Welcome new thinking on the Palestine Question

In Washington today former deputy speaker of Israel’s Knesset Naomi
Chazan had some great advice for President-elect
Obama. Noting that Israel’s election comes just 20 days after Obama’s
inauguration, she said Obama should wait 20 days before announcing the
US’s new policy on the Arab-Israeli peace– “but he shouldn’t wait any
longer than 21 days.”

The US might, she said, present its own peace plan. (She didn’t spell out whether Obama should do that right then, or a little later.)

Chazan– who is one of the smartest and most well-grounded people I
know, of any nationality or gender– also argued
convincingly that the whole process that goes back to Oslo and running
right through Annapolis “has dead-ended.” She said the whole way the
“peace process” has been framed and organized since Oslo needs to be
reframed, and gave some excellent suggestions on how to do this.

She was speaking along with Daniel Levy at the New America Foundation,
at an event co-hosted by the strongly pro-peace New Israel Fund, of
whose board she is president.

Chazan  provided these three examples of the kind of reframing
she envisaged:

  1. “We need to recognize
    the asymmetry there is both on the ground and at the negotiating table,
    between the Israelis and Palestinians, and find ways to rebalance that.
    So far, since Oslo, the negotiations have all tended to create a false
    idea that there is symmetry between them. There isn’t.” Later,
    Levy  amplified that point, saying that just leaving the two
    sides in a room together to deal with everything through bilateral
    negotiations wouldn’t work. Chazan agreed. Both of them said the US
    needs to play a much more activist role in the negotiations than it did
    in the whole “process” from Oslo through Annapolis.
  2. “We need to go back to looking at the root causes of the
    conflict. There’s always been this idea that doing this would be
    unhelpful to the negotiations, but actually there are ways it could be
    helpful.” Later, in response to a question about the Palestinian
    refugee issue, she spelled out that rather than dealing with it just in
    a distant and sort of technical way, if the Israeli government would
    agree to make some kind of public acknowledgment that Israel’s actions
    had “helped to create” the problem and wanted to join with others in
    finding a solution, that was the kind of action that could help move
    the whole process forward.
  3. “We could also think of trying to separate the issues of
    ending the occupation and dismantling the settlements.” In the
    discussion period she noted that the fact that settlement dismantlement
    had always, in the Oslo-to-Annapolis process, been an explicit item on
    the agenda gave the settlers and their supporters a big cause to
    mobilize around and, in effect, gave them a veto over the whole
    negotiation. “But how about if we didn’t say anything explicit at all
    about the settlements or the settlers but just reached an agreement by
    which Israel would withdraw completely to the Green Line or a line near
    it with negotiated changes, handing the area over in the first instance
    to an international or NATO force, perhaps without doing anything
    explicit to dismantle the settlements? What would the settlers do then?
    They lose their veto.”

Chazan’s visit to Washington is timely indeed. As I noted here
on Monday, when Obama announced his foreign policy team in Chicago
earlier that day, he also made prominent mention of the need to work
rapidly “a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”

Chazan and Levy (like me) urged the President to work on
Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking as part of a
comprehensive settlement to the Arab-Israeli dispute
. That
is, one in which Israel would  get a final peace agreement
with the Syrians, Lebanese, and other Arab states with whom it is still
in a formal state of war, as well as with the Palestinians. They both
noted the relevance of the 2002 Arab peace plan to this
project. Chazan said that the APP had recently started attracting new
attention inside Israel– “And not just because of the paid newspaper
ads the Palestinians have been running about it. But also, people in
Israel want to see a glimmer of hope… and this plan, which promises
peace and normalization with all the Arabs, speaks to some of our
oldest and deepest longings as a people.”

She did not,
however, see many other glimmers of hope within the Israeli political
scene right now.

She described the Israeli election race as, essentially one between
Likud and Kadima, saying that Labor party leader Ehud Barak “is hanging
on for dear life.”

“So basically, the race is between Bibi Netanyahu, a
former prime minister who is trying very hard to convince people that
he’s reformed since then, and Tzipi Livni, who at least has a
reputation for integrity but is thought to be very politically

She noted that the voting is for the parties, not the leaders, making
the second tier and general internal organization of the parties very
important to the outcome. She described the second tier in Likud as
including numerous prominent people representing a broad range of
opinion from slightly liberal-leaning (Dan Meridor) through “very
right-wing.” She noted Likud would be holding its 
primary in two weeks’ time, “so we’ll see who does well there.”

Meanwhile, Kadima’s challenge is to institutionalize itself as a party,
something it has not yet really achieved.

She also noted that Labor tried to hold its primaries yesterday, “but
their voting machines broke down– which some people saw as emblematic
of much broader problems in the party.”

When Chazan herself was an MK, she represented the leftist Meretz
Party, which she had helped to found. Noting that Labor has lost a
large amount of the support it used to have during the first 50 years
of Israel’s existence, she said there are some discussions underway on
establishing a new party, combining Meretz with some other leftist
parties, that might aspire to replace Labor.  “But our party
scene is very fragmented,” she said. And almost certainly, in the
elections, “the real left will be enfeebled.” (By “real left”, she
meant Labor and the parties to its left, since she considers Kadima a
centrist party.)

“The election might well end up being determined by a combination of
frustration and indifference,” she said. Frustration might lead to
voters moving from one party to another in large numbers. Indifference
“might lead to a very low voter turnout, and this could skew the
outcome further to the right.”

She gave some pretty alarming figures for what the polls show would be
the outcome if the election were held right now, with Likud increasing
its number of seats in the 120-person Knesset from 12 seats in 2006 to
“35-37 seats” this time round. (She noted that a lot could still happen
between now and February 10. I’m not sure what might happen to revive
the left’s position, though?)

This analysis provided the backdrop to the policy proposals she
described. She said that if peace is to be made, the following five
things should be done:

  1. The
    process should be internationalized.
    (I wasn’t certain if
    she supported giving a bigger role to the UN in the direct sponsoring
    of the talks, but she was certainly arguing for a much more activist
    and robust US role.)
  2. The
    solution should be regionalized.
    (That is, make it part of
    a comprehensive peace push, fold the APP into the process, etc.)
  3. Improve
    the situation on the ground for the Palestinians
    . (Unlike
    in the post-Annapolis period.)
  4. If
    possible ensure that there’s a willingness to ‘engage physically.’

    (She was clearly speaking about getting an international force into the
    occupied territories. Her preference was for some combination of US and
    NATO forces.)
  5. Be
    ready to reframe the way negotiation is organized.

After Naomi finished her main presentation, Daniel Levy added a
few  points. Where Naomi had said that a “classic” two-state
solution such as has been sought for many years now– certainly, by the
Palestinians, since the mid-1970s–  Daniel said it might
already be
too late. One of the main architects of the “Geneva” proposal
negotiated between non-governmental groups in 2001-02, he said he
“seriously worries whether the Geneva approach is doable any more.”

He said that Netanyahu has worked hard– and with some apparent
success– to present himself as “Obama-friendly.”

He  saw some signs of hope in Obama’s top foreign affairs
appointments, saying that Gen. Jim Jones “came up with some fairly
creative ideas” when he was tasked with trying to fashion a security
regime for Jenin a couple of years ago. “He was certainly talking about
ideas of direct phsyical engagement, of having a US/NATO force there,
though that never came to anything.” He said that Hillary Clinton is
someone with very broad international name recognition… “She bears
the name of the ‘Clinton parameters’. And she’s certainly someone who
could take the traditional pro-Israeli community in this country along
with her in any peace negotiation.”

He also made some approving references to this
on Middle East priorities that was recently
co-produced by the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign
Relations. I haven’t read the whole text. But like Daniel I thought–
from reading its Executive Summary, available online there–
that the chapter on Arab-Israeli affairs was generally very
constructive. Of note there: The authors, Steve Cook and Shibley
Telhami, made a point of spelling out that making a successful peace
between Arabs and Israelis is a strong US
interest– not just something that could or should be left to the
parties themselves to do; and they stressed that a way has to be found
to include Hamas in the process, rather than continuing to exclude and
crush it.

At today’s session Daniel Levy gave a very sharp criticism of the whole
Annapolis and post-Annapolis effort, saying that continuing it “would
be a disaster.”  One of his key points there was, “It’s quite
impossible to birth a Palestinian state when you still have conditions
of a hostile military occupation there.”

He also sent a gentle (and indirect) dig at Aaron Miller, saying “I
feel I’m in a time machine when I see former Clinton administration
people saying you have to do Syria first or do Palestine
first.” Aaron, a prominent Clinton-era “peace processor”, has
recently been making
exactly that argument, and coming down in favor of doing
Syria first. Daniel Levy, Naomi Chazan, and I all agree that that kind
of sequencing is a recipe for disaster. What’s needed at this stage is
a comprehensive
approach. See my argument on that, here.

If I had a couple of disagreements with Naomi and Daniel, one was with
their fairly rigid insistence that it should be a US/NATO force that
plays the “interim security-building” role in the West Bank as the IDF
withdraws.  The other was with the way  that Daniel
talked about using a forthright US initiative on the peace process as a
way to increase the leverage on Iran. (He later, in response to a
question, modified that a bit, agreeing with the questioner that having
an active US engagement with Iran could also help remove Iran from the
ranks of the “spoilers” on the peace process.)

The idea of having an international “third force” playing a role in
providing physical security and political reassurance to both parties
on an interim basis is evidently one that’s worth a lot more
exploration. What should be the mandate of such a force? What kind of
length of time should it be deployed for? And crucially, too, what kind
of a force should it be? Personally, I have a strong preference– if a
third force is needed in this role– for it to be a UN force. Daniel
said it should (like the US/NATO force in Afghanistan) have a
mandate/endorsement from the UN Security Council, “but the Israelis
need the reassurance that only, really, NATO or the US could provide.”
He did say, however, that in accepting UNSCR 1701 at the end of the
33-day war of 2006, the Israelis “had for the first time accepted a UN
force as a part of their security plan.” (Actually, that first
happened in March 1978 when Israel had to accept the
establishment of UNIFIL in South Lebanon… What happened in 2006 was
merely a beefing up of the existing force. But later in 1978,
Israel insisted on having a US-led force in Sinai and
then resisted any mention of any  other international
force until 2006.)

Also, if there’s a proposal to have an international force as an
interim “successor” force to the IDF in the West Bank, then what about
Gaza? There, the IDF has already substantially withdrawn–
though it returns into the Strip at will. But  you
don’t have the same clear picture of the IDF “needing” to have a force
to hand over to in Gaza… Also, Hamas, which provides security there
now, has expressed itself as pretty firmly opposed to any form of
international force deploying there. (Or, indeed, in the West Bank.)

So, lots of complications still to iron out, certainly. But I thought
Naomi’s proposals for what an effective US and/or international
diplomacy would look like were very helpful indeed.  That
certainly includes the thought-provoking points she made about
“reframing” the negotiation, her five-point list of ways the approach
needs to be changed… and yes, also her suggestion that Obama should
come out swinging on February 11 with a forthright US plan, quite
different from Annapolis, for pushing the peace negotiation to a conclusion.

As I understood what she was saying, it was that for Obama to say
anything substantive about the peace process in the lead-up to the
Israeli elections could end up being counter-productive. But then,
after every Israeli election there’s a many-weeks-long process of
inter-party negotiations over the composition and platform of a
governing coalition; and what I understood her to mean was that that would
be an excellent stage at which the enunciation of a clear American
commitment to the rapid conclusion of a workable comprehensive peace
agreement could be very helpful indeed.

So, anyway, it was excellent
to see you in Washington, Naomi. As always your thinking was sharp and
creative. I only hope some of the folks in Chicago and Washington DC
who are advising Barack Obama get to talk to you while you’re here.

13 thoughts on “Welcome new thinking on the Palestine Question”

  1. Actually “that” first happened in 1957, did it not? Israel accepting a large UN peacekeeping force in the Sinai as “part of its security plan”? It was the actions of the UN 10 years later which directly led to the present situation, as Israelis and Arabs must remember very well.
    It surely would be a splendid thing for President Obama to come up with some brilliant imaginative set of ideas that would get the Israelis to force all the West Bank settlers to return to Israel proper, including those in Jerusalem, accept the right of return of 4 million Palestinian refugees to Israel and accept the Hamas covenant as not being a threat to itself. Such a speech persuading the Knesset would go down in history as the greatest oratorical feat of all time and the world would truly have cause to marvel.

  2. Bb, thanks for the correction re the UNEF force. Good reminder. Situation in 2009/10 peace agreement would be different from post-’67 Egypt, however, because (1) the whole conflict would have been resolved, regionally, and (2) All of Palestine would, realistically, be under tight constraints on its military capabilities.
    I think one of the smartest things in Naomi’s proposal is that the US president needn’t necessarily at any point specifically spell out a precise policy toward the settlers. Also, he needn’t spell out everything in the first speech, though I think he should make these two points fairly clearly:
    (1) The US has its own compelling interest in seeing the speedy conclusion of a “fair-enough” final peace between Israel and all of its neighbors. This is NOT just something the immediate parties can be left to do on their own with the US being a ‘facilitator’.
    (2) The US certainly intends that the aid it provides to any of the parties be used to support the goals of a conclusive peace negotiation, and there will be consequences for any party that uses its (directly or indirectly US-supplied) resources to act in ways that undercut that goal.
    As for the settlers, if they want to remain where they are under Palestinian rule, I believe many Palestinian leaders have already said that’s fine by them. It’s just the concept of grossly preferential treatment that offends everyone of conscience, whether Palestinian or not.
    Finally, I don’t believe Naomi was saying anything about all the Palestinian refugees– and actually they number considerably more than four million– being allowed physically to return to inside Israel. There’s an aspect in which the use of Acknowledgment/Apology can helpfully accompany a diminution of physical claims… However, they certainly do have a claim on their private properties expropriated by Israel in ’48; and they also have a claim for citizenship (including residency) in Palestine that absolutely no-one can deny. But perhaps a # of them can Return to Israel (as loyal citizens) that’s somehow commensurate to the # of settlers who remain in Palestine (as loyal citizens)?

  3. Hello Helena,
    Chazan’s peace plan sounds splendid,but how does it work, that’s the question! and how to establish a working-peace system based upon universal values that needs fundamental changes in behaviour and attitudes between the two hostile nations.I think to translate these emotions into reality requires sincere efforts from peace-loving world community.
    I must admit that I am not optimist with the outlook of John Biden and Hirary Clinton towards the Palestinian-Israeli-issue. They are most pro-US-Isreali-special relationship, and they can play double standard policy.
    Any way, I appreciate these feelings.

  4. Personally I have always been of the belief that the settlers should be offered/welcomed as citizens of a Palestinian state and given the choice between that and moving back to Israel. ie I support the ’67 boundaries.
    However if that ever were an option it’s surely been well and truly buried by Hamas’ military coup, the Hamas covenant and the new “two Palestines” status quo which has now reached the irreversible threshold absent the disappearance of the Israeli state from the equation?
    It seems to me that both you and Naomi are suggesting the US adopt a sleight-of-hand approach in order to isolate the settlers? The grand solution you have in mind seems to be the Saudi plan – ie 1967 borders, not territorial swaps, and fudging the refugee question. But Israel will fiercely reject the Saudi plan. Obama would have to be very clever indeed to impose it on them. Mendacious too, given his campaign declaration for an “undivided” Jersualem.
    On the refugee question, I find it very hard to see any reason why either PA or Hamas would want to be landed with 4 million refugees any more than Israel would. Can you?

  5. I wonder why you write “landed with”. Have you ever met any members of Palestine’s talented and well-educated diaspora? Even if you haven’t, could you just for one tiny moment start to think of them as humans, just as deserving of rights and dignity as you or me?

  6. Apologies, Helena, you are quite right. I was being much too colloquial, flip and cynical. Was not at all intending to demean the Palestinian diaspora, and by the diaspora I mostly mean those Palestinians who haven’t had the benefit of hope, dignity, education or developing their potential in any meaningful way but live stateless lives at the mercy of non palestinian governments.
    What I was meaning to say, was that I can’t see any reason why Hamas or the PA would want – or be able to cope with – a huge influx of refugees, none of whom have had any real contact with Palestine ever in their lives? It’s not as if the PA or Hamas has ever seem to show much interest in them, even rhetorically. When the PLO came back to the West Bank/Gaza they seemed to abandon all interest diaspora entirely – I remember this was one of Said’s most eloquent critiques. Furthermore Hamas and the PA can’t even resolve their own differences and so Palestine is on the point of being permanently divided, in. What further divisions would result from the diaspora refugees flooding in? It just doesn’t seem feasible in my view.
    As a result, I see the Palestinian diaspora remaining doomed to their old role of everybody’s kicking toys. By holding out on the right of return to Israel knowing that Israel will never agree, PA and Hamas keep the refugees out of Palestine permanently, leaving each free to pursue its own power-consolidating ends in WB and Gaza. Thus the PA/Hamas/Israel/diaspora status quo becomes further entrenched.
    btw regarding the talented, educated Palestinian diaspora why don’t they return to Palestine to help build the state? Is this because the Israelis won’t let them in?

  7. Hamas and many elements within Fateh have certainly shown a big concern for the fate of the refugees who remain an integral part of the Palestinian body politic. The overwhelmingly major reason they haven’t gone back is because Israel doesn’t allow them to. (Do you read the newspapers??) Regarding the well-off among them, they had big discussions with the PA in the immediate post-Oslo period regarding how much they would invest in the hopefully emergent Palestinian economy. Most were very wary, worrying that in the absence of a final-status agreement the Israelis could destroy their investments at a moment’s notice. Which was indeed what happened in 2002.
    But regarding the bigger picture of the welcome the Palestinians of the OPTs could be expected to give their diaspora compatriots? Of course it would be genuine and heartfelt, given that every single Palestinian resident of the OPTs has numerous v. close family members who are currently forbidden to return to their home. But of course there would also be stresses and competition for access to resources. That’s why there really is no room in the OPTs for a huge population of foreign (i.e. non-Palestinian) implants. Every dunum, every drop of water is sorely needed by the land’s rightful Palestinian owners themselves.

  8. Poor response HC. Are you trying to invite kneejerks from the ultra zionists?
    But I notice nobody else has cared enough to take up this thread with heaps of comment. And other threads you post on Palestine/Israel these days don’t seem to attract the interest they did a few years ago. Passion seems to be in short supply on the Palestinian question since Hamas divided the country.
    Obama has revealed himself as a cool, calculating dude – he might just adopt the pre 9/11 Bush position and leave them all to the status quo. When in doubt, do nothing.

  9. Hello Helena, thanks for conveying Naomi Chazan’s perspective. Your last sentence above about whether settlers can stay and be loyal citizens of Palestine and whether refugees can have the right to property and citizenship in Israel is a key point in the implementation of a possible solution. In fact it could also be the other way round, there could be an agreement between the two states on how to handle their respective citizen as residents. Some settlers would then be able to remain in the state of Palestine while retaining their Israeli citizenship and some refugees would be able to live in Israel while retaining a Palestinian nationality.
    Looking at it in another way, returning all settlers to Israel is an economic, social and political burden while they could be a positive contribution to the state of Palestine. The same applies to refugees who would be equally a multifaceted burden to the Palestinian state and an asset if living and working in Israel. Both states would then regulate, through taxation, the ease or difficulty of residing in each other’s territory. Palestinian citizen residing in Israel would not threaten the ‘Jewishness of the state’ there and Israeli citizen living in Palestine would be more in line with the old Palestinian vision of the state which was never a Jew Free gheto. Michael Saunders proposed something similar to this.
    The main factor in this is geography. Distances are really small and you can be anywhere in both states in a relatively short time. Most people in the west commute greater distances daily. What is the difference between driving half an hour from Jenin or Tulkarem to Haifa or Nazareth to work and between living there?
    This is all in a scenario of two states living in peace with each other. This brings me to Naomi’s point about recognition of responsibility; this is the most difficult element in an agreement and an essential part of a resolution. But no Israeli politician at the mercy of his or her electorate, can hope to get away with it. This is where outside actors can help, even outside Jewish actors. If there was a declaration by a very high Jewish moral authority or group with such authority it would help. A kind of committee equivalent to Mandela and the Dalai Lama with mother Theresa. We once joked about reconvening the elders of Zion for this. The ball is definitely in Israel’s court and it is difficult to imagine Israelis having such reverence to anybody, least of all religious authorities.
    Thanks again for sharing your news and views.

  10. The recognition of responsibility should/would be made by a vote of the Knesset. If supported by all the major parties this would give cover to individual politicians?
    If Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Syria were also offered citizenship rights as they are in Jordan, this would also help alleviate the absorption of refugees into Israel or Palestine?
    However none of the above addresses the new reality in that a fundamentalist, rejectionist Islamic movement controls Gaza and that the extreme military elements in that movement appear to hold sway?

  11. Hello bb,
    “if Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Syria were also offered citizenship rights as they are in Jordan, this would also help alleviate the absorption of refugees into Israel or Palestine?”
    There is no difference between your proposal and Sharoon’s policy. It’s not a question of refugees rights, but its a question of national cause.
    Honestly,it is not fair!

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