MORE INFORMATION: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions about Middle East Peace Negotiations
WHY ARE NEGOTIATIONS NECESSARY?
At present, Israel occupies the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and has since 1967. Nearly all Israelis and Palestinians agree, and the official positions of both the state of Israel and the Palestinian Authority affirm, that an end to the occupation is necessary for a just and lasting peace. In order to get to that point, however, several things must happen. Israelis and Palestinians must agree to borders that protect the security and territorial integrity of each side. (Many, including President Obama, have suggested using the 1967 borders as a starting point, with land swaps to deal with factors like Israeli settlements that have arisen since 1967. The Episcopal Church supports this approach.) Agreement must be reached on how to share Jerusalem, ensure access to the holy sites for people of all faiths, and share precious natural resources like water. Agreement must be reached on what rights of refugees who fled Israel in the late 1940s have to return to their homes or receive compensation. In short, these kinds of agreements, which are necessary for a two-state solution, can only happen at the negotiations table. They cannot come through unilateral action by either party, and they cannot be imposed by any outside party.
IS THE PALESTINIAN BID FOR STATEHOOD AT THE UN A REJECTION OF NEGOTIATIONS?
No. As the Presiding Bishop noted in her recent pastoral letter, the Palestinian resolution is not a repudiation of negotiations but arises out of the fact that negotiations aren't happening. Statehood is a legitimate aspiration, and it must be noted that the Palestinian resolution is an attempt to pursue statehood through non-violent means. Still, such a resolution cannot take the place of negotiations. It also seems clear that if the UN's handling of the resolution serves to isolate or weaken the credibility of either party or other international partners, it will not be good for the peace process. In short, as the heads of the local Churches in Jerusalem wrote in anticipation of the UN resolution in early September, negotiations remain the best way forward.
ISN'T IT TRUE THAT PALESTINIANS WOULD BE THE WEAKER PARTY IN NEGOTIATIONS?
Unfortunately, yes, Palestinians are the weaker party in the conflict itself and so enter into negotiations with disproportionately less power. That's among the reasons why the involvement of outside partners like the United States and the Quartet is so important. The United States, in particular, carries enormous leverage with Israel, born out of decades of friendship, and can play a vital role in helping all parties agree to make the kinds of compromises necessary for peace.
ARE PRE-CONDITIONS NECESSARY FOR NEGOTIATIONS?
No. The purpose of negotiations is to produce agreement on disputed issues, and so neither party should require pre-conditions of the other except around basic premises of peaceful recognition of the other. With that said, certain steps by each party to demonstrate their good faith and seriousness about peace could be very helpful in making negotiations happen and succeed. For example, a freeze on Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem would demonstrate to Palestinians that Israel recognizes that, ultimately, the issue of Palestinian territorial integrity must be on the table. Similarly, Palestinian efforts to provide clarity about how its recently announced political reconciliation with Hamas -- which rules the Gaza strip, supports violence against Israel, and refuses to recognize her right to exist -- will affect its future as a partner for peace could serve to allay Israeli fears about its future safety if a Palestinian state is created. Pre-conditions shouldn't be required, but each party should deeply consider what actions it can take to make peace a reality. We will devote an alert to this very issue in coming weeks.
HAS THE WINDOW CLOSED ON A TWO-STATE SOLUTION?
No. In recent years, some have argued that Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has so saturated the Palestinian territories that a future Palestinian territory would have no territorial viability or contiguity. This is a very serious concern and one that must be the subject of peace negotiations. A Palestinian state that consists of patchy cantons can't be viable. Most observers agree that in a future peace agreement, Israel would have to dismantle some settlements (as it did when it removed all settlements from the Gaza Strip five years ago) and offer land swaps to the Palestinians for any Palestinian land that remains in Israeli hands. These compromises will not be easy for either party, but they are necessary for a two-state solution to succeed. And a two-state solution MUST succeed because it is the only viable option on the table. Neither eternal Israeli occupation of the Palestinian lands, nor a future without Israel in the region, is a realistic or desirable goal. A two state solution is, as the saying goes, the only show in town, and so we must continue working toward that goal.
WHAT CAN THE WORLD DO TO HELP?
In short, press the parties unrelentingly to come to the table with seriousness, and to remain there until peace is made. Different outside partners have different points of leverage with either the Israelis, the Palestinians, or both. This will be needed as negotiations get underway. But first, the parties must come to the table, and getting them there must be our most immediate and urgent goal. Finally, all must remember that one does not make peace with friends, but with enemies, with future friendship being the goal. Peace will require compromises of each side that may seem unthinkable at first, but this is how peace works. Outside parties who are friends to both the Israelis and Palestinians must use their leverage to keep this vision of peace at the forefront of negotiations.
HASN'T DECADES OF ADVOCACY FAILED?
No! The present moment is indeed frustrating to all, none more so than those who live daily within the reality of the conflict. It may seem particularly frustrating to us as Episcopalians, whose Church has been advocating for a two-state solution for three decades. But, as the Presiding Bishop said, let us not forget what the engagement of millions around the world has brought. The past decade alone has brought violence on all sides to new lows. It has brought effective Palestinian governance in the West Bank by leaders who are widely admired by international partners for their seriousness in wanting peace. It has brought solid and durable economic and social infrastructure in the West Bank in spite of all of the challenge and degradation of life under occupation. In the words of the Presiding Bishop, "it is precisely because these gains now seem at risk that frustrations run so high, but it is precisely the fact that these gains are at risk that should inspire us to continue. People of faith are called to be people of hope, even when it seems darkest."