by John Gatt-Rutter
While my last four years in Jerusalem have been deeply enriching and engrossing, coming up close and dealing first-hand with the ubiquitous Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they haven’t exactly been the happiest of times for those like me who are interested in a just and peaceful settlement of the conflict for Palestinians and Israelis alike. With the notable exception of the major diplomatic effort led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the situation on the ground and the political outlook has been bleak. At times it has been downright gut-wrenching. Last summer, over 2,200 people were killed in the Gaza Strip, many of whom were innocent children and civilians. This was the third military confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians in six years, only more violent and more destructive. The destruction I saw driving through Shuja’iyya — one of the largest residential neighborhoods in the Gaza Strip — is testimony to that. Once again, this latest round could have easily been avoided. Today, Gaza remains cut off and isolated, with an uncertain political outlook. A return to violence looks disconcertingly unavoidable.
In the West Bank, settlement activity throughout the area, including in East Jerusalem, continued unabated despite increasingly vocal disapproval and pressure from the international community to desist. Reports from the Israeli Bureau of Statistics revealed that 2013 was a record year in settlement construction, and figures for 2014 showed an even greater rate of expansion and activity. Today there are over 555,000 settlers in the West Bank including East Jerusalem. With some exceptions, barely a week goes by without the announcement of new tenders, plans to legalize outposts and plans to expropriate land — each announcement another kick in the teeth. While settlement activity is in itself not a recent phenomenon, the cumulative effect over the years, in addition to gobbling up large swathes of land that are supposed to be for a Palestinian state, has all but destroyed any trust and credibility between the two sides.
Continued demolitions of Palestinian property, evictions and confiscation have also poisoned the atmosphere and destroyed trust. In 2014 alone, some 1,215 Palestinian homes were destroyed and 590 Palestinian-owned structures demolished in the West Bank, representing the highest level of demolitions since monitoring began in 20081. Families have been evicted. Solar panels have been confiscated. In many cases, access to the most basic of humanitarian commodities such as water and housing has been denied. As a result, the international community, with the European Union at the forefront has stepped in to provide humanitarian assistance — temporary shelter, latrines, solar panels, schools, etc. where none should be needed. A lot of this takes place in Area C, which accounts for more than 60% of the West Bank and includes a large number of Jewish settlements. These are areas with economic potential, as both EU and World Bank Reports have stated, but which is more or less off limits for Palestinian development.
One diplomatic effort after another has failed to produce a political breakthrough and, in turn, has generally been followed by violence. We saw this in Gaza last summer, and we saw this after the Camp David Summit in 2000. Accordingly, the majority of both Palestinians and Israelis on both sides of the Green Line have simply lost hope or interest or both in achieving a peaceful solution. For many, the peace process has become a charade and for some, an industry. The parties have, in the meantime, continued to drift apart with seething mistrust and animosity. Public discourse has become extremely ugly, some of it overtly racial. Perhaps the status quo does not seem so unbearable after all. There is no genuine interest on either side. The two-state solution seems to many like a pipe dream,to others like a messianic and naive obsession of the international community.
Facing Political Realities and History
As we consider our next moves, we ignore or minimize the political realities on both sides and the lessons of history at our own peril. The challenge that lies ahead in forging a credible political process is truly formidable and should not be underestimated. Any indication by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of an openness to negotiations on the basis of a two-state solution is likely to be met with extreme skepticism, given his statements during the election campaign to the effect that a Palestinian state would not be established on his watch. Only a commitment in clear and very concrete terms is likely to be seen as credible. Instead, the prime minister is likely to focus in the coming year on a raft of legislative measures to address the expectations of the Israeli right, which will mean that he will continue on a collision course with the Palestinians and the international community.
For their part, the Palestinians will probably not commit to any talks without iron-clad guarantees on settlements, parameters and a timeframe for their completion. Instead, they will continue — at varying speeds — on their course of the internationalization of their claim to self-determination in whatever way they can. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is therefore at a critical juncture. For the international community and those committed to peace through negotiations, there is a short window of time now to consider proactively how best to strengthen our efforts. If we do not, we will in any event rapidly find ourselves reacting to events in the same ways and with the same answers as we have in the past. While our efforts to date have certainly not been negligible, they have not been adequate, as the events of the past 12 months have so forcefully demonstrated.
Needed: A Clearly Defined Framework
However, we cannot simply rush into a new round of talks. Before we do that, we must first clearly define a framework that, on the one hand, defines the terms of reference for negotiations and, on the other, lays out some equally important ground rules that need to be fully respected simultaneously. Secondly, we cannot leave discussion of Gaza for the end of the process, as has always been the case until now; Gaza is the elephant in the room. At the same time, we have to address the conflict as a matter of urgency in order to preserve the two-state solution. The Palestinians and Israelis are currently on a legal and diplomatic collision course with possibly dangerous and unpredictable outcomes. There may be calm now, but we saw how quickly the situation flared up in Jerusalem and the West Bank last year, not to mention Gaza. Most importantly, we need to make sure that another diplomatic effort does not end in failure.
U.S. and EU Coordination via the Quartet or UN Security Council
It is time for the United States and the EU to coordinate their positions and actions more closely. There have been only tentative and sporadic attempts at coordination in the past. The Quartet or the United Nations Security Council, where there are useful European efforts at present, may provide the appropriate international setting for this. The Quartet, although much maligned and excluded in recent times, was set up for this purpose and, in my view, may still play a useful role if the U.S. and the EU agree to let it do so. In theory, a Security Council resolution should carry more weight and international legitimacy. Arab partners, in particular through the Arab Peace Initiative, will also have crucial roles to play.
More importantly, however, regardless of whether it is a Security Council resolution or a Quartet declaration, the challenge will remain the implementation process. In other words, without teeth, it would be yet another resolution or declaration to add to the pile. For any renewed process to be credible, there must be at the very minimum a halt to settlement activity, including in East Jerusalem. The Palestinian Authority (PA), for its part, must remain committed to nonviolence and continued security cooperation with Israel. Nonviolence must be extended to Gaza under the umbrella of the PA. Both sides have to tone down the rhetoric. We need to build some confidence and eventually restore credibility and trust. None of the ideas above are themselves revolutionary, although all of them will entail intensive discussions within the EU, will encounter resistance with the parties and will require determination and clear-sightedness concerning our ultimate goal.
At a time when the wider Middle East region is in a desperate state and when prospects for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are bleak, the Palestinians would be well advised to restore their national and democratic project through holding elections. While the divisions between the West Bank and Gaza are entrenched, they are not insurmountable. The lack of progress so far in the process of intra-Palestinian reconciliation leaves the Palestinian leadership hopelessly divided and acts as a permanent impediment to efforts to build the institutions necessary for a future Palestinian state. The failure of reconciliation efforts to date is also a further risk factor for a rerun of last summer’s conflict in Gaza, since a unified Palestinian leadership could have a restraining impact on more militant factions within Gaza.
The EU cannot play a mediating role in the reconciliation process, since it has ruled out direct political contact with Hamas. Nonetheless, it could use its considerable leverage with the PA to press the case for reconciliation on specific terms, while at the same time directing messages to Hamas and other Palestinian factions with the aim of strengthening the hand of those who are ready to engage in a genuine dialogue based on compromise leading to an end to violence as part of a broad Palestinian political platform. This could take the form of a national unity government, a unified leadership forum or some other model which ensures broad political participation.
The EU has become sensitive to the charge that if the prospects of a two-state solution evaporate entirely, it will be left funding an occupation to the benefit of the occupying power. A very substantial and practical contribution the EU has made over the years is its support for the Palestinian state-building agenda. The significant assistance the EU has provided to the PA over more than 20 years has been predicated on the conviction that, by promoting the development of the institutions of a future Palestinian state based on respect for the rule of law and human rights, the EU is making a significant contribution to peace. The PA is a vehicle for statehood. It makes eventual Palestinian statehood not merely theoretical but part of an ongoing process of development designed to provide immediate benefits to the Palestinian people in the form of services, as well as the institutions and human capacity to take on full governance within a Palestinian state. Of course, the EU is acutely aware of the limitations of these efforts — due, among other factors, to the continuing restrictions on movement and access in the West Bank and Gaza, the lack of Palestinian democratic renewal, the paralyzing division between Palestinian governance in the West Bank and Gaza, and the lack of a Palestinian political presence in East Jerusalem.
The EU’s Ability to Reiterate Fundamental Principles for Peace
Perhaps the EU’s greatest strength, and one that it can bring to play in any negotiations, is its ability to reiterate the fundamental principles upon which peace can be achieved, enshrined within respect for international law. This is not new. The EU has articulated over the years, with increasing clarity, positions of principle on the fundamental issues including statehood, self-determination, territory and Jerusalem. This process of reiteration has been an essential element of the Middle East peace process and perhaps the EU’s single most important contribution. It has based this vision not on political expediency but by recognizing the place of international law at the heart of the conflict, whether in addressing settlement expansion, the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem, restrictions on movement and access to Gaza or actions (or inaction) by Israel that violate its duties as the occupying power. In many instances, by force of reiteration and arguments presented, these principles have gained overwhelming international acceptance.
The EU is sometimes criticized for not matching its declarations with action, but this is to underestimate the value of the EU’s restatement of fundamental principles linked to international law in the face of concerted efforts to weaken these same principles, or arguments to the effect that they have never, or no longer, apply (“disputed” territory vs. “occupied territory”) or that international humanitarian law does not apply to situations of prolonged occupation.
There are a number of other areas where the EU could, using its leverage with both sides and its range of assets to the full, further contribute to the resolution of the conflict. These could include taking further measures to strengthen respect for international law, notably by further ensuring compliance with legislation covering preferential treatment in the area of trade; restrictions on the use of funding for the benefit of settlements; advice to businesses and investors working in settlements; and settlement product labeling. These measures, coupled with financial and security incentives, could make a meaningful contribution in favor of a peace agreement. Negotiations could also be launched with the PA for an association agreement with the EU as a way of bolstering the PA and helping, to some extent, to re-balance Israeli-Palestinian negotiating positions within the Middle East peace process. Such an approach would not mean abandoning or reversing efforts to date but would involve building on them and ensuring greater coherence between them. Nor would it involve replacing the efforts of others. As I have said, closer coordination with the U.S. will be essential.
The Majority of Palestinians and Israelis Want Peace
Having said all this, and despite the unpromising situation, I still believe that the majority of both Palestinians and Israelis yearn for peace and that a credible process with a clear endgame can generate both interest and support. Civil society will eventually have a role to play. The EU will certainly be ready to accompany and support such a process and step up its support with resources and assets accordingly. We desperately need some good news from the Israeli-Palestinian arena, at a time when developments in the Middle East have been full of despair — with the latest heartbreaking news coming out from the Yarmouk refugee camp outside of Damascus — and when international interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is starting to wane after years of considerable diplomatic and financial investment without a political breakthrough.
1 Annual Humanitarian Overview, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the occupied Palestinian Territory, March 2015.