What’s the fallback plan?
That’s the question increasingly on the minds of Middle East policymakers and analysts as Secretary of State John Kerry struggles to save the Israeli-Palestinian peace process from collapse.
For the Palestinians, the path forward in the event of a collapse is clear: They will seek international recognition as a state in the Israeli-occupied West Bank for their government, and perhaps recognition, too, of their jurisdiction over Gaza, which is currently ruled by the rival Palestinian faction Hamas.
But for the United States and Israel, the search for a “Plan B” is considerably more complicated. The spectrum of ideas in Israel ranges from partial annexation of the West Bank to simply maintaining the status quo, with many other possibilities in between. But for America, none of the options is welcome.
“What Kerry is doing now is already Plan B,” said Aaron David Miller, a former senior government peace negotiator who now serves as vice president of the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan Washington think tank. Kerry, Miller explained, has already fallen back from his original plan to broker a final peace accord by the end of April into a less-ambitious attempt to bring about a framework agreement. He is now struggling just to get the two sides to agree to extend talks about such a framework agreement beyond the end-of-April deadline.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration is preparing to deal with the fallout if Kerry’s effort fails. On the international front, the administration is determined to block Palestinian attempts to win statehood through recognition by international organizations. But America could find itself in a tougher position than it was in two years ago, when it mobilized European allies to block the Palestinian drive for statehood. Back then, the administration argued that such recognition would upend the ongoing peace process.
Domestically, the administration is also gearing up to halt congressional sanctions against both the Palestinians and the international organizations that choose to recognize Palestinian statehood.
A 2011 law already requires termination of all American assistance to the Palestinians if they gain statehood. But lawmakers on Capitol Hill have now begun calling for cutting U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority in response to the P.A.’s more modest request to join 15 international treaties.
The White House and the State Department are also trying to block congressional moves to cut American funding for international organizations that accept Palestine, as it will be called, as a state. Stopping such support, Kerry warned, could simply result in the loss of America’s right to vote in these organizations. “Who will pay the price?” if Congress takes such an action, he asked. “The United States of America. We won’t be able to vote.”
In comparison to the largely reactive and defensive moves the administration anticipates taking, Israel is rife with proactive ideas for responding to a possible peace process collapse.
The right wing of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, which harshly criticized Kerry’s mission from the start, sees an opportunity to strengthen Israel’s hold on the West Bank.
Danny Danon, a top leader of Netanyahu’s own Likud party, told the Forward on April 7 that the moment that Palestinians unilaterally ask the United Nations for full statehood recognition, Israel should unilaterally declare sovereignty over part of the West Bank — in other words, annex territory. It’s the kind of move that has just won Russia widespread world condemnation and Western sanctions in the case of Crimea. But according to Danon, “If the Palestinians act unilaterally, then we will have to act unilaterally.”
Danon, who is chairman of the Likud party’s Central Committee, claimed that in the event of unilateral action by the Palestinians, “I would be able to get the [support of a] majority of Likud Knesset members” to support annexation. The area he is targeting is within the so-called Area C of the West Bank, which is already under full Israeli control and home to most settlers.
Others on the right see a collapse of the peace process, if it occurs, as an opportunity for Israel to officially withdraw from the process’s basic goal of a two-state solution.
“What is clear is that a Palestinian state is not a solution,” Tourism Minister Uzi Landau said at an April 6 conference in New York, sponsored by The Jerusalem Post. “With the absence of solution, this is a conflict that has to be managed.”
Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington who is considered to be a Likud authority on foreign policy, proposed unilateral withdrawal by Israel from parts of the West Bank, to be carried out in tacit coordination with the Americans and the Palestinians, though without a formal agreement. He described this approach as “bilateral unilateralism.”
Another former ambassador, Michael Oren, who is close to Netanyahu, floated the idea in February, arguing, “If we declare our borders, that creates a de facto situation of two nation states recognized by the U.N. — we may not recognize one another, but they’re already recognized by the U.N. — that have a border dispute.”
Such a unilateral step, supporters of this move say, would help Israel fend off potential Palestinian challenges in the U.N. and at the International Criminal Court by shifting the discussion from the term “occupation” to “border dispute.”
Netanyahu’s own policy preferences remain unknown. But advocates of annexation and/or partial unilateral withdrawal took hopeful note of the Israeli leader’s comment at his government’s April 6 Cabinet meeting that “unilateral steps on their part will be met with unilateral steps on our part.”
Tamar Hermann, a leading public opinion expert, said the idea of partial withdrawal could be accepted by Israeli public opinion. Hermann, who conducts a monthly survey called The Peace Index on a broad range of issues for the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute, said support for partial withdrawal would feed on “the desire of Israelis not to be bothered by the conflict.”
Dennis Ross, a former top Middle East negotiator for several administrations who is now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank supportive of Israel, said Washington, too, might welcome such a move by Israel.
“It becomes something they do with [the United States],” he said during an April 7 discussion at the institute. “It’s not part of a formal agreement, and maybe that’s an easier thing to work out.”
Miller questioned Netanyahu’s domestic political ability to pull off such a move. In 1998, he noted, Netanyahu lost his coalition for proposing minor withdrawals during talks with the United States and the Palestinian Authority. It is hard to see how his coalition today would approve a much more significant pullback, Miller said.
This could leave one final fallback option as the most practical: maintain the status quo. It is not an option the Israeli government would adopt or declare as official policy, but it may be the most obvious route for most Israelis.
“The public has not bought the interpretation that the situation on the ground can’t go on the way it is,” Hermann said. Jewish Israelis, she said, “do not see the Palestinians as a [security] threat or a strategic threat, and sanctions are not yet felt by the average Israeli. People expect life to go on as it is and do not expect a third intifada.”
The defense establishment, which has supported a peace drive as a national security interest, could also unenthusiastically agree with a continued status quo between Israelis and Palestinians. “It can be an option,” said Shaul Shay, former deputy head of the Israel National Security Council, “not a preferred option, but we can survive it.”
Dan Soffer, vice president of business development at VeriFone and part of a business group promoting a two-state solution, said he remains optimistic. And if his optimism is misplaced?
“Unfortunately I don’t think we have a Plan B. As a businessperson I always have a Plan B but I don’t see a Plan B beyond a deadlock and a third intifada.”
Nathan Guttman reported from Washington. Nathan Jeffay reported from Tel Aviv. Hody Nemes contributed reporting from New York.