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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Recalibrating the Diplomacy of Middle East Peace

Filed under: Peace Process, The Middle East

Recalibrating the Diplomacy of Middle East Peace

At a time when policymakers are rushing back to the “two-state solution,” Hussein Agha and Ahmad Samih Khalidi move past the old formulas, out of recognition of how the Middle East region has changed

Nearly four years ago, Hussein Agha and Ahmad Samih Khalidi wrote a powerful article in The New Yorker titled “The End of the Road: The Decline of the Palestinian National Movement.” The two have been central figures in the Palestinian intellectual elite since they wrote for the Institute for Palestine Studies in Beirut in 1975. They were also senior associates at St. Antony’s College at Oxford.

Agha and Khalidi made a mark in repeated Palestinian diplomatic initiatives like the Beilin-Abu Mazen Agreement on final status and as back-channel negotiators during the tenure of US secretary of state John Kerry. In short, when they publish on what is happening behind the scenes in the Palestinian national movement, it should be carefully read, especially by those who don’t agree with them.

This past month they released a sequel to their 2017 piece but placed it in Foreign Affairs, with the title “A Palestinian Reckoning: Time for a New Beginning.” Rather than diagnosing the problems with Palestinian politics, they take another step and begin to outline an alternative strategy.

At a time when policymakers are rushing back to the “two-state solution,” Agha and Khalidi move past the old formulas, out of recognition of how the Middle East region has changed. They take a step that few would put into writing, admitting the “most egregious failures of the Oslo Accords,” which they boldly state was the treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as “a purely bilateral affair.”

Instead, they recognize that Egypt and Jordan must have a role in discussing the future of the territories. They assert, “The West Bank’s future cannot be determined in isolation from Jordan and Jordanian interests.” They admit that West Bankers view Amman as their “social, political and economic metropolis.” They admit that this perception “has only grown with the withering of the Palestinian national movement.”

Unfortunately, this is not how those who are busy writing new policy papers in Brussels, or even in Washington choose to see the situation. This represents a sharp break from how the peace industry and the NGO world has handled these issues, and it is authored by two analysts who know what they are talking about.

The most revolutionary part of their proposals involve a recalibration of Palestinian national goals. They admit that chances of securing “hard” sovereignty,” on the basis of “full and complete control over land, borders, and resources” is remote. They clearly have no use for the resolutions of the UN General Assembly that only reaffirm ideas based on the “self-defeating chimera of hard sovereignty.”

Their hope is that by moderating Palestinian goals in the direction of what they call “soft sovereignty,” other arrangements might become possible. They depart from the conventional notion of a two-state solution but rather look to multilateral arrangements, such as a trilateral model for the West Bank.

The Abraham Accords open up a whole new model for discussing alternative solutions. It would not be far-fetched for Abu Dhabi to sponsor a discussion among relevant players about how federalism has worked for them in the United Arab Emirates. Federalism could be exactly the framework for the soft sovereignty that Agha and Khalidi propose.

What Agha and Khalidi don’t consider is how strategic military factors could shape this discussion. The Gulf states could embrace their model if they were persuaded it could affect the Iranian issue. Years ago, a Palestinian leader commented that when the US fully pulls out from Iraq, the new border between Iran and the Arab world will be the Jordanian-Iraqi border.

But he wondered whether Jordan had sufficient critical mass to block Iranian expansionism by itself. Jordan, in his analysis, would find itself in the position of postwar Germany facing masses of Soviet armor. Only it would have no NATO to back it up.

Given the growing role of pro-Iranian militias today in Iraq, the need to have a regional arrangement once the US goes has grown. If the Palestinians found their place in such an arrangement, undoubtedly the Gulf states would have a greater propensity to work with them in new federal schemes – diplomatically, financially, and otherwise.

Agha and Khalidi’s important statement opens the door for a new political discourse in the Middle East. It can only be hoped that their path to a new political realism is seriously considered and not obliterated by those still clinging to worn-out concepts that plainly have not worked in the past.

This article appeared in the Jerusalem Post on March 25, 2021.