Plan B on Israel-Palestine

The dust is beginning to settle on a new Palestinian reality. Official statements from Washington, Israel, and the new Palestinian government in Ramallah suggest an emphasis on betting everything on the Abbas/Fatah option against Hamas, with goodies for the West Bank, while Gaza is kept on a strict diet. This is the proposed shortcut to a two-state solution. It may sound new, but it’s really the old Plan A on steroids. Martin Indyk came out with a much smarter and more nuanced approach to “West Bank first,” but it is the blunt and bludgeoning version that is likely to be adopted by the respective leaderships. I doubt whether even the sophisticated version can work. I have presented a lengthy critique of this approach elsewhere, as have others, notably Rob Malley and Aaron Miller in the Washington Post, and Jonathan Freedland in the Gaurdian. But here I want to begin to sketch out an alternative, Plan B, consisting of three phases – stabilize, consensus build, and re-launch a better grounded peace process.

Before I detail this, it is important to note that both approaches share the goal of realizing a two-state solution and are predicated on enhanced international engagement. The current buzz is of the appointment of a high-level Quartet envoy, perhaps outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair. This should be supported if the mandate and the mission are soundly defined. With a collection of leaders who are all racing against the clock (Bush, Olmert, and Abbas), quick fix solutions that rest on shaky foundations might be sought, but should be cautioned against. A dash to the finish line of a signing ceremony to initiate Palestinian statehood is not enough. Support structures should be put in place that are sufficiently solid and robust that they will be able to carry the heavy lifting job of implementing and sustaining a peace agreement. The odds are stacked against Plan A being able to deliver that.

One guiding experience should be Israel’s unilateral disengagement from the Gaza strip in August 2005. It was the right thing to get out of Gaza, but the framing, unilateralism, was all wrong and the outcome did little to further the real goal of an end to occupation and a two-state arrangement providing security to both peoples. The way the next moves are framed and calibrated will be crucial to their prospects of success. Realizing a sustainable two-state solution should be the driving vision, and not, as some have framed this, scoring points in a supposed clash of civilizations. The door must be left open to bringing Hamas into the process. The current approach strengthens hardliners within Hamas as well as salafist forces more radical than Hamas.

Perhaps this framing is considered to be such a non-starter that alternative policy options derived from it are not being articulated. They need to be. Here is a first draft for a Plan B – stabilize, consensus build, and re-launch a better grounded peace process.

Phase 1: Stabilization

A. Work with Abbas and his new government, but avoid hugging them to death or locking them in to an irreconcilable division between Palestinian factions. Ongoing efforts will be made to ease conditions on the West Bank. In the initial period there should not be expectations of dramatic Israeli moves in the context of a fragile security reality. Tax monies will be released to the new government, and should be used proportionally between the West Bank and Gaza, prisoners could be released.

B. Those elements within Fatah and Hamas and in the Arab world (hopefully including Saudi Arabia) who are convinced that the only stability and peace-building option for Palestinians (and Israelis) is via Palestinian power-sharing and national accommodation should establish channels of dialogue and negotiation towards that end. Supportive members of the international community (such as Norway, South Africa, Switzerland, Turkey and certain EU-member states) should use their good offices and involvement to advance this dialogue.

New options for a power-sharing Mecca II National Unity Government should be developed and initial feelers sent out to the Quartet, the US, and Israel. Fatah and Hamas prison leaders may also take a lead role in this effort (as was done previously with the Prisoner’s Document).

C. Fatah will be expected to reign in its armed militants on the West Bank, to incorporate them into regular security forces, and/or initiate a process of collecting unauthorized weapons. This would be an important step towards an eventual security sector re-structuring and integration of all national security forces. In the meantime, there will be no additional arms provided to any factions.

D. In Gaza, Hamas will be expected to undertake a similar process of regularizing the carrying and display of weapons and the collection of unauthorized weapons with a view to a later integration of security forces. Hamas should impose order and a ceasefire that will also be accepted by Israel, whereby the IDF will avoid provocations against Hamas in the West Bank, if a full ceasefire is respected from Gaza, including the prevention of all Qassam rocket fire. Negotiations should resume for a deal to release Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit.

E. Mid-level officials will coordinate between Israel and Hamas (Gaza) (directly or via international agencies) in order to prevent a humanitarian crisis and allow normal life to resume (albeit Gaza normal). Supplies will continue to reach Gaza via Israel with appropriate security arrangements.

Phase 2: Consensus building on a new way forward

A. Once the conditions are ripe, and understandings are taking shape, Abbas, the Fatah and Hamas leaderships should commit themselves to a new power-sharing political arrangement. Abbas would convey to his American, Israeli, Arab and international interlocutors that the Palestinians have chosen the path of national political accommodation, and are ready to commit to and deliver on a ceasefire and a political process with Israel.

Hamas would communicate through its channels the readiness to work with Abbas, to recognize his leadership role in the diplomatic negotiations, and to respect security undertakings. Both movement’s leaderships would commit to preventing internal dissenters from undermining the new accommodation.

B. Expand out the circles of support around this new way forward: Hamas and Fatah would explain their respective positions and Abbas would advocate international acceptance of the new Palestinian national framework as having the delivery capacity, especially on security, to carry forward a peace process. The Arab states, notably Jordan and Egypt, would buy-in to the new consensus and work to convince Israel and the US, as should Europe. Ultimately, the US and Israel would have to agree to respond differently to a Mecca II – perhaps stipulating real but realizable benchmarks for acceptance. Israel could also outline its expectations of Arab support in a re-launched serious peace process.

C. Security: efforts will be focused on solidifying a comprehensive ceasefire arrangement that includes the West Bank and Gaza. All unauthorized weapons should be removed from use and display, Palestinian security forces will be restructured in an inclusive way and there would be no individual based support for particular security strongmen. Israel would commit to respecting such a ceasefire and to avoid initiating military actions. Effective arrangements would be put in place, including at the Egyptian border, to prevent arms entering Gaza or the West Bank.

D. Formalize a Mecca II, new power-sharing arrangement between Fatah and Hamas leading to a renewed National Unity Government. Both security force structure and authority, and PLO reform will need to be addressed more seriously second time around, and Abbas will have to be given an explicit mandate to negotiate with Israel by Hamas. [Note: Despite the current deeply entrenched positions and hostility, many in both Fatah and Hamas realize that the current standoff is unsustainable and absolute victory is unattainable. The harsh rhetoric being used is in some measure tactical. The same logic that led to Mecca I should ultimately lead to a Mecca II.]

E. If it has not happened already, appoint a high-level special Quartet envoy to coordinate the new consensus building in advance of launching a renewed peace effort. Initially, the Envoy should activate discreet and indirect channels to all relevant political actors.

Phase 3: Re-launch a better grounded peace process

A. Launch a comprehensive regional peace process on all tracks. Israel and the new Palestinian government announce their readiness to begin serious political negotiations on all issues. This process should also involve Syria, which is important in itself, and can help reduce tensions as well as to avoid spoiler tactics that might undermine the process, emanating from both Lebanon and from within the Palestinian arena. A comprehensive peace effort should design negotiating tracks that are mutually strengthening. This would facilitate movement on the Arab League Initiative. In the United States this move should also be seen in the context of efforts to re-stabilize the region as part of a new diplomatic approach to Iraq and would be in line with the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group report.

B. As the security situation is further stabilized against the backdrop of the ceasefire, major efforts should be undertaken by Israel to dramatically free up living conditions in the West Bank, and to remove outposts and outlying settlements. This would be in parallel to the big picture political negotiating process that would be launched.

C. Previous agreements reached that re-link Gaza to the West Bank should be fully implemented – including the Access and Movement Agreement from November 2005. The process of re-integrating the two geographical parts of the future Palestinian state should not be further delayed. Maximum openings should be facilitated between Gaza and the outside world.

D. As these efforts progress, the Arab states, in the context of the Arab League Initiative, should undertake certain diplomatic gestures towards Israel. This could significantly help strengthen Israeli domestic political carrying capacity during the process.

E. On the Israeli-Palestinian track, the negotiating goal should be defined as a permanent status agreement. In the absence of an ability to reach such an agreement, the process should not be defined as an all or nothing effort that has collapsed (learning from Camp David 2000). Rather, two fallback efforts would be simultaneously deployed: (i) the Quartet should put forward its own detailed parameters for permanent status and perhaps have them endorsed in a UN Security Council Resolution, and (ii) Israel would undertake an immediate agreed withdrawal from the West Bank towards permanent borders with agreed international forces taking the place of the IDF.

These ideas obviously need to be expanded upon, played with, and developed, but the point is this: there is a more effective route back to a stable and secure peace process than the – “more of the same, just under less promising circumstances” that is currently being considered. Yes, its time for a Plan B.