelligence chief Amos Yadlin told me, characterizing the common view in his circles, “Having a border is the best security arrangement.”


Perhaps no words have been the source of so much mutual misunderstanding as the Palestinian “right of return.” To Israelis, it spells nothing less than the demographic annihilation of the Jewish state; to many Palestinians, for whom the refugees are at the core of their national identity, it doubtless means the same thing. But behind closed doors, the position of Palestinian negotiators has been far more nuanced. They wanted refugees to be compensated monetarily for suffering and lost property and to be given four choices about where to live: their current host countries in the Arab world, third-party countries, the new Palestinian state, and Israel. Israel, whose citizen population is already one-fifth Arab, has publicly rejected this fourth option, though both Barak and Olmert agreed to absorb a symbolic number of refugees under the guise of a family-reunification program. Their proposals fell far short of Palestinian needs. Olmert offered to take in 5,000 over the course of five years (though was reportedly prepared to quintuple the offer). Abbas balked at the offer. “I can’t tell four million Palestinians that only 5,000 of them can go home,” he told Condoleezza Rice, according to her memoir No Higher Honor. In official proposals, meanwhile, the Palestinians asked for 150,000 refugees over ten years. But as I reported in my March story, Abbas signaled to Rice that he could accept a compromise in the 40-60,000 range (60,000 additional Palestinians would change the Arab share of Israel’s population from 20.6 percent to 21.2 percent).

Could Israel accept such a compromise? It’s very much an open question. It’s not only Netanyahu who takes an absolutist not-one-refugee position, but also his dovish chief negotiator, Tzipi Livni. Still, it seems hard to imagine that they would let this issue thwart an agreement if all others were resolved. One could argue that an agreement with a symbolic “right of return” would be better for Israel than one without: It would give Abbas some cover on the issue and improve his chances of passing the agreement through the referendum he promises.


If effectively giving up the right of return will be Palestinians’ major compromise, then dividing Jerusalem will be Israel’s. Dividing the country’s capital was until recently considered an extreme position in Israeli politics—rejected in the nineties even by the leftist Meretz Party—but since Barak broke the taboo in 2000 (and Olmert broke it again in 2008), it has become increasingly mainstream, albeit still controversial. Dividing Jerusalem is, of course, much harder than it sounds. Since reuniting the city in 1967, Israel has built a dozen Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, making that part of the city a patchwork of Arab and Jewish enclaves (I currently live on Mount Scopus, the site of Hebrew University, and am a five-minute walk from both the Jewish neighborhood of French Hill and the Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. When I take the newly constructed light rail downtown, we pass through stops in both Arab and Jewish neighborhoods). Any compromise on this issue would be along the lines that President Clinton proposed at the end of his presidency: Jewish neighborhoods under Israeli sovereignty; Arab neighborhoods under Palestinian sovereignty. Olmert and Abbas accepted this general formula in 2008, though they differed over two neighborhoods (Olmert wanted to keep the Arab neighborhood of Beit Safafa while Abbas wanted Israel to evacuate Har Homa).

The Old City and its environs—the “Holy Basin”—presents its own challenge. In 2000, Clinton sought—as with the rest of the city—to draw a line on a map showing where Israel ends and Palestine begins, but the effort ran aground on the difficult question of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, the site currently of two Muslim holy places (the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque) and formerly of the First and Second (and some hope, Third) Jewish Temples. Olmert proposed a creative solution that would see this delicate part of the city controlled by a five-nation consortium consisting of Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States; Abbas reportedly accepted this in principle, though the two disagreed over the size of the area to be internationalized.

If there is a test about Netanyahu’s seriousness in reaching an agreement, it is Jerusalem. I remain skeptical that Bibi—who rode into office in 1996 on the slogan, “Peres will divide Jerusalem”—will divide the city, but I don’t think it’s impossible. Bibi’s Jerusalem rhetoric, after all, has been somewhat schizophrenic. Between his ritualistic paeans to “the indivisible capital of the Jewish people,” Bibi has hinted at flexibility on the issue. In a 2011 interview with Piers Morgan, he spoke of the need for a “creative solution” on Jerusalem and characterized Israel’s insistence on keeping the entire city as its “position going into negotiations.” In another interview, he also said that there were Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem that “everyone knows” will stay in Israel’s hands (seeming to imply that the Arab neighborhoods were negotiable). In recent months, he has been conspicuously silent about Jerusalem (he was conveniently in China on Jerusalem Day, the holiday marking the reunification of Jerusalem, when Israeli prime ministers typically give bombastic speeches vowing never again to divide the city).

Polls consistently show that in a vacuum Israelis oppose dividing Jerusalem. But when presented with it as part of a package that would end the conflict, they accept the package by a two-to-one margin. Palestinian polls, though less overwhelming, show a similar phenomenon. Compromises on refugees and other issues are seen as distasteful but palatable as part of a deal that ends the occupation and creates a viable Palestinian state.

Ben Birnbaum is a writer based in Jerusalem. He can be reached at Follow him @Ben_Birnbaum.