The Israeli-Palestinian conflict: To where?
The following presentation is one I have just made in front of the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs as part of a hearing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The two other speakers who joined me are French Special Envoy Pierre Vimont and Fernando Gentilini, EU Special Representative to the Middle East Peace Process.
Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to speak with you today about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has been with us for over seven decades. I wish I could be more optimistic in offering some kind of solution that could in fact be implemented and lead to the ultimate goal of reaching an agreement based on a two-state solution. Unfortunately, given the political environment in the region and the reality on the ground in Israel and Palestine, a solution that could answer the aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians seems ever more difficult, and every day that passes, the conflict is becoming more intractable while new facts created on the ground are becoming extremely difficult to reverse.
I’d like to first point out six elements that have and will continue to hinder finding a solution, what measures can be taken to improve the peace process, and what role the EU can play in the context of the French initiative.
Trump and the US role
I want to begin with the changing of the guard in the United States. Although President-elect Trump has recently stated that he would like to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, which he considers to be a major achievement, his incoming administration has no plan (that we know of) to resume the negotiations and on what basis at any time in the near future. President-elect Trump will largely be occupied with the many issues, both domestic and foreign, that he raised during the campaign (such as defeating ISIS and resolving the Syrian conflict).
Based on what I know, he does not see an urgency to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at this particular juncture. It seems to me that Mr. Trump would not want to delve into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unless he feels that his chance of success is rather promising, as he certainly does not want to attach his name to another failed negotiation. In the interim, we can expect President Trump to follow the policy of his predecessors by fully supporting Israel.
No one should expect that the Trump administration will exert any pressure on the Netanyahu government in the foreseeable future to change its direction.
The Israeli government
The Netanyahu government is simply not committed to negotiate a peace agreement based on a two-state solution. Although Netanyahu repeatedly states that he is in favor of a two-state solution, I do not believe that he would take any significant measures that would lead to the emergence of a Palestinian state under his watch. Moreover, several members of his coalition government do not see eye-to-eye on any particular solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and opinions range from those who demand an immediate annexation of the West Bank(specifically Area C) like Education Minister Naftali Bennett, to those like Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who wants to redraw the map completely to ensure a greater concentration of Jews within the eventual Israeli borders.
Anyone who attended the most recent Jerusalem Post conference and listened to the speeches of various top Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Netanyahu and those mentioned above, will realize how deep the gap is between the positions of the various members of the coalition. The only thing they agree upon is that the time is not ripe for any serious negotiations, as none believe that the Palestinian Authority is in a position to negotiate in earnest.
The Israeli opposition
There is no political opposition in Israel that can in fact galvanize its forces to provide an alternative to the current government’s policy regarding the Palestinians. The various political parties, especially the Zionist Union led by Isaac Herzog, Yesh Atid led by Yair Lapid, and others, are disorganized, do not see eye-to-eye with one another, and lack the fundamental consensus about the need to reach a peace agreement beween Israel and the Palestinians based on a two-state solution.As they stand today, they present no threat to the Netanyahu government, which is expected to serve its full term ending in 2019 and will most likely win the next election because of the growing shift of the Israeli public to the right-of-center.
The Arab States
The Arab States, specifically the Sunni states (led by Saudi Arabia) and the Gulf states, are focused largely on the Iranian threat and their own national security concerns, given the turmoil in the region. They have put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the back burner, and in fact, they see Israel as the front line that would defend the region from Iranian encroachment. Over the last few years, the Arab states (in addition to Egypt and Jordan, who are at peace with Israel) have developed extensive security and intelligence cooperation with Israel, and for them, such cooperation assumes top priority.However, given the opportunity, they will certainly support a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as long as the framework for the peace negotiations is based on the Arab Peace Initiative (API).
The Palestinian Authority
President Abbas, though he occasionally says and demonstrates his willingness to negotiate a peace agreement with Israel based on a two-state solution, is politically weak and will not be able to deliver any significant concessions that will receive public support. Unfortunately, there is not one single strong successor to Abbas, and should new elections be held, it remains a serious question as to who might succeed him, and what policy he or she might follow.Hamas, on the other hand, continues to call publicly for the destruction of Israel, and does not see eye-to-eye with the Palestinian Authority. It is not likely that both sides could come to terms with one another and join hands in the search for a permanent solution to their conflict with Israel.
Perhaps the most important obstacle to a peace agreement is the deep psychological impediments from historical, religious, ideological, and national identity perspectives that exist between Israelis and Palestinians. For all intents and purposes, the gap between the two societies is now deeper than ever before, as the psychological impediments impact every conflicting issue, making it nearly impossible to resolve without a significant process of reconciliation that must precede any formal negotiations between the two sides.
None of the above, however, suggests that an Israeli-Palestinian peace based on a two-state solution is no longer viable, but the framework under which a solution can be found is constantly changing. What I am suggesting here is that reaching an agreement on a two-state solution is simply untenable under the present circumstances. In this regard, I deeply believe that the French initiative, with the full support of the EU, has a special role to play (given the preoccupation of the Trump administration with other more urgent issues) in an effort to mitigate many of the issues that separate the two sides, through three simultaneous tracks.
The first track is a people-to-people approach, the purpose of which is to mitigate three major concerns that have and continue to hamper any significant progress in negotiations between the two sides. The first critically important step is to build trust, which is completely lacking, through the two sides engaging in people-to-people activities. Such measures include mutual tourism, academic exchanges, art exhibitions, joint sport activities, and women’s activism (programs that will involve women on both sides). These efforts can be supported and aided financially and otherwise by the EU in order to expand them to a much larger scale than is currently being done.
The second is to allay the concerns of mutual insecurity felt on both sides. Both sides have reason to feel a deep sense of insecurity. Some of that will be mitigated through the people-to-people measures discussed above. Further ones can be mitigated from the Israeli perspective through sharing intelligence to prevent terrorist activities and increasing security cooperation to prevent outbreak of violence. On the Palestinian side, for example, Israelis should stop night raids and arbitrary administrative detention.
The third concern is to disabuse the strong Israeli as well as Palestinian constituencies of the illusion that either side can have it all. That is, the process of reconciliation will bring both sides to the conclusion that neither can rid itself from the other and that coexistence is not one of many options, but the only viable option.
Measures taken by the Israeli government and the Palestinian AuthorityThe second track is making certain political steps are taken by the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority that would create a conducive environment for a solution. Such measures are consistent with their public claims that they are seeking a solution based on a two-state solution; for example, releasing some prisoners, increasing mobility of Palestinians between various Palestinian cities and towns, easing some of the blockades over Gaza, ending mutual acrimonious public narratives by both sides, modifying textbooks to reflect the existence of Israel and Palestine, and further expanding the security cooperation between the two sides.
The third track is for the EU to push Israel and Hamas to embrace the API. The API must replace the Quartet and provide the general framework for peace negotiations. Turkey and Qatar can play a significant role in persuading Hamas to embrace the API, and the EU can exert similar pressure on Israel as well, specifically since Netanyahu himself said there are certain positive elements in the API that he is willing to accept. This process should be initiated immediately, and the EU must take the lead.
In addition, given that Hamas will have to be part and parcel of any lasting peace agreement, the EU should put some pressure on Hamas to accept what Defense Minister Lieberman recently proposed – Hamas must stop building tunnels, put aside their weapons, and end the purchase of rockets, and Israel will then be prepared to begin the systematic easing of the blockade and even build housing and an airport and seaport, all of which are critical for the development of a Palestinian infrastructure on which to establish a functioning state. The EU can also encourage the Palestinian Authority to focus on building such infrastructure, as creating the foundation for a state can only advance the cause of Palestinian statehood under any circumstances.
The EU should discourage the Palestinians from going to the United Nations Security Council to seek recognition of a Palestinian state, or even to push for a resolution to stop the expansion and building of settlements, as this will be counterproductive and would only further harden the position of the Israeli government. Israel has and will continue to defy such resolutions, knowing full well that the Security Council lacks any serious enforcement mechanism, even if the Obama administration supports a resolution, which is not likely.
This kind of reconciliation process, which should last at least two years, will allow the Israeli political opposition to regroup and develop themselves into a political force that can truly challenge the right-of-center parties in the future.Essentially, what I am suggesting is a process that will gradually chip away resistance by either side, and instead build bridges between them to create the psychological, emotional, and practical environment that will be supportive of a comprehensive peace.
Should such a process take place, one can almost count on all the Arab states to support it, because even though they do not view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a top priority, they would like to end the conflict–regardless of its intensity, it continues to feed into radicalism throughout the region.
Every day that passes, the conflict becomes more intractable and creates new facts on the ground that may well be irreversible. A two-state solution remains the only viable option as long as Israelis and Palestinians coexist. Their coexistence under the worst and best circumstances is not subject to change short of a catastrophe.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. Web: www.alonben-meir.com.