The absence of peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors is not due to the lack of a plan. “Solutions” to the conflict have been proposed for more than 60 years. Each foundered because of the failure of Arab leaders to accept the State of Israel.
Many observers have urged the United States to be more active in the peace process, and to put forth its own peace plan. Virtually every U.S. administration has authored a plan and not one has ever succeeded.
The two successful cases where Israel reached agreements with Arab nations were not the result of peace plans; rather, they were the product of the vision of courageous Arab leaders — Anwar Sadat of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan — who demonstrated by word and deed they were committed to peace and thereby convinced the Israeli people they could take risks for peace.
Ariel Sharon followed in the footsteps of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin and offered to make painful concessions. The government gave away part of the Jewish people’s ancestral home so the Palestinians can have a state, but no Palestinian leader has yet shown the courage to follow the path of Sadat and Hussein and grant Israel peace in exchange for any amount of land. Sharon implemented the disengagement plan in August 2005, and completely withdrew all Israeli troops and settlers in the Gaza Strip. All settlements in the area were dismantled, including four settlements in northen Samaria. Between August 16 and August 30, 2005, Israel safely evacuated more than 8,500 Israeli settlers and, on September 11, 2005, Israeli soldiers left Gaza, ending Israel's 38-year presence in the area. The United States had little to do with this latest step toward a two-state solution, and actually discouraged Israel from acting unilaterally in the naive hope that the Palestinians would be prepared to negotiate over the withdrawal.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert joined his predecessors and offered to make concessions for peace. In 2006, Olmert proposed a “realignment plan” whereby Israel would unilaterally withdraw from most settlements while holding onto five settlement blocs if no agreement can be negotiated with the Palestinians. By implementing this proposed plan, Olmert attempted to define Israel’s permanent borders with a future Palestinian state and ensure a Jewish demographic majority inside Israel. Once again, Israel was the principal instigator of the move to end control over area claimed by the Palestinians and the United States expressed willing to endorse the idea as a step in the right direction while continuing to insist that Israel negotiate a final settlement with the Palestinian Authority.
This plan was overtaken by events when Israel and Hezbollah fought the Second Lebanon War. Later, Olmert eschewed the unilateral approach and engaged in negotiations with the Palestinians from the end of 2006 to the end of 2008. Olmert offered to give up most of the West Bank and made concessions on Jerusalem that would have allowed the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. The Palestinians, however, rejected the deal.
Outsiders, whether they are opposition politicians, academics, or international organizations, have often floated ideas for how to bring about Middle East peace. It is easy to reach agreements in the abstract when the parties are not accountable for their decisions and have neither the power nor the obligation to implement them.
It is often said that the “devil is in the details,” and this has proven true in all past Israeli-Arab negotiations. Grand designs are not substitutes for difficult decisions that must be hashed out in direct talks.
Elements of third-party proposals can be incorporated in peace talks, but the only people who can reach meaningful agreements are the democratically elected Prime Minister of Israel and the appointed Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority.
The end game of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute has long been viewed as a two-state solution that involves the creation of a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders with modifications sufficient to incorporate the overwhelming majority of settlers and to substantially increase the security of Israel, and a Palestinian agreement to end the conflict. Numerous plans, including Oslo, the road map and the Trump Peace Plan outline how this can be achieved, but a plan is meaningless if one signatory ignores its commitments.
The Palestinians have repeatedly faced their Lincoln moment when they must choose between a more perfect Palestinian union living in peace beside Israel or some fractured people condemned to statelessness by the terrorists in their midst. If the Palestinians dismantle the terrorist network, as they repeatedly promised to do in past agreements, Israel will have to make tough decisions regarding the settlements. Israelis will have to decide if their democracy can be preserved without dismantling some Jewish towns and villages. Israel already made its choice in evacuating Gaza; however, the violence the followed reduced the support of most Israelis to make a similar Lincolnesque choice in the West Bank.