Lobelog, December 14, 2017

by Robert E. Hunter

By announcing that he will move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, President Donald Trump has infuriated almost all the Muslim world and many of America’s European allies, while leading most experts to declare that the so-called “peace process” between Israel and Palestine is dead. At the same time, during the first visit of an Israeli prime minister to European institutions in Brussels in 22 years, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked the European Union to follow suit, only to be politely but categorically rebuffed by the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini and other European leaders. Now, an emergency meeting in Istanbul of the Organization of the Islamic Conference has condemned Trump’s decision. The conference host, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said that “I am inviting the countries who value international law and fairness to recognize occupied Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine.”

Well, why not—at least the eastern part of Jerusalem? Maybe it is time to try making lemonade (actions rather than just talk on the peace process) out of the lemons (moving the U.S. embassy) served up by Trump.

For virtually all of us who have labored in the peace-process vineyard for decades (this author has just passed the 50-year mark), recognizing a Palestinian state at this point is a frightful thought. It puts the cart before horse. It singles out one issue (two, actually) from the rest and violates the general diplomatic principle that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” It would not go down well with regional countries, notably Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which want any peace process to fail. They don’t want an independent Palestinian state because it would conflict with their own geopolitical agendas and create an unwanted rival in terms of Arab progress. And it would unleash a firestorm of criticism and opposition, not just in Israel, but also in the United States, especially among Israel’s vocal and politically-powerful backers.

Before rejecting Erdogan’s proposal (as modified) out of hand, it is important to note three specific but unhighlighted points in President Trumps statement on Jerusalem. First, he said that “We are not taking a position of any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders.” Among other things, that means the US has not ruled out the possibility that there could be a second capital in the same city—the Palestinian position and an idea that has been on the table for many years. Second, he said that “… we finally acknowledge the obvious: that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. This is nothing more, or less, than a recognition of reality.” Not said but also valid is the “reality” that the Palestinians, their statehood aspirations, and the conflict will not just go away and that a Palestinian capital in some part of Jerusalem is also a future “reality” of any possible peace agreement that is not just imposed by force or fiat. Third, Trump emphasized that “We cannot solve our problems by making the same failed assumptions and repeating the same failed strategies of the past. Old challenges demand new approaches.” He is right.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has reinserted his country into the Middle East, following miscues by the United States in Syria, and is seeking to rival U.S. influence there. Russia is also formally a member, along with the U.S., EU, and United Nations, of the moribund quartet of nations set up in 2002 to help the peace process along. Putin has recently restated Russia’s long-standing position that it favors “the creation of an independent Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem.” Further—though this was couched in the context of a prior peace settlement—the Russian ambassador to Israel has “… reiterated…that Russia considers West Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital, and suggested the possibility that Russia, too, could move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem once a peace deal is reached between Israel and the Palestinians.”

What Trump has done may indeed have killed off any hopes for the peace process, at least for the indefinite future, and the ideas canvassed here could just be a wooden stake through its heart. But these acts—what Trump has done and what he could now do on a Palestinian state—recognize at least part of the overall “reality” of a final agreement and are potentially consonant with his argument that “old challenges demand new approaches.”

If negotiations could be restarted at all, given the unfavorable ratio of heat to light there always is on Arab-Israeli issues, at least they could restart on a basis different from those that have failed time and again for so many years. And they would restart from the position of putting to rest a couple of the key items in dispute. Indeed, many negotiators with long experience believe that the final status of Jerusalem is one of the easier issues to settle, based on the principle of “one city, two capitals,” with the Muslim and Jewish holy sites at the Temple Mount/ Haram al-Sharif being jointly administered by local religious leaders. These ideas have for decades been discussed by Jerusalem’s leaders of all stripes. Left to themselves, they would likely come to agreement in short order.

Further, if the United States does believe that resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict is important—as presidents always assert, whether they believe it or not—and if U.S. credibility is on the line as it always is, then something is clearly needed: maybe not now, but surely at some point. Useful ideas have been long in gestation. The basis for a settlement was best set out in December 2000, following the abortive Camp David summit. President Bill Clinton set down what have come to be known as the “Clinton Parameters,” which most experienced negotiators on all sides believe represent the best, if not the only, basis for success. Most important, they deal with the core issues of territory, Jewish settlements, borders, security, Jerusalem, and refugees.

Of course, this being the Middle East, there would be countless issues to work out; a plethora of naysayers on both sides would nit-pick the parameters to death, if permitted to do so; and the parameters would have to be rebranded to be acceptable to President Trump, who couldn’t embrace anything, however positive it might be, with the name “Clinton” attached.

It has long appeared to many of us who have been in the Israel-Palestine peacemaking business that the best course for the United States would be to take the Clinton Parameters, slap them on the table, and announce they are the American position of what a final settlement needs to look like. At the very least, such a renewed U.S. leadership role, based on these viable peace proposals, would promote American credibility throughout the Muslim world, which for so long has been on a downward trajectory. Other issues facing the United States in the region could become easier to deal with. This U.S. leadership would also resonate with those Israelis who are depressed by Netanyahu’s obduracy and thus the risks he poses to Israel’s long-term future as a democratic, Jewish state.

So, let the debate begin. Let Jared Kushner, the president’s designated lead on this issue, get to work to break the old mold and to “pour new wine into new wineskins.” Then, let us see what happens. Before the objections start in earnest, two questions need to be posed: “Is it important to bring the Israeli-Palestine conflict to a halt, with a genuine two-state solution?” And, if so, “who has a better, viable idea and what is it?”

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