Without direct talks and without an Israeli freeze to settlement building in the West Bank, the United States is trying anew to engage the Palestinians and Israelis on the core issues of the peace process. In a new Q&A, Marwan Muasher analyzes the latest developments and what the Obama administration can do to achieve results. 

Muasher says that with time for a two-state solution running out, Washington needs to chart a new plan for getting to the endgame before it’s too late. And a regional approach that pushes for peace between Israel and the entire Arab world will be unavoidable as a bilateral solution is no longer possible. 

 

How big of a setback is the end of the direct talks?

The collapse of direct talks did not come as a surprise. Most pundits and analysts predicted their premature end before they even started. What is surprising, however, is that the United States doesn’t seem to be offering any new ideas. Washington spent a great deal of time on indirect talks before moving to direct talks and now has gone almost immediately back to indirect talks again. 

But the whole approach needs to be revisited—the current incremental approach is clearly not leading to results. Both parties cannot offer what the other party needs. The Palestinians can’t give what the Israelis need on refugees and Jerusalem without the support of Arab governments. Israel maintains that it cannot end the occupation of Palestinian territories and reach a solution on refugees with half the Palestinians. 

A new paradigm is needed and needed urgently. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s latest address on the peace process talked about going back to indirect talks, but in a way where the core issues will be discussed as opposed to only talking about the issue of Israeli settlements. That might be new, but it’s too early to tell. Core issues have been discussed before, but it’s important to know if the discussions will be aimed at ending the conflict or simply discussing the issues. This will influence the U.S. approach. 

The United States can’t escape the fact that it needs to put its own ideas on the table for there to be a serious move to solve the conflict.

 

Why did the latest round of direct talks break down?

The United States didn’t have a Plan B or a back-up plan once the deal with Israel over settlements fell through. The whole idea of offering Israel incentives in return for a 90-day moratorium on settlements doesn’t make much sense. No one could explain what would happen after 90 days passed as no one expected the issue to be resolved in that small of a window. The natural result is that after the moratorium expired, the Israelis would have been able to renew settlement building with at least American acquiescence, if not approval.   

It’s not a bad thing that the deal with Israel fell through—it sent the wrong signal for actions that Israel needs to take anyway. It was easy for the Israelis to say no to the Americans because there was no price attached. And the Palestinians, who are in a weak position, simply couldn’t accept a deal that gave so much to the Israelis while asking for so little in terms of concessions. 

There weren’t incentives for both sides to move ahead in the latest round of negotiations. And with no price to pay, both sides will find it easy to maintain their current positions. 

 

Is there any hope that indirect talks can lead to a breakthrough?

The whole issue is futile without Washington presenting a detailed plan. This is not an excuse for both parties to stop doing their own homework, but it’s simply reality. Even if the Israelis and Palestinians are serious about moving forward, they cannot give what the other side needs in the context of the current approach to the peace process. 

 

Will the incoming Congress influence U.S. strategy?

President Obama still has a great deal of leeway on foreign policy, but Congress can influence funding. And the incoming Congress will possibly be less generous in funding the Palestinian Authority. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has earned the respect of many Americans for the reforms he has initiated in the West Bank. The United States has subsequently become the Palestinian Authority’s largest aid donor, but it remains to be seen whether this will remain the case. 

There are many who feel that the incoming Congress will be more pro-Israeli and this could be reflected in the negotiations. But even if that is true, a two-state solution is not a zero-sum game. A two-state solution should be supported by everyone—particularly strong supporters of Israel. If there isn’t a two-state solution, the long-term outlook is not in Israel’s favor. 

 

Will the Obama administration continue to prioritize the peace process?

While some analysts argue that President Obama has put more emphasis on solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than President George W. Bush did in his first term, prioritizing the peace process means more than just rhetoric. Truly being committed to the peace process means that you are willing to do what it takes to solve the conflict, rather than undertaking another incremental approach that ultimately leads nowhere. 

The time has come to solve the conflict and it will need personal attention, energy, and effort from the American president. But whether President Obama is willing or able to take the necessary steps remains unclear. 

 

What is Israel’s current position? Why did Israel resist U.S. aid for another temporary settlement freeze?

There are several reasons why Israel was able to resist generous U.S. offers. First, the Israeli economy is doing well. Second, the wall provides almost total separation between the Palestinians and most Israelis. This means that in the short term many Israelis don’t believe that the status quo is necessarily a bad thing. There is no incentive or burning desire to arrive at a settlement. 

There are also questions about whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is serious about a peace agreement. It’s becoming clear that the current governing coalition is not committed to moving toward a final solution. Without question, if Netanyahu wants to move toward a settlement he could certainly do that with a large majority in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, through a different coalition. So, is this a coalition of necessity or choice?

And finally, the conflict today is bigger than just Israel and the Palestinians, and only solving the Israeli-Palestinian element will not end the broader conflict. The approach needs to take into consideration the regional needs of all parties. 

 

With the Palestinians refusing to return to the table without a settlement freeze, what is their strategy moving forward? 

The Palestinians are in an extremely weak position and left with few options. In the past, the Palestinians were accused of not being interested in a settlement with a “hardline” leader—from the point of view of the West—in Yasir Arafat. They now have a moderate Palestinian leader in Mahmoud Abbas. In the past, they were accused of corruption. They are now doing a great deal in terms of good governance and Fayyad is working to build a state on the ground. The World Bank has said that the Palestinians are ready for a state. 

Within incredibly difficult constraints, the Palestinians have done what they can to build a state on the ground, but this has limits. They have few options without a negotiated settlement. While the construction of Israeli settlements continues, the situation is not sustainable. 

Time has basically run out and we are now seeing movement internationally with some prominent figures arguing that the world needs to accept a Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 border. While that in itself will not solve the problem, it points to the frustration that people are feeling without serious movement toward a resolution. 

With this in mind, the Palestinians can either unilaterally declare statehood or work to get the international community to accept a Palestinian state. While Israel might not take these steps seriously if only countries like Brazil and Argentina recognize an independent Palestinian state, it might be a different matter if the European Union or even the United States do so in the future. There is also some talk about peaceful civil disobedience to delegitimize the occupation. All of these options are being talked about, but all are problematic. 

If the next year passes without a resolution of the conflict, the status quo will not be acceptable or sustainable. And the Palestinian Authority cannot rule indefinitely without a fresh mandate. While the Israeli side can live with existing conditions for another few years, the Palestinians and international community will not accept another wasted year. 

 

How do Arab states view the current deadlock? What should the Arab states do to help the process?

No one benefits from the continuation of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is a clear fact that radicalism in the Arab world is on the rise. While this is not all due to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the gridlocked peace process is a major reason for frustration across the region. 

The issue of reform in the Arab world is also being impacted by the continuation of the conflict. Many governments use the Arab-Israeli conflict as an excuse to not make progress on their internal challenges and domestic reform. Therefore a resolution of the conflict will not only help peace in the region, but also Arab reform. 

The Arab states put forward an initiative in 2002 called the Arab Peace Initiative that still holds today. It promised peace and security for all countries in the region—including Israel—if Israel withdraws from Palestinian and Arab lands it occupied in 1967. There is a need for proactive Arab diplomacy both to promote the initiative in the international community and among the Israeli public, and to change the current paradigm so that the peace talks are conducted within a regional context that offers both sides a regional safety net for the painful compromises that will be necessary. 

 

Should Washington continue to push for a bilateral solution?

A solution that only encompasses Palestine and Israel is no longer possible. Pushing for a bilateral solution requires a context that doesn’t exist today. This is where the United States comes in—Washington’s leadership can establish the path to a final solution.   

The endgame is defined. People are not looking for a new solution to the conflict. What is needed is the political will to chart out the course to move from the current stalemate to the final resolution. This is a classic case of a situation where U.S. intervention is required. The two parties are unable to do it alone. 

Through years of negotiations, the two sides have defined the details and parameters of the endgame, but can’t get there at the moment. All polls on both sides show two things—a clear majority of Israelis and Palestinians wants a two-state solution, but a majority on the two sides also thinks a two-state solution isn’t possible. The United States can be the catalyst that shows a solution is possible. 

The United States needs to initiate a regional approach—a settlement between Israel and all Arab states. A regional approach means that Arab governments would support an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians that creates a viable Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 border. It means that Israel would withdraw from the Golan Heights and it means peace and security for all countries in the region, including Israel. It means the transformation of Hizbullah and Hamas into political organizations; ensuring this transition would be an Arab responsibility. 

And most importantly, a regional approach means giving the two sides a regional safety net so Palestinians know that in return for their compromises they would not be called traitors. And the Israelis would know that in return for their compromises they would get peace and security with all of the region and beyond. It does not mean, however, that the 22 Arab states need to sit in on peace talks or that Israel needs to negotiate with each one. 

The new regional approach would change the paradigm and put the peace process on the path of conflict resolution, rather than conflict management as it is today.