Monday, April 14, 2014

As Mideast Hopes Dim, Some Urge Scaling Back of Lofty Goals

As Mideast Hopes Dim, Some Urge Scaling Back of Lofty Goals

Agreeing to Live in Peace, Rather Than a Peace Agreement, Might be More Attainable

By NICHOLAS CASEY

TEL AVIV—With hopes for a comprehensive peace agreement fading, some influential former officials say it is time to consider a "Plan B" with the less ambitious goal of living peacefully and leaving the tough choices for another day.

Negotiators from both sides met Monday with U.S. special envoy Martin Indyk for a second straight day in Jerusalem after talks ground to a halt last week when Israelis delayed a scheduled prisoner release and Palestinians angered Israel by signing a set of international treaties and conventions. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki called the talks "serious and constructive."

But with Secretary of State John Kerry's declaration last week that the peace process needed a "reality check," hopes of a grand bargain put forward when he kicked off his diplomacy nine months ago are being scaled back.

The difficulties in agreeing on a prisoner swap bode ill for tackling more complex issues that need to be resolved to reach a lasting peace. That has opened a discussion about constraining aspirations and urging U.S. mediators to accept the status quo while the two sides focus on ways to avoid any escalation in violence.

Former politicians and analysts propose that the most contentious issues that need to be resolved for a comprehensive peace, such as borders and security, would be left for after future elections. The two sides would continue official peace talks, allowing their U.S. ally to avoid failure on a long-standing foreign-policy goal.

"The gap between the most moderate position in Israel and the most moderate position in the Palestinian leadership is too far right now," said Shlomo Avineri, a former director general of Israel's foreign ministry. "It's time for the U.S. to think of a contingency plan—treating this as a conflict-management situation." His suggestion: treat the two governments like Kosovo or Cyprus, where adversaries never fully recognized each other, but modest agreements stopped the threat of another war.

A Final Status Agreement between Israelis and Palestinians—the wide-ranging deal that would settle everything from the location of borders and capitals to the right of return for Palestinians who lost their homes during Israel's creation in 1948—has remained elusive since the 1993 Oslo accords.

Achieving a deal now would require both Israeli and Palestinian leaders to be able to sell the agreement to hard-liners who threaten to bring down their respective governments if they go too far. Yet both sides must continue to negotiate with one another—Israel to avoid international isolation for its occupation of the West Bank, Palestinians so they can continue to receive international aid. The result is that both sides keep talking, but neither has incentive to reach a deal.

Yehuda Ben Meir, a former Israeli deputy foreign minister, said the U.S. has two options at this point.

"Either manage the conflict until the next elections, or walk away, and that would mean conflict, and wouldn't be a viable option for them," he said.

The most the two sides could agree upon in the near term might be what he called unilateral coordinated actions such as allowing Palestinians to control more land in parts of the West Bank now under Israeli control.

The idea reflected the atmosphere of sharply lowered expectations this week, when even hopes for a gesture such as a prisoner release were dim. On Sunday, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called Palestinian prisoners who were considered for the possible release recently "terrorists" and urged his government not to free them or make other agreements before a new election was held. The last elections were in 2013, but a new election could be called early before the four-year term is up. Palestinians now say the path in coming months goes through the United Nations. Having won nonmember observer status there in 2012, they want to push ahead signing on to a bevy of treaties and conventions that would culminate in joining the International Criminal Court. Israel has threatened heavy sanctions if this happens, worried in part that the Palestinians are unilaterally trying to take on more trappings of a state.

Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian negotiator, said the benefits outweigh risks. Signing treaties strengthens the Palestinian bargaining position by giving the government more powers of a state, while joining the ICC would allow Palestinians to challenge Israeli actions in the West Bank by threatening a war crimes lawsuit.

"Being empowered legally and internationally can allow the Palestinian Authority to stop illegal settlements and stimulate pressure it can't now," he said.

—Jay Solomon contributed to this article.

Write to Nicholas Casey at nicholas.casey@wsj.com

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