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A New (and Plausible) Plan for Peace

Enough with the White House lawn ceremonies. Here's a real way forward.

John Kerry is a hero. Although all odds were against him, he took it upon himself to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was determined to make the impossible possible and to succeed where so many others have failed (among them, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, and Hillary Clinton). In the last 15 months, the secretary of state marshaled his significant stamina, invested his precious time, and risked his political capital to carry out the noble mission of bringing peace to the Promised Land.

Yet peace is not nigh. Despite the person­al determination, intellectual commitment, and diplomat­ic dedication of the extraordinary American peace team, Israelis and Palestinians are as divided as they were a year ago and a decade ago. Both pretend to sing the song of peace that the benevolent American expects them to sing. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas don’t really mean it. Jews and Arabs are deeply suspicious of one another and do not agree on the fundamentals that could make peace a reality. Hence, the formidable work done by Kerry’s team—a creative solution to the settlement issue, Jerusalem, borders, security arrangements, refugees—made no headway. Like some tragic twenty-first-century Sisyphus, Kerry rolled up the rock of Middle East Peace just to see it slip from his hands and roll down the slope into the abyss. Even if a last moment Jonathan Pollard / Palestinian prisoners swap can be agreed upon and several more months of pseudo-negotiations secured—it is now apparent that there is no deal there. Kerry’s peace is a benign American peace that the harsh realities of the Middle East reject.

So should the quest for peace in our time be abandoned? Should the fourth grand failure to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict convince us all that the two-state solution is doomed? Should the lesson of the (failed) Oslo Accords, the (failed) Camp David Summit, the (failed) Annapolis Process, and the (hopeless) Kerry initiative be that violence, occupation, and settlement are allowed to go on and on and on? Some pundits suggest that the United States should turn away from the conflict. Others think that the secretary should lay his peace plan on the table and wait until the parties grow up and endorse it. Both schools of thought promote, unintentionally, dangerous ideas. The Middle East cannot sustain a vacuum in its midst. When one occurs, it is immediately filled with extremism and bloodshed. Left to their own devices—without active American leadership—regional tensions would escalate violently. So what should be done in the wake of Kerry’s failure is quite different.

Illustration by Anton Marrast

We must pause now, take a long breath, and think about what went wrong and why. Why were the peaceniks mistaken? Why did the 1993, 2000, 2007–2008, and 2013–2014 peace initiatives—which we full-heartedly supported—not bring about peace?

Because the assumptions of Old Peace were wrong. Because the wishful thinking of peace seekers in the United States, Europe, and Israel blinded us to the depth of the 100-year-long Holy Land conflict. As solution-oriented liberal Westerners, we did not wrestle seriously with the fact that the conflict did not begin in 1967 and that it would not necessarily end with the resolution of the problem that 1967 created. We overlooked the notion that the Palestinians’ formative trauma is that of 1948, and therefore it is highly unlikely that they would give up their demand to return to the cities, villages, and homes lost that year. We dismissed the possibility that the Palestinians are victims of an anachronistic political culture whose negative ethos makes it especially difficult to offer the concessions required to reach a historic reconciliation in this day and age.

At the very same time, the Old Peace seekers did not address the fact that Israel’s chaotic politics make it almost impossible for its leadership to take the bold steps needed to end occupation in a timely manner. We also failed to recognize the traumas Israelis went through in the last 20 years as each attempt to reach peace ended with turmoil, terror, and bloodshed. While we who believed in Old Peace were totally right about the futility of occupation and the scourge of settlement, we were misled to believe that ending occupation quickly is possible and that resolving the settlement issue would smooth the way to a comprehensive peace. Ignoring the traumatic past, we could not present a realistic vision for the future. Failing to distinguish between the occupation issue (which we rightly identified as corrosive) and the peace issue (on which we were somewhat naïve) was the fundamental flaw. This failure sabotaged our efforts over the last two and a half decades to end occupation. It led to a vicious circle whereby every year we all hoped for peace by the coming spring, and every year we ended up with thousands of new settlers by the following winter. This vicious circle might very well repeat itself in 2014. In order to free ourselves, a New Peace mindset is needed.

What is New Peace? It is an attempt to reconcile liberal-democratic values with the merciless Middle East. It is an enterprise designed to reach peace gradually rather than instantly. It is an endeavor that replaces the castle in the sky of formal peace with the tent on the ground of a de facto peace.

New Peace will not alter the ultimate goal of Old Peace: a two-state solution. But it will not be obsessed with mutual recognition and the drafting of end-of-conflict documents. Rather, it will focus on fostering the conditions that will allow the two states to evolve and flourish side by side. New Peace will not forsake the hope that eventually a democratic Middle East will emerge. But it would acknowledge the political culture of the Arab world and the Palestinian people as they are now and it would try to make the most out of it.

How can all this come about? Very simply. First, Israel will freeze all settlement activity beyond the separation barrier. Then Israel will initiate limited pullouts from designated areas in the West Bank. The Palestinians will commit to turning every piece of liberated land into a development zone in which massive building projects (resembling those in the new Palestinian city of Rawabi) will take center stage. The Saudis and the Gulf states will finance those development enterprises. The Egyptians and Jordanians will give the process political backing and military guidance. The United States will oversee it all, and Europe will do what Europe does best: NGO activity and civil-society building. While the Israelis and Palestinians advance the process with unsigned understandings and undeclared cooperation, the Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs, and Turks will institute major regional economic projects. Gas pipes, water distillation plants, high-tech companies, free commerce zones, and programs to eliminate illiteracy will weave the fabric of a New Peace reality. Interdependence and mutual economic interests will be New Peace’s substitutes for hollow signed agreements, meaningless legal documents, ongoing ideological debates, and futile diplomatic rituals. The long-term end-of-occupation initiative will be interwoven into a larger scheme of a realpolitik peace. Unlike Old Peace, which had at its core White House lawn signing ceremonies, New Peace will be based on quiet, clever, and realistic White House leadership. American behind-the-scenes thinking, planning, and prompting will lead, coordinate, and monitor the unilateral processes and the regional one while impelling the Israelis, the Palestinians, and the Middle East to move forward and create a relatively stable environment that would eventually—after a decade or two—lead to an overall comprehensive and formal peace.

The advantages of New Peace for the Palestinians are self-evident. Abbas’s failure to recognize Israel as a Jewish state proves that the Palestinian national movement has an inherent difficulty in making significant ideological concessions vis-à-vis the Jewish national movement: Zionism. Israel has recognized the Palestinian people and their right to have a Palestinian state; the Palestinians have not reciprocated by recognizing the Jewish people’s right to self-determination in their ancient homeland. To this day, they find the very concepts of Jewish peoplehood and Jewish sovereignty unacceptable. This ideological reticence—which makes Israelis suspicious, anxious, and nervous—is one of the major obstacles preventing Old Peace from materializing. And yet, there are strong and constructive new forces in Palestine wishing to move forward, to pursue freedom, happiness, and prosperity, and to build a democratic state. These forces—personified by the former prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, Salam Fayyad, and manifested in the building project of the modern city of Rawabi—cannot yet grapple with such charged issues as Jerusalem, refugees, and final-status peace. Fayyadism and Rawabism are not yet strong enough and mature enough to do that. But the new Palestinian moderates can grow and prosper within the protective greenhouse of a New Peace structure that will expand the Palestinian geographic, political, and economic space—year by year, quarter by quarter. If at any given point in time the Palestinians are better off than in the previous point in time, there is hope. A new generation of modernized and globalized West Bankers may find reconciliation with their Israeli neighbors essential—and feasible. Over time, a benign Palestine may be established and a two-state steady-state may come to be.

New Peace would be beneficial for Israel just as it would be for its Palestinian neighbors. Most Israelis realize that the only way is the two-state way. But most Israelis are paralyzed because of the failure of previous peace initiatives and the apparent brutality of their neighborhood. At the very same time, Israel’s bizarre political system and dysfunctional republic do not enable it to deal with the enormity of the settlement project in one quick blow. For strategic, political, and psychological reasons, Israelis need time. They need a gradual, cautious, trial-and-error approach. They need to realize that dovish mistakes can be mended and security risks can be controlled. Reasonable, middle-of-the-road Israelis must be convinced that the essential yet dangerous retreat from the West Bank will be handled with care, caution, and wisdom. Polls indicate that most Israelis have abandoned the greater-Israel ideology, are willing to divide the land and establish a Palestinian state. Yet since Ariel Sharon’s untimely departure—some eight years ago—they have not been offered a reasonable way to do all of the above. Rather, they were constantly asked by the international community and the Israeli left to put their faith in Abbas, whom they do not trust. These intimidated citizens of the only democracy in the Middle East gave up on Old Peace because they came to the conclusion that it ignores history and reality. But these very same sensible middle-class individuals would endorse New Peace if they were persuaded that it does not ignore history and reality. Once the all-or-nothing approach is replaced by a step-by-step approach, they may very well go for it. The time bought will also enable them to fix their political system and reform their republic in a way that will allow Israel to tackle the massive mission ahead. As long as they are not faced with uncalculated existential risks, Israelis will probably be willing to try to curtail occupation and eventually end occupation—within the sensible and realistic framework of New Peace.

The advantages of New Peace for the moderate Arab nations are just as clear. The most striking outcome of the Arab Spring is the loss of legitimacy of all (non-democratic) Arab regimes. Whether they are reactionary monarchs or secular dictators—all Sunni leaders walk on thin ice these days as their moral authority has been undermined. This inherent weakness makes it nearly impossible for the monarchs and dictators to strike a formal peace agreement with the hated Zionists and to make the painful rhetorical concessions needed if an end-­of-conflict accord is to be publicly signed. And yet, most of these Arab leaders are now closer to Israel than they ever were. Fear of Iran, fear of the Muslim Brotherhood, and fear of American decline make them see Israel as the lesser evil and bring about strategic cooperation between Sunnis and Jews. But only some good news from the West Bank—tangible, positive developments—will provide them the political justification for fully embracing such an alliance. That’s why a gradual approach to ending occupation would suit the Sunnis just fine.

America would definitely do better if it promotes New Peace. In the last two decades, the United States made every possible mistake in the Middle East. It tried to impose peace and it tried to impose democracy—and failed at both. It tried war and it tried appeasement—and ran into the wall. So now Americans are sick and tired of the region they tried to reform. They are fed up with its violent ways and oppressive regimes. Imminent energy independence allows some Americans to believe they can actually disengage from the one part of the world they failed to transform. They are wrong. As 9/11 proves, the Middle East tends to chase those running away from it. So the United States needs a new strategy that will enable it to address the Arab world and the Jewish state as they really are. Fantasy time is over. A total disengagement is not possible. The only way forward for America is to promote a grand Sunni-Jewish alliance based on concrete mutual interests and on the co-production of a reasonable, long-term end-of-occupation strategy. If the United States sponsors and coordinates Israeli-Palestinian unilateralism, and puts it in a larger regional context, it will lay the foundation of a New Peace.

Forty odd years ago, the United States did just that. Henry Kissinger brokered an Israeli-Jordanian de facto peace, which held for 24 years, until a formal agreement could finally be signed. The close yet unofficial bond between the Hashemite Kingdom and Israel that spanned from 1970 to 1994 could very well be the model for New Peace. Israel actually saved Jordan in 1970, when Syria was about to invade it, and Jordan tried to save Israel in 1973, when Egypt and Syria were about to attack it. The two nations stood by each other for a quarter of a century, without formal diplomatic relations. If America once again musters Kissinger-like realism, it could bolster Israeli centrists, Arab pragmatists, and Palestinian moderates.

Paradigms are difficult to change. Sacred paradigms are especially difficult to challenge. We are emotionally attached to them as they are familiar and (paradoxically) reassuring. Yet the theory of Old Peace has misled us for a generation while playing into the hands of the enemies of peace. So now, when there is overwhelming evidence that Old Peace is dead, we must shift directions. We must think differently about peace and act differently regarding peace. If we fail to do so, we may soon see a political avalanche in Israel-Palestine. The century-long conflict might spiral out of control just because we were not courageous enough to face up to an inconvenient truth and see reality as it is.

Ari Shavit is the author of My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel.