At this moment in Israeli history it is more critical than ever that we end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Time is running out for those who want to secure a Jewish and democratic state within recognized boundaries alongside a demilitarized Palestinian state.
My fellow negotiators and I spent years negotiating intensively the intertwined core issues of Jerusalem, the Holy Sites, the refugees, territory, borders and settlements, and security. We know what a final agreement will ultimately look like; its contour is clear. Since President Clinton’s parameters were laid down in December 2000, every political initiative to ending the conflict has lead to the same fundamental solutions.
I do not carry any official responsibility these days. Nevertheless I am worried about the future of my country, its identity and its social fabric. The current social protest across Israel’s cities relates to fundamental values and is therefore tightly connected to the long-term national security of Israel. I have no doubt that the only solution that will secure all that is putting an end to the occupation, by delineating the borders around a democratic state, with universal values of liberalism, pluralism and human rights and a Jewish majority: this is the essence of the 2-state-for-2-peoples solution.
As we have witnessed yet again today, our present threats are rockets, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. Palestinian terrorists premeditatedly and bloodily aim at Israeli civilians, no news here. If anything, the establishment of a Palestinian state could reduce the incentives for rockets and terrorism, rather than fuel them.
Why the urgency?
Firstly, there is currently a Palestinian leadership that supports a two-state solution, but if they continue to lose legitimacy among their people as they have been over the past several years, our self-fulfilling prophecy of having “no partner,” may materialize. Palestinian leadership today is as good as it gets. They recognize the State of Israel, support a two state solution, coordinate with Israel on security matters, promote business and trade, and oppose violence.
Secondly, it is urgent to stop the Growing Isolation of Israel: Absent a resolution of the conflict, Israel faces growing international isolation which will affect our economy and our security in unacceptable measurements.
Finally, concerning September’s UN Vote on Palestinian statehood. It demonstrates the frustration that the Palestinians and others feel from the failure of all parties and intermediaries to bring this conflict to a close through negotiations.
President Obama, in his recent Middle East speeches in May, stated: Quote – “No vote at the United Nations will ever create an independent Palestinian state. And the United States will stand up against efforts to single Israel out at the UN or in any international forum.”
Nevertheless, the Palestinian Authority announced recently that it will formally submit its request for membership in the UN on September 20.
Now, If indeed the UN resolution specifies details, such as the boundaries of the state of Palestine, then it would lead to diplomatic and on-the-ground clashes.
Let me take you Sixty-four years back. UN Resolution 181 passed in 1947, is the foundation of Israel’s independence. It referred to the establishment of two states, an Arab state and a Jewish state, in the area of British Mandatory Palestine. As you all know, a significant Israeli demand is an Arab recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. And I ask why not, then, work out a UN resolution in September that would base the membership of Palestine on the same UN Resolution 181 that defines Israel as the “Jewish state”?
Regardless of the outcome of September, it has created a new urgency for Israel and those who care about our state, to be proactive in securing and defining our future.
So, despite obstacles on all sides, it is essential to move forward. The parties always use a series of pretexts to justify doing nothing: it is never the right leadership or the ripe-enough moment, the partner is weak, there is terrorism or there isn’t. Do not let rhetoric dissuade you from the truth: there is a pressing need for creating a different reality. And we need the American Administration to pro-actively stand by us, Israelis and Palestinians alike. Why wouldn’t president Obama present his recent statements to the parties as well as to the United Nations, as a proposal to resume negotiations, instead of letting the Palestinians rush head-on to clash at the General Assembly? As Ambassador Dan Kurtzer suggests in an article published today, it would be conducive if the United States, the Quartet, and Israel participate in drafting the text of the resolution. After all, Obama’s speeches are based on the footsteps of his predecessors Bush and Clinton. He could and should reformat them as a plan that would replace the Palestinian unilateral motion in the UN.
What else should be done in order to move forwards? Here are my main observations:
For a start, there is a need to combine the bi-lateral approach with a regional one, thus establishing a supportive Arab coalition for a possible Israeli-Palestinian agreement. The 2002 Arab Peace Initiative represents asignificant and strategic shift in the Arab League’s approach to resolving the dispute. It should serve as a basis for further negotiations within a regional framework. Using the Arab Spring as an opportunity rather than a negative development, it is time that Israel acknowledges the mere existence of such initiative.
Second, it is crucial to win the individual and collective hearts and minds of the peoples in our region. It is essential to gradually change the public’s mindsets. A paradigm change on the grassroots level is indispensablefor preparing towards reconciliation. I do believe that it is possible to redirect the public conversation to peace. We must never again be in a situation as we were eleven years ago at Camp David, that we are negotiating over the future of Jerusalem and this comes as a shock to the Israeli public. In fact, at Camp David in 2000, little thought was given to the preparation of public opinion to understand and support the effort to end the conflict. And, of course, tangible traction on the ground should be simultaneously promoted, enabling the bottom-up progress to sustain a political dialogue.
In Israel, time is running out for those, like me, who want to secure a Jewish and democratic state within recognized boundaries alongside a demilitarized Palestinian state. Israelis are starting to realize that, and a few groups are getting their act together to change this discourse. They say: we are proud to be Israeli, Jewish and Zionist, and refuse to apologize for it. At the same time, we respect the Arab minority living among us as entirely equal citizens.
Blue White Future is one of these movements, focusing on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the basis of a “two states for two peoples” solution, by facilitating the relocation and absorption of settlers. It is a movement for a united Israel within defensible borders.
How best to absorb the settlers who would relocate from their homes in anticipation of a permanent agreement with the Palestinians? Well, settlers’ absorption must be done in a manner that demonstrates compassion and respect for the settlers and in recognition of the sacrifices they have made.
We want an agreement, however, we are ready to act responsibly even without one.
It seems essential to change the “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” paradigm of Camp David, Taba, and Annapolis – into “what has been agreed should be implemented”. Such approach would provide the ground for an agreement on boundaries, settlements, security, statehood and the economy. Subsequently the negotiations over Jerusalem and the Refugees will continue in a state-to-state fashion.
So now is the time for President Obama to bring all parties concerned into binding, continuous, hands-on, negotiations that lead to a two-state-solution. I am confident that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would eventually come to an end. My best judgement is that an agreement is attainable and peace is possible. As Senator George Mitchell said, all conflicts are created by men and should be resolved by men. Our case is not different.
Israel celebrated recently 63 years of existence. On the day of its establishment, the founding father, David Ben-Gurion, read the Charter of Independence. The text contained, inter alia, the following excerpt:
…WE EXTEND our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land.
These words ring true and are valid today, no less than they were then.
Let me finish with a little story. I am a secular person. However, I came across a sentence in the Jewish prayer book, while preparing for my son Carmel’s Bar Mitzvah. It is a modern prayer – written only sixty three years ago – for the well-being of the State, and it reads: “Establish peace in the land, and everlasting joy for its inhabitants.” Then, too, there was no peace, but the phrase carries with it throughout the years the hope that the situation will change. And it will, indeed, but only if our mindsets get collectively ready for the transition to peace; only if the clarity of joint interests becomes common.
This is the written version on Gilead Sher’s lecture at the International Program in Conflict Resolution and Mediation at Tel Aviv University, given August 18, 2011