Despite an agreement to keep talking, expectations are low for the talks between Israelis and Palestinians that began in Washington last week. There is a small chance that an incremental process will eventually lead to a breakthrough. But a two-state solution negotiated between these two parties alone is unlikely. Instead, the best hope is a new, comprehensive approach that brings on board the most important regional players, including Saudi Arabia and Syria.
As the rounds of talks move forward there are three basic limitations to direct negotiations. First, President Barack Obama’s administration seems to value process over substance, and consequently risks falling into the trap of unending negotiations. Despite expressions of confidence that the central disputes can be resolved over the next year, a great deal separates the two sides. The Palestinians are concerned that talks without deadlines simply allow Israel more time to build more settlements, which will further undermine any possible agreement. The Israelis doubt their Arab neighbours can deliver results, and are hesitant to offer compromises without a clear end in sight.
The second problem is that a bilateral peace deal is no longer attractive to either side. Israel would find it difficult to stomach the painful concessions necessary to win peace with only some Palestinians – Hamas, who run Gaza, are not involved – while the Palestinians need cover from the wider Arab world to sell tough choices to their own people.
Finally, and worst of all, a two-state solution will no longer work. Despite serious efforts to build a Palestinian state, this option effectively disappeared as Israeli settlers spread throughout the West Bank.
Given this trio of deficiencies, the bilateral approach alone should be abandoned. Instead, a comprehensive accord between Israel and all Arab countries should be pursued. This could build on the terms laid out in the Arab Peace Initiative, adopted during an Arab League meeting in Beirut in 2002. This offered Israel both normalised relations with the Arab world and security guarantees, in exchange for agreements over borders and the problem of refugees. A further strength of the plan was that it offered regional cover for both sides.
Such a move would change the entire approach to negotiations. Instead of relying on pressure to cajole Israelis and Palestinians to act, a regional initiative allows both sides to find a settlement that serves their national interests. It also obliges Arabs to be responsible for pressing Hamas and Hezbollah. The US could still be responsible for collecting the so-called “end-game” deposits. These hypothetical pledges from all parties could be deposited with Washington, and committed to only if others are willing to do the same. Saudi Arabia, Syria, the Palestinians, and Israel will need to concede contentious points to get what they ultimately want.
Citing his governing coalition, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister, is likely to resist a regional agreement. But the Israeli public will find it hard to turn down. It offers peace with the entire Arab world, resolves the issues of Hamas and Hizbollah, and rids Iran of any excuse to repeat its heated rhetoric against Israel. It can also solve the refugee matter while avoiding a major influx of Palestinians. In other words, it tackles all of the average Israeli’s concerns.
While it ought to be difficult for other parties to say no to a regional deal capable of solving these long-term issues, there is clearly still the potential for failure. But not acting carries greater risk. Although a two-state solution is increasingly unlikely, the alternative – a one-state solution, where the growing population of Palestinians demand to become full citizens of Israel – is much more widely problematic for both sides.
The conditions for bilateral settlement do not currently exist. Renewed talks between Israelis and Palestinians are unlikely to change this, no matter how much the Obama administration hope they might. Delaying difficult decisions today in hope of better opportunities tomorrow will only make it harder to end the conflict. But a regional solution is both possible and desirable as a way forward. And the time to act is now.