Five Choices for Kerry on Israel-Palestine

Doing nothing is not an option.

In a few weeks, following his meetings with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will submit his proposals to President Obama on the best way to proceed with negotiations on that conflict. Judging by his previous statements, Kerry may prefer tackling the process with a comprehensive approach. But political circumstances, especially in Israel, may force him to examine other options.

Consider some of the possible paths toward a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

1. Negotiations Toward a Comprehensive Agreement

The first option is to attempt to solve the key issues—Jerusalem, refugees and borders—either simultaneously or beginning with borders and moving later to the two other thorny issues. In May 2011, Obama indicated his preference for dealing first with borders and security. The appointment of General John Allen as an adviser to Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on issues of security relating to the Middle East peace process suggests that Kerry will deal with borders and security first.

Yet there is no reason to believe that moving from one core issue to the next will be easy. In 2008, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in a bold act that was backed by no formal decision of any Israeli institution, offered Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas land swaps which would have allowed Israel to maintain close to 6.5 percent of the West Bank. Although he received no answer, the Palestinians claim they did offer a counter-proposal of 1.9 percent. Even if the two sides meet in the middle, on the 4 percent mark, it will force close to 100,000 Israeli settlers to move west. Kerry may need to consider other alternatives if he wishes to end the Obama presidential era with progress toward solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

2. A Partial Agreement

This incremental option requires both sides to take steps linked to a clear timetable that would culminate in a comprehensive agreement on all core issues, thereby ending the conflict. Israel could withdraw from “Area C,” which comprises 60 percent of the West Bank; freeze settlement building beyond the security fence; reach a new agreement with the Palestinians on water; and even allow the Palestinians some local control in East Jerusalem, such as in healthcare and education.

On their end, the Palestinians will have to intensify preparations for full, responsible statehood, eliminate anti-Israeli literature and propaganda and prepare public opinion for the prospect that some Palestinian demands won’t be satisfied. These steps and others will be part of a roadmap similar to the one proposed in 2003 by the Quartet (the UN, United States, EU and Russia). The Arab League could contribute to these efforts by front-loading full Israeli withdrawal with some of the normalization steps offered by the Arab League 2002 Peace Initiative.

3. Unilateral Partial Withdrawal by Israel

If no action is taken, and even if no settlements are added, it will soon be impossible to demarcate a border separating the two societies into two states. If no agreement, comprehensive or partial, is reached, Israel should—if it wishes to maintain its identity as the national homeland of the Jewish people—withdraw unilaterally to the security fence while maintaining a strip of land along the Jordan River. This would result in an Israeli presence in about 15 percent of the West Bank.

There are, of course, many reasons for Israelis to oppose such a pullout, primarily the negative experience of the Hamas takeover in the wake of the 2005 unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the subsequent rocket attacks launched from the evacuated territory. Still, the United States may be able to encourage this unilateral action by offering reassurances to Israel. These guarantees would be similar to those presented by George W. Bush in 2004, prior to the Gaza withdrawal, but they could be strengthened by the backing of other members of the international community.

4. Two Coordinated Unilateral Moves

Learning from the destructive consequences of disengagement in Gaza, the United States can attempt to organize a coordinated Israeli disengagement in the West Bank and an orderly Palestinian takeover of the territory and security operations. Moreover, the United States, together with third-party partners, could provide assistance by monitoring the transfer of authority and assets.

5. The Confederation/Federation Option

Until recently, any discussion of a Jordanian role in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict beyond the question of the two holy places in Jerusalem was taboo. The Palestinian majority in Jordan’s population has been a sensitive issue even without the potential of a trilateral, Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian federation or confederation. More than a million refugees from Iraq and Syria, if gradually granted Jordanian citizenship, will dramatically change the demographics in Jordan, thus allowing it to contemplate playing a more active role in a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The more frequent discussions that King Abdullah II has held with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas may indicate a Jordanian willingness to consider this option.