by Dr. Eric R. Mandel

Image Source: Getty Images

{Previously published in The Hill}

For the first time in 16 years, Palestinians will go to the polls for a parliamentary and presidential election. The elections in May will gain legitimacy for the Palestinians with the Biden administration, who, like many before it, may be tempted to re-engage in brokering a final resolution of the conflict — the holy grail of foreign policy.

For most American administrations, the conventional wisdom for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is based primarily upon a territorial compromise, allowing for two states for two peoples to live in harmony. Unfortunately, this has never panned out. Without a profound update to this American “wisdom,” the result inevitably will be another failure. So, before dipping their toes into the frigid waters of peacemaking, President Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and others on the team should rethink this. Absent a miraculous 180-degree change in Palestinian ideology, any venture into final status talks will be DOA. 

The Biden team got off to a good start when Blinken said, “The United States firmly opposes an @IntlCrimCourt investigation into the Palestinian Situation. …We will continue to uphold our strong commitment to Israel and its security, including by opposing actions that seek to target Israel unfairly.” This was in response to the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) decision to investigate Israel for war crimes, including Israelis living anywhere within the West Bank (Judea and Samaria). However, when asked about resolving the conflict, Blinken returned to the mainstream mantra that the best way to achieve peace is to aim for a two-state solution.  

For any chance of success, two states for two peoples must be supplemented with new requirements. The new narrative should be informed by learning the lessons of past failures of final-status negotiations. Israel’s unrequited offers of the West Bank and East Jerusalem for a Palestinian state and capital in 2001 and 2008 made clear that fulfilling the Palestinians’ territorial demands was not the answer; something else was in play. The Biden team needs to acknowledge that the Palestinian demand for an unconditional right of return of descendants of Palestinian refugees is the primary impediment to resolving the conflict.

America also can judge the parties’ sincerity by demanding before entering talks that the outcome of any negotiation will be an end-of-conflict agreement, with all claims resolved. The U.S. should simply walk away if this is not accepted. To begin to change the accepted narrative of the conflict, the administration needs to step back and ask, “How did we get here?”

Until 1967, the conventional wisdom for the failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lay squarely on the Arabs’ shoulders. After the 1967 War (Six-Day War), when Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza, it offered Gaza and the West Bank back in return for permanent peace. They instead received the infamous “three Nos” — no peace, no recognition and no negotiation. 

As years passed and there was no sign that Arabs would accept Israel’s right to exist in their midst, the left reframed the conflict’s etiology. They blamed Israel as the intransigent party. Israel was transformed into a victimizer, despite the terrorism it sustained, and settlements in the disputed territories became the primary impediment. It didn’t matter that peace did not reign before a single settlement existed. Israel’s legal international rights in the West Bank were ignored. Even Palestinian terrorism was rationalized as the natural outgrowth of a people denied their dignity and land. If only Israel would give the Palestinians a state in the West Bank and Gaza, they surely would accept it.

In 1993, Yitzhak Rabin reluctantly reached across former President Clinton at a Rose Garden ceremony on the White House lawn to shake hands with Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat, whose signature had been terrorist attacks on civilians. After the Oslo Accords, Palestinian terrorism not only did not diminish, but it grew. In 2000 and 2001, Clinton and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak made a final push at Camp David and Taba. 

Barak offered far-reaching concessions that surprised Clinton to their extent: almost all of the West Bank, 100 percent of Gaza, a recognized Palestinian State, East Jerusalem as their capital, and control of the Temple Mount, Judaism holiest site. The Palestinian answer was the Second Intifada, an unrelenting spasm of violence that continued for years. In 2007, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made an even more generous offer than Barak. Arafat’s successor, current President Mahmoud Abbas, didn’t even bother to respond. 

Palestinian intransigence was because of the irreconcilable demand for an unconditional right of return of descendants of Palestinian refugees to Israel. One would have thought that Oslo’s failure and the terrorism that followed would have disabused the left of the notion that this was simply a territorial conflict. Peace advocates tie themselves up in knots claiming the right of return is just a bargaining position.

The Obama administration subscribed to the conventional wisdom narrative, only more so. In their eyes, the primary fault for the conflict lay squarely with the Israeli government. The administration’s disdain for Israel culminated in United Nations Security Council Resolution (No. 2334) that made any Israeli presence in the West Bank a war crime. Who knew Jewish control of the Western Wall was a crime! This resolution enshrined a perpetual prejudice against Israel within the international community. It became crucial in this year’s ICC decision to investigate whether Israel’s very presence in the West Bank is a war crime. 

Former President Trump decided that sticks, not conventional-wisdom carrots, were needed, that the Palestinian Authority was incentivizing terrorism with American taxpayer dollars. Hundreds of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars were transferred every year to the families of martyred terrorists, as well as jailed terrorists and their families. A bipartisan law named for a former American West Point graduate, Taylor Force, killed by a Palestinian terrorist in Israel, ended the practice for the time being.   

Now comes President Biden, who reflexively is undoing anything associated with his predecessor. Biden has restored funding to the Palestinian Authority without asking for anything in return. So, if the Biden administration wants to accomplish anything in the Levant, a good place to begin is by ending the ambiguity of what “two states” means. It should mean a Jewish state and an Arab state — the Palestinian one demilitarized. It means acknowledging that the Palestinian goal for two states — an Arab state in the West Bank and a binational state in Israel with a right of return — is entirely off the table.

Peace will be possible only when the conventional wisdom of the conflict is updated. Then it is up to new Palestinian leadership to convince the United States and Israel that it is ready for substantive negotiations. The Palestinian people deserve leadership that prioritizes them.

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the U.S. Senate, House and their foreign-policy advisers. He is a columnist for “The Jerusalem Post” and a contributor to i24TV, “The Hill,” JTA and “The Forward.”

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