American foreign policy Israel Palestinian Authority Palestinians Right of Return

If doing nothing is insane, what, then, must be done?

Pundits everywhere are calling for a rethinking of America’s Middle East policies, assuming that the current tack will yield nothing productive. One of the most controversial calls was made by Thomas Friedman, in which he suggested the U.S. should pull the plug on its current diplomatic efforts, give the Israelis and Palestinians the White House phone number and just wait until the parties decide they are ready to negotiate seriously. Israel Policy Forum’s David Halperin summmed up my reaction with the title of his piece, To Do Nothing Is An Insane Policy. Doni Remba concurs.

But if the U.S. needs to stay engaged, what should it do? You might have been sucked into this post because you assumed that I had a clue, or thought I had a clue. I don’t. Isolated bits and shards of ideas are out there, nothing more. I offer a few from my rather paltry collection, hoping they will spark constructive conversation:

Daniel Levy opines: “The issues and their solutions are largely known, but the expectations that negotiations would deliver anything meaningful are nearly nonexistent. Another option for the U.S. would be to initiate back-to-back talks with the respective parties — this approach may actually be more productive than bilateral talks between two parties who have proven that they cannot resolve this conflict on their own.”

It worked for Kissinger, who went back and forth between the Egyptians and Israelis in the Sinai disengagement talks. It worked, up to a point, for Jimmy Carter in the cabins of Camp David. Why not give it a try?

But maybe more radical ideas are called for. In an interview, the estimable Rob Malley calls for “a sense of novelty”:

…As we’ve defined the parameters of a two-state solution, it hasn’t really addressed the concerns of today. On the Palestinian side: the diaspora, the refugees, those who have identified with Hamas; on the Israeli side the right-wing, the religious, the settlers’ community. And you won’t be able to satisfy all of them, undoubtedly, but there needs to be a way to at least try to bring some of their concerns into the solution that you’re ultimately going to have to sell to them. It’s very hard to imagine a solution that won’t entail the creation of a Palestinian state and Israel within the borders of 1967. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t change other elements of it so that it becomes both more attractive, and has a sense of novelty so that people when they see it don’t think, “We’ve seen this movie before, we know how it ends, and it doesn’t end well…

…Unfortunately…, the way the two-state solution has been discussed–including by very well-intentioned people–has been to say “the refugee problem is a card that the Palestinians will keep close to their chest until the very end, and then at the end they’ll trade it for East Jerusalem, or more territory.” If the genesis of the Palestinian movement is a refugee issue, if the majority of Palestinians are refugees, and if the Palestinian ethos is so connected to what happened in 1948 [when thousands of Palestinians either fled or were driven out of what later became part of Israel], that won’t cut it. So the answer is not to say, “They need a right of return to Israel,” because that would be the end of the two-state solution. The answer is to see whether you can find a way to show that whatever solution you’re pursuing takes into account the world view, the histories, and the concerns and the aspirations of the diaspora.

Malley has been calling for a focus on the core issues of 1948, of late. He gave few specifics in that interview, added no flesh to those provocative bones. But adding those core issues into the diplomatic calculus, if done properly, could indeed present the parties with new incentives, new directions.

When it comes to the refugees, one idea favored by Alon Ben-Meir is an international initiative to start compensating them now:

There is a need to create an economic incentive for the Israelis and Palestinians to come together and cooperate on such contentious final status issues as the Palestinian Right of Return.

It is necessary for all countries who endorse peace in the Middle East—including the US, Russia, China, Japan, EU and wealthy Arab states—to prove their commitment to a peaceful solution through a financial commitment of fifteen to twenty billion dollars for the resettlement and rehabilitation of the Palestinian refugees. This not only implies that a solution to the Palestinian refugee question will be reached through negotiation, but more importantly, it redirects the various parties’ focus away from fighting over the political issue, and toward how to appropriately spend the money toward a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem. This also assures Israel that the international community, along with some of the Arab states, is committed to a solution to the refugee problem that precludes the Right of Return to Israel proper without saying so publicly. Such a pool of funds should be placed under the umbrella of the IMF, the World Bank or the UN.

Ah, but what about the Jewish refugees from Muslim countries? Shouldn’t they be included? Sure. Why not? Wouldn’t that help to build support for other components of a final settlement among “Mizrachi” Jews in Israel, who tend to lean to the right?

That’s all there is in this week’s idea factory…

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