A New Special Report on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Is Peace Possible?” is a collaboration between The Atlantic and the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace on the opportunities and challenges of reaching a comprehensive peace deal between Israel and a future state of Palestine.

To many observers, the recent Palestinian decision to pursue a unilateral recognition of statehood at the United Nations signaled the end of hope in any possibility of a negotiated resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Dozens of initiatives over the past two decades have placed the two parties at the negotiating table and sought to find compromises to meet each side’s demands. Their inability to reach an agreement, despite the efforts of myriad world leaders and statesmen, has led many to believe that the Israelis and Palestinians are too far apart — that their demands are too irreconcilable — for them ever to reach a mutually agreeable peace deal.

But how far apart are they, really? Over the past year, the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace  has embarked on a project to pinpoint, in as objective manner as possible, the key demands that each side brings to the negotiating table on the core issues of the conflict. We evaluated the gaps between the two sides; we looked at how previous rounds of negotiations have attempted to bridge those  gaps; and finally we collected the most innovative proposals made by outside groups to resolve these issues — the work of task forces, conferences, working groups, think tanks, academics, NGOs, and civil society groups — many of which have received little exposure outside the small circle of policy wonks.

We defined the core issues as those that could make-or-break a final-status agreement: Borders, Security, Refugees, and Jerusalem. Is it possible to draw a border between Israel and a viable, contiguous state of Palestine, based on the 1967 lines, that includes within Israel’s new borders the vast majority of Israelis who currently live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem? Can Israel effectively protect itself in ways that are consistent with the establishment of a contiguous, viable, and sovereign state of Palestine? Is there an arrangement that can resolve the Palestinian refugee crisis while  preserving Israel as a Jewish state? Can Jerusalem serve as the capital of both Israel and the future state of Palestine?

There are certainly other contentious issues that need to be resolved at the negotiating table (such as water rights). We chose to focus on the four  that are generally agreed to be the core issues standing in the way of an agreement.

The underlying assumption of this project is that the two-state solution is the best way to resolve the conflict. The vast majority of both Israelis and Palestinians prefer this outcome (though doubt the commitment of the other side), and a similarly strong majority of both populations agree on the basic contours of the resolution. Creating an independent, viable state of Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is the only way that Israel can remain a democracy and a Jewish state, stem the tide of international delegitimization, and be secure in its borders while accepted in the region (as we discuss in the Security chapter). The majority of Palestinians and the current Palestinian leadership still see the two-state solution (which they officially accepted in 1988) as the most realistic path to a state of their own, though they are growing increasingly frustrated with the inability of negotiations to achieve that goal. An alarming number of them are beginning to wonder whether they should instead ask for equal citizenship in Israel — which, if granted, would end Israel’s Jewish majority.

The core of this special report are multimedia presentations on each of the core issues, viewable as one full-length video (about 15 minutes long) or broken up into several subchapters.  They are narrated by Robert Wexler, the Center’s president and formerly a U.S. Congressman for 13 years, who contributed invaluable foreign-policy experience throughout the project’s conceptualization and execution. The presentations were created by the Center in conjunction with SAYA / Design for Change, a brilliant design firm based in Tel Aviv,  who not only spent countless hours creating the visuals and helping develop the content, but whose architectural and urban-planning work is also featured among the innovative solutions in the Jerusalem chapter.

To create these chapters, we met with dozens of former negotiators, military officials, politicians, legal scholars, diplomats, academics, and other  experts to make sure we accurately represented each side’s positions and the developments in previous negotiations. Many of them are listed as consultants below (though some have asked not to be named because they are currently serving in government or other sensitive positions). Particular  thanks to Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, for his vital help on these presentations.

We will be rolling out subsequent chapters each Monday over the next four weeks. We encourage you to weigh in on the various issues in the comments  section of each chapter. The title of this special report is purposefully phrased in the form of a question; you can certainly watch the four  presentations and decide that a peace deal that meets the needs of both sides is not, in fact, possible. Also, we couldn’t get to every aspect of every  issue in under 15 minutes, and many we had to gloss over quite quickly. So please ask any questions you might have in the comment section of each  chapter (or on Twitter: @IsPeacePossible), or suggest aspects you’d like to know more about. We’ll try to answer them in posts over the next few weeks.

Among the most interesting aspects of these presentations are the solutions proposed by outside groups. We are not endorsing any of these proposals as the way to address the various issues, but rather we hope to highlight interesting ideas that we believe deserve broader exposure. Some of the original reports are also quite technical and wonky, so we’ve tried to present them in ways that are more accessible to a mass audience. Each proposal  has its own flaws, but at the very least we believe they provide elements that could help move the two sides closer to an agreement. Beneath each video, you’ll find links to the proposals; we highly encourage you to take the time to read the reports, since we can rarely do them justice in their  full complexity. We’ve also included resources for more information on the issues and each side’s perspective.

Beyond the four presentations, our goal is for this special report to become a hub for discussion about the core issues of the conflict, and how they  may affect or be affected by the fast-changing developments in the region. We’ll be featuring essays from prominent thinkers, as well as regular posts analyzing current events in the region and highlighting some of the best commentary about the conflict.

Presenting a comprehensive report on the core issues of the conflict may seem like an exercise in futility at a time when the two sides seem further  than ever from the negotiating table, let alone reaching a final agreement. But the reality is that the true nature of this conflict can often be  obscured by the day-to-day politicking, grandstanding, and posturing that have come to define the conflict for most casual observers. The unbridled  pessimism espoused by all sides is partially responsible for today’s stalemate. A more sober analysis of the actual components of the conflict, and the  challenges and opportunities to address the needs of both sides, may be precisely what is needed to move the discussion in a more productive  direction.

(www.theatlantic.com / 25.10.2011)

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