President Obama will make his first presidential visit to Israel in March, and Secretary of State Kerry will make his own trip even sooner. The White House is trying to dampen the inevitable speculation about a possible breakthrough to peace negotiations, and its spokesman has said the president’s trip is “not focused on specific Middle East peace process proposals.” Let’s hope so. But given the itinerary—Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Amman—the so-called peace process will be near the top of the agenda at every meeting Kerry and Obama have.
The trip itself is a good thing: Israel is a close ally, and American presidents should visit there. The visit would have had more impact in Obama’s first term, before opinions about him began to harden in Israel (and for that matter in Ramallah), but the formation of a new government in Jerusalem provides a good moment for this visit. The question is what Obama will say—about Iran, the violence in Syria, the instability visible after the Arab Spring in several countries—and of course about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In January, even before Israel’s election, there were many stories about a new European peace plan. Here’s a typical account, this one from the Times of Israel:
[T]he goal of the EU plan is to bring about the establishment of an independent Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, with its capital in East Jerusalem. . . . [T]he EU intends to set a clear timetable for negotiations between the two sides in 2013. . . . Sources said that the plan will include land swaps between Israel and the Palestinian Authority as well as a complete freeze on all Israeli construction in the settlements. . . . Diplomats cited in the report said that it would be difficult for Obama to oppose the plan, which was said to closely mirror his own stated views on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
More recent information suggests that the Europeans are too smart to present their own plan directly to the Israelis, who would reject it. They seek instead to get Obama to buy it and then impose it on Israel. Like most European plans, this one suffers from demanding everything from Israel up front—especially a total construction freeze in all settlements and, you may be sure, in Jerusalem—while asking nothing from Palestine. But the obsession with such a settlement freeze does in fact “closely mirror” the view taken by the Obama administration throughout the first term.
No doubt a “peace plan” like this, especially if it had American support, would be an immediate test of Israel’s new government. It would especially be a test of Yair Lapid and his new centrist party, which won
19 seats in the Knesset. During the campaign Lapid called for peace negotiations but also took a hard line on Jerusalem: “We must not blink. There should be no compromises in Jerusalem.” A European, or even U.S.-European, strategy based on cornering or even breaking up the Israeli government over the terms of a new peace proposal might actually end up solidifying the new coalition if its demands go well beyond Israel’s centrist consensus and include a construction freeze in Jerusalem. And our new secretary of state, John Kerry, should know better. “I was opposed to the prolonged effort on the settlements in a public way because I never thought it would work, and, in fact, we have wasted a year and a half on something that for a number of reasons was not achievable,” Kerry said in 2011. Kerry has favored getting an agreement on borders and security first, saying that once borders are established the settlement issue goes away.
But this too is unrealistic. The definition of borders in the northern and southern West Bank is not too hard, and Israel’s security fence is often on or near the “Green Line”—the 1949 armistice line that separated Israel from the West Bank. It is the area around Jerusalem that causes the greatest controversy, so fully defining borders without addressing Jerusalem is impossible. And when the Europeans call for a construction freeze in Jerusalem—or to be more precise, call for a construction freeze by Jews while Arabs are free to build wherever they can—they are in effect taking a strong position for the division of Jerusalem along those 1949 lines (which are often called “1967 borders”).
What about getting an agreement on security? Here things get even more complicated. Palestinian reconciliation efforts—between the Fatah movement (which controls the Palestinian Authority, the PLO, and the West Bank) and Hamas (which controls Gaza)—are on again. How can serious peace negotiations begin while Palestinians are simultaneously working on bringing a terrorist group into the mix?