By Ari Kattan
The only way to peace is a two-state solution, and the only way to a two-state solution is through direct negotiations between the parties. This mantra has been consistently repeated by the Quartet—the international body set up to mediate and solve the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict—and has served as the foundation for a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians. On a fundamental level, this framework is correct. If you define peace as both parties coexisting peacefully, then giving both sides a state in which they can govern themselves and achieve their national aspirations is the only fair solution. Any other solution would deny either the Israelis or the Palestinians of their rights as people. And given that the two-state solution is meant to permanently end the conflict, its implementation must be agreed upon by both sides. If it isn’t, any agreement will simply serve as a platform for a new round of conflict. That is why the Quartet, consisting of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia, remains opposed to the unilateral Palestinian bid for statehood through the United Nations and has been trying to get both sides back to the negotiating table for well over a year now.
Negotiations have been taking place between Israelis and Palestinians since the Oslo Accords in 1993, yet the conflict remains unresolved. Given that negotiations thus far have ended in stalemate or failure, the question becomes: how can the Quartet restart and facilitate negotiations that will end in success? The prevailing opinion in the Quartet and the wider international community is that Israel must make the first move and offer concessions for the Palestinians to come to the negotiating table, and thus much of the Quartet’s pressure has been focused on Israel, specifically its settlement expansion in the West Bank. This conventional wisdom, however, is fundamentally flawed and has not yielded results. It is time for the Quartet to try a new approach, one where the Palestinians are pressured to initiate negotiations by recognizing Israel as the Jewish homeland. While it would be folly to try to make concrete predictions about anything in the Middle East, there is strong evidence suggesting that pressure on the Palestinians to make the first move will have a higher chance of success, both in getting negotiations started and in achieving a lasting peace deal.
The Centrality of the Right of Return
The conventional wisdom that Israel must offer the first concessions stems from the belief that Israel is the main party responsible for the lack of progress in the peace talks, and that an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the creation of a Palestinian state would permanently solve the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Both of these assumptions are flawed. It is true that Israeli settlement expansion is counterproductive, harmful to both Israel and the Palestinians, and an obstacle to a final-status peace agreement. The settlements complicate territorial compromise by making a future border between two states more difficult to define, and make an eventual peace agreement more difficult to implement. They also erode Israeli rule of law (many settlements are illegal even by Israeli law, but aren’t dismantled) and cause hardship to the Palestinians. But the settlements are not the only obstacles to successful negotiations and the resolution of the conflict. In fact, a much bigger obstacle stands in the way of successful negotiations and a permanent peace: the Palestinian refusal to compromise on the right of return.
The Palestinian leadership has always demanded that all Palestinians be granted the right of return, the right of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to their villages that are now inside Israel. Granting the Palestinians this right would be suicide for Israel; it would enable the Palestinians to become a majority inside Israel, destroying its Jewish character, and thus the raison d’être of the state. If the goal of a two-state solution is to grant both peoples a state within which to exercise their rights, the right of return is out of the question. It would destroy Israel demographically and create two Palestinian states, not one Jewish state and one Palestinian state (which is why many Palestinians interested in destroying Israel advocate so strongly for it). The Palestinian insistence on the right of return is tantamount to rejecting Israel’s right to exist. The Palestinians must come to terms with the fact that their national aspirations will be recognized in a Palestinian state, not in Israel proper, just as Israel needed to abandon its dream of Greater Israel and had to come to terms with the fact that they could not keep the West Bank. If a Palestinian state is born without an end-of-all-claims agreement, meaning no demands will be made on Israel in the future regarding the right of return, the conflict will continue , even though the two-state solution will have been implemented. Thus, an Israeli withdrawal does not necessarily end the conflict. It will only do that if it coincides with the relinquishment of the right of return.
The Implications of One-Sided Pressure
Given how fundamental the refugee issue is to the resolution of the conflict, it is surprising how little we hear the Quartet talk about it or articulate positions on it, especially since positions on Israeli concessions (borders, Jerusalem and security) are constantly mentioned. While the Quartet is correct to put pressure on Israel to halt its counterproductive settlement project, it is incorrect to do so without placing equal pressure on the Palestinians regarding the even more pressing issue of the right of return. Israeli settlements can be dismantled or a land swap can be arranged in a deal, but a deal cannot come about until the Palestinians concede on the refugee issue. Not only does the Quartet’s one-sided pressure not hold the Palestinians accountable for the biggest obstacle to permanent coexistence, but it also creates a scenario where the Palestinians advance their position without negotiating with Israel. If all the pressure and condemnation is directed at Israel during the absence of negotiations, what incentive do the Palestinians have to return to the table? The more they refuse to negotiate, the more the Quartet pressures Israel to grant concessions to get them to negotiate. This means that they get concessions from Israel before negotiating, and can then demand further concessions from the negotiations.
In addition, the Quartet’s focus on the settlements and its avoidance of the refugee issue has allowed the Palestinian leadership to continue playing to popular sentiment, making statements about how they will never give up the right of return. This backs them into a corner because it will be difficult for them to go back on their previous statements, which they will have to do if they want to reach a deal with Israel. It also signals to Israel’s leadership and people that the Palestinians are not ready to make that fundamental compromise necessary for a permanent peace agreement that recognizes the rights of both sides to a state.
Changing Palestinian Expectations
The Quartet should shift its strategy of pressuring Israel to a strategy focused on the right of return. It would hold the Palestinians accountable for their untenable position and show them that the world expects them to come to terms with reality. So far, the Palestinians have suffered no consequences for their intransigence on the refugee issue. All serious international players know that their position on the right of return is a non-starter, but nobody has called the Palestinians on it. If the Quartet began to openly say what most serious experts agree on—that there will be no agreement as long as the Palestinians insist on a full right of return—perhaps the Palestinian leadership will begin to change its rhetoric. It will also signal to the Palestinian people that this concession is expected of them by the international community. Israel went through this process with the settlements. Partly because of international pressure, most Israelis recognize that no final-status deal will be possible without concessions and compromise on settlements and land swaps, which has led to many Israeli governments offering peace proposals that deal realistically with these issues (though international pressure hasn’t succeeded in getting Israel to freeze its settlement project).
The pressure on the Palestinians should start with the Quartet acknowledging that the right of return is neither fair nor realistic, and will have to be dropped. This will essentially predetermine the outcome of any future discussions on the right of return, just as Quartet positions have done for Israeli concessions like settlements and borders. Once the international community makes its position clear on what the end result will look like, it forces both parties to move closer to that position. There will be massive resistance to this from the Palestinians and the Arab world, but the Quartet should stick by it, saying that this issue is fundamental to resolving the conflict.
Why the Palestinians Must Initiate
Getting the Palestinians to internalize this reality is the only way a peace deal will be signed that will stand the test of time. But ultimately, it is the Israelis who must make the real concessions—the actual land on which Palestine will be born. Israel has been hesitant to negotiate away this land for two reasons, the first being ideological attachment and the second being security concerns. Some in Israel consider the West Bank part of biblical Israel, and refuse to give it up under any circumstances. This extremist and maximalist position is not shared by most Israelis, who are willing to end the occupation of Palestinian land in exchange for peace. But they are unwilling to do it as long as they feel their security will be threatened by such a withdrawal. They fear that removing the Israeli military from the West Bank will reduce Israel’s intelligence gathering capabilities and ability to strike at terrorists who are plotting attacks against Israel. Taking such a risk, they argue, is not worth it unless the Palestinians are serious about permanent peace. What if the peace is temporary and violence resumes after Israel’s security position is weakened because of the withdrawal?
As long as the security-minded majority is skeptical of Palestinian intentions, the ideological minority will continue to fill the vacuum and control Israeli policy vis-à-vis the settlements and territorial compromise. Following this logic, how can the international community empower the majority in Israel willing to make the sacrifices necessary for peace? The answer is getting the Palestinians to make the first concession, one that is significant enough to signal that they are serious about permanently ending the conflict. That concession is the right of return.
There is strong precedent that this formula will lead to success. Think back to Egypt and Israel, who were once the bitterest of enemies. After the 1967 war, Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt. The Sinai was an incredibly strategic win for Israel. With the Sinai in Israeli hands, Israel didn’t have to worry that an Egyptian attack would destroy the state. The buffer that it provided would give Israel ample time to mobilize its forces and push back the Egyptian army well before they could reach Israel’s major population centers. The security-minded majority in Israel was thus unwilling to return the Sinai to Egypt.
Twelve years later, however, Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty that saw the Sinai returned to Egyptian sovereignty. It was the bravery and brilliance of Anwar Sadat, Egypt’s president at the time, which brought about this historic achievement. He understood that Israel, being a state obsessed with security, would not negotiate away the Sinai unless he could convince Israelis he was serious about peace, and would not, after getting it back, use the territory to attack Israel again. Saying he wanted peace wasn’t enough, he understood that he needed to do something costly, something he would only do if he were actually serious, in order to win over the Israelis. He decided to fly to Jerusalem and speak before Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. This move was criticized throughout the Arab world and even within Egypt. But that is precisely why Israelis believed he was serious; they believed he was sincere because he incurred a cost for showing willingness to make peace with Israel. Once Israelis believed in Sadat’s sincerity, they were willing to evacuate the Sinai in exchange for peace.
This precedent shows that successful and long-lasting peace agreements between Israel and the Arabs are initiated by the Arabs and serve to placate Israel’s legitimate security concerns. Applying this formula to the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, must follow in Anwar Sadat’s footsteps and signal to Israel his sincerity. Because of its centrality to making peace permanent, the most effective way to do this is abandoning the right of return. This will show Israelis he is serious because he would be the first Palestinian leader to acknowledge this reality, but also because it would be very costly for him domestically. However, with the Palestinians currently divided between Fatah (the political faction that Abbas leads) and Hamas (a designated terrorist organization by the US, EU and Israel), Abbas is unlikely to make such a costly signal that might strengthen his political rivals without pressure from the outside.
A New Strategy for the Quartet
That is why, in the interest of getting peace negotiations started that have the seeds of success, the Quartet must pressure Abbas to shift his position on the right of return and communicate that shift to Israel. This will begin the process of the Palestinians accepting that the right of return is unrealistic, and it will credibly demonstrate to Israel that the Palestinians are serious. An effective way to do this would be to pressure Abbas to go to Israel, and perhaps even to speak to the Knesset as Sadat did, and say that he recognizes Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. This, in essence, would signal the abandonment of the right of return, but it would be an easier way for Palestinian leaders to say it. If they are demanding that Palestine be the nation state of the Palestinian people, how can they refuse to accept Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people? And if Israel is to be the nation state of the Jewish people, it cannot be expected to so drastically alter its demographic makeup by taking in millions of Palestinians. Accepting Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people would go a long way towards soothing Israeli fears about not being accepted in the region. Overall, it is language signaling an end to further claims, which is what is necessary to get the security-minded majority in Israel on board.
Of course, this pressure on Abbas would have to be done carefully; the perception cannot be that he is taking these steps because he is being forced. This would open him up to criticism from Hamas and other extremist elements, who will accuse him of being a Western puppet. It would also weaken the effect such a step would have within Israel. Israelis would not believe that Abbas is sincere if they think he is solely complying with pressure from the Quartet. That is why the Quartet’s strategy should be two-track. The first track would be public pressure in the form of statements outlining the Quartet’s position on the right of return, similar to the Quartet’s statements on what it expects from Israel on the settlements and borders. A clear Quartet position stating that the right of return is a non-starter would begin accustoming the Palestinians and the wider Arab world to this reality that they have thus far refused to accept.
The second track would be private, behind-the-scenes pressure on Abbas and the Palestinian leadership to act on this change in the Quartet’s thinking. Abbas should be offered assurances of full support by the Quartet, specifically the US, in exchange for taking this risky step. He should also receive assurances that if he makes this first step, the Quartet will force Israel to make concessions in return, perhaps a settlement freeze, a further reduction in checkpoints and roadblocks, or even the release of Fatah prisoners in Israeli jails. A major gesture from Israel would serve to blunt the massive criticism the Palestinian leadership will undoubtedly receive from more extreme elements in the Arab world, and would create momentum that would make such a risk for Mr. Abbas worth it. In response to the request that Israel again be asked to initiate negotiations by making the first step, he should be reminded that this has not worked in the past (most recently with the Netanyahu government freezing settlements for 10 months and receiving deadlock from the Palestinians in return) and that the history of Arab-Israeli peace making shows that Israel must first be made to feel secure.
In order to get negotiations started that will result in a two-state solution and an end-of-all-claims agreement, the Quartet must get the Palestinian leadership to recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, essentially signaling the abandonment of the right of return. This is the only way that an Israeli government will get the mandate needed from the population to take the security risks involved with a two-state solution. By no means should pressure on Israel be stopped regarding its settlement activity in the West Bank, but it is clear that the settlements are not the key to getting both sides back to the negotiating table. By pursuing this strategy, the Quartet will be dealing with a more fundamental obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian coexistence, and will be facilitating negotiations that are more likely to end in success, namely the implementation of the two-state solution and the end to a conflict that has traumatized both sides for far too long.
Courtesy of U.S. Department of State