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A Recipe For Shredding U.S. Credibility

Writing in today’s Washington Post, former U.S. peace negotiators Dennis Ross and David Makovsky observe the steadily deteriorating situation in Israel-Palestine. “As the risk of escalation grows, both sides are becoming even more doubtful that there will ever be peace. With Palestinians divided and their leaders increasingly discredited, and a right-­wing government in Israel, the conflict is not about to be resolved,” they write. “But that is all the more reason to think about what can be done to preserve the possibility of a two-state outcome, particularly with the Palestinians entering a period of uncertain succession.”

What can be done, Ross and Makovsky suggest, is that rather than continuing to oppose all settlement growth, the U.S. should change its policy to differentiate between the large settlement blocs which many assume that Israel will retain in a final peace agreement (contingent upon land swaps negotiated with the Palestinians), and the smaller outlying settlements and outposts, which it won’t.

“A new U.S. approach would acknowledge that building within the blocs does not change the contours of the ‘peace map,’” they write. “While not formally endorsing settlement activity, it would nonetheless seek to channel it into areas that will likely be part of Israel in any two-state outcome.”

This is very similar to proposal last November from Israel Policy Forum’s Michael Koplow. My colleague Mitchell Plitnick responded at the time with a piece laying out some of the problems with this approach, noting that, “This approach did not lead to progress when Bush took it. It would likely be much worse if Obama did it now, given the current situation, where Israel has lurched further right, the U.S. has lost most of its credibility as broker, and Abbas is hanging politically on by a thread.” It also bears some similarities to a recently proposed, and similarly problematic, plan by Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog, which I critiqued here.

But Ross and Makovsky go even further. In addition to accepting the legitimacy of the settlement blocs — which, let’s remember, are illegal under international humanitarian law — they actually suggest that the U.S. should compensate Israel by promising to veto any UN Security Council resolution that Israel doesn’t like, agree not to present the Council with parameters on a final resolution to the conflict, and press European and Arab allies to denounce Palestinian efforts to “de-legitimize” Israel, a term that the authors do not define, but which presumably means seeking international legal relief at the International Criminal Court and other venues for Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights.

For good measure, the authors suggest that the president “could also highlight the contrast between Israel adopting a settlement policy consistent with a two­-state outcome and Palestinian behaviors that undermine such an option.”

It’s hard to know where to begin with this, but suffice to say that it’s painfully typical of an approach that privileges Israeli political concerns and treats Palestinians’ basic rights as an afterthought, or at most as goods to be traded. The fact that this approach has failed, time and time again, to deliver any positive change to the Palestinians’ situation (or, we should also note, to provide Israel real security) is one of the main reasons that Palestinian leaders, at least those like Mahmoud Abbas who advocate for diplomacy and against violence, are increasingly discredited at home, and deeply frustrated with the U.S.-brokered process. Ross and Makovsky’s approach would not only repeat that dynamic, it would amplify it.

Providing Israel with more, always more carrots is, by definition, the path of least resistance in DC, which helps explain why people keep recommending it. But, as I wrote in an earlier piece (and as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu himself repeatedly, and rightly, made clear with regard to Iran), carrots alone won’t do the trick in any negotiation. You need some sticks. The challenge is making sure that the carrots and sticks, the incentives and disincentives, are lined up in such a way as to lead toward the goal. For instance, I think there could be value in recognizing the legitimacy of settlements blocs as recommended here, but only as part of a formal process with a defined, time-limited end state, similar to the P5+1 acceptance of Iran’s uranium enrichment as part of the 2013 Joint Plan of Action. But granting this concession simply in the hope that good things will happen doesn’t seem like a smart plan.

I agree with Ross and Makovsky’s diagnosis of the situation. It is dire, and it is deteriorating,  for the Israelis who’ve endured terror attacks and for the Palestinians who endure the violence of military occupation and settler colonization every day. Following their prescription, on the other hand, wouldn’t arrest this decline, it would accelerate it, while shredding whatever credibility as broker the U.S. still has.