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October 18, 2018

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OPINION:

Putting together the broken pieces of Middle East peace

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Camp David accords — the high-water mark of Middle East peacemaking. How far we have fallen since then. It makes you weep.

Rather than a breakthrough, Israelis and Palestinians seem to be inching closer and closer to a total breakdown. Without some dramatic advance, there is a real chance that whatever Palestinian governance exists will crumble, and Israel will have to take full responsibility for the health, education and welfare of the 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank. Israel would then have to decide whether to govern the West Bank with one legal authority or two, which would mean Israel would be choosing between bi-nationalism and apartheid, both disasters for a Jewish democracy.

So many people are acting badly. Hamas is pursuing a strategy of human sacrifice in Gaza — throwing wave after wave of protesters against the Israeli border fence to die without purpose or even much notice anymore.

At a time when the key to any Palestinian breakthrough with Israel is for Palestinians to make Israelis feel strategically secure but morally insecure about holding occupied territories, Hamas, with its relentless tunnel-digging into Israel and border assaults — unaccompanied by any offer of a two-state solution — does everything to make Israelis feel strategically insecure and morally secure about holding territories.

Israel Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu has been a brilliant strategist in confronting Iran and managing Russia in Syria. But on the Palestinian issue, all he has is a PR strategy — he uses all his intelligence to find ways to make sure the Palestinians get blamed in the U.S. for any absence of progress — without offering any ideas on how to separate from the Palestinians to avoid the terrible choices of bi-nationalism and apartheid.

Bibi is well on his way to going down in history as the Israeli prime minister who won every debate and lost Israel as a Jewish democracy.

Donald Trump, for his part, is the first U.S. president to have not just a pro-Israel strategy but also a pro-right-wing Jewish settler strategy. Seeking to please evangelical Christians and far-right Jewish megadonors like Sheldon Adelson, Trump moved the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — without asking Israel for anything in return. The art of the giveaway. Now he’s eliminating U.S. aid for Palestinian development, hospitals and education programs as punishment for Palestinians’ not negotiating on Jared Kushner’s still-undefined peace plan — while saying not a word about continued Israeli settlements.

Meanwhile in the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority has settled into a strategy of “I am going to hold my breath until you turn blue.” It is refusing to negotiate with the Trump team out of anger and frustration.

At the same time, though, a March poll by the respected Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey found that 78 percent of Palestinians believed that the Palestinian Authority was hobbled by corruption.

The authority needs a new strategy because defiance and highlighting its victimhood is not working. The status quo is hammering Palestinians but, for now, is tolerable for everyone else. So the authority needs to get back to the negotiating table.

May I make a suggestion?

The Trump team keeps saying it wants to get America’s Arab allies to endorse its peace plan. The Arabs won’t do that if the plan does not meet some minimum Palestinian demands, and the Palestinians won’t settle for those minimum demands without Arab cover.

Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, should go to America’s four key Arab allies — Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — and propose that they collectively say “yes” to engaging Trump and Kushner if the U.S. plan includes two criteria: It calls for a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank — not a bunch of disconnected cantons — and it grants Palestinians some form of sovereignty in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem, where 300,000 Arabs already live. (The authority will also have to agree that its state will be demilitarized.)

This would give the Arab leaders cover with their publics for supporting a Trump plan and give the Palestinians cover for re-engaging with Trump. It would also say to Trump: If your plan does not include the bare minimum of a Palestinian state and some Palestinian sovereignty in Arab districts of Jerusalem, don’t bother bringing it out; it will be dead on arrival in the Arab world, not just the West Bank.

If the Trump team embraced such a Palestinian-Arab initiative and made it part of its plan, it would also force Bibi to make some decisions. Because the truth is, Bibi has been at zero on the question of a Palestinian state and at zero on the question of Palestinian sovereignty in Jerusalem. Bibi has managed to keep his obstinacy obscured, though, because the Palestinians have boycotted the talks.

If a Kushner-Trump plan embraced the Arab-Palestinian minimums, Bibi would have to either reject it — exposing his real position — or jettison some of his far-right political supporters and form a new government prepared to negotiate on the U.S. terms. He could definitely do the latter — if he wanted.

“The Palestinians can’t want to lose their governing authority in the West Bank,” notes veteran Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross. “And the Trump administration and Israel can’t want a total vacuum to emerge there, because in the Middle East, all vacuums are filled by something worse.”

An agreement by the Palestinians and America’s Arab allies on their minimum foundations for negotiations, adds Ross, gives Palestinians cover to come back to the table and puts pressure on the Trump team to deliver a credible plan or be exposed as not being serious. And “it gives Israel a partner and some fateful choices to make.”

Say what you will about Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin and Jimmy Carter 40 years ago, but they came to a point at Camp David where there were only hard choices — and they made them, and they made the right ones.

We’re again at a fateful moment. For the Palestinians, it’s choose nihilism or pacifism. For Israel, it’s choose separation from the Palestinians or get bi-nationalism or apartheid. For Jared and Donald, it’s either be serious — and be ready to take a tough stance with all parties, including Israel — or stay home.

Making progress toward peace requires telling everyone the truth, twisting everyone’s arms and not letting any party drive drunk. Not ready for that? Then stick to building condos and golf courses.

Thomas Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.