Peace without the process

I’ve grown tired of the endless peace process. Let’s scrap the process, remove press and politics from the equation, and build foundations for peace.

It’s obvious that when there will be a deal with the Palestinians, it will include handing over most of the West Bank. Israeli villages outside of the 1967 borders will be consolidated and become part of Israel proper. There will be land exchanges to compensate the Palestinians for the parts of the West Bank that will become sovereign Israeli territory. Some formal recognition of Palestinian refugees will be necessary, without the return of thousands of refugees. And we’ll find a creative and convoluted solution for Jerusalem.

You can already visualize the future border of that deal, because it exists in the form of the security fences between Gaza and Israel, and between the West Bank and Israel. Its path will change somewhat depending on the final, negotiated details, but that fence already functions as a border, with border crossings. Palestinians who cross that border are treated appropriately as foreigners entering Israel, as are Mexicans who legally enter the US.

They’re treated as foreigners because Palestine exists already. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are self-governing. True, Palestine does not issue postage stamps or currency, produce its own electricity, or have an army (it has a significant police force) but otherwise, it functions as a state. It hasn’t formally become a state because the world uses that dangling carrot to try to induce the Palestinians to agree to a deal with Israel.

Unfortunately, though most Israelis have long been ready to move forward with this arrangement, the Palestinians are not. That is, the Palestinian people may be ready, or at least, convincible, but have yet to produce leadership that is ready. There is no Palestinian leader willing to risk his life in the face of extremists who prefer not to make The Deal, even if one assumes that the masses do want the deal. So, though it’s nice to think that there’s a mostly-silent Palestinian majority that is ready for the deal today, that’s meaningless in a political climate where the loudest and most politically-powerful Palestinians refuse to negotiate.

The other reason there won’t be a deal is because Israeli leadership would be irresponsible to make a deal with an unstable Palestinian government that is likely to be short lived. Imagine that Yitzhak Rabin had succeeded in signing a peace agreement with Hafez el Assad of Syria in the 1990s, and had handed over the Golan Heights to him as part of that agreement. Who would be enforcing that agreement today? If Rabin had made that agreement the Golan Heights would now be gone, along with the agreement and any hope for peace with Syria.

Even Egypt, listed in the short column of Arab states who have signed agreements with Israel, has an asterisk by its name. Things seem stable right now, in spite of a few uncomfortable weeks of the “Arab Spring, but who knows what will be in five or ten years? At least Israel may achieve, in its agreement with Egypt, the Biblically-lauded 40 years of peace. Perhaps one can’t hope for more than that. But the odds of achieving that with the today’s Palestinian leaders are slim to none.

The Palestinian leadership is split between Gaza and the West Bank, and split ideologically, or perhaps only politically, between Hamas and Fatah respectively. They are powerless even in their own independent territories in the face of sectarian divisions in the Palestinian polity, exacerbated by the actions of terror organizations who throw rocks, Molotov cocktails, bombs and rockets at random civilian Israeli targets (these in addition to the official violence encouraged and approved by the leaders themselves). What leader can the Palestinians produce who has both the power to make peace with Israel, and to ensure that it lasts for at least 40 years? More importantly, what system of government is in place in Palestine that can guarantee a peace treaty signed by any Palestinian leader? An agreement signed today with Palestine would die with the leader who signed it.

I do believe that one day we’ll have a 40-year peace with the Palestinians. But the peace “process” has been processing for 24 years, if we mark its birth at the signing of the Oslo Accords, and still, no peace. The press and the politicians focus on the process, without creating the real-world foundations upon which a viable peace agreement must stand. The so-called process can’t succeed without some hard work in the trenches. Israel must take the lead in such an effort, both because it’s right to do so for the sake of the human communities that make up Palestine, and because it’s in our best interests.

So rather than trying to rush toward the signing of a piece of paper conceived in a political parlor, here is a four-stage plan to bring peace to Israel and Palestine.

Stage 1: A five year moratorium

In this stage, the Israeli government announces that it is putting aside peace negotiations for a period of five years, to give both Israelis and Palestinians time to work on domestic issues. During this period Israel commits to maintaining security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, to actively enabling and promoting legitimate investment in the Palestinian economy, and to defending itself against any incursions or acts of violence. Israel would continue to build housing in areas that are by any reasonable standard going to remain part of Israel when an agreement is finally reached, and only in those areas. Other than that, the status quo would remain as it is for a period of five years, after which negotiations can be resumed.

This moratorium has several benefits:

  • It gives all parties a needed break from the endless political blather and the unbearable press attention.
  • It distances Israeli and Palestinian processes from European and American politics in general, and from the American election cycle in particular.
  • It gives both Israelis and Palestinians a chance to focus on other important issues.
  • It allows other troubled countries and regions, such as Syria, Nepal, and parts of Africa, to stand center stage and receive the attention they deserve.

Diplomatic contact between the Israelis and Palestinians may not grind to a halt to satisfy a random requirement of a 5-year moratorium. However, any such contacts, though vetted by the local political systems of the two parties, should take place at a low level, out of the media spotlight and without foreign intervention.

Stage 2a: Invest in Palestine

Europe and some Arab countries have been throwing money at Palestine since Arafat arrived from Lebanon, and it hasn’t had much impact. Some of it disappears into Palestinian politician’s pockets, some of it into weaponry and tunnel-building supplies. That this is wasteful and ineffective is blindingly obvious.

The international community should invest directly in specific projects, with the Palestinian Authority as a nominal partner, with no access to the funds. Hire local contractors to execute those projects, with funds flowing directly from the donors to the contractors, under strict auditing and with foreign project management. The Palestinian Authority will benefit as governments always do in legitimate economies, from reduced unemployment and an enlarged tax base. The employment benefits for the Palestinian street would be enormous, with a ripple effect through all levels of the Palestinian economy.

The West should also provide tax incentives for private businesses to create labor-intensive industries in Palestine. Any project that makes the Palestinian economy grow and that produces good jobs would be wonderful for Palestine.

The primary responsibility of ensuring that this investment takes place and succeeds lies with Israel. Building a thriving Palestine has to become an Israeli priority, approaching that of national defense. In fact, it is a matter of national defense and long-term security, with the added benefit of being the right thing to do for a people with whom we share a tiny plot of land.

Israel has to take the lead in drumming up support for effective investment in Palestine, develop secure means of delivering supplies to Palestine to build mammoth projects, and continually oversee progress, assist foreign governments, and remove (metaphorical) roadblocks.

Israel should also promote and support grassroots NGOs that promote small-scale interaction between Israeli and Palestinian citizenry. Though the economic changes needed in Palestine deserve enormous attention, reducing the tension between the citizenry of each state is another important building block toward a secure and peaceful future.

One hopes that during this period the Palestinian polity would also settle down and focus on creating political stability for their nascent nation.

Stage 2b: Fix potholes in Israel

There is a long list of domestic projects that are long overdue in Israel, would save lives and money, and could make this a much more pleasant place to live. These are the metaphorical potholes. Instead of our constant media menu of war and process we could focus on issues that deserve our attention and where we can actually have significant impact. Here are a few ideas:

  • Drastically reduce traffic fatalities
  • End cigarette smoking
  • Unify our fragmented society
  • Improve the environment

Imagine the inspiration and the benefit if our government were to fund a project to reduce traffic fatalities by some drastic number, such as 80%. How about setting a goal of no new cigarette smokers among high-school students and soldiers? If these goals seem too ambitious for a five-year period, just pick one – any one of those projects would provide greater benefit to the citizens of Israel than the energies spent on the peace process. Granted, these initiatives require leadership as well as political savvy, but there must be someone, cleverly hidden in the trenches of one of our poorly-led political parties, who can inspire the nation to make real progress on important domestic issues.

Stage 3: Negotiate

After 5 years, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators can meet to discuss a peace arrangement. No process, just serious negotiations, limited to 6 weeks. That doesn’t sound like a lot of time, but we do keep making the same offer, and they keep rejecting it, so there’s no point in dragging out the discussions. If there is progress, extend negotiations by an additional 6 weeks. If there is no progress after 6 weeks, or no agreement after 12 weeks, restart the cycle with a second 5-year moratorium on negotiations and a new set of potholes.

It’s important that these negotiations just begin, without preconditions. If one of the sides insists on insisting about some action that has to take place before the negotiations start, immediately restart the 5-year clock.

Manage the public relations

It’s easy enough for a pundit on the sidelines to suggest a break from the peace process, but how should our Israeli politicians manage the public relations fallout of a retreat from active negotiations with the Palestinians? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Publish and publicize a realistic treaty proposal to resolve our conflict with the Palestinians. It doesn’t have to approach finality, or approach something we might expect the Palestinians to agree to. In fact, it shouldn’t, as that would leave no room for negotiation of the final deal. But it should be a reasonable starting point, include sufficient detail to warrant serious consideration, and it should be available on the Internet.
  • Our prime minister, our foreign minister, and our UN ambassador should begin and end every public appearance by holding up a copy of that agreement for all to see, and say, “Here is our proposal to resolve our conflict with the Palestinians. On August 1, 2022, we hope to receive a serious counter-proposal from Palestinian leadership. While we wait, we offer to assist the Palestinian people in building their economy, in creating jobs, and in improving their educational opportunities.”

Stage 4: Forty years of peace

Hope springs eternal.

About the Author
Nathan Bigman is a writer and musician, living in Jerusalem.
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