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Necessary steps toward an Israel-Palestine peace deal

Under Biden, there's a chance to resume the process. For its part, Israel must decide whether it is truly committed to a two-state solution

US-Palestinian ties suffered an unprecedented blow under former US President Donald Trump and his administration’s one-sided and, frankly, vindictive policies. Fortunately, repairing the rupture appears thus far to be easier than had been anticipated, though much uncertainty remains on the table.

Even given President Joe Biden’s domestic priorities of fighting the pandemic and repairing the US economy, and his foreign policy priorities that focus on Iran, China and Russia, it took a short six days after taking office for the Biden administration to announce a sharp turn in US policies toward the Palestinians.

However, for peace to become a reality, the three parties – the United States, the Palestinians and Israel – have to step up to the challenge and adopt policies that will speed up and facilitate the peace process.

The United States

The Biden administration has already taken the first step toward the resumption of peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine. Its representative at the United Nations, Richard Mills, reaffirmed US support for a two-state solution, deeming a secure Israel alongside a “viable Palestinian state” to be the “best way to ensure Israel’s future as a democratic and Jewish state.”

Mills called on both sides to avoid unilateral actions that harm the efforts to reach a peace agreement, such as the “annexation of territory, settlement activity, demolitions, incitement to violence, and providing compensation for individuals imprisoned for acts of terrorism.” And he committed the United States to “start working to slowly build confidence on both sides to create an environment in which we might once again be able to help advance a solution.

Biden’s position is a remarkable departure from the former president’s policies toward the Palestinians and the peace process. However, it is not enough to incentivize Israel to make any concessions toward a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians. In my view, Biden has to put some teeth into his policies.

Besides restating that the US “will maintain its steadfast support for Israel,” the new US administration should announce several measures to demonstrate that Biden is serious. These measures could include:

  • Slowing down the move of the physical operations of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and, possibly, putting off the building of the new embassy compound in Jerusalem
  • Appointing a consul general for the reopened US consulate in East Jerusalem who is at the level of an ambassador as a sign of deference to the Palestinian people
  • Having the East Jerusalem US Consulate report directly to Washington to highlight that the US views the consulate general as the future US embassy to Palestine
  • Locating the reopened operations of USAID (US Agency for International Development) to Ramallah, or the US consulate in East Jerusalem instead of having it operate out of the US embassy building in Tel Aviv, as was the case 
  • Declaring that the United States will more strictly monitor (not condition) US aid to Israel, per existing US laws, to ensure that none of the US aid is benefitting Israel’s occupation or being used, directly or indirectly, to support settlement building in the West Bank, and
  • Rescinding US laws that were passed between 1987 and 2018 that hinder the PLO’s ability to function as an equal partner in its relations with both Israel and the United States. The PA should make it starkly clear that it cannot and will not accept a relationship with the United States based on a permanent probationary system imposed by the US Congress and US administrations. These laws cannot remain on the books.

These steps will send a clear message to Israelis and Palestinians that the Biden administration takes its commitments to furthering a peace agreement more seriously than any former US administration.

Palestine

It falls upon the Palestinians, and not the Biden administration, to devise a strategy that impresses policymakers in Washington and makes the creation of an independent Palestinian state an unavaoidable foreign policy priority for the Biden administration.

By dint of their inefficiency and lack of resolve, Palestinian leaders have weakened the Palestine cause in the eyes of the world. To remedy that perception of weakness and to help the Biden administration seriously pursue the peace process, Palestinians have to take certain steps, chief among them:

1. Put their house in order 

The absence of elections among Palestinians has called into question the legitimacy of the current Palestinian leadership. In that regard, Palestinians are finally planning to hold elections beginning in May of this year for the Legislative Council, the PA presidency, and the PLO’s Palestine National Council. 

The division between Fatah and Hamas is unacceptable and terribly damaging. It has harmed Palestinian efforts to promote their cause internationally and to project a united front that speaks and negotiates on behalf of all Palestinians. 

More importantly, if Hamas wants to be part of the political process, it should commit to the Oslo principles that included mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO. Otherwise, Hamas should not have a place at the negotiating table and its control of Gaza should be wrenched from it, by force, if necessary.

2. Recognize that Israel views its security concerns as the key to any solution

For Israel, security is paramount and a non-negotiable condition. Palestinians have repeatedly failed to recognize that committing to Israel’s security is the indispensable key to reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians. In other words, the Palestinian Authority cannot wave the flag of peace (not surrender) while allowing Hamas and the Islamic Jihad to threaten Israel and its security. 

Once Israel recognizes that any peace agreement will enhance, if not guarantee, its security, Israelis will be motivated to meet most Palestinian demands. 

3. Amend the payment structure to Palestinian prisoners and the families of those who died fighting Israel

Both the US Congress and Israel’s Knesset have passed laws in the past few years conditioning providing either US aid and the full amount of the customs revenues collected by Israel on behalf of the Palestinians to repealing or amending what Israelis refer to as the “slay-for-pay” payment structure. This system is viewed by critics as incentivizing terror.

In a pragmatic move, this system of monthly payments is currently being revised by the Palestinian Authority. In the future, aid provided to current or former Palestinian prisoners or the families of those who were killed fighting with Israel will be a need-based humanitarian assistance, no different from aid provided to needy Palestinian families.

4. Palestinians should assert their political and historical rights but be realistic

The assumption in Washington, among Israelis and throughout many capitals of the world is that the Palestinians are weak and should be grateful for any US assistance and attention. Palestinians should make it starkly clear that they have immeasurable leverage over Israel. Israel can never have permanent peace, security, and the coveted “Jewish state,” without Palestinian agreement and recognition, irrespective of how many Arab countries normalize ties with Israel. 

Palestinians should act responsibly and proactively to empower their newfound allies in Congress to press the Biden administration to prioritize the solution of the Israel-Palestine problem. 

Palestinians need to take these initial fundamental steps to signal to both the United States and Israel that the time has finally come to reach a permanent peace agreement and that they will not walk away, as they have done in the past, from any serious and fair peace offer. 

Israel

  1. Israel can never hope to live in security as a Jewish state, without the restoration of Palestinian national rights in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem and without delineating the political map of both Israel and Palestine.
  2. Israel should refrain from building new settlements or expanding existing ones. In other words, Israel should abstain from any actions that would prejudice the final outcome of a peace treaty. 
  3. Israel should cease the policies of mass punishments against Palestinians including the demolition of Palestinian homes, the confiscation of Palestinian lands, or the imprisonment of Palestinians for political reasons.
  4. Annexation over any parts of the West Bank should not be an option for Israel. If an exchange of territory is agreed upon with the Palestinians, then that would be a different issue.
  5. Israel’s credibility in the eyes of the world has been seriously hampered, thanks largely to the double-talk by its longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel should either support a two-state solution or not. It cannot waver depending on its election cycles or its perceived influence over the United States.

The time has come to end this conflict. The advent of a new, fair-minded, US president is a golden opportunity for the resumption of talks between Israel and the Palestinians. No one can afford to waste more precious time to reach a peace agreement. All the parties to the conflict know what it will take to achieve peace. For the sake of our children, let us not waste the opportunity presented by US President Joe Biden.

About the Author
Professor Bahbah taught at Harvard University, where he was the associate director of its Middle East Institute. He was the editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem-based al-Fajr newspaper, and served as a member of the Palestinian delegation on arms control and regional security.
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