A last chance for a good Israeli-Palestinian pact

02/15/2014 6:31 PM

02/15/2014 6:31 PM

Secretary of State John Kerry has done Israelis and Palestinians a huge favor by pushing them to make one last try at negotiating a two-state solution.

After months of effort, Kerry will soon present a draft framework meant to serve as a basis for a final agreement. Critics such as Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon have called Kerry’s project “obsessive and messianic.” Although those remarks were quickly refuted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Ya'alon was correct: You really do have to be mad to try to close the current gap between Israelis and Palestinians.

Yet Kerry has managed, by his obsession, to force both sides to face the consequences if his efforts end in failure. The importance of Kerry’s crusade was laid out to me by Amram Mitzna, a member of parliament from the centrist Hatnuah Party, whose leader, Tzipi Livni, represents Israel at the talks.

“Never before has a secretary of state been so involved or such a believer,” said Mitzna, who was visiting Philadelphia on a tour arranged by the liberal Jewish group J Street. “This is the last opportunity for the United States to be as involved as it is now.”

Mitzna has had long experience with failed peace efforts. But he believes there are pressing reasons that Israel can’t afford to keep control of the West Bank and, indirectly, of Gaza. He thinks the relative quiet in those areas won’t last.

“We are about to face a third Palestinian intifada,” he says. The first was fought with stones, the second with guns and suicide bombers. But this time, says Mitzna, the tactics will be different, “using media and world opinion against Israel.”

Kerry recently raised this danger and was falsely accused by some Israeli hawks of promoting a boycott. But, like Mitzna, he was only describing the real prospect if Israel continues to occupy — and settle — the West Bank, with no further talks on two states and no political rights for Palestinians. To the world, this will look like South African apartheid redux.

I’d add something Mitzna didn’t mention: The Palestinian Authority on the West Bank is financed largely by foreign aid. If the occupation continues indefinitely, that aid will dry up, and Israel will become legally responsible for keeping the West Bank afloat.

A framework accord, says Mitzna, would keep such prospects at bay and keep negotiations going.

Mitzna doesn’t believe Israel needs formal recognition as a “Jewish” state. More important, he says, is a deal that formally declares the conflict to be over, and specifies that Palestinian refugees must return to the new state of Palestine. If 1948 Palestinians and their descendants flooded Israel, there really would be no more Jewish state.

However, the leaked version of Kerry’s framework doesn’t look likely to meet either side’s red line. Both might accept a demilitarized Palestinian state along pre-1967 borders, with territorial swaps so Israel can keep large West Bank settlements.

But Palestinians won’t agree to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, a provision reportedly included in the framework, because this marginalizes the 20 percent of Israeli citizens who are Arabs. Nor will they give up on a division of the city of Jerusalem. And they still insist on the absolute right of refugees to return to Israel, which is definitely not included.

The best the secretary of state is likely to achieve is a “Kerry Plan” with loopholes, which each side can endorse with “reservations.” This would provide a cover to keep talks going for six more months but isn’t likely to lead to a final agreement. Still, as Mitzna made clear, the prospect of failed talks is hugely risky to both sides.

In the end, Israelis and Palestinians need the “obsessive” Kerry so badly they may agree to keep trying.


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