A Regional Solution to Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations

The prospects for the direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) do not look good.  It’s unclear whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or President Mahmoud Abbas will be willing or able to close the distance between them on the core issues. Moreover, even if any agreement is eventually reached, its scope and implementation will be severely complicated by any remaining split between Fatah and Hamas, as well as the continued exclusion of the latter from the talks. The region, for its part, is tense: controversy continues over Iran's nuclear program and the upcoming judgments of the Special Tribunal in Lebanon. In such a difficult context, what could President Obama do to improve the chances that the negotiations will succeed?

Obama should pursue a “Madrid II” based on bilateral and multilateral-regional tracks. The process should have four parts, unfolding in tandem. The first part should be a restart of Israeli-Syrian negotiations and a re-focus of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on permanent agreement: borders, refugees, and Jerusalem. Syria has long been regarded as key to any regional peace; a deal with it is possible and wise. Permanent agreement is important because focusing only on partial agreements, such as an economic peace or a partial withdrawal, could lead Palestinians to suspect Israel of trying to maintain the status quo, and make Israelis worry about making concessions without obtaining an end to the conflict. 

The second part should involve changing the reality in the West Bank on the ground through interim agreements. Israel should gradually transfer control over the territories in the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority by changing C status areas to A or B status, or B areas to A – in order to allow the PA to continue building its institutions and capabilities and strengthening the economy, which is in both of their interests. This would generate momentum towards the two-state solution.

The third part of the process should be a regional umbrella based on the Arab Peace Initiative (API). The API was declared in March 2002 as an expression of intent on the part of all Arab nations to have peaceful relations with Israel, offering it a comprehensive peace settlement in exchange for full Israeli withdraw from territories occupied in June 1967. The API also calls for an agreed resolution to the problem of Palestinian refugees according to UN Resolution 194. Were bilateral negotiations to achieve a degree of success, Obama would be in a stronger position to encourage Arab nations to make steps towards renewing the activity of multilateral negotiations groups on regional arms controls and security, refugees, water, economics, and the environment. In addition, the regional umbrella – led by Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia – should assist the Palestinians during their negotiations with Israel vis-à-vis capacity-building, security force training, as well as lending political cover and logistical support in negotiations over Jerusalem and refugees. Egypt – or others – should push for reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, and for the latter’s inclusion in the peace process.

Finally, the fourth part of the process should be an international umbrella. The international community, led by the U.S., should devise a long-term strategy for the course and timetable of the bilateral and multilateral talks, as well as the resources and means available to the international community to encourage the parties to stay on track. The U.S. should facilitate the multilateral working groups. The international community could assist Palestinian capacity building, support the implementation of any relevant agreements reached between Israelis and Palestinians, and give either side guarantees as needed on the results of the permanent status.

A Madrid II based on the Arab Peace Initiative could pay several dividends. It could moderate Hamas by involving it in the peace process, and it could isolate Hizbullah and Iran by shifting the regional stance from confrontation to engagement. A Madrid II could also raise the level of interest in a negotiated settlement by enhancing Israeli and Palestinian incentive structures: raising the rewards of a settlement and lowering the costs of compromising.

Now that the U.S. got the parties face-to-face, it should step back and consider the merits of a Madrid II – as well as the potential costs of not trying to regionalize it. 

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Christiansen