The Israeli-Palestinian peace process needs an American map to achieve a breakthrough. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have a historic opportunity to get a real breakthrough to peace in the Middle East, but only if they are willing to use up some of the administration’s remaining political capital and go beyond being a broker for peace to become peacemakers.
To the surprise of no one, the peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians have stalemated over the issue of Israel’s settlement-construction policy in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu insists he will not renew the settlement freeze beyond another ninety days and not at all in East Jerusalem, and the Palestinians demand a complete and open-ended freeze before talking. The United States is trying to broker a deal, promising Bibi $3 billion in twenty F-35 combat aircraft, additional security-assistance promises and other commitments if he will freeze one more time for just 90 days, only in the West Bank, to let direct negotiations resume.
Then the idea is to resolve this impasse for good by agreeing on the borders of the future Palestinian state in the West Bank and of Israel so the settlement issue becomes moot. Israel can build anything it wants inside its borders and the Palestinians will veto any settlement activity inside Palestine.
But let’s say we do get back to the talks, there is no reason to believe Israelis and Palestinians can agree on those borders between them in direct or indirect talks, in ninety days or nine thousand days. The history of this conflict leaves no hope the parties can settle such a difficult issue between them. Left to decide the border line, Israelis and Palestinians will never get there. After all, these are very hard choices to make. Bibi will be telling thousands of Israelis they are homeless. The Palestinians will be losing land they have lived in for centuries. With generations of hate and mistrust between them, an agreement between the parties is a mirage.
Yet after almost two decades of American–brokered Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, including the Camp David summit in 2000, it is abundantly clear what those borders will look like if we are ever to get a deal. They will be based on the 1948 armistice line with adjustments to put some of the largest Israeli settlements inside Israel, matched by swaps of equivalent pieces of territory given to the Palestinians from pre-1967 Israel. In Jerusalem the city would be split along the simple proposition of what is Jewish is Israel and what is Arab is Palestine.
Now is the time for the United States to put these principles, which President Clinton first articulated ten years ago on December 23, 2000, into practice and put down a map which lays them out. Then the Israelis and Palestinians can negotiate the details. If they want changes in the line, they can negotiate directly. If one side accepts the map and the other does not, the naysayer will have to put forward an alternative. If both reject it, then both can put down their alternatives.
Some will object that America should not go this far and put down its own proposal. If there was a serious chance the parties could make a deal that might be a reasonable argument, but there is not any reason to believe they will be able to do so. Moreover, it is our national-security interests which are damaged by a continuation of this dispute for decades and decades. It breeds terror and violence every day it continues. Both Israelis and Palestinians know the status quo is unsustainable.
This approach goes beyond sterile discussions of principles and percentages, and gets the parties focused on what really matters. When the issue is real—where will the boundary line run exactly—it focuses the discussion and forces decision. With a real border line agreed, the parties can then tackle the questions of how to ensure security for Israelis, how to resettle Palestinians in Palestine and how to deal with the future of Hamas in Gaza.