A New Paradigm for Middle East Peace

Twice in the last decade, Israel offered to cede nearly all of Judea and Samaria to the Palestinians, only to be rebuffed. It's time for a new paradigm: Instead of rewarding Palestinian intransigence by pressuring Israel to stop settlement growth, the United States should tell the Palestinians that time is not on their side, and that the longer they refuse to make peace with Israel, the smaller their state will be. If the Palestinians want Israel stop building settlements tomorrow, all they have to do is make peace with Israel today.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted on November 9 that the "disagreements with the US over Jerusalem are well-known. They are not new and have continued for 40 years." These differences are apparently not well-known to those who would use Israel for partisan purposes to advance the political fortunes of the Republican party, but those of us who genuinely care about peace in the Middle East and a strong US-Israel relationship should stress that this is and has been American policy, and is not unique to any one president.

The Bush administration also publicly opposed settlements and building in Jerusalem, and every Democratic and Republican president since 1967 has failed to move the U.S.embassy to Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 requires that the U.S. embassy be moved to Jerusalem unless the president signs a waiver every six months, which is just what Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama (thus far) have done.

It is precisely because these issues are not unique to the Obama administration, but represent continued US policy across Democratic and Republican administrations, that it is time to reexamine a policy that has yet to bear fruit after 40 years.

The rationale for current US policy is simple. The fate of Judea, Samaria, and Jerusalem is to be decided by the parties, and any unilateral actions by Israel necessarily prejudice the outcome of that decision. A two-state solution is in Israel's best interests because Israel cannot permanently rule over the Palestinian population in Judea and Samaria without giving them the right to vote, which would risk Jews becoming a minority in their own country. Given that Israel has shown a willingness to trade land for peace when a partner for peace emerges (Israel accepted a state with none of Judea, Samaria, or Jerusalem in 1948 and gave the entire Sinai to Egypt in exchange for a promise of peace), and given that Israel has traded land for peace even in the absence of a partner for peace (Israel unilaterally withdrew from Lebanon and Gaza in the last decade), one would think that it would make sense for Israel to refrain from settlement expansion or building in Jerusalem to make an eventual land swap that much easier.

The problem with that logic is that the status quo cannot be maintained indefinitely. These "settlements" are towns with families and needs that keep growing. Can you imagine what it would be like if your town forbade all construction of any kind for any reason? That's how unreasonable the Bush roadmap is by prohibiting the "natural growth" of settlements, a prohibition predicated on the assumption that Palestinian leadership would be induced to negotiate in good faith.

Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and is not a settlement. Had Jordan not attacked Israel in 1967, Jerusalem would not today be Israel's undivided capital, but Israel cannot now be expected to reverse the realization of a 2,000 year-old dream.

President Obama's outreach to the Islamic world makes sense. There are a lot of Muslims, and it's better that they be our friends than our enemies. But friends speak truth to friends. For 40 years the US has opposed building in disputed parts of Jerusalem, so if any prime minister of Israel defends such projects, any US president, wherever he is and whoever he is, will be forced to respond--and the result is a perception of discord between allies that only gives Palestinians another excuse not to negotiate. And this cycle will recur as long as US policy remains unchanged, pushing peace further and further into the horizon.

It's time for a new US policy and a new truth for our Muslim friends. President Obama should tell the world that the clock will not stop forever while Palestinian leadership stalls the peace talks. The Palestinians should resume negotiations without preconditions. The sooner they return to the negotiating table the better--the better for the Palestinians, the better for Israel, the better for peace. But until then, Israel legitimately controls these territories, having won them in a defensive war against countries whose stated goal was Israel's destruction. And the longer Palestinian leadership tarries, the smaller their state may be.

As Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) said in October

Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. It is not a settlement.

As such, the resumption of construction in Jerusalem is not a justification for a crisis, a showdown, a meltdown or even a hissy fit. Ramot and Pisgat Zeev are going to be part of Israel in any conceivable final status deal and to pretend otherwise is pointless.

As I have said, those who earlier complained about the inadequacy of Israel's unilateral and uncompensated settlement freeze, who chose to waste those ten months instead of diving aggressively into direct talks on peace, cannot reasonably now turn around and complain that the end of the freeze and the resumption of Israeli construction in Jerusalem--Israel's capital, and the singular geographic center of the hopes and aspirations of the Jewish people for three millennia--is either a shock or an insurmountable obstacle to peace.

Israeli construction in Jerusalem, in two already well-established neighborhoods is neither a show of bad faith, nor a justification for avoiding negotiations aimed at achieving a final status agreement. The legitimate aspirations of the Palestinians are not going to be achieved by violence and they're not going to be achieved by the equivalent of holding their breath until their lips turn blue. Direct negotiations are sole pathway to their goal and the sooner they recognize this fact, the better.

Israel has a moral and legal right to build settlements. One reason some prefer to call the disputed land "the West Bank" instead of the traditional "Judea and Samaria" is that it's hard to argue that Jews don't have historic ties to "Judea" or that Jews should be forbidden from living in "Judea." Jews have lived in this land for thousands of years. Israel administers these territories today because Jordan attacked Israel in 1967. One can question the wisdom of building settlements, but it is hard to argue that Jews do not have the right to live in land that they've lived in for generations and that Israel recovered in a defensive war. The assertion by Palestinian leaders that peace is only possible if Jews leave Judea and Samaria is anti-Semitic and racist. If over one million Arabs can live within pre-1967 Israel, why can't about a quarter as many Jews live in what amounts to about 5% of Judea and Samaria?

Settlements are not the root cause of the conflict or an obstacle to peace. We hear so often about the centrality of settlements that we can be forgiven for wondering whether, if asked what causes global warming, Palestinian leaders would blame the settlements. When Israel was created in 1948, none of Judea and Samaria was within Israel's borders, yet the Arabs attacked Israel. When Egypt threatened to "drive the Jews into the sea" prior to the 1967 Six Day War, Israel did not control Judea and Samaria--Jordan did. The PLO was formed in 1964, three years before Israel controlled Judea and Samaria and three years before there were any settlements. The "Palestine" the organization was formed to "liberate" was and is all of Israel.

Arab refusal to recognize Israel is the primary obstacle to peace. The root cause of the conflict is not the settlements, but the failure of Arab leadership to recognize and accept Israel as a Jewish state. That's why Palestinian leadership rejected the peace plan proffered by President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Ehud Barak, which would have given the Palestinians a state on 95-98% of Judea and Samaria (depending on whose numbers you believe) and Gaza and why Palestinian leadership rejected Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's even more generous offer in 2008. What Palestinian leadership wanted was not another Arab state, but the elimination of the only Jewish state.

Peace is possible if Arab leaders are willing to make peace. Consider Anwar Sadat's sincere desire to make peace. Settlements did not stop Egypt from making peace. Ariel Sharon forcibly evicted settlers from the Sinai as part of that peace agreement. Israel unilaterally evacuated all settlements in Gaza in 2005--if settlements were the issue, Gaza should have emerged as an island of peace. But the result was not peace, but thousands of rockets fired from Gaza into Israel. Settlements were never the issue--there is no "occupation" in Gaza. The only Israeli in Gaza is the kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held for over four years in violation of international law.

The US should not impose its formula for peace on Israel. Israel has proven that it is willing to take risks for peace, and Israel will be less likely to take those risks if it perceives that its lone reliable ally is not solidly behind it. If Israel determines that its security needs require another path on settlements, the US should support the decision of its ally--Israeli children will pay the price if the wrong decision is made. It is not for us, living in the relative safety of America, to dictate to Israel what its security needs are. If we've learned anything from our follies in Vietnam and Iraq, it's that we cannot impose our vision of peace on people living thousands of miles away. Only the parties to the conflict can make a genuine peace, and thus far, Palestinian leadership has proven incapable of making peace, or unwilling to do so.

Toward a rational settlement policy. The United States should insist on a rational settlements policy, one that recognizes that Israel cannot freeze, and should not be expected to freeze, natural growth. Moreover, growth within the construction lines, or "vertical growth," should be excluded from the definition of "freeze," as should growth in communities in Jerusalem or suburbs of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

But if Israel has the superior moral, legal, and historic right to Judea and Samaria, why freeze any settlement building? The answer is that Israel values peace over land. That's why Israel returned the Sinai, unilaterally withdrew from Lebanon, unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, and was willing to cede nearly all of Judea and Samaria in return for the promise of peace. And that's why Israel, despite the legitimacy of its claims, froze settlement growth for 10 months. The real question is why the Palestinians waited until the freeze was about to expire before even pretending to resume talks.

The dilemma is that Israel is forced to choose between its rights and its Jewish character. Israel cannot remain Jewish and democratic if it administers Judea and Samaria indefinitely--that's a demographic fact. Most Israelis favor a two-state solution for these reasons, and await Arab partners for peace willing and able to implement it. But there is no doubt that certain settlement blocs will remain under Israeli control under a two-state solution and that Jerusalem will remain Israel's capital, which is why demands by this and previous administrations that Israel freeze all settlement growth and building in Jerusalem are unreasonable and counterproductive. Extreme demands on Israel only fuel extremist Arab fantasies and delay true progress toward peace. The US should support, not pressure, Israel as it takes the steps its democratically elected government deems necessary for peace and security.

Is the goal of Palestinian leadership a state for the Palestinians or the elimination of the Jewish state? By telling Palestinian leadership loud and clear that we support a two-state solution, that we recognize Jerusalem as Israel's undivided capital, and that we recognize the right of Jews to live in their historic homeland, regardless of the ultimate disposition of that land, we would send a powerful message to the Arab world: Time is not on your side, and the sooner you make peace with Israel, the better it will be for you and the world.