A Million Dollar Middle East Peace Plan

4 minute read

Bird is a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of J. Robert Oppenheimer. His 2010 memoir, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, has just been re-issued by Scribner.

One night at the dinner table in the American Colony—the lovely boutique watering hole in East Jerusalem—I overheard an elderly American heiress proclaiming that she would give a million dollars to anyone who could solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. It was 1956, and I was just five-years-old, but I tugged my father’s sleeve, and said, “Daddy, we have to win this prize.” 

I spent my entire childhood in the Middle East, the son of an American diplomat. It was nothing exceptional—except that Zelig-like, I lived through all the wars of the Arab-Israeli conflict. And then as a young man I married the only daughter of two survivors of the Shoah. I have always worked hard to see both sides of this tragic, seemingly intractable conflict. But I am now fed up with these bad actors and their tribal bloodbaths.

All these many years later, the ‘troubles’ in the ‘dangerous neighborhood persist. Indeed, things have gotten worse. Just look at the horrifying atrocities of October 7, 2023 when some 1,200 Israelis were butchered. And just look at the indiscriminate killing of over 30,000 Palestinians, mostly civilians in Gaza in the current war. Alarming incidents of blatant anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia fuel a toxic atmosphere across much of the globe. The tide of extremism on all sides has risen, and civil society voices of moderation are largely deemed irrelevant.

Short-sighted leaders on both sides are fueling a new generation of violence and hatred. Hamas’s bloody terrorism is bad enough, but I wouldn’t be surprised if tomorrow the current war expands to Lebanon or Iran—or if a radiation ‘dirty’ bomb explodes in Tel Aviv, making parts of the city uninhabitable. The only good news is that the political careers of both Bibi Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas are clearly coming to an end. Both of these deplorable leaders have led their peoples to a dead end.

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This conflict is so dangerous that the time has come for the international community to impose a solution. Here is what needs to be done.

First, a six-month cease-fire needs to be imposed whereby Hamas releases all their remaining hostages and Israel amnesties hundreds of long-term Palestinian prisoners—including the popular Fatah leader (and convicted murderer), Marwan Barghouti.

Second, and simultaneously, convene a Geneva peace conference. Invite all the parties to a one-month, time-limited negotiation in which diplomats iron out a comprehensive political compromise, broadly based on a two-state peace treaty. It should be modeled on the one-page, six-point program drafted in 2002 by Ami Ayalon, the former Israeli intelligence chief, and Sari Nusseibeh, a Palestinian Oxford-trained philosopher. It envisions two-states with borders based on the 1967 Green Line with some territorial adjustments and with East Jerusalem as the capital of a demilitarized Palestinian state.

It is a brilliant document—simple and obvious.

Skeptics will say that the hardliners on both sides won’t show up at Geneva. The international community, led by the Biden Administration, can make it clear that any party not showing up at Geneva will be penalized with financial and legal sanctions. Israeli political leaders will have to come. Non-state actors will also be invited, including representatives of the Palestinian Authority, Fatah, Hamas and members of Palestinian civil society groups. They too will face financial and legal sanctions if they fail to show up. A conversation will take place in which all parties are heard. But the American, European and other international diplomats invited to Geneva will be responsible for the actual drafting of a peace treaty. Yes, this will be an imposed peace because the global stakes are too high.

But the resulting Geneva treaty will then be submitted to a referendum in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. I hope that a clear majority of both Israelis and Palestinians will approve the treaty. Ordinary people on both sides should realize that the alternative is endless war. An imposed, internationally sanctioned referendum will encourage the politicians to stop catering to their respective hardliners. The prospect of a real peace based on simple compromise will suddenly seem practical and economically beneficial to everyone. The fog of endless war will lift and common sense will prevail.

And when that happens, can someone please send me that check for a million dollars?

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