Breakthrough for Palestine, break with Israel

Washington has been abuzz over strong hints that President Obama is aiming to bury the last remnant of the Cold War, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Reports indicate the president is strongly considering breaking the deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations by joining in international recognition for a Palestinian state.

There are 193 U.N. member states; 136 recognize the State of Palestine. The Vatican was the latest sovereign entity to announce its recognition of Palestinian statehood in 2013.

The feeling among the president's top advisers and senior State Department officials is that an end-of-term initiative on behalf of Israeli-Palestinian peace will result in a positive legacy for Obama. They also hope it will renew international authority for the peace process and be a powerful incentive for preserving the two-state solution.

Even in Israel, the English-language daily Haaretz has reported that the Israeli government has analyzed three different scenarios that Obama may implement regarding the Israeli-Palestinian issue during his last months in office. According to Haaretz, the possibility deemed likeliest is U.S. support for a U.N. Security Council resolution on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

According to news reports, the U.S. would require concessions from both sides. From the Israelis would be required a halt to settlement construction in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) and recognition of East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

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For their part the Palestinians would be asked to recognize the "Jewish character" of the Israeli state and renounce their claim on the right of return of Palestinian refugees to their former lands and homes in what is now Israel. Additionally, the U.S. would recommend land swaps to compensate for land seized for the major Israeli settlements built in the OPT since 1967.

Finally, the strongest, new element in such an approach is the U.S. presentation of these parameters as a U.N. resolution to be voted on and supported by all members of the U.N. Security Council before Obama leaves office.

This new resolution would replace the Security Council Resolution 242 from 1967 and Resolution 338 from 1973. 

This historic change of direction would move the peace process beyond the highest hurdle of all -- U.S. use of its veto to defend Israel against U.N. resolutions.

With the U.S. either refraining from vetoing a resolution on the subject in the U.N. Security Council or even voting for it, the peace process would move to a different track, one where negotiations would take place between two states, Israel and Palestine, in a framework set by the international community with the legal force of the Security Council.

Until the Clinton administration, U.S. policy always backed negotiation within parameters set by the Security Council and international law. In the Clinton years, the U.S. gradually abandoned that language for Israeli language about (unmediated) two-party negotiation without reference to international standards.

In the move Obama seems set to make, he assures that his successor will have to move on a different playing field, one not defined by Israel unilaterally.

The serious possibility of a new U.S. policy toward Palestine explains why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu devoted so much of his speech at the recent American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual conference in Washington, D.C., to preventing the president from taking a new approach to the conflict.

Netanyahu's rejectionist tactics have instead given our president the latitude to take a new initiative. If the prime minister had kept the president closer, he would have reduced the chances of a shift in the American-Israeli relationship. In a series of insults and rebuffs to Obama and his administration, Netanyahu has succeeded in opening a breach between the two governments and setting the U.S. on a new course.

Independently but on a parallel track that can only reinforce renewed U.S. efforts, was a full-page New York Times ad on March 29, 2016, posted by the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace in Washington, D.C. The powerful ad ran under the heading, "Israel's Security Chiefs Agree: Separation into two states is in Israel's vital security interest."

Quoting five former heads of the Mossad (Israel's foreign intelligence agency), five former directors of Shin Bet (Israel's domestic security agency), and six former chiefs of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, the ad forcefully conveyed one stark message: "The only way Israel can remain a Jewish, democratic state is if the Palestinians have a demilitarized Palestinian state."

None of the ad's signatories can be accused of being shrinking violets or having nothing but the best of Israel's interests at heart, yet they all agreed that time was not on Israel's side, that Israel was heading to increasing international isolation without a Palestinian state, and that not establishing a Palestinian state would create a one-state solution (bi-national state) by default, which was an existential threat to Zionism and Israel itself.

Simply put, there can never be a safe and secure, democratic Jewish state in Israel unless there is also a demilitarized Palestinian state with people of both countries living side by side in dignity and peace.

Sensitive issues remain. Chief among these is addressing the Palestinian right of return of refugees in a compassionate and just way while still preserving Israel as a Jewish state. This would involve Israel's acknowledgment of its part of the responsibility in the creation of the refugee problem, an international compensation fund for refuges and a symbolic return of some refugees under "family reunification."

In other words, the peace agreement would preserve the "right" of return but not implement it within Israel proper but rather in the new Palestinian state.

A new U.N. Security Council resolution backed by the United States and voted on by all the council's members would fundamentally redefine the paradigm of a solution and lay firm foundations for the next U.S. president to build upon.

It is the right thing to do, for America, for Israel and for the Palestinians.

[Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Global Human Development at Georgetown University; Rafat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American businessman and political commentator.]


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