In Israel and Gaza, climbing the peace mountain

The rockets being fired into Israel from Gaza, Israel’s airstrikes in response, and the contemptible killing of the three Israeli teenagers and revenge killing of the Palestinian teenager remind us that the status quo does not endure in our region. Apparent calm can be upended at any time, as many actors in the Middle East prefer violence to peace. 

These latest outbreaks of violence should finally convince us in Israel that we must take our destiny into our own hands. The distrust — and even hatred — between Israelis and Palestinians is deepening, and a primary cause is the lack of progress resolving the conflict between our peoples and the resulting absence of hope. 

For 20 years, Americans, Israelis, Palestinians and others have viewed direct negotiations as the only path to a final agreement. But this route has led to one dead end after another, helping to fuel the distrust, demonization and violence we Israelis and Palestinians are now facing.

Therefore, even while rockets and missiles are raining down on us, we, along with the United States, must not take our eyes off the goal — two states for two peoples. Attaining it, however, is a formidable task, akin to ascending a tall, steep mountain.

And if two mountaineers do not trust each other, there is no chance they will reach the top. They will quarrel about the path to take; they will certainly not help each other; and they will suspect that one wants to subvert the other’s efforts and take actions to prevent that. Sooner or later, they will abandon the effort, blaming each other for the failure. The recent attempt by Secretary of State John Kerry to forge an agreement made this abundantly clear. He succeeded, after formidable efforts, to bring the parties to base camp — the beginning of negotiations — but the distrust quickly doomed the attempted climb, and it ended in a resounding failure.

But, why do Israelis and Palestinians have to climb together to get to the top of the peace mountain? Each party can take a separate route, assisted by friends — independent, constructive steps. Independent, because each party takes its own route; constructive, because each step moves the party closer to the summit. 

Indeed, the failure of Kerry’s strategy — direct, secret negotiations between the parties, urged along by intense U.S. involvement — suggests that the U.S. needs to take a new approach. If the parties do not know where they are going, they are likely to take a wrong path, so the U.S. has to clearly and publicly define the summit.  

Thus, the U.S. should clearly spell out the principles of the permanent agreement: Two states for the two peoples with mutual recognition; borders based on the 1967 line with equitable territorial swaps; Jerusalem the capital of both states (with Jewish neighborhoods under Israeli sovereignty and Arab neighborhoods under Palestinian sovereignty); strict and extensive security guarantees; compensation for refugees but allowing their return to the Palestinian state only; and an “end of conflict” declaration.

Second, the U.S. has to serve as the Sherpa, guiding the parties up the mountain, assisting them in taking the right steps and helping them carry the load. The U.S and the international community must also determine whether or not the steps taken by the parties are indeed constructive, incentivize them to take the right steps and reward them for doing so, and set up a system to discourage them from going downhill. Expansions of Israeli settlements, for example, or a continuation of Palestinian fostering of terrorism, would need to be met with punishment severe enough to deter such actions. 

Constructive, independent steps that Israel should take include announcing that it has no sovereignty claims over areas east of the security fence, enacting a voluntary evacuation and compensation law for the settlers who currently reside there, and planning the absorption of all settlers who will need to relocate once an agreement is signed. For the Palestinians, such measures include renouncing and actively fighting terrorism, abiding by the terms of the Quartet, purging all incitement from their education system, and continuing to build their economy and their democratic state institutions.

The old path up the peace mountain — direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians with the U.S. trying to make them walk together from the beginning to the end — has led nowhere. This new approach — each party ascending independently with support and encouragement from the U.S. and other members of the international community — will enable the parties to get closer not only to the top, but also to each other, making the final push easier.

To be sure, they will have to take the last few steps together, but by that time the rewards will be so near and real, and the remaining climb so short, that the chances are much greater that they will make it to the coveted summit. 

Orni Petruschka is a co-founder of the nonpartisan Israeli organization Blue White Future, which advocates a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a negotiated agreement and independent actions.