Yesterday I posted a short commentary on the U.S. pursuit for a one-year settlement freeze from the Israeli government. I advocated that the duration of the freeze is not all that important as long as the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations begin with final borders, one of the most challenging and important issues of the conflict. With Washington soon to propose a comprehensive Middle East peace plan with a year and a half timeline for negotiations, Haaretz is reporting that the Obama administration is strongly considering recommending that the parties address borders first.
This is a refreshing break from past American proposals which have generally focused first on small issues as a way to build trust before they attempted to solve the major issues of borders, refugees and the status of Jerusalem. I outlined the benefits of addressing the large problems first yesterday, but feel that in light of finding that the Obama administration and I share similar views on where to start negotiations I would elaborate further on why focusing on the larger issues first is the more prudent policy.
Past peace initiatives such as the 2008 Annapolis Conference, 2003 Road Map, and 2001 Camp David process have focused first on very small issues that do not result in any tangible benefits for the Palestinian or Israeli people. As negotiations go on, both sides tend to play along but remain disturbingly skeptical about a final agreement. Small issues may get resolved but this does not result in a more trusting atmosphere for negotiations. Both parties stay cynical that the other will not compromise enough on the large issues: the Israelis worry the Palestinians will not accept a refusal to accept enough refugees; the Palestinians harbor concerns that the Israelis will not agree to acceptable borders or to divide Jerusalem. By the time talks on the most important issues begin public support for negotiations has already dwindled because the people see little tangible benefits from the talks and officials have little patience left, believing they've already given too much on the small issues. It then become easy for one or both sides to torpedo negotiations over irreconcilable differences on one of the big issues.
Starting on borders after obtaining a freeze from the Israelis forgoes initial successes on small issues in order to achieve an agreement that provides real benefits on the ground for the Israeli and Palestinian people, hopefully increasing their support for continued negotiations. Successful talks on borders would also create real trust for tackling the other challenging issues as well, without providing cover for either side to discontinue negotiations. Once borders have been solved in a way that is satisfactory to both sides, storming out of talks over a minor issue like flyover rights will require the spending of far too much political capital with American mediators.
Solving borders first also eliminates the cause of the current awkwardness between the Netanyahu and Obama administrations as it renders a settlement freeze unneeded. Israelis will be able to develop wherever they desire on their side of the border, as will Palestinians. If Palestinians in the West Bank (where the border negotiations are concerned) are allowed to build freely on their side of the border without interference from settlers, the separation barrier, or IDF patrols that protect the settlements the Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas will achieve a rare victory over its rival Hamas. Focusing first on borders after obtaining an Israeli settlement freeze is a win-win situation for all parties involved: the Palestinian people, Israelis, the PA, and the Obama administration.