The Third Mideast Option

The difficulties surrounding preparations for the Obama-Netanyahu-Abbas meeting in New York last month should bring the U.S. administration to one conclusion: There is no sense in pressing for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks now. That is not because there is no urgent need of a negotiated agreement — there certainly is. It is because the political constraints of both leaders, the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas and Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu, prevent any progress at the negotiation table. Abbas, without substantial achievements, cannot explain to his people why he made substantial concessions to the Israelis. Netanyahu, given the political composition of his government, cannot provide Abbas with such achievements.

We have to remember that the Israeli-Palestinian agreement is not an a la carte menu. It’s more like a business lunch. You can’t pick the courses that you like; they are already fixed. The agreement will include two capitals in Jerusalem and the relocation of 100,000 settlers. The slightest Israeli manifestation of flexibility that leaks from the negotiating room will spark an offensive maneuver against Netanyahu by panic-stricken hard-liners within his own party and his own cabinet. There is no majority there willing to support something that might satisfy the Palestinians.

The inevitable collapse of the talks would be another blow to the fragile peace process and to the two-state solution. Hamas and the regime in Tehran would celebrate. The cynics would say, “We told you so.” The prestige of President Obama would be damaged, especially after winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

If talks are not a viable option, only two options are left for the American president. One is to put his own plan for a two-state solution on the table; this undoubtedly would resemble the plan that his predecessor Bill Clinton proposed in his last days in office. Obama could invite Abbas and Netanyahu to Washington and tell them to take it or leave it. If one party rejects the president’s plan, he will lose the support of the United States. If both parties reject it, they will get the phone number of the White House (as Secretary of State James Baker provided), and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be erased from this president’s agenda. There are other troubles in the world for Obama to worry about. I doubt that the current administration can absorb all the risks of this option.

The other option is to promote the plan of the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad. His detailed plan is designed to build a de facto Palestinian state in two years. The plan is based on improvement of governance, improvement of government services, economic development and effective law enforcement by a strong, unified security force. This is a pragmatic plan, without too much rhetoric.

Since the prime minister of Israel accepted the principle of two states, Fayyad’s plan does not contradict any interest of Israel. The United States can vigorously support Fayyad’s plan and insist upon its implementation in two years. Israel would be asked to facilitate the plan and to rein in militant settlers. It would be rewarded by the bolstering of its indigenous capabilities to fend off and thwart the Iranian threat.

After two years of implementing Fayyad’s plan, the Israeli-Palestinian talks could be started in a different atmosphere. Success of the plan in the West Bank would eventually shorten the rule of Hamas in Gaza, especially if Egypt acted to totally cut the flow of arms and money to the terrorist movement.

International as well as American support of this plan would improve life in the West Bank while keeping alive, and bringing much closer, the political horizon of an independent state.

In this third option there are no fireworks or fanfare of peacemaking, but it could bring about real progress toward a two-state solution, to which President Obama is committed. This is probably the only option that can work.

Ephraim Sneh, a retired general in the Israeli Defense Force, who served in the Israeli government as minister of health, minister of transportation and deputy minister of defense. He is chairman of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue at the Netanya Academic College.