Throughout the interim years of the Oslo Accords, Israeli settlement activity was allowed to continue unhampered, with the number of settlers increasing from 110,000 on the eve of the Accords in 1993 to 185,000 in 2000, during the negotiations over a final status, to 430,000 today. That increase seriously undermined the notion that Israel was sincere about making way for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
Palestinian leaders, meanwhile, continued pursuing what they referred to as the “Right of Return,” their demand that ever-growing numbers of Palestinians be allowed to settle within the territory of pre-1967 Israel, which would render Jews a minority in an Arab state. There were nearly 3 million Palestinians registered with UNRWA as refugees in 1993, a number that increased to 3.8 million in 2000, and which stands at 5.3 million today. Palestinian leaders never dared face their people to tell them that as part of a final peace agreement, just as Jews would be expected to vacate their settlements east of the pre-1967 lines, Arab Palestinians be expected to renounce their claim to settle west of those lines. Like settlement building, this undermined the notion that Arab Palestinians had finally made their peace with the presence of a sovereign Jewish people in any part of the land. These two grand obstacles to peace—Israeli settlements and the Right of Return—each representing a form of territorial maximalism and the ideological negation of the other people’s right to self-determination in the land, grew ever larger under the umbrella of constructive ambiguity.
Jerusalem, too, fell prey to destructive ambiguity. Israeli leaders continued to peddle the lie of a “united Jerusalem,” failing to prepare Israelis for the necessary partition of Jerusalem into an Israeli capital and a Palestinian one, and Palestinian leaders extended their decades-long rejection of the idea that Jews have any historical, cultural, national, or religious connection to Jerusalem.
Twenty-five years after that hopeful Oslo moment, there is no need to rethink the end goal—but we need a new path to get there. The two-state solution remains the only option that recognizes the national rights of both peoples and provides a measure of justice to each. Whatever each side thinks about the invented nature of the other, both sides can agree that they each are equally deserving of living in a state where they can be masters of their own fate.
To get there, the parties need to approach the negotiations not as a marriage, but as a divorce. Serious peacemakers need to let go of vague and nebulous concepts such as “trust” and “confidence building,” and behave more like harsh divorce attorneys who spell out every detail. In place of destructive ambiguity, we need constructive specificity. President Trump, for example, would have done Israelis, Palestinians, and the cause of peace a greater favor if, rather than using the ambiguous term “Jerusalem,” he had recognized only west Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, while making it clear that he is open to recognizing Arab east Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. President Obama would actually have served the cause of peace if he had coupled his promotion of the UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which made it clear that Jews should not settle east of the pre-1967 line, with an equally stringent resolution that made it clear that Palestinians could not settle west of the pre-1967 line through the demand of return, condemning both forms of maximalism as illegitimate and harmful to a negotiated and just peace.