Many have long wished for a US plan to challenge Israel’s power and end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. They should watch what they wish for, because it just may come true. The findings of the US security team headed by Gen. John Allen, who has recently presented US ideas on how to address and solve Israel’s security concerns east of the 1967 line — the so-called Eastern Front — give the most recent example of the promise and the peril of US intervention.
There is still no public or authoritative detailing of the ideas Allen, and now Secretary of State John Kerry himself, have briefed to Israeli and Palestinian leaders. They reportedly include continuing US support for Palestinian security forces but no international monitoring or enforcement “boots on the ground,” an “invisible” but controlling Israeli presence at Palestine’s border crossings to Jordan, Israel’s long-term control of both the Jordan Valley and the Jordanian-Palestinian frontier including early warning stations and a continuing Israeli role in Palestine’s electromagnetic spectrum and sovereign airspace. We can only infer by the responses of Palestinians and Israelis — and here the news is entirely predictable, and not good.
The US effort can usefully be evaluated in terms of the substance of the ideas themselves and their place on the diplomatic playing field. Allen, it appears, has committed the United States to a security framework that leaves Israeli forces stationed in sovereign Palestinian territory for years if not decades beyond the secure and recognized borders Kerry hopes to establish. Or has he? The State Department insists that Allen’s effort was “never meant” to be a “proposal,” much less a conclusive US plan.
So what’s the problem? Everyone has ideas. The real question, the one that the Barack Obama administration has yet to answer, is to what extent Washington is committed to realizing the implementation of Allen’s far-from-perfect findings.
Allen’s non-proposal can now be added to the role of US officials as “facilitators” in the parallel process of discussions — negotiations is far too generous a word — underway since August. Kerry has also mentioned potential “bridging proposals” and even a “framework agreement” now that the nine-month period for discussions due to end in April has officially lost its deadline. President Obama himself has suggested that Gaza be excluded from an anticipated agreement, at least at first, and that the West Bank serve as a model to convince Gaza and Hamas of the folly of rejection. Obama here is channeling former President George W. Bush, who said much the same thing years ago. Since then, both parts of Palestine have been engaged in a race to the bottom.
Contrast this lack of clarity and simplicity to the single-minded and well-defined pursuit of an agreement that characterizes negotiations with Iran. Strategic clarity is the diplomatic watchword with Tehran. Strategic confusion threatens to define Washington’s approach to Palestine.
Palestinians, who, despite bitter experience, have long depended upon Washington to rebalance the diplomatic scales in their favor, are irate with the recent US ideas. Israel is also less than impressed.
Yasser Abd-Rabbuh, secretary of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), has spoken of a “crisis with the United States” precipitated by the Allen ideas. He told Palestinian state radio, “The crisis is caused by the US secretary of state, who wants to please Israel by meeting all its demands for expansion in Al-Aghwar [the Jordan Valley] under the pretext of security. In addition, Israel’s expansion greed is highlighted through its settlement activities in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
“Who said that we want an agreement framework that defines the principles of the solution outside the framework of international legitimacy and international laws and resolutions? All this will cause the efforts of the US secretary of state to hit a dead end and a complete failure. … The talk about interim solutions is in complete contradiction with the promises that the US secretary of state had made at the beginning of the political process.”
It is Israel, however, not the Palestinians, whom Kerry intends to be the real audience for Allen’s effort. Here, too, the Iran analogy is instructive. On both fronts, Kerry has announced the laudable aim of increasing Israel’s security (along with everyone else’s) through an agreement. In this context, and notwithstanding official declarations, Allen’s work on the Eastern Front becomes not merely a set of interesting ideas but a proposal, even the basis for a conclusive security plan. Ideas, you can take or leave at your pleasure. A US plan is something else indeed. Israel, confident that its security needs have been recognized by Washington and the PLO, will — the thinking goes — then be prepared to take the next big step, evacuate its settlers from all but small bits of the West Bank and for the first time, take pen to paper and draw secure and recognized borders.
If only it were true.
US expectations along these lines are bound to be disappointed by the current government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and very probably by its successor as well. Here, too, the Iran analogy offers an important insight. As with Iran, Netanyahu is less interested in a diplomatic solution on Palestine that by its very nature requires concessions and a willingness to acknowledge the benefits of mutual security. As with Iran, Netanyahu wants to impose a framework for Israel’s absolute security — a destabilizing policy that precludes the kind of diplomatic achievement Kerry seeks.
Israel, according to published reports, has informed Allen of the need to “leave Israeli military forces along the length of the Jordan River for an extended period, as well as the need for an Israeli presence at the border crossing at the Jordan River, continued Israeli control of the air space over the West Bank, the stationing of Israeli early warning stations at several strategic points in the West Bank and an extensive series of other security demands.”
These demands reflect less a technical assessment of Israel’s security requirements than a representation of Israel’s lack of interest in what is typically understood as a diplomatic solution to the conflict. The Americans are good-naturedly attempting to play on the field Bibi has established — addressing how to solve his problems in a manner that will not fatally compromise Palestinian prospects.
This attitude reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how Netanyahu frames the issue — he is not about negotiating as such, but rather demands a Palestinian (and Iranian, for that matter) surrender, which even should it occur, would not be enough.
For Netanyahu, Allen’s well-meant suggestions miss the mark entirely. In fact, by suggesting the possibility of a US plan, they all but guarantee a hostile Israeli response.
Another Israeli government, one even under Netanyahu’s leadership, might pocket the real advantages the Allen plan offers and proceed to negotiate the borders of Palestine. This outcome is probably the best that Kerry can hope for under the current conditions. It's possible but also unlikely, as long as Washington is content to permit Israel to draw the picture of Palestine’s future.