Direct talks needed for Mideast peace

This is a republication of an original article written by Michael B. Oren in USA Today on Wednesday, January 19, 2011.

The Middle East peace process has reached something of an impasse. Israel, together with the United States, has called for direct negotiations, without preconditions, but the Palestinians refuse to join us. Still, Israel remains committed to attaining a genuine peace grounded on the principle of two states for two peoples living side-by-side in security, prosperity and mutual acceptance. That peace is possible, and this is how we can achieve it.

a concrete construction site raises up amidst a city skyline

Near Bethlehem: Palestinian laborers work on a new housing project at an Israeli settlement. Photo is courtesy of Jack Guez at AFP & Getty Images.

First, we must continue to lay the foundations for peace. Israel will remove additional checkpoints in the West Bank, facilitating the flow of traffic and goods, and encourage Palestinian efforts to establish national institutions. Further measures can be undertaken to strengthen the Palestinian economy and reinforce confidence. But Palestinian leaders must also prepare their people for peace by promoting co-existence and removing calls for Israel’s destruction from public television and textbooks. When attained, peace will exist not only on paper but also in the marketplaces, highways and schools.

These efforts should not be distracted by the settlement issue. The emergence of these communities did not stop Israel from achieving peace with Egypt and Jordan or from negotiating with the Palestinians for 16 years. Settlements account for less than 2% of the West Bank land and will not prevent the creation of a viable Palestinian state. Nevertheless, aware of the issue’s sensitivity, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu froze new construction in the settlements for an unprecedented 10 months and pledged not to build new settlements or to expand the existing ones outward. We all have grievances; Israelis, for example, resent Palestinian attacks on our legitimacy in international forums. These matters need to be brought to the table, not inhibit us from sitting. Israel will address settlements as one of several final status issues — security, borders, refugees and Jerusalem — to be determined in direct talks.

We need ground rules

While laying the foundations for peace, we can set the ground rules for the negotiations. Palestinians and Israelis must agree to remain at the negotiating table, undeterred by the stumbling blocks we might occasionally encounter. The Palestinians have been attempting to end-run the peace process by seeking recognition for statehood from foreign countries. But such actions not only violate previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, they merely prolong the conflict. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton observed, “Only a negotiated agreement between the parties will be sustainable.”

Finally, we must determine the substance of the talks. The Palestinians want to first address borders, but these cannot be drawn in isolation. The emergence of a Palestinian state alongside Israel’s narrowest and most populous region poses immense dangers. Israel’s first responsibility is to ensure that the peace arrangements will not compromise our citizens’ security. Talks on territory, therefore, must also examine the measures necessary to prevent that state from becoming another Gaza or Southern Lebanon, areas that Israel evacuated only to be attacked by thousands of rockets. Similarly, we need to resolve the Palestinian refugee claims within the context of a Palestinian state, just as more than 600,000 Jewish refugees from Arab lands were resettled in Israel. We have to secure the reciprocal recognition of the Jewish and Palestinian nation-states, and so avert all future claims and conflicts.

An undivided Jerusalem

All these core issues can be addressed concurrently by teams of negotiators and experts. Special attention, however, will have to be paid to Jerusalem, the most complex and emotionally charged issue. Israel will insist that its capital, the spiritual heart of the Jewish people for more than 3,000 years and a model of religious freedom under Israeli governance, will remain undivided. This was the policy of Israeli leaders going back to Yitzhak Rabin and Golda Meir. But we understand that the Palestinians hold different positions on Jerusalem and that they will bring them to the negotiating table.

None of this will be easy. Israelis and Palestinians must touch the most sensitive aspects of our national narratives and our most cherished beliefs. President Obama and Secretary Clinton will continue to play a dynamic role in assisting us to overcome obstacles. Arab states should also support the process and normalize relations with Israel. But there is no substitute for direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians. Though we have long been rivals in a conflict, we can now be partners for peace.

About the Author

Michael B. Oren is Israel’s ambassador to the United States.