The Obama administration is reported to be laboring strenuously this summer to restart the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Jackson Diehl reported in the Washington Post that “Obama is attempting to strong-arm Israelis and Palestinians into beginning negotiations on the parameters he set.” One can attribute this drive to a renewed desire to curry favor with the Arab Street. However, White House sources frame the new urgency rather differently. They hold that a revival of the peace negotiations is essential to amass a sizable block of votes against a UN resolution that greatly worries Israel, one that several observers have referred to as a “train wreck” in the making.
Many in Israel are deeply concerned by a Palestinian Authority initiative that seeks a General Assembly resolution that would recognize an independent Palestinian state. The vote is expected to lead many world governments to recognize a Palestinian state and formally declare Israel an occupier under international law. If it then does not withdraw the settlers and troops to beyond the 1967 ceasefire lines, Israel would be subjected to sanctions and, worse, to delegitimation.
Critics fear that renewing the Israel-Palestine negotiations is a nonstarter because neither side is ready to make major concessions. The Israelis learned that trading land for peace in Gaza and in Southern Lebanon (where one can argue they should not have been in the first place) turned these areas into major bases for attacks on Israel. They fear that a Palestinian state on the West bank would turn into a “Hamastan” and serve as a basis for attacks from one end of Israel to the other, an assault the country could not survive. Additionally, the current turmoil in the Middle East raises serious questions about the ability of a peace deal made with one Palestinian government to hold when the next one—say, one dominated by Hamas—takes over. At the same time, the Palestinian Authority feels, not without reason, that it may gain more from a UN vote than from dealing with the Netanyahu government and that while negotiations keep dragging on, Israel keeps expanding its settlements.
A creative idea to prevent this train wreck is for the United States to preempt the September vote of the General Assembly by initiating a vote in the more authoritative Security Council. Such a vote, Tom Friedman explained in the New York Times, would reaffirm a 1947 UN decision that called for a partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. Friedman points out that by reaffirming that one of these lands is Jewish, a very major Israeli goal will be served. Indeed, even the current right-wing government has stated that such a recognition “would be a game changer.” The reaffirming resolution would also serve a very major Palestinian goal by stating that the border between the two states will be based on the 1967 ceasefire lines, following agreed-upon adjustments and proper security arrangements.
As for the refugees, many observers have pointed out that having lived for more than two generations in places such as Lebanon and Jordan, they must realize that they will not return to their homes in Israel as long as it survives, and that its destruction is unlikely. The refugees, though, observers argue, are entitled to some compensation.
An international commission, which I suggest could settle this matter, ought to take into account that while about 630,000 Arabs left or were driven out of Israel in 1948 (and another 100,000 were added by the Six-Day War), 820,000 Jews left or were driven out of Muslim states in the same period. Hence, whatever compensation is due to one side—even if one assumes that the Palestinian refugees’ entitlement claims are stronger because some of the Jewish refugees were able to sell their properties before they left—the net amounts are not likely to be enormous and surely could be raised from Jewish donors and oil-rich Arab states.
If the train can be prevented from derailing in the UN in these ways this September, it may make time for less pressured negotiations—and for preparing to prevent the next train wreck, which in the Middle East is never far behind.