Commentary: Ending Arab-Israeli conflict requires a carrot and stick approach

There are basically four ways that wars end — when one side wins a military victory, when both sides negotiate a peace in good faith and it lasts, when they negotiate in bad faith and it does not, and finally when peace is imposed by outside parties. It seems clear that the first three are unworkable when it comes to bringing about an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is time to try a variation of the last.

Military victory is not a solution to the Middle East conflict. If it were, Israel would have won long ago. The struggle is not just about which side has the military muscle to take and hold territory. It is about identity and existence. There are people on both sides who refuse to recognize that the other has a right to exist and neither side is going to relinquish that right. Taking territory does not therefore make the problem, nor the people involved, go away.

As for negotiations, there have been many attempts over the years to bring the parties together. Even getting them to sit at the same table has been a major challenge, but such efforts have on occasion produced short-term successes and some progress. The most frustrating thing about where this conflict now stands is that reasonable people on both sides can agree on 95 percent of what a permanent settlement would look like. Unfortunately, the extremists on both sides don’t hesitate to use violence to veto what reason would dictate.

The Obama administration's special envoy for the Middle East, former Senator George Mitchell, has been shuttling back and forth between the Israelis and the Palestinians for months to get them to be reasonable and begin indirect talks with him acting as go-between. His planned return to the region was postponed this week because of what the Israeli ambassador to Washington was reported to have said in a confidential briefing was the worst crisis in his country's relations with the U.S. in 35 years. While the ambassador subsequently denied he said that and tried to accentuate the positive, relations between the two countries have been severely strained.

Crisis or not, this situation was brought about when the ambassador's government used the occasion of a visit to Israel by Vice President Joe Biden to announce plans to construct 1600 new housing units in East Jerusalem. The Palestinians had insisted on a freeze of all new building of settlements as the price for beginning the talks that Mitchell has been trying to arrange.

Washington has asked that Israel put the plans on hold, but has yet to receive an official reply to that request.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu apologized for the timing of the announcement, but not for the move it announced. Either he is not in control of his own government or he is pandering to those who oppose any negotiations by deliberately insulting U.S. efforts to bring them about. In either case, it is clear that even if George Mitchell were able to get indirect talks underway, they are not going to be conducted in good faith.

That is because Netanyahu, and his Palestinian counterpart, both care more about maintaining their tenuous grip on power than they do about doing something as visionary as bringing about a real peace. Besides, being a visionary is dangerous. One of Netanyahu's predecessors, Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated by a right-wing, religious Israeli because he had signed the Oslo peace accords.

The last alternative — a peace imposed by outsiders — is also not entirely feasible, but a variation of it should be tried.

While neither side can be forced to accept a solution, one can be laid out that is reasonable and it can be made clear that if the parties refuse the international community will cut off all aid — be it economic, military or humanitarian. All three forms of aid strengthen the hand of the incumbent politicians who are doing so little to bring about a permanent peace.

At the same time, it should also be made clear that the U.S. remains committed to Israel's security and that an unprovoked attack on it would be considered an attack on the U.S.

Israel does not face a conventional military threat thanks to Jimmy Carter. Once the Camp David agreement took Egypt out of the equation no other combination of Arab states could pose a serious military challenge. The continuing threat of terrorist and the possibility of a weapon of mass destruction supplied by Iran do pose grave security problems for Israel. As Israel's Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, said recently however, a failure to achieve peace with the Palestinians is a greater threat than an Iranian bomb.

What would a settlement look like? The James Baker Institute at Rice University has conducted a workshop with Palestinian and Israeli experts to negotiate a settlement of the territorial issue. The difference in the positions of the two sides amounted to about one percent of the West Bank or less than 40 square kilometers. That is a gap that can be bridged.

A far bigger obstacle to a settlement is the disposition of the 300,000 settlers who are now living on the West Bank. Many of them are like the man who killed Rabin. They believe they have a biblical right to cheap housing on someone else's land. Leaving the Sinai in 1982 and Gaza in 2005 required the Israeli army to move out a few thousand settlers and created a national trauma. So how will it be possible to get hundreds of thousands of them to leave? While the stick for failing to accept the peace deal is a cutoff of aid, the carrot should be that the international community pays for housing for any of them that voluntarily move back to Israel proper.

And for those many who will refuse? They should be left in place. A new Palestinian state will be greatly enriched by having a vibrant Jewish minority among its citizens.

As for the other traditional sticking points — the right of return for Palestinians who left in 1948 and the status of Jerusalem — experts from the quartet composed of the U.S. the UN, the EU and Russia that having been trying to advance the peace process, together with representatives of other organizations that will help underwrite the outcome can come up with creative solutions. Obviously Israeli and Palestinian participation in the process would be welcome, but should not be allowed to keep the process from reaching a conclusion.

Anyone who proposes a simple solution to an intractable problem ought to consider why the suggested outcome might not happen. In this case, the proposed peace process will never come about because of domestic politics in the U.S. Without American leadership, any peace process will stall. As seen on a host of other issues like health care reform, climate change and regulating financial institutions, well-funded opposition groups can not only prevent progress, but can also make an intelligent debate impossible.

Groups that consider themselves friends of Israel like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee are up there with the NRA and the AARP in terms of lobbying muscle. In its pitch to potential contributors, AIPAC asserts Israel is surrounded by hostile countries from Morocco to Oman. It ominously adds "the threats today to Israel have never been greater…"

AIPAC's sense of history apparently does not extend back to 1973 let alone 1948. But AIPAC's first priority is its own political power, not historical accuracy nor the interests of either country for its membership and money would wither if Israel were not in peril.

So what if the friends of Israel do succeed in perpetuating the status quo? That does more to endanger Israel's security than ensure it. Occupations have a corrosive effect on both the occupier and the occupied. In such a situation both sides claim the moral high ground, but neither holds it.

Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon commissioned an assessment of the actions of Israel civil administration in the West Bank. It basically concluded that there has been a prolonged erosion of the rule of law because of the way that the settlements are given favorable treatment at the expense of the Palestinians.

This has diminished the state's authority, as the Israeli government has not only been unwilling to enforce the law when it comes to the settlers, but appear afraid to confront them. This self-delegitimization and timidity has emboldened not only those on the right of the Israeli political spectrum, but those on the left as well. According to a survey by Tel Aviv University nearly a million Israeli Jewish adults now believe they have the right to take violent measures to oppose government actions with which they disagree.

So doing nothing is not an option and neither is insisting the Palestinians have to become something like Switzerland before serious talks can begin. The parties themselves are unable to even get to the table let alone seriously talk peace. So it is time for the rest of the world to show them the way and to provide the incentives to help get them there.


Dennis Jett is a former career diplomat who served abroad is six countries including Israel.

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.