Time for an Israeli peace initiative for Palestinian conflict – opinion

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PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed display their copies of signed agreements normalizing relations between Israel and the UAE, in Washington, in September. (photo credit: TOM BRENNER/REUTERS)

Israel can expect a friendly Biden-Harris administration. However, on two key issues tensions are likely to arise: Iran and the Palestinians. To acquire greater freedom of action in dealing with Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons, Israel needs to minimize tensions with the US on the Palestinian front.
Given recent regional changes, the new administration could reach an understanding with Jerusalem on the Palestinian question. Most of the world has applauded the Abraham Accords, reflecting Israel’s improved international status and the low priority given to the Palestinian issue.
Moreover, the Palestinian strategy of recent years that focused on isolating and delegitimizing Israel like the apartheid regime in South Africa and bringing it to its knees like Serbia in Kosovo failed. An imposed solution is not on the international agenda.
In accordance with this strategy, the Palestinians did not respond to US president Barack Obama’s peace proposals in 2014, which inter alia called for mutual recognition between the Jewish-Zionist national project and Palestinian nationalism; and consideration of Israel’s security needs. This rejectionist Palestinian approach continued throughout the Trump years too.
Despite Palestinian efforts to isolate Israel in international fora and to impose BDS penalties on it, Israel has been successful in establishing and developing good relations with many countries. In fact, countries of the world no longer have to worry about the cost of such business (in terms of relations with Arab nations) since Israel established full diplomatic ties with the UAE and Bahrain.
But Palestinian leadership remains reluctant to let go of their failed strategy. Instead, the PA looks towards the changing of the guard in Washington for rescue.
This too is mistaken. President-elect Joe Biden has welcomed the growing acceptance of Israel in the region, and signaled that some aspects of his predecessor’s Mideast policy (such as the move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, and recognition of Israel’s sovereignty on the Golan Heights) will not be rescinded.
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Regarding the substance of future negotiations, it is unlikely that a Biden administration would back maximalist and unrealistic Palestinian demands, such as establishment of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders with Jerusalem (and the Temple Mount) as its capital, and a softened “right of return” for Palestinian refugees and their descendants to Israel.
Moreover, the Palestinians cannot expect their concerns to top Biden’s foreign policy agenda. He is unlikely to emulate Obama’s obsessive interest in the Palestinians as the key to better relations with the Muslim world. In fact, the formula for peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians used by consecutive American administrations has consistently failed. Moreover, Biden is much more experienced than Obama in foreign affairs and consequently, he must realize that currently the Israeli-Palestinian arena offers little hope for dramatic conflict resolution.
Of course, the fallback position is conflict management, which the Israeli government essentially has been practicing for recent years. An improved status-quo – albeit with a “political horizon” – was the core of the “Peace to Prosperity Plan” issued by the Trump administration in January 2020. It would be wise for Israel to repackage now the beneficial aspects of this plan and present them to the US as Israel’s “peace initiative” without using Trump’s name. Hopefully, the pragmatic side of Biden will overcome the naivete of some of his supporters.
The time to act is now, while policies are being shaped and appointments to key positions are being determined. An Israeli peace initiative should preserve elements contained in the outgoing administration’s approach. Speaking the language that Democrats in the US prefer to hear, the point should be made that progress towards peace lies with abandonment of the fantasy of coercion, and with resuming negotiations toward a compromise between the two national movements. In parallel, the message should point out that even if little happens “top-down,” adopting “bottom-up” economic packages conducive to Palestinian welfare would be useful.
This initiative should reiterate the territorial principles put forward by prime minister Yitzhak Rabin (who is a hero of peace for many Americans, especially Democrats) in his last speech to the Knesset in October 1995. Thus, an Israeli peace plan should emphasize security arrangements; the strategic importance of the Jordan Valley; the unity of Jerusalem as a living city; rejection of the “right of return”; and an end to Palestinian incitement, BDS efforts and support for terrorists.
The Israeli initiative also should offer the Palestinians economic incentives as discussed at the Manama “workshop” in 2019, primarily supported by Israel’s new Gulf partners. Major infrastructure projects can be undertaken without waiting for an agreement. For example, “transportation contiguity” should be created for the future Palestinian state, i.e., travel routes connecting Palestinian areas without having to go through Israeli checkpoints, something that improves daily life and reduces friction between Palestinians and the IDF. This would fit in with the efforts, which lie ahead, for post-pandemic economic revival.
Israel can mobilize support in Washington from its new and old Arab peace partners against imposed solutions. Despite the likely objections from a radical minority, an injunction against coercion can be legislated, or at least declared in a bipartisan “Sense of Congress” resolution. This might inject a much-needed sense of reality into the emerging Palestinian discourse over the wisdom (or rather, folly) of their attacks on the Gulf countries and their outright vulgar rejection of the American 2020 peace plan.
An Israeli initiative is needed to mobilize pro-Israeli forces within the Democratic Party, within the administration, and within Congress; to project moderation and seriousness in seeking peace; and to open up the options for interim measures and economic growth. Generating a constructive image would also be useful in cementing a regional alliance aimed at meeting the Iranian challenge.
Prof. Efraim Inbar is president, and Col. (res.) Dr. Eran Lerman is vice president, of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS).
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