Today, few disagree that without massive withdrawals from Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where over 500,000 settlers now live, there is no hope for a two-state peace. A majority of Israelis also agree that an end to the conflict, preservation of a democratic, Jewish Israel, and freedom and statehood for Palestinians, are impossible without a radical reversal of Israel’s misbegotten settlement adventure.
Israel’s 43-year national project of settling the territory occupied in 1967 was designed to create "facts on the ground" that would maintain Israeli control and thwart Palestinian self-determination. Today, even Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu says he accepts the need for a two-state peace. But continuing aggressive settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, in defiance of the United States and the international community, are clear evidence that Netanyahu and his government oppose a genuine two-state agreement, and still adamantly reject a shared Jerusalem.
Most governments today believe that international law, including UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 and the Fourth Geneva Convention outlawing settlements, should inform an agreement on a two-state border. The roadmap, which was endorsed by UN Security Council Resolution 1515, Quartet positions, and statements by the Obama administration concur that the starting point for creating a two-state peace should focus on the 1967 border.
In the end, the Israeli and Palestinian people themselves must accept a border that addresses their basic needs. For Palestinians, this means freedom, sovereignty, and security in a viable, contiguous state, the end of settlements, and a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. For Israel, it means peace within "secure and recognized borders", as set forth in Resolution 242, reconciliation with the Arab states and an increasingly estranged international community, and, for most Israelis, preserving a Jewish, democratic state.
Fortunately, it is not necessary to invent a solution, given the exhaustive work by Israeli and Palestinian experts on the elements of a comprehensive peace and a territorial solution. The first effort to address the contradiction between the 1967 borders and settlements came late in the Oslo talks when negotiators began discussing a compromise between total withdrawal to the 1967 border and a redefined border through land swaps.
The swap concept was also adopted in the late 2000 "Clinton parameters" and the Geneva accord of 2003. The latter was drafted by leading Israeli and Palestinian experts, and elaborated in 2009. It proposes Israeli annexation of two percent of the West Bank and East Jerusalem adjacent to the 1967 line containing about 350,000 setters in big bloc settlements. In return, Israel would evacuate about 150,000 other settlers and transfer to Palestine two percent of its land, of equal quality, next to the southern West Bank and Gaza. (The latter would especially appeal to land-starved Gazans, and could support reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, essential to an ultimate peace agreement.) Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has endorsed land swaps on a 1:1 basis, and the Obama administration has concurred, in general.
Israeli withdrawal of many settlements near the 1967 line and dozens of others deeper in the West Bank and the Jordan Valley, and annexations limited to large, dense settlements, such as Modiin Illit adjacent to central Israel, and in East Jerusalem, would restore a more contiguous and economically viable border interrupted only with a few enclaves attached to Israel with access roads. It would also allow a contiguous Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem that is a bottom line requirement. Another benefit would be restoration of critical farmland and water resources now controlled by settlements.
But even such a compromise, following the Geneva accord or some other plan, would demand a radical transformation of the status quo. Israeli and Palestinian leaders have long since proved that they cannot negotiate such a deal by themselves, given their crippling internal ideological and religious divisions and the unequal balance of power. Just as leadership by the US and the international community was necessary to create and sustain the new state of Israel in 1948, similar intervention and a US-led peace plan will be necessary to create a viable Palestinian state and rescue Israel from its self-destructive policies.
Israel’s current leadership (which is dominated by the settler, religious and ideological right) as well as extreme Hamas elements would fiercely resist this, and detailed negotiations would still be necessary. But there is a chance that, with broad international, including Arab and UN support, and tough, determined, but empathetic US diplomacy, such a transformative US plan could galvanize majorities in Israel and Palestine to agree and oblige their leaders to make peace. This would require an unprecedented and politically-challenging change in US policy, restoring balance to the current lopsided American-Israeli alliance. But the alternative is tragic defeat for the national hopes of both Israelis and Palestinians, more instability in the region, and continued erosion of US national security.