Last Sunday’s summit in Paris threw a welcome light on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has faded into the background of the carnage in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Yet, the politically inconvenient truth is that the peace process as traditionally conceived - between the Israeli and Palestinian authorities, supported by US-mediation – has been dead for the past two decades.
This is largely because the Israeli government has had little true need for peace for most of the time.[i] It has generally operated from a position of strength - hegemonic today - that it leverages to its fullest extent. Compelling evidence for this is the relentless Israeli settlement policy of the past decades that has turned the West Bank into a patchwork of Israeli settlements and Palestinian territories.[ii] Whereas the former are well protected and connected, the latter are non-contiguous, face severe movement restrictions and are subject to Israeli intervention at will. This has made life for Palestinians frustrating and effective governance very difficult. Apart from the fact that these settlements are illegal,[iii] their construction has also required massive land appropriations, population expulsion and appreciable economic destruction that are neither adequately acknowledged, accounted for, nor compensated.[iv]
In addition, Israel continues to exercise significant control over access to and from Gaza of people, food, supplies and construction materials since its withdrawal in 2005. The result for its 1,8 million inhabitants was recently described by the former UN Secretary-General as: ‘The closure of Gaza suffocates its people, stifles its economy and impedes reconstruction efforts. It is a collective punishment for which there must be accountability.’[v]
Such developments point to the fact that Israel has created a situation in which the structural threat of Palestinian violence can be – and is - used to maintain their marginalisation and isolation. For example, security buffers around Israeli settlements tend to be justified with reference to terrorist threats. Common sense suggests that this reverses cause and effect as the settlements have no business being there in the first place - except if one believes that the moral supremacy of biblical Jewish claims to the land of Palestine justifies the suffering they cause.
Another factor that makes the traditional peace process unviable is the authoritarian character of the Palestinian Authority that ensures it cannot be a credible partner in peace. Neither does Hamas’ long-time denial of the right of Israel to exist offer a basis for serious negotiations. Yet, the split in Palestinian governance is not really the main issue. It is that neither organisation can actually claim to represent the Palestinian people. The last elections took place in 2006. In the meantime, political pluralism in both Gaza and the West Bank has all but disappeared. For instance, Fatah consolidated its hold over the Palestinian Authority shortly after the Oslo agreements and continues to use it as a mechanism for patronage and self-enrichment.[vi] More bewildering is that the international community knowingly abets this situation by taking humanitarian responsibility for the situation in Gaza and yet refusing to engage with Hamas - while sustaining a dismally performing and unpopular Palestinian Authority.
A final factor is that lasting American political backing and security assistance for Israel has tended to make it a wholly unsuitable mediator.
The deficiencies of Palestinian governance and violence notwithstanding, the short of the matter is that Israel has been the stronger party since the war of 1948.[vii] US support worsens this imbalance. Hence, before negotiations between these governments can lead to sustainable peace, the ‘playing field’ needs to be levelled. This compels interest-influencing strategies that are politically unattractive because they require putting paid to the pretence that either a ‘peace process’ or a ‘two state solution’ is viable at this moment.
For one, more international pressure must be brought to bear on the Israeli government to incentivise it to engage meaningfully in peace negotiations. This can happen through opprobrium, negative press, boycotts and other measures that raise the cost of maintaining the status quo. Generating such pressure requires a sustained international awareness and advocacy campaign that is grounded in powerful evidence of the effects of the current situation on normal people. It is ideally conducted by peace-minded Palestinians and Israeli’s who jointly bring existing injustices more forcefully and repeatedly to the world’s attention on the basis of acknowledgement of the past and equal rights for the future.[viii]
Similar pressure should be put on the Palestinian Authority and Hamas with the aim of re-establishing their legitimacy and, on the back of this, increasing their capacity to make a positive contribution to the wellbeing of both the Palestinian and the Israeli people. This demands dropping the nonsensical international ‘no-contact’ policy with Hamas. Starting a conversation offers no guarantees, but not starting it is certain to perpetuate violence.
These are issues that the international community should consider in the wake of Paris if it is serious about its responsibilities under the United Nations Charter. It cannot bring peace about, of course, but it can help re-establish the conditions for the resumption of meaningful talks at some point in the future.
[i] A review of the offers that various Israeli governments have made in the many episodes of the peace process are illustrative: A. Monem Said Aly, S. Feldman and K. Shikaki, Arabs and Israelis: Conflict and Peacemaking in the Middle East, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
[iii] In 1967, Israel captured the remaining parts of Palestine, the West Bank and Gaza. In stark contravention of a series of resolution by the United Nations Security Council as well as international law, it retains significant control over these areas. See for example the recent United Nations Security Council Resolution No. 2344 of 23 December 2016: http://www.un.org/webcast/pdfs/SRES2334-2016.pdf (accessed 16 January 2017).
[iv] This has been well documented by the Israeli non-governmental organisation B’tselem and its Palestinian counterpart Al-Haq. For instance: B’tselem, Expel and Exploit: The Israeli Practice of Taking over Rural Palestinian Land, Jerusalem: B’tselem, 2016.
[v] https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/press-encounter/2016-06-28/secretary-generals-remarks-press-encounter. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East projects Gaza to be uninhabitable by 2020: https://www.unrwa.org/userfiles/2013070364659.pdf (both accessed 16 January 2017).
[vi] See for example: http://carnegie-mec.org/2016/12/29/fateh-conference-from-liberating-homeland-to-institutionalizing-power-pub-66554; Said, E., The end of the peace process: Oslo and after, New York: Vintage books, 2003; Aly et al. (2013), op.cit.
[vii] For instance, even after the groundbreaking Oslo agreements (1994/5) did Israel retain control over entry/exit, water management and security matters of those West Bank areas it handed over to the Palestinian Authority. It also kept more than 50% of the area under its own direct control.
[viii] Said (2003), op.cit. has advanced an eloquent argument to this effect.