Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

New Israeli-Palestinian Talks: Playing at the Edges?

Steven E. Meyer


August 2, 2013

By Steven E. Meyer

The Obama administration has announced the beginning of new peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Secretary of State Kerry pushed Israel hard to restart the talks and convinced Prime Minister Netanyahu to release more than one hundred long-term Palestinian prisoners to satisfy a Palestinian pre-condition to resurrect the negotiations. The Israeli cabinet approved Netanyahu’s decision, but several members of the cabinet and a large number of Israeli citizens strongly opposed the release.

Netanyahu and the US government have pointed out how difficult it is to release prisoners who killed Israeli citizens and have been condemned as terrorists. But as difficult as this was, a prisoner release is peripheral to the main questions that have bedeviled peace efforts for sixty- five years. The real stumbling block to a permanent peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority revolves around an unwillingness, and perhaps a political and psychological inability, to get past what has devolved into a bloody zero-sum game. Every Palestinian gain is interpreted in Israel as an unacceptable loss and every gain by Israel is interpreted as an unacceptable loss by the Palestinians.  

Sadly, the US government is complicit in this game. Washington has been more interested in tinkering around the edges of the very hard decisions, making the United States look important without actually being important. The consequences of this political narcissism have made the United States an enabler to inaction and violence in the Middle East. Unless Washington is willing to force both sides to “come to grips” with the most basic issues, this effort will collapse, just as every attempt at peace before it. 

Five main issues will arguably make or break this iteration of talks:  

First is the construction of a Palestinian state on the West Bank. The two-state option has fallen out of favor in Israel since 2010 and has not been pushed by the Obama administration, but it is essential if there is to be a permanent peace.  A Palestinian state must have full sovereignty, consistent with the pre-1967 borders, including the right to maintain a capable military. The fate of Gaza, which is physically unconnected to the West Bank, is one of the most vexing parts of any two-state solution.  

Second, Washington should make its support contingent upon Israel not only stopping, but reversing the expansion of settlements into Palestinian or disputed territory. Settlements are a blatant violation of international law and only inflame the situation further. The Israeli government supports expansion and has vowed to continue the practice. Settlement expansion is the most obvious residue of the imperial dreams of many past Zionists who supported the concept of Greater Israel, which would expand the boundaries of the Jewish state to its broadest Biblical proportions.  

Third, approximately four million Palestinian refugees have claimed the right to return to their homes in Israel. Some have been the victims of ethnic cleansing, while others are the accumulated “detritus” of past Israeli-Arab wars. The United Nations has required Israel to grant these refugees the right to return to their homes, but Israel has vigorously opposed any large-scale return.  While it would be untenable to return the surviving refugees and/or their descendants to homes they have not occupied for decades, it is possible under international law to compensate survivors and their successors for lost property.  If Washington is to lead, it needs to make clear that it cannot support a massive population shift in this case, but it also must insist that Israel pay compensation.

Fourth, both Israelis and Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their capital.  Right now both entities retain governmental offices in Jerusalem and it is certainly possible to continue this formula.  But this likely would be a prescription for conflict as both sides jockey for control.  Moreover, a city split between Israel and Palestine would be unfair to Christians, who hold Jerusalem in the same high regard as do Jews and Muslims. A more just solution would be to return to the corpus separatum (separate body) solution proposed by the United Nations in 1947, but never implemented. Under this formula, Jerusalem would be controlled by an international body for the benefit of all three faiths.

Finally, financial support is Washington’s most compelling avenue of persuasion. According to the Congressional Research Service, the United States has given Israel about $118 billion since 1948, mostly in the form of military aid. Since the mid-1990s, the United States also has given the Palestinians about $4 billion.  Although it will be difficult to use the “financial hammer,” mostly because of Israel’s supporters in Congress, it is essential that the Israelis and Palestinians understand that failure to agree to a peace settlement will cost them billions in aid, whereas coming to a just agreement will net them continued financial support.

- Steven E. Meyer is a Fellow of the Center for Public Justice.

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