July 3, 2009

Chain Reaction

The children’s book Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins recounts the cunning of Hershel Ostropol as he outwits eight goblins over eight nights in a haunted synagogue. Given three items to assist him - an egg, a dreidel, and a pickle jar - Hershel traps the overstuffed hand of a hungry goblin in the jar.

Only when the goblin swore to leave did Hershel give him the secret: let go of all the pickles.

The image of a hand grasping too much and getting stuck is visible in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. With six core issues - settlements, Israel’s security, diplomatic status, borders, refugees, and Jerusalem - and a dozen satellite problems, the process has expanded to a small galaxy. It might be too heavy to lift.

The road to peace is littered with failed initiatives that recycled themselves into a patchwork foundation for the 21st century.

The Oslo Accord promised more than it could deliver despite postponing negotiations on the core issues. Camp David attempted to broker a grand bargain, but collapsed under unrealistic expectations and political infighting. The “Road Map for Peace,” announced in 2002, reverted to the Oslo idea of delaying core issues until a friendlier environment could be created. After the Road Map stalled, the belated Annapolis conference switched back to chasing a final agreement.

Then the Gaza War happened. Mutual distrust, a lack of continuity, and political earthquakes have stunted progress and yielded minimal results in 2009. If years pass without reaching an agreement on one particular issue, such as settlements, how much longer to agree on Jerusalem?

All parties should permanently reaffirm whether to negotiate the six core issues now or defer and hope that time heals. While debating the core issues will escalate tensions, waiting for Israeli-Palestinian relations to warm up has not only proven futile but counterproductive. By procrastinating on critical decisions, Israelis and Palestinians have had little progress to celebrate and build on.

If now isn’t the time to negotiate the core issues, when is? Many Israelis and Palestinians agree, because of demographic trends, that the opportunity is now or never. Positive feedback, the amplification of an effect by its own influence on the process, is exactly what Israelis and Palestinians need.

A snowball effect.

Instead of tackling every issue at once or one issue only, a series of conferences could be held in major cities like New York, Cairo, Tel Aviv, Beirut, Dubai, and Karachi, similar to the Doha rounds and synchronized with President Obama’s first term. Core issues would be traded over several years to build momentum and generate a final agreement.

The first conference would be the most difficult because it requires upfront sacrifices, like a buy-in. Meeting without preconditions is an illusion; every side has preconditions. Since settlements are politically en vogue and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman claims a permanent freeze is unrealistic, Israel should pledge a temporary freeze while the conference is in session.

Palestinians have less to bargain with, a difficult disadvantage to overcome. But reality is demanding so the state of Israel should be recognized as a Jewish state since it’s likely to become one, no matter how much they loath the possibility. Both the settlement freeze and this recognition would be temporary moves, retractable if negotiations fail to finalize them.

Ideally the first conference would open under the freedom of Gazans, but reality may force a bonus step. Gaza is a nightmare and peace is hard to foster while the blockade is starving Palestinians. Israel may not accept it, but Hamas should offer a six month ceasefire and release Gilad Shalit. In return, Israel must at the minimum ease its blockade to allow more food and essential products into Gaza.

If the conference fails to advance the negotiations of a final status, Israel can return to building settlements and rearm its blockade. Palestinians can go back to waging war against Israel.

But if enough success emboldens both sides to achieve more, a second conference would focus on the future borders of Israel and Palestine. Topics include roadblocks in the West Bank and consolidating Palestinian arms into a national army and police force. Borders establish an identity. The third conference, centered on refugees, can’t be debated until each side knows what their state will look like.

Jerusalem wouldn’t come last in a perfect world, but fittingly comes last in an imperfect world. Because each side is aware of and disagrees with the other’s position, a two-state solution's many peripherals must already be agreed upon before the Temple Mount can be negotiated. Jerusalem is considered the physical and metaphysical crown of the peace process, and the battle for it will be extreme.

Israels and Palestinians need to taste previous success; their hunger for Jerusalem clouds the mind. But if they can work past Jerusalem, both would have a state.

Reality is where theory goes to die, but 20 years of limited progress is strong evidence that the peace process needs fresh thinking. America, Israel, and Muslim states voice rigid commitment to past agreements, which is why they’re often broken. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is unorthodox and benefits from alternative theories.

Committing to gradual negotiation of the core issues instead of grabbing them all at once could accelerate a peace process weighed down by its history of failure.

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