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By Andrew Wilson
The surprise announcement late Monday night that Kadima Party leader Shaul Mofaz will join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a coalition government signals a shift in Israeli politics—one that will offer the opportunity for serious negotiations with the Palestinians towards a two-state solution. Netanyahu could not do this before, because he had to tailor his policies to satisfy the small parties in his previous coalition, notably the small but vocal settler movement in his own Likud party. Now, with a 94-seat super-majority in the Knesset, he has the political maneuvering room to support Mofaz to get the job done.
Now is the right time to restart the peace process. It has languished for years while people rehashed arguments about “preconditions” and declarations that “settlements” are the ultimate block to peace. This writer even sent up a semantic trial balloon by proposing a “lull” instead of a settlement freeze. Still, although the Israelis and Palestinians want to go forward, they do not know how.
That is, with the exception of Shaul Mofaz, who comes with a plan. He explained his vision in an interview with the Jerusalem Post on April 12:
An agreement cannot be reached in one step, so it is important to have an interim agreement to build trust, give the Palestinians a state and guarantee Israeli security along the way to a permanent agreement. Then, in a year, we can reach agreements on borders and security because the gaps are not wide.
I would guarantee the Palestinians territory the same size of the pre-1967 West Bank and Gaza Strip with land swaps. In any agreement, we will keep the settlement blocs. They will be part of Israel as our eastern border.
I am very pragmatic and ready for historic concessions, but I will insist on security arrangements.
Mofaz advocates a two-stage plan similar to President Obama’s proposal, in which Jerusalem and the right of return would be deferred until after the first stage built an atmosphere of trust between the two sides. Mofaz also indicated, that he would only deal with Hamas on the condition that it accept the Quartet’s (the U.S., Russia, EU, and UN) conditions to renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist.
This is a worthy proposal by a leader who is pragmatic to the core. It contains all the elements of a credible offer that can deliver a state to the Palestinians while satisfying Israel’s security needs.
But a major question remains: Can Mofaz deliver? When he originally presented his peace plan, he was a challenger seeking to unseat Netanyahu. Now he is joining in a coalition government with the man who is famous for stonewalling the Palestinian issue even as he indulged the settlers in the right wing of his Likud Party. Nevertheless, at their Tuesday morning press conference announcing the agreement, Netanyahu and Mofaz indicated that one of the four priorities of their government—the others being the Tal Law, the budget, and governance—was “to move forward responsibly in the peace process” with the Palestinians. Further, Mofaz has been given the position of Vice-Premier, where he will take the lead in negotiations with the Palestinians.
As for Netanyahu, there is evidence to suggest he was not strongly principled in his past stonewalling of peace talks and that he sees merit to both sides. He is cautious about anything that would weaken Israel’s security, yet he is also cognizant of the demographic argument that Israel cannot absorb the Palestinians as citizens and still remain a Jewish state. He is first and foremost a pragmatic politician who weighs the costs and benefits of any policy. Until now, the cost of alienating the settler movement was too high. Now, with more room to maneuver, and with a strongly motivated Mofaz as his partner that calculus has changed.
For any chance of the peace plan to succeed, Mofaz will have to sell his idea to both the Israeli right and left. This means assuring the right that it will provide adequate security going forward, while mobilizing public support from the left and the center for a settlement freeze. If this fails, he will try alternatives, such as offering the Palestinians a state immediately on 60 percent of the West Bank—his stage one—as a starter for negotiations to finalize borders and security. He may offer as an olive branch to release all Palestinian prisoners while working with the Red Cross to save the lives of the hunger strikers. Mofaz understands that he needs to capture hearts in order to open minds. If one of his ideas doesn’t work, he will adjust his approach to find something else that does.
Will a solution ultimately be more complex than that? It can be, because there may be unknowns that don’t feature in his thinking. The Palestinians want to feel an emotional connection, and though Mofaz can and would offer it, he may not be swift enough. He often takes time to reflect, while the Palestinians have a tendency towards impatience. This is a game where timing can be everything.
The Palestinians may vent their impatience by pushing for non-member status at the UN, but Mofaz could care less, because he wants to arrive at a two-state solution. If the Jordanians offer their good offices for talks as they did last January, Mofaz will be there, either in person or coaching from behind the scenes. He will come to the table with plenty of compromises for the Palestinians to listen to.
The first test for Mofaz will be Ulpana, which is under court order to be demolished by July 1. He will quietly insist on its evacuation, because his peace plan calls for evacuating the outlying settlements in order to present to the Palestinians a border that follows the ’67 lines except for the major settlement blocs—Ariel, Gush Etzion, and Maale Adumim. Ulpana is deep in the West Bank, far to the east of any settlement bloc. Yet Netanyahu is under intense pressure from the right wing of his own party to bring up legislation to legalize the settlement and thus circumvent the court order. When reality hits at Ulpana, will Mofaz be strong enough to maintain his vision?
It is time for Israel to make it simple: offer the damn freeze. Rapid progress can come after a long period of lost opportunities, bringing hope and encouragement. A freeze will open the way for the setting of new dates and markers for negotiations. Even if the two sides continue to disagree over the parameters of a solution, a freeze will allow them the opportunity to negotiate.
The world has waited long enough. Speed is of the essence, and perhaps the Quartet can lend a hand instead of watching developments without mouthing a word. Even as Mofaz gets started on a border proposal, he should maneuver in the Knesset to bring back a settlement freeze. It’s not too much to ask, bearing in mind that in 2009 Netanyahu’s right-wing government managed to enact a freeze for ten months. With the stamina and the will of Israelis, much more is possible now.
Abbas is a man of heart, and he is likely to reciprocate gestures of good will. Hence, Mofaz can begin by addressing the humanitarian issue. With a few simple phone calls, he can begin to attend to the situation of the hunger strikers, starting with securing Israel’s adherence to the requests of the Red Cross. That effort alone would begin to better relations. Mofaz must be quick and let the world know he is ready to help the Palestinians—and not just as a ploy in order to jump-start diplomacy. At the very least, the families of the hunger strikers would appreciate it.
Andrew Wilson is co-author of the Citizens Proposal for a Border between Israel and Palestine (www.israel-palestine-border.org), an independent initiative to draw a map based on the principles of fairness, contiguity, access, minimizing dislocation of the population, and enhancing conditions for economic development.