Category Archives: Two-State Solution

Middle East peace won’t happen without addressing religious issues

Credit: The Forward

Published by the Hill.

In the decades-long conflict between Israel and Palestine, there is an essential component that well-meaning Western negotiators have underestimated: religion factors more into the equation the West might expect, even for secular Arab citizens. 

Religious beliefs are a core reason that many Palestinians cannot accept the legitimacy of Jewish nationalism (Zionism) or peoplehood. For them, it is a religious obligation never to cede land that once was Islamic. The Western mindset can’t fathom the importance of this, unable to comprehend that there is no separation of mosque and state for these believers. If it were simply about haggling over borders, the conflict probably would have ended long ago. 

Israelis also have a religious narrative, especially among those who settle the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) for religious reasons — the biblical homeland of Jewish people.  

With the Biden administration re-engaging with the Palestinian Authority and restoring funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestine refugees, it would be wise to reflect on past failures in achieving Middle East peace. This requires something difficult for Washington: thinking beyond conventional State Department wisdom. Typically for Washington diplomats, it is all about Israeli settlements and not the role that religion plays in the conflict.

But Western analysts have underestimated the vehemence of those who believe that Judaism is only a religion, and not a people or a nation. From their perspective, the Jews don’t have a civilization or one with legitimate aspirations for their ancestral home in the Levant. On the other hand, they feel a duty to keep, or to regain, control of any place that once was under Islamic control.

For example, the first Islamic presence on the Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif), the Dome of the Rock, was built in the late 7th century, nearly 1,600 years after the Jewish temple first stood on that location. If you listen to the Palestinian Authority’s line, never mind the archeology, Jews were never there and are simply colonialist interlopers. 

Western experts should appreciate the importance of the Abraham Accords, in which moderate Islamic nations chose pragmatism and respect for their Jewish cousins’ claim to nationhood. It could be a gift to create a new paradigm between the Israelis and Palestinians. But only if a new Palestinian leader emerges in the image of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), a pragmatic Sunni moderate who signed a peace treaty with Israel, will there be a chance to resolve the conflict anytime soon. Such a leader must accept a Jewish state without territorial demands dictated by strict interpretation of Islam. Many Middle East experts failed to see the Abraham Accords coming, wherein Arab states would recognize Israel and choose moderation over religious orthodoxy. 

The origins of the Israel-Palestine conflict were never simply territorial, ending in Arab and Jewish states as envisioned in United Nations Resolution 181. The most unmistakable evidence is that former leaders Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas both declined offers for a Palestinian state and Arab East Jerusalem as the capital in 2001 and 2008, respectively.  

Western foreign policy officials say that we all know how this conflict has to end — two states for two peoples, with a division of the land and Jerusalem based on the 1949-1967 Armistice Lines. Yet, they forget there were those who would not sign an armistice unless it made clear that these lines would not be permanent borders, insisting instead on a ceasefire that stated, “The Armistice Demarcation Line is not to be construed in any sense as a political or territorial boundary,” so it could not legitimize a Jewish entity.  

Today, conventional Western wisdom is that Palestinians sustained “Al Naqba,” a “catastrophe,” with the creation of the State of Israel, which expelled 600,000 indigenous people. But this catastrophe for the Palestinian people wasn’t only of Israel’s doing. Respecting Palestine’s loss is something with which most Israelis could empathize — if most Palestinians could overcome the belief that Israel has no right to exist. Both peoples must learn to respect the other’s narrative.

Religion was a motivating factor in Palestinian leaders and Arab nations not accepting a Palestinian state in 1948, 1967, 2000 and 2008. This more realistic, but politically incorrect, narrative is not one that today’s foreign policy experts want to accept.

America should not mediate any negotiation for final-status talks without a precondition: The signing of an unassailable end-of-conflict treaty, stating that neither side can have claims on the other’s territory. That is a non-negotiable demand to avoid past failures, because it would mean the religious dimension of the conflict is addressed regarding territorial concessions.

Palestinians deserve a government that prioritizes their future and begins the process of accepting the painful compromises needed for their economic empowerment and freedom. With Palestinians about to vote in legislative elections, it is incumbent on the U.S. to articulate a clear position on what it expects of Palestine and Israel. 

If accepting Zionism and embracing the principles of the Abraham Accords is a bridge too far for the political leaders to cross at this time, a good beginning would be to foster grassroots dialogues between moderate Muslim and Jewish religious leaders, who can see the humanity in the other people with whom they are destined to live in the land. Who knows — if the Abraham Accords were possible, anything may be possible?

The case for the status quo in Judea and Samaria

{Previously published in the Jerusalem Post}

Supporters of extending Israeli sovereignty to 30% of the West Bank claim this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to permanently create defensible borders and strategic depth with the blessing of an American administration. Like the Israeli Stockade and Watchtower settlements of the pre-State era that rose in a single night to create facts on the ground for future defensible borders, today’s annexation advocates believe that once built, the project cannot be undone. Maybe yes, or maybe no.

With polls showing former vice president Joe Biden in the lead in key electoral swing states that Trump needs to be re-elected, Middle East watchers have now begun to speculate on what a Biden presidency and a Democratic Senate might do in 2021, if Israel extends sovereignty to portions of the West Bank.

Would the result be American sanctions, a reduction of security cooperation, or decreased funding, to be used as leverage to change Israel’s position? Progressive critics of Israel including J Street will tell the president that it is for their own good to punish Israel, and that America must advocate for Palestinians as the victimized party. According to The Jerusalem Post’s Herb Keinon, during the presidential debates, Biden said that the US has to “put pressure constantly” on Israel to move toward a two-state solution.

For perspective, Israel was never supposed to withdraw to indefensible lines that existed before the Six Day War. People forget that the goal in 1967 was meant by the Arabs to be a war of annihilation, a second Holocaust. Today that history falls on deaf ears, as Israel is simply seen by many as an occupying colonialist power that must accept an indefensible line as its permanent border.

Most people have no idea that the authors of UNSC Resolution 242, written after 1967, which was the basis for all peace initiatives, acknowledged that lines were to be redrawn so that Israel could live in security. What constitutes secure borders or strategic depth today is most definitely not a return to the lines of 1967.

If Israel extends sovereignty to the Jordan River Valley and major settlement blocs, the uproar will be great. The question is not whether Israel needs the Jordan River Valley for its ultimate security – it almost assuredly does – the question is rather, is this the most opportune time to do it? Security analysts know that Jordan may not be long for this world and Iran could be the big winner, effectively controlling Jordan as it more or less controls Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq today.

AS FOR the semantics between the terms “extending sovereignty” vs “annexation,” you cannot annex something that you have rights to based on an equally legitimate reading of international law that views the territory as disputed, because the last legal stakeholder was the now-defunct Ottoman Empire. Whether it is wise at this time for Israel to extend sovereignty is a different question.

AIPAC used to fight for any position the democratically elected government of Israel advocated whether from the Left or Right, but has now read the tea leaves and has given its blessing to those who want to criticize Israel for any annexation, even of the large settlement blocs that were part of land swaps in every previous peace offer. Political expediency trumps conscience for Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer as he too has read those tea leaves and has refused to endorse his long-term pro-Israel colleague House Foreign affairs Chairmen Elliot Engle, who is in the fight for his political life against an opponent endorsed by AOC’s Justice Democrats.

Fast forward to a United Nations deliberation on Israel next year. What will President Biden and Vice President Susan Rice charge the US ambassador to the UN to say when the inevitable international condemnations against Israel begin, if it extends sovereignty to even to just the large blocs? Biden and Rice were actively involved when the Obama administration orchestrated the passage of UNSC Resolution 2334 in 2016 that labeled Israeli possession of a millimeter of territory over the 1967 line a war crime.

Which brings us back to whether it is wise for Israel to extend any sovereignty this summer?

The unsatisfying but prudent answer is that the status quo is the better strategy at this time. It’s up to Israel to determine its own fate, but American supporters of Israel have the obligation to share with their brethren the potential ramifications. The extension of sovereignty will weaken Israel’s security status because of a rupture in relations with America. A more prudent approach for those who want to extend sovereignty would be to see if Mr. Trump is re-elected and the Senate remains in Republican hands.

The Middle East is tense and unpredictable under normal conditions. The current economic crisis and political instability due to the pandemic has made the region a tinderbox. There is no need to ignite the US-Israel relations at this time. Israel still has all of its options in the future, while maintaining the current strategic depth and working relationship with the PA’s security that the status quo would maintain. Pragmatism isn’t pretty, but violence and diplomatic isolation are worse.

Timing is everything. The best choice is no annexation now, while revisiting the possibility in the future if events change.

The writer is the director of MEPIN (Middle East Political Information Network). He regularly briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides, as well White House advisers. He is the senior security editor for the Jerusalem Report/Jerusalem Post, and writes for The Hill, JNS, JTA, RealClearWorld, and Defense News.