Presbyterians for Middle East Peace strongly supports the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations as an important step in the right direction. Secretary of State John Kerry worked tirelessly on this effort with multiple trips to Israel/Palestine in recent months, and deserves gratitude and recognition for his commitment and efforts.
These negotiations can be productive if they are focused on incremental steps towards peace and realistic goals. Complete resolution of the so-called “final status” issues (permanent borders, the status of Jerusalem, etc.) in the time frame of the next nine months is probably not realistic. There is too much work still to be done to establish the necessary conditions for permanent peace. In addition to talking about things such as geographic boundaries and security, the talks should focus on economic cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians that will benefit both peoples and advance peace, and the Palestinian nation-building process that is only partially complete.
Economic Development and Cooperation
Economic development and Palestinian-Israeli cooperation in the West Bank is an essential foundation for peace. Efforts are already underway at the grassroots level and can be furthered by political leaders engaged in ongoing dialogue. This past May 300 Palestinian and Israeli business leaders met at the World Economic Forum meeting in Jordan and formed a new initiative called Breaking the Impasse (BTI). The goals of BTI are twofold: to press Palestinian and Israeli political leaders to move forward on the two-state solution, two states for two peoples, and to advance commerce that will benefit both parties and bolster the peace process.
The Israeli-Palestinian Chamber of Commerce is focused on the same objective of economic growth and cooperation. In 2012, two-way trade between Israel and Palestinian-governed areas totaled $4.3 billion. While the majority of this trade was the purchase of Israeli products by Palestinians, $816 million was spent by Israelis on Palestinian-produced goods and products. Palestinian sales to Israel were up 18% from the prior year and moving in the right direction. In addition to the economic benefit, this commerce creates more opportunity for Israelis and Palestinians to simply know each other and relate on a person-to-person basis.
Israel can speed economic development in the West Bank by providing increased freedom of movement and permitting development of needed infrastructure. Many security checkpoints have been closed as violence in the West Bank has subsided, but more can still be done. Better roads in Israeli-administered areas of the West Bank are needed to efficiently link Palestinian population centers. An example of this the new Palestinian city of Rawabi, currently under construction, which needs a good road connecting to Ramallah that must pass through Israeli administered territory. Israeli approval for this road has yet to be finalized, and should be a high priority topic in the peace negotiations.
Palestinian nation-building around core principles of democracy and fundamental rights is an essential foundation of the peace process. This critical issue has been largely ignored in recent years by the international community, and we think this is a major mistake. There have been no national Palestinian elections since 2006. The West Bank is governed by a Palestinian Authority president whose elected term ran out more than three years ago. The Gaza strip is ruled by Hamas, which remains committed to the destruction of Israel and rejects the two-state solution.
The Israeli public is justifiably skeptical of the durability of any security commitments made by West Bank Palestinian leadership given present circumstances. Two states for two peoples means land for peace, and each party must be in position to fully deliver on their respective commitments. The Palestinian negotiating position would be vastly strengthened by the presence of elected leaders with an unambiguous mandate for peace from the Palestinian public. This can only come from genuinely free elections, an open political process, and the full and free participation of all.
On the Israeli side, it is important for the Israeli government not to allow tiny Israeli political parties who are unrepresentative of the larger body politic to dominate the decision-making. The majority of Israelis want peace. The Israeli negotiators need to work for the will of the majority, not a minority.
Advancing the peace process requires a realistic understanding of all of the challenges to be overcome. At the same time, perspective is needed to prevent realism from becoming fatalism, which is much too prevalent in the Middle East. The resumption of Israeli-Palestinian dialogue at the highest levels is an encouraging development. Let’s all hope that nine months from now, the time will have been spent productively and measurable progress made.