As President Obama prepares to meet in Washington next week with the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli opponents of a peace deal keep asserting that four issues pose insurmountable stumbling blocks: Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, the “right of return,” Jerusalem and security arrangements.
But these naysayers are mistaken. Concurrence on all four issues can be reached if both sides are sincerely committed to a two-state solution, and if both leaderships and the mediator have the courage to tell the truth to one another, to themselves and — most important — to their constituencies.
A demand to officially recognize Israel as the Jewish state has never been submitted to any Arab counterpart: not Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, Jordan’s King Hussein or Syria’s Hafez al-Assad. Yet Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, keeps raising such a declaration as a condition because there is no Israeli — certainly not me — who would not sympathize with it and because he believes that President Abbas cannot provide it, knowing that it could drive a wedge between Mr. Abbas and the Arab citizens of Israel.
However, the Palestine National Council, in its Declaration of Independence of Nov. 15, 1988, already acknowledged the definition of Israel as the Jewish state when it referred to the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1947, saying it had partitioned Palestine into two states, Arab and Jewish. In fact, Yasir Arafat reiterated this recognition. The Palestinian leadership just needs to declare that the recognition Mr. Netanyahu is demanding is implicit in that 25-year-old document.
Regarding the “right of return,” my 28 years’ experience negotiating and talking with Palestinians taught me that there is no possibility of concluding any agreement about “rights” with them. Such a dialogue always turns into a heated, emotional argument about the past, a futile “comparative victimology.” But when the negotiations are about a practical solution and how to implement it, Palestinians are very pragmatic and agreement is achievable.
Therefore, Secretary of State John Kerry should not mention the “right” of return. Instead, he should negotiate a “return.” No one can prevent the Palestinian state from legislating “The Bill of Return,” as Israel did in 1950. But no one can impose on Israel an influx of Palestinian refugees into its territory that would destroy its demographic identity. The authors of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative understood Israel’s sensitivity and called for a “just and agreed” solution to the return issue, meaning that Israel has to agree. Mr. Kerry’s road map could use a similar formula.
In such a plan, Israel would have to be ready to relocate some 100,000 Israelis who chose the West Bank as the place in which to exercise their “right of return” to the cradle of Jewish legacy. Thus, for the greater good of resolving their conflict, both peoples would have to forgo returning to some of the places they are emotionally attached to.
As to the issue of partitioning Jerusalem, it is already divided. There is no functional interchange between its Jewish part and its Arab part, which is home to more than 300,000 Palestinians. Even those who shout “United Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty” don’t want those Palestinians who now have the status of municipal residents of Jerusalem to be declared full Israeli citizens. However, there is no chance for legitimacy of Israel’s capital if one-third of its population are second-class citizens.
What will actually be divided is East Jerusalem. In the territory Israel annexed in 1967, there are 26 Arab villages that never were part of Jerusalem. Israel has built new Jewish neighborhoods on this vast territory, where 200,000 Israelis reside. What remains after this colossal annexation can be given to the Palestinian state as its capital. This solution was seriously offered by President Bill Clinton toward the end of his second term.
And for the one square kilometer (about 250 acres) encompassing the holy shrines, a Vatican-like status can be a respectful arrangement for the three religions.
Thus these steps can resolve the “Jerusalem problem,” which is not as intractable as described by those who think the status quo can be maintained indefinitely.
Regarding the fourth issue, security arrangements, this is an area in which Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority share an existential interest: to prevent Islamist terror organizations from crossing their boundaries and operating inside their territories.
Israel already maintains effective security cooperation with Jordan and with the Palestinian Authority. Future security arrangements should be based on this triple alliance’s implementing sophisticated security methods. The precision-guided weaponry of the Israel Defense Forces and its indigenous innovative intelligence technologies enable Israel to defend itself effectively with a modest presence along the Jordan River — one with visibility low enough to avoid embarrassing the Palestinians and compromising their sovereignty. The Palestinian leadership has to accept that these security measures are a vital common interest.
While the gaps on these four issues can be bridged, Mr. Kerry should not expect that both governments will be enthusiastic about it. But he can draft a practical document based on facts, not on the slogans that Palestinians and Israelis have been hearing for five decades.
In Israel, there cannot be such an agreement without a political crisis. In the Knesset, 42 of the 68 members of Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition are beholden to the settlers who fiercely oppose any agreement with the Palestinians. Mr. Netanyahu therefore will be compelled to change his coalition partners, make way for another prime minister or call elections so that a government that is not dependent on settlers’ support can take power. But a transient political crisis is better for Israel than the horrible repercussions of a failure of Mr. Kerry’s efforts.
Ephraim Sneh, a retired general in the Israel Defense Forces and a former deputy minister of defense, is the chairman of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue at Netanya Academic College.