An ‘Obama Plan’ for the Middle East Is a Good Idea

By M.J. Rosenberg

The Washington Post reported last week that the Obama administration is considering abandoning its support for indirect Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in favour of direct negotiations based on a plan the United States would lay on the table.

It’s a great idea. Indirect negotiations are a good device for achieving nothing. They would also constitute a step backward from the direct negotiations which have been the norm for 15 years.

According to The New York Times, the Obama plan would track the so-called “Clinton Parameters,” the plan devised by president Clinton during his last days in the White House. He believed that his parameters represented the positions with which both sides could live. He believed (and still does) that his parameters offered the basis for a peace treaty which, following negotiations, could be implemented.

Despite the prevalent pessimism, an examination of the parameters and the positions of the parties highlights that there is actually more proximity than distance between the parties.

According to the Times report, the plan comprises the following: Palestinian officials would have to accept that there would be no right of return for refugees of the 1948 war that established the Israeli state, or for their millions of descendants.

Agreement is not far on this issue. Palestinians understand this and have no expectation that millions of refugees would return to Israel. Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem would become citizens of a new Palestinian state. Those outside would have the option of becoming citizens of that new state. A symbolic number (a few thousand) would be allowed to return to Israel itself, with Israel having a veto over any and all applicants for citizenship in Israel. The Obama position is identical to the Israeli position. The parameters include the stipulation that Palestinians would have to accept some kind of compensation. Again, this is the Israeli position too.

On other seemingly intractable problems, the two sides would have to share Jerusalem–Palestinians locating their capital in the east and Israelis in the west, and both signing on to some sort of international agreement on how to share the holy sites in the Old City.

Yet this is not hard to accomplish. Israel unilaterally expanded the size of Jerusalem by 300 percent after the 1967 war to include dozens of Palestinian villages. These should return to the Palestinians. The Old City, holy to three faiths, would be shared with outside (probably American) monitors making sure that Jerusalem remains one city, open to all.

This would be acceptable to some Palestinians, though major players such as Hamas have shown much hesitancy. It would also be strongly opposed by the hardcore Israeli right including the settlers, and perhaps even some Israeli centrists. Yet, projects such as the Sari Nusseibeh – Ami Ayalon platform, which garnered over 400,000 Israeli and Palestinian voters in the midst of the intifada, champion a similar platform.

The parameters also stipulate that Israel would return to its 1967 borders–the borders before it captured east Jerusalem and the West Bank in the Six-Day War – give or take a few negotiated settlements and territorial swaps.

In other words, Israel would get to keep the settlement blocks adjacent to Israel but would compensate Palestinians with territory elsewhere so that the Palestinians would maintain Arab control of 22 percent of what is seen as historic Palestine prior to the 1967 war. Israel would retain 78 percent of historic Palestine prior to the war, which represents land allotted to Israel under the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan plus the lands Israel won in the subsequent war for independence. It appears that the Palestinian Authority supports this stance too, as seen in various declarations on its part, as do a majority of Israelis.

On the security issue, the United States or NATO would have to give Israel security guarantees, probably including stationing troops along the Jordan River, to ease Israeli fears that hostile countries could use the Palestinian state as a springboard for attacks.

As seen during Oslo, the Palestinians have not agreed to an Israeli presence along the Jordanian border, which is seen as a clear infringement on Palestinian sovereignty—as is the requirement that the Palestinian state be disarmed. Israelis insist on both and the Obama administration agrees. One glimmer of hope is that recent years have seen much security cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians, and many Palestinians do in fact agree to a demilitarized state.

And finally, Arab neighbours like Saudi Arabia would recognise Israel.

This principle has already been accepted by the Saudi Peace Initiative, though recently the Saudis have not shown much enthusiasm towards normalisation. According to this, every Arab state in the world would sign a peace treaty and normalise relations with Israel in exchange for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the occupied territories.

At this point, there is no proof that the president will go ahead with this plan. But it is telling that he would consider putting it forth before resolving the conflict with Prime Minister Netanyahu over settlements.

In fact, this plan is a way of end-running the settlement issue and getting right to negotiations that will end the whole conflict.

The settlement issue – the current cause for US-Israeli tensions – is important. Yet, by definition, a comprehensive agreement solves it along with everything else. The president should go for it.

M.J. Rosenberg is Senior Foreign Policy Fellow at Media Matters Action Network.

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