Op-Ed: Time for a regional solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

NEW YORK (JTA) — In the last 48 hours, rockets from Gaza were again fired at innocent civilians. This cannot be tolerated. The Israel Defense Forces must respond swiftly and without hesitation. We, as the opposition, will support strong government action.

Yet such action cannot stand alone. We need to initiate and be proactive in order to restore quiet and start the painful but necessary process of separating from the Palestinians to reach a two-state solution.

I’m going to argue that the only way to achieve the two-state solution is to give up on direct talks and manage the negotiations through a regional conference supported by the United States.

With that, allow me first to address the Iran issue and the fight against the BDS movement.

This past year, the strategic dialogue between Israel and the United States focused on Iran. It’s been unproductive, often too personal and is leading to an agreement that Israel will struggle to live with.

The deal being negotiated with Iran raises serious concerns, especially regarding supervision and the ability to reinstate sanctions in case Iran breaches the agreement.

And make no mistake, Iran will breach the agreement. It is a regime that believes deceit is part of its holy war and fraud is a legitimate weapon when deployed in the name of Allah.

In order to prevent that, we need to restore the full-scale intelligence cooperation between Israel and the United States, and try to come to an agreement on three key issues: the penalties against Iran in case of any breach; the mechanism for supervision; and the question of which scenarios justify a military operation against Iranian nuclear sites.

Israel will not and cannot take any option off the table to prevent a nuclear Iran. The explicit Iranian statement of intent to destroy the State of Israel is something unheard of since the Second World War.

We are at a critical moment. The American government needs to work with us in the understanding that the Iranian nuclear program poses a threat to the whole world, but first and foremost to Israel. We are in range. We are the declared targets.

My father was a Holocaust survivor from the Budapest ghetto. He used to say to me, “Do you know what the world will do if Israel is destroyed? They will all be very sad, they will open an orphanage for the surviving children and they will write a condolence letter.”

Seventy years after the Holocaust, I cannot fathom, and neither can most Israelis, why the world is not even willing to demand that the Iranians retract their statements calling for our destruction.

At the same time, Israel and the United States must return to intimate dialogue and the cooperation that typified the relationship since Israel’s first day.

There is something to be remembered here, something we Israelis don’t say enough to the United States: We are grateful. The friendship between our two countries is not taken for granted.

It is a choice built upon shared values that we must cherish. The fact that the world’s leading power chose Israel as its ally and close friend is a source of pride for every Israeli, and it is our duty to do everything to respect and preserve this friendship.

Alongside our friends here and around the globe, it’s time for us to become proactive in the crucial fight against the new form of anti-Semitism represented by the BDS movements. It is time for us to move from defense to offense.

Instead of trying to show the world that we’re a democracy, it’s time for us to expose the fact that the BDS movement is actually a puppet in a theater operated by Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

We should go to the Europeans, we should go to American campuses and ask them, “Do you understand that you are not supporting the liberation of the oppressed, but are cheering for the people and values that brought 9/11 to this country? You are supporting people that kill gays and suppress women, people who look at you as nothing more than tools to be used.”

They cynically use bleeding-heart, so-called intellectuals to promote the darkest version of Islam. They use well-intentioned liberals, who have no idea who they really serve, as camouflage for their campaign of death and destruction.

This movement has nothing to do with the peace process or Israel’s behavior in Gaza. These are just their excuses for racism, for their hatred of Jews.

The BDS movement should have no role in shaping our political reality or the decisions we take. But neither does it exempt us from the need to develop a new approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which will lead to a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel.

For that to happen, we have to change direction. There is one thing we all know about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: It isn’t going anywhere. There is no option on the table which the two sides can accept.

We should turn to the Arab League — of which the PLO, the umbrella organization of the Palestinian national movement, is a part — to create a regional summit under the auspices of the Americans in which we can conduct regional dialogue leading to an agreement.

For that to happen we need to give up — because there is no choice — on the idea of bilateral talks. It isn’t easy to accept the fact that the Israelis and the Palestinians cannot just sit together and find a solution, but the past 20 years have taught us that this isn’t going to happen.

Why won’t it work? Because in the current circumstances, the maximum we can offer is lower than the minimum the Palestinians are willing to accept. There is no Palestinian leader today, and there won’t be one in the foreseeable future, who is able to reach the depth of compromise necessary for a deal.

In the internal Palestinian dialogue, compromise is treason and any agreement hurts the Palestinian national ethos. The punishment is death. They can’t admit that publicly because it will contradict years of propaganda intended to present Israel as the sole refuser of peace.

Added to the concerns of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his government about reaction on the Palestinian street and from the different terror factions — especially Hamas — to any agreement, there is the additional concern of the response from the Arab world.

The leadership of the Palestinian Authority is simply not the only player on the field. Countries like Saudi Arabia and Jordan, who see themselves as the custodians of the holy places, have made clear time and again that the Palestinians don’t have the sole authority over what they see as religious issues.

On other issues as well, like the integration of the refugees into the future Palestinian state or the money needed to rehabilitate and build the Palestinian state, there is simply no way to reach an agreement without the involvement of the countries in the Arab League.

For the sake of fairness, we have to admit that on the Israeli side as well, the commitment to the two-state solution at this time is halfhearted and doesn’t include the willingness to pay the political price needed to reach a deal. But that is more a matter of political circumstance than set conditions.

There were Israeli governments in the past that were willing to pay a heavy price to separate from the Palestinians, and there may well be again in the future.

A regional agreement that leads to an end of the conflict with the Arab League could also normalize our relations with much of the Islamic world — countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Algeria and other North African countries — opening up new markets, creating economic growth and new diplomatic relations. A regional approach provides us, the Israelis, with a clear incentive and a new set of tools with which to fight the BDS movement.

The various mediators may have been wrong about the process, but they were right in their goal. They were right because there isn’t — and there cannot be — a solution other than separation from the Palestinians. The State of Israel cannot allow itself to absorb 3.5 million Palestinians. In every sense — security, economic, socially — the symbiotic connection with the Palestinians is destructive.

In the long run, Israel cannot continue to be democratic and Jewish without separating from the Palestinians. In the short term, the damage to our diplomatic relations is unbearable and the time between each round of fighting is getting shorter.

In the current reality, the lack of an agreement undermines our ability to cooperate with others to counter Iran’s aggressiveness and regional terrorism.

The changes in the Arab world in the past five years present us with a unique opportunity. The Muslim Brotherhood no longer rules in Egypt. The civil war in Syria is occupying the terrorist organizations on our northern border. Saudi Arabia is leading a conservative Sunni coalition in Yemen against radical forces operating with Iranian support.

The Arab world is divided in two: radical forces and conservative Arab states that seek to maintain the status quo. These countries are facing Islamic forces that are challenging the very notion of a nation state. To deal with that challenge, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states need to decide with which of their former enemies they will cooperate, Iran or Israel.

According to all the indications we have, they would prefer Israel. The coalition formed by Saudi Arabia to fight the pro-Iranian forces in Yemen strengthens that understanding. For the first time since the State of Israel was founded, there is a coherent Arab coalition that prefers to cooperate with us.

These are forces that we can and need to work with. Those countries lead the Arab League. The Palestinian Authority, which fears the rise of Hamas, sees itself as part of them. We can and we should speak to this Arab League.

The opening point for these discussions should be the regional summit. Egypt is a natural candidate to host it and the world, led by the United States, should be the sponsor.

The sides need to know that they aren’t beginning to walk the long path to an agreement alone, and that the international community will play a part in funding and implementing the solutions.

We can assume that the Arab countries will demand a response to the Saudi Initiative of 2002. Our answer should be that we can’t accept the initiative as it is, but we are willing to address it as a basis for discussions, alongside the Kerry Framework.

There are obviously clauses within the initiative that we will not accept — such as withdrawing from the Golan Heights or dividing Jerusalem, not to mention the right of return that is simply out of the question — but that is why we have negotiations, so that sides that do not agree with one another sit together and find solutions.

Time is not on our side. The undermining of Israel’s international legitimacy is a genuine threat. The existential threat of a binational state is real and lies around the corner. Israel’s radicals, from right and left, are pushing us in that direction with all sorts of messianic delusions. That will be the end of Zionism and under no circumstances can we allow it to happen.

During the previous government, in which I served as part of the negotiation team, we fought to push the idea of a regional summit. The response: “You don’t put leaders in the same room unless the results are agreed upon.”

In my view, that is exactly the sort of thinking which has led us to where we are today — total paralysis.

Leaders don’t sit together until there is an agreement on tax treaties or wage negotiations. But when there is a need for a historic change, leaders and only leaders can create the breakthrough.

Leaders and only leaders need to meet in a closed room and come to the decisions that no one but them can reach. And then they, and only they, need to turn to their nations, to the people they are meant to govern, and lead them to places they previously feared.

We must turn to the Arab League — in coordination with the United States — and initiate negotiations with the aim of a demilitarized Palestinian state being created alongside Israel while protecting Israel’s security and ability to defend itself.

This summit will force the sides to do what they have been avoiding for far too long — talk to each other. Take responsibility. Fulfill their duties and lead their nations instead of fearing their responses.

Good things happen when people talk to one another. Good things happen when people believe in their inner strength and their ability to be agents of change. Good things happen when leaders act like leaders.

Yair Lapid is a member of the Israeli Knesset and the chairman of the Yesh Atid party. This Op-Ed is adapted from remarks prepared for delivery to The Jerusalem Post’s 2015 conference in New York.