by Ron Pundak
The difficult journey of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process could be metaphorically described as a train, winding through hilly countryside on its way toward its final destination at the top of a mountain. Those blessed with vision tempered by realism, can clearly see the final station - a comprehensive peace agreement based upon a two-state solution. Others only see obstacles along the way, and mistake the hills for the final peak, or worse yet, invent imaginary stations on the route that only exist in their fantasies.
The end of the train’s track is, however, unambiguous: an independent Palestinian state, sovereign, viable and demilitarized, existing side by side with a secure State of Israel, along the 1967 borders, with minor adjustments based on a 1 to 1 territorial swap; two capitals in Jerusalem, the Jewish populated parts to Israel and the Arab parts to Palestine; the Old City in the heart of Jerusalem under partitioned sovereignty with an international security presence; and a fair solution to the Palestinian refugee problem including compensation, rehabilitation, a right of return to the Palestinian state and proactive Israeli involvement in the implementation of these parameters.
The Road Map
Not all the tracks of the railroad have as yet been laid, and recently the train has stalled due to the parties being at odds with each other. As a result, the international community has involved itself in order to assist in directing the process toward the end point. This led “The Quartet” (the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations) to declare the “Road Map to Israeli-Palestinian Peace,” that aims to delineate the future peace process and bring the sides closer to the final objective.
The Road Map’s main problem is that its initiators drafted a map which is vague and confusing, thus not substantially advancing the peace process. The Road Map does not define a clear objective. It lays down unambiguous timelines, but not clear implementation procedures or targets. Some of the declared objectives, such as a Palestinian state with provisional borders, if implemented, will harm and possibly derail the train. Another interim period will only set the process back. The international players behind this initiative, though well intentioned, lack a clear understanding of the character of the conflict, and the role the international community could play.
Peel, Partition and Camp David
It is necessary to start by examining the earlier stations along the track in which the international players actively took part in finding solutions to the conflict - a conflict between these two national movements, which until recently have demanded all of the land for themselves.
One might begin with an examination of the various commissions, such as the Peel Commission of 1937 during the British Mandate period, which started designing the partition, and eventually led to the first major step toward peace: the UN General Assembly Resolution 181 on November 29, 1947, which recommended that the disputed area be divided into two states - one Jewish and one Arab - with greater Jerusalem defined as an international corpus separatum, neither the capital of Israel nor of Palestine.
Another station along the railroad was the Camp David Accords of 1978, in which the U.S., under the leadership of President Jimmy Carter, compelled Israel – as part of a framework agreement with Egypt – to accept full Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip for an interim period, leading to a final status agreement based on UN Security Council Resolution 242 that “must also recognize the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people and their just requirements.”
When Israel and the PLO Boarded the Train
One might also begin the examination of international involvement from the moment where it became clear that the government of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) boarded the train toward peace. Prior to this, both sides had dealt only with theoretical formulas and unilateral approaches. With hindsight, it is clear that the event that ultimately led the two sides to embark on the train was the declaration of November 15, 1988, at the 19th session of the Palestine National Council (PNC) in Algiers, when the PLO recognized Israel and announced its willingness to enter into peace negotiations based on UNSCR 242. The PNC called for the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, in order to attain a comprehensive political and security settlement for both sides.
At this stage, Israel had not yet recognized the PLO as a legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, and consequently the train was still empty. The immediate result of the PNC declaration was the resumption of dialogue between the U.S. and the PLO. This occurred only after an extensive Swedish diplomatic effort led by Sweden’s Foreign Minister Sten Andersson. He was already then able to recognize the train’s real destination at the top of the mountain, and understood that only the U.S. could significantly influence Israel. Andersson thus serving as the catalyst that led to renewed U.S. involvement.
The Importance of Europe
One of the main roles of the U.S. has been to push Israel forward. But it is actually Europe that has been influencing the planning of the process, i.e. the contours of the route towards a peace agreement. Fifteen years prior to the PNC declaration of 1988, it was Europe that dared to present the basic outlines of any future peace agreement. Already in November 1973, the European Economic Community (EEC) foreign ministers declared that a peace agreement should be based on: “the need for Israel to end the territorial occupation which it has maintained since the conflict of 1967,” and the “recognition that in the establishment of a just and lasting peace, account must be taken of the legitimate rights of the Palestinians.”
This pronouncement, and even more so the historical Venice Declaration on the Middle East seven years later, served as a cornerstone and turning point in drafting any agreement, both in regard to its solution and its partner. In Venice, in June 1980, the European heads of state and government and the ministers for foreign affairs of the European Commission declared the need for “the recognition of the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people;” that a “just solution must finally be found to the Palestinian problem, which is not simply one of refugees;” that the “Palestinian people . . . must be placed in a position . . . to exercise fully its right to self-determination;” that the PLO must represent the Palestinian people and therefore “will have to be associated with the negotiations;” that the nine states of the European Community “stress that they will not accept any unilateral initiative designed to change the status of Jerusalem;” “the need for Israel to put an end to the territorial occupation which it has maintained since the conflict of 1967;” and that “they are deeply convinced that the Israeli settlements constitute a serious obstacle to the peace process in the Middle East.”
Europe was heavily criticized for this brave declaration both by Israel and the U.S. However, with hindsight, it turned out that the EC saw far and clear, and paved the way for the two sides to eventually make real progress toward peace. This phenomenon of a European-led political action can, and probably should, be repeated now (summer 2004), when the two sides and the U.S. have lost their direction toward reaching the solution.
Now is the time for a new European initiative for the Middle East.
Unlike the U.S., which usually tilts in favor of the Israeli side - while occasionally showing sympathy and empathy toward the Palestinians, such as during the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton - the major advantage for Europe is that it is able to be both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian at the same time.
The Madrid Conference
As previously noted, the PNC declaration, and the subsequent renewal of the dialogue between the U.S. and the PLO, brought the Americans back on the scene. The Americans pushed the two sides into moving the train forward via the Madrid Conference of autumn 1991, in the wake of the first Gulf War. The U.S., Russia, UN, Europe and various Middle Eastern countries took part in this conference, an important station for the political peace process. Although the framework was international, the driving force was the U.S. It forced the weak Palestinian delegation – ostensibly representing all of the Palestinian people, even though it was not allowed to include any delegates from the PLO, the Palestinian diaspora or Jerusalem – to merge with the Jordanian delegation. Regardless, the strings pulled by PLO headquarters in Tunis, where the real decisions were being made.
The train kept rolling from Madrid and arrived in Washington, D.C., where it stalled due to the awkward bilateral discussions that took place under U.S. guidance from 1991 to 1993. Throughout these early deliberations, the Israelis dictated to the U.S. a policy of paralysis. The Israeli government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir had no intention of conducting any serious dialogue or negotiations with any Palestinians. The joint Palestinian/Jordanian delegation, which for all intents and purposes was solely a Palestinian delegation, continued to receive orders from PLO headquarters in Tunis. Subsequently, as long as Israel’s policies were set by Shamir, and the PLO was not the official partner for negotiations, there was no chance for the process to advance.
The Oslo Station
The U.S., for its part, neither tried to coerce Israel to alter its policies, nor to accept the PLO as the Palestinian partner. Only after the establishment of a new Israeli government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1992, did any dramatic change occur that caused the train to once again start moving forward. This time the real partners came aboard: the representatives of a committed Israeli government, and moderate Palestinians officially representing the PLO. From here, the train continued to Oslo, the station from which a genuine journey began.
The real advantage of the Oslo process was the ability of the sides to engage in meaningful, bilateral and straightforward dialogue. The third party, the Norwegians, did not attempt to become a dominant player, and thus were able, impressively and modestly, to create an atmosphere that allowed the Palestinians and Israelis to address the fundamental issues facing them. Consequently, the Norwegians, who did not have any official commitment to the EU or the U.S., became honest brokers lacking any personal agenda, yet fully committed to the Middle East peace process.
The first Israeli-Palestinian agreement (the Oslo process) was a result of bilateral negotiations without the involvement of an international player. The two sides had an idea – albeit vague - about the details of the end game. More so, they had a common vision of the contours of the path to be traveled in order to reach their destination. The objective was to make a joint move that would jump-start a political process based on the Palestinian recognition of Israel and an Israeli recognition of the PLO, with UNSCR 242 and the 1967 borders as the basis for negotiations. For the first time, the two national movements embraced an accord aimed at leading to a final status agreement that would provide a solution to all the issues, including borders, refugees, Jerusalem, settlements and security.
Despite the bilateral character of the Oslo negotiations, and the Norwegian facilitation, the official signing ceremony took place on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C. This was not the consequence of U.S. involvement in the Oslo process (until the last moment, the Americans did not perceive this process as a serious track), but rather because of the mutual Israeli-Palestinian understanding that no agreement could be implemented without the full and thorough involvement of the U.S. From that moment on, the U.S. peace team reengaged itself in the details of the new negotiations.
The train continued to slowly proceed through the various crises of implementation; through the Gaza-Jericho agreement, the interim agreement of 1994, which was signed in the U.S., all the way to the second Camp David summit of July 2000.
Track 2 Efforts
Between the period of Oslo and the second Camp David summit, many endeavors aimed at fostering Track 2 dialogue were taken by a variety of countries, mainly in Europe. All of these initiatives aimed to create foundations and possible breakthroughs to assist and facilitate future negotiations. It is important to mention several European initiatives, such as the Swedish efforts (yet again led by former Foreign Minister Sten Andersson) in facilitating the Beilin-Abu Mazen understandings on the framework for a final status agreement, as well as the British assistance in promoting joint Israeli-Palestinian efforts to explore possible modalities for resolving the status of Jerusalem. The post Camp David II assistance from the Swiss government in developing the Geneva Accord is a similar and noteworthy approach.
Camp David II
The 2000 Camp David summit was planned - at least by its U.S. and Israeli initiators - as a make-or-break summit. With the participation of Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak, and with Bill Clinton in the chair, this should have been the stage at which the U.S. administration performed at its best. Disappointingly, however, the Americans were revealed to be amateur brokers, lacking negotiating skills, and possessing very limited abilities to influence either side. The U.S. peace team misread the situation and overestimated the domestic restrictions of Ehud Barak. This allowed him to offer the Palestinians much less than a reasonable agreement, as well as to blame them for their legitimate unwillingness to surrender and accept a bad deal.
The Americans were unable to see the path, much less lay down the tracks toward the final station. It took the U.S. administration six additional months, following the collapse of the Camp David summit and the outbreak of a new intifada in September 2000, before it was courageous enough to present the Clinton Parameters in December 2000. These guidelines – with some minor modifications - should have been put on the table during the Camp David summit. It is not farfetched to say that, if the Americans had done so, we could now be implementing a final status peace agreement between Israel and a Palestinian state.
Now it is up to the Palestinians and the Israelis to bring the train to its final station on top of the mountain, and to reach a comprehensive and fair peace agreement that ends 100 years of bloody conflict. However, in the event that the two sides are unable to find the way on their own, and require third party facilitation, or even aggressive U.S. political intervention, the international community must be prepared to fill that role. Furthermore, even if the Palestinians and the Israelis are able to reach an agreement bilaterally, the international players will have to ready themselves to assist with its implementation, including the possibility of an international presence in the area.