Unfortunately, to do the latter, assistance from Israel is needed, and that has not been entirely forthcoming. As with the Palestinian side, the political discourse in Israel is being shaped by opponents of the two-state solution. Too many in Israel’s governing coalition are quick to castigate supporters of two states as leftists and traitors while claiming that the international community’s focus on Israel is driven by anti-Semitism and arguing that President Obama – despite the mountains of evidence to the contrary – is anti-Israel.
Against this backdrop, the Quartet’s recommendation that Israel “cease the policy of settlement construction and expansion” is far too broad to make an impact. Israeli officials predictably responded to the Quartet report by repeating an oft-heard talking point that settlements are not the core issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and are not obstacles to peace.
While the settlements are in fact a real issue and not just an excuse for Palestinian intransigence, they do not yet prevent an insurmountable obstacle to a final agreement. 80% of Israelis in the West Bank are living on 4% of the land, all of it adjacent to the Green Line, and many who live in further-flung locales, such as the Jordan Valley, will quietly evacuate in return for compensation. It is for this reason that attention needs to be focused on the areas that have the potential to create an insurmountable obstacle, so that the point of no return is not reached.
Rather than focus on any building beyond the 1967 “Green Line” as counter to peace, the United States and the international community would be better served clearly articulating new red lines. The international community has made clear that activity in the controversial area of E-1 is a red line, and building has been effectively frozen there for 9 years. Rather than treat all activity the same, new red lines could acknowledge that major settlement blocs will be incorporated into Israel – placing the focus on activity that runs counter to any future prospects of a two-state solution.
The focus of international ire should be squarely on the legalization of outposts deep in the West Bank as well as areas such as E-1, which blocks Palestinian contiguity from Ramallah to East Jerusalem; Givat Hamatos, which blocks contiguity of Bethlehem with East Jerusalem; the territorial “finger” incorporating Nokdim and Tekoa, which effectively surrounds Bethlehem with Israeli settlements; the territorial “finger” incorporating Beit-El northeast of Ramallah; and areas such as Kiryat Arba, outside of Hebron. Since Israelis and Palestinians have been incapable of negotiating a map that both sides can agree upon, the international community should make reasonable assumptions about the feasibility of a two-state solution that focuses the parties on the need for a negotiated compromise. Continuing the current policy only deepens resentment and strengthens maximalists on both sides.
The Quartet report can be used as the basis for such an effort. Despite its wide lens on settlements, it is more effective when it gets specific, such as the recommendation that Israel transfer “powers and responsibilities in Area C, consistent with the transition to greater Palestinian civil authority contemplated by prior agreements.” We repeatedly heard Israeli security officials – with views from across the political spectrum – advocate for the kind of measures the Quartet urges, including “progress in the areas of housing, water, energy, communications, agriculture, and natural resources, along with significantly easing Palestinian movement restrictions.” At Kerem Shalom, the only commercial crossing point to the Gaza Strip, we were impressed by the Israeli commitment to processing hundreds of trucks and tons of material a day, even under threat of fire (and under actual fire during the 2014 Gaza war), and we are optimistic that the Israeli government will take steps to avoid another Gaza war by looking for ways to ease the humanitarian situation. However, more can and should be done, especially in the West Bank.
In fact, there was broad recognition of the need for the kind of menu of independent Israeli economic, security, and political actions being advocated by Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS), IPF’s partnering organization that consists of over 200 top retired generals from the IDF and equivalent officials from the Mossad, Shin Bet and police forces. In fact, the growing rift between the political and security echelons is perhaps the most acute fault line in Israeli politics today.
Whether the movement of the “generals” will coalesce into a political force is yet to be determined. Who will emerge as President Abbas’ successor remains in question. How the US presidential elections will impact US engagement in Mideast peacemaking is highly uncertain. If Netanyahu and Abbas can ever trust each other is an open question. Yet, what is apparent is that progress will not take place until the political climate or the political calculations on both sides change, and certainly not unless Israel’s immediate and long-term security needs are addressed.
All supporters of a two-state solution would be advised to focus on the kinds of tangible progress that could restore hope for such a solution. This could happen under the current leadership — as we write this report, the Egyptian Foreign Minister’s visit to Israel provides new intrigue that near-term progress could be possible — but it may also require a reconfiguration of the leadership on both sides. The one variable that certainly must change is a shift away from ephemeral political gain and towards building a stable political and security equilibrium.
Susie Gelman is the Chair of Israel Policy Forum. David A. Halperin is the Executive Director of Israel Policy Forum.