Unpromising Land

The U.S. should set the Israelis and Palestinians adrift


Earlier this week, the Palestinians looked close to civil war as rival gunmen from the Hamas movement and Fatah fired on institutions they associated with the other. This again highlighted that there is no solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict worth pursuing today. That's why the United States should tell Israelis and Palestinians that they are henceforth on their own, because the policies they are advocating can only lead to indefinite war.

The consensus view among Palestinians, at least on the basis of opinion polls, is that they should have a right to build a unified state in the entire West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Any settlement should also involve the right of return for refugees to their places of origin, or compensation for those who don't want to go home.

The Israeli consensus view is more complicated, because different Israeli governments have accepted different conditions for peace. In 2000, the Labor government of Ehud Barak agreed to discuss Jerusalem as a Palestinian capital, and accepted significant withdrawals from the West Bank and Gaza, with the possibility of land swaps to compensate for areas remaining under Israeli control. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon rejected this approach and initially preferred to impose a long truce, before adopting the principle of unilateral Israeli pullouts from occupied territories. He implemented this in Gaza, and now his successor Ehud Olmert might do the same in the West Bank, though he refuses to place any part of Jerusalem under Palestinian sovereignty.

All political forces in Israel agree on one thing: that a right of return for Palestinian refugees to areas inside the pre-June 1967 border is a non-starter. Israelis see this as a demographic Trojan horse, an effort to eventually create an Arab majority inside the Jewish state. Ironically, Israel applied precisely that logic in July 1950 through its Law of Return, which offered citizenship to anyone who was Jewish.

Complicating the discussion are incompatible agendas and hidden intentions on both sides of the divide. Hamas stands outside the Palestinian majority in refusing to formally endorse a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines. All Palestinian political groups are vague when it comes to their interpretation of the right of return, knowing well that it is a deal-breaker for the Israelis. More disturbingly this vagueness has created false expectations among Palestinian refugees, though one much-touted poll suggested that their attitudes toward return were perhaps more complex than official Palestinian spokesmen have been willing to admit.

The Israelis have been equally ambiguous about whether their unilateral moves are really designed to make peace with the Palestinians, or just to swallow as much Palestinian land as possible while ensuring Jews will not become a minority between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. The mechanism for this strategy, critics believe, is the "separation wall" that Israel is building in the West Bank–keeping Palestinian land inside but also large Palestinian agglomerations outside.

Faced with this intractable mess, the U.S. should say, "We're out of here!" The Bush administration can start by declaring that the "road map" plan is dead (not that it was ever alive) and that the Quartet endeavoring to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict–the U.S., the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia–should be dissolved. The policies and perceptions of both the Israelis and Palestinians are so far apart, the U.S. can then affirm, that it is up to them to find common ground on their own. Washington will be there to help, to criticize, to make its preferences known, but not to mediate or to engage in elaborate diplomatic initiatives.

The U.S. should also be clear about where it stands on a final settlement. The international consensus is for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, which would include East Jerusalem, and a solution to the refugee problem that does not threaten Israel's right to exist. The U.S. has leaned in Israel's favor on final West Bank borders, but President Bush has also supported a "viable Palestinian state," meaning one not chopped up into myriad areas isolated by Israeli settlements and roads. The most practical thing that Bush might do is return to the Clinton parameters of December 2000, which offered a much more consensual plan than what the administration proposed afterwards.

What the Americans should also say is that Israeli unilateralism might buy Olmert time, but it won't ever cure the cancer of Israeli occupation. The Palestinians will eventually go through, around, or under the wall, or fire over it with better weapons. The Palestinians must also accept harsh realities: a capital in Jerusalem is achievable; however the right of return can only mean a return to a Palestinian state, even if family reunification brings a handful of refugees from 1948 back to Israel proper. All Palestinian groups must level with their people and stop trying to have their cake and eat it too on the refugee issue.

What are the advantages of this? The U.S. has suffered unrelenting criticism for failing to resolve the Palestinian problem, no matter how much effort it has exerted. It has nothing to lose by pulling out of a no-win situation and making itself indispensable down the road, which would increase its diplomatic clout. It's also time for Israelis and Palestinians to see just where their declared positions lead them, without the luxury of drafting outside anxieties into their struggle. Most controversially, the U.S. should substantially cut military assistance to Israel, as the surest sign of its neutrality; but it must also reaffirm to the Palestinians that any government refusing to recognize Israel's right to exist within the 1967 borders will never enjoy vital foreign financial assistance.

The disadvantages are many. It will not be easy for the U.S. to ignore a conflict that might at any moment spin out of control. However, that is what the administration has effectively done in the past two years, and the positive shock of announcing a formal break in American mediation will make up for the unwillingness to get involved in doomed negotiations. The U.S. will also have to contend with the fact that, while Arab regimes are fed up with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Arab publics are angrier than ever. This will only translate into more antipathy for the U.S. However, this is so pervasive in the region anyway, and has been for a long time, that the marginal cost of telling Palestinians and Israelis to go it alone may be small.

Most difficult to ignore for the administration would be the reaction of Israel's supporters in the U.S. Israeli-Palestinian peace-making is an industry closely tied in to American relations with Israel. To abandon the former means reassessing the latter, which will not be easy. However, Israel is strong enough to defend itself. As for the weaker Palestinians, veritable auto-emancipation means they can reunite around a common platform of peace, or war. But they won't achieve their goals through violence, just as the Israelis cannot enforce enduring peace. In this mutual helplessness lies a final settlement.