I’ve witnessed decades of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and can attest that the current round of talks is at grave risk of failure. Secretary of State John Kerry’s eighth visit to the region last week was his worst. He found himself in an open confrontation with Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and in a TV interview he showed his disappointment.
Two relatively new issues are now being raised, which were not central to discussions when we signed the Oslo Accords 20 years ago. One is the Israeli government’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the “home of the Jewish people,” and the other is the challenge of evacuating settlers, given the expansion of the settler population, and the fear that evictions will lead to violent confrontations between settlers and Israeli security forces.
If these problems are resolved, there is a much greater chance of reaching an agreement, mainly due the American government’s newfound interest in ending this longstanding conflict.
Until recently, I was among those trying to convince Israeli decision makers to give up on the demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, both because Israel has been and will continue to be a Jewish state without Palestinian recognition, and because Israel never made such demands when signing peace treaties with other neighbors, like Egypt and Jordan.
I’ve changed my mind. I believe Israeli leaders will be willing to pay a high price in exchange for such recognition and therefore a deal is possible that solves both the settler evacuation problem and Israel’s desire to be recognized as a “Jewish State.”
Israeli leaders worry that if Palestinians refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, they will continue to claim entitlement to the “right of return,” for refugees, which could flood Israel with non-Jews, making Jews a minority in their state. The Palestinians insist on a resolution to the refugee problem before granting any such recognition.
Both sides should embrace the formula proposed 10 years ago by the Geneva Initiative, which recognized the right of both parties to statehood and “Palestine and Israel as the homelands of their respective peoples.”
If Palestinians accept this formulation, then Israel would have to agree to absorb a limited number of Palestinians and allow those Israeli settlers who wish to stay in the West Bank to live under a sovereign Palestinian state — provided that they agree to live as Israeli citizens with permanent residency in Palestine and accept that settlements cannot be exclusively for Israelis.
But first the Israeli government needs an incentive to convince as many settlers as possible to leave the future Palestinian state, and will allow some Palestinians to live in Israel.
Here’s how it could be achieved. Five years after the signing of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, all settlers remaining in the newly established Palestinian state would be counted, and the resulting number would set the quota for the number of Palestinian citizens admitted for permanent residency in Israel.
This solution would create an incentive for the Israeli government to minimize the number of settlers who remain outside of Israeli sovereignty because fewer settlers in Palestine would mean fewer new Palestinians allowed to live in Israel. For the Palestinians, it would be a step toward solving the refugee problem.
It won’t be easy for Mr. Netanyahu, but it’s less difficult for him than confronting and evacuating settlers. The Palestinian Authority leader, Mahmoud Abbas, could clarify that allowing Palestinians to live in Israel as permanent residents doesn’t in any way equate them with the Israeli settlers; it’s a way to let some Palestinians live where their ancestors did.
Hard-liners on both sides will oppose this move, as will those who hope America will allow them to continue wading through the swamp of conflict for many bloody years to come. But vastly reducing the population of settlers and letting the resulting number determine how many Palestinians are allowed to “return” to Israel would be a major step toward resolving two thorny issues preventing a peace deal.
Yossi Beilin has served as Israel’s deputy foreign minister and minister of justice.