A Time To Lead:The International Community And The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
A Time To Lead:The International Community And The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
The U.S.-Israel Spat Over Rafah Is a Distraction
The U.S.-Israel Spat Over Rafah Is a Distraction
Report / Middle East & North Africa 7 minutes

A Time To Lead:The International Community And The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Despite repeated attempts by the international community, efforts to end the devastating cycle of violence in the Middle East have thus far failed. Israelis live in constant fear of the next suicide attack, Palestinians live under siege and large-scale military attacks, and the Palestinian Authority is virtually dismantled, incapable of dispensing basic social, political or security services.

Executive Summary

Despite repeated attempts by the international community, efforts to end the devastating cycle of violence in the Middle East have thus far failed.  Israelis live in constant fear of the next suicide attack, Palestinians live under siege and large-scale military attacks, and the Palestinian Authority is virtually dismantled, incapable of dispensing basic social, political or security services. From Egypt to the Gulf, anger at Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people, seeming U.S. complicity and Arab impotence is threatening to destabilise the region as a whole.  Eight years after the signing of the Oslo accord, and less than two years after Israelis and Palestinians engaged in intensive negotiations to end their conflict, the two sides are closer to all-out war than they have been for decades. 

If the international community does not promptly engage in a thorough re-examination of its approach and jettison some of the conventional tools upon which it has come to rely, there is every reason to believe that the region will slide further into chaos.  Hard-liners may seek to exploit new-found opportunities, challenge moderate regimes or open up a second front on Israel’s Lebanese border – all of which would have grave humanitarian and strategic implications.  While there are signs that such a reassessment may be under way, the international community needs to act promptly and boldly to hope to make a difference.

What most of the current initiatives share is an emphasis on an incremental, step-by-step approach that seeks to rebuild the fabric of trust, resume security cooperation and renew the bargain originally struck at Oslo: increased security for Israel in exchange for increased control over their daily lives for the Palestinians.  Its focus is on getting Israelis and Palestinians to start once more from the bottom up before they can re-engage on the most contentious issues that divide them: the final borders, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of the Palestinian refugees.

But more than eight years of a see-sawing peace process have severely undermined faith in the type of incremental process that began in 1993.  For many Israelis, that process entailed Israeli territorial concessions without any tangible Palestinian concession in return. In the meantime, Palestinian-controlled territory became safe-haven for radical groups bent on destroying Israel.  For their part, Palestinians believe the process left them without any leverage while Israel retained all the cards – basic control over land, water and security; a free hand to expand settlements or demolish Palestinian homes; ultimate power to determine the scope of territorial withdrawals; and no monitoring international body to ensure compliance.  In short, both sides have come to view Oslo as a process where they sacrifice a great deal for little in return – for Israelis, relinquishing land in exchange for an illusory promise of peace; for Palestinians, relinquishing the right to resist in exchange for an unenforceable promise to end the occupation.

The collapse of the Camp David summit in July 2000 and the ensuing eighteen months of violence have only accentuated and accelerated the profound political changes on both sides.  For Palestinians, the redrawing of the political landscape is dramatic.  Faith in a negotiated solution is rapidly receding as younger, more militant activists are dominating the political scene and placing their hope in guerrilla warfare, aggravated by the devastating instrument of suicide bombs directed against civilians.  Far from wanting to return to the process inaugurated at Oslo, they hold to the view that only once Israel has agreed to end the occupation and withdraw from the land it conquered in 1967 will they lay down their arms.  In Israel, a confused and angry public opinion questions whether Palestinians will ever agree to live in peace, and wavers between its desire for a harsh military response – including the forcible transfer of Palestinians – and its yearning for an agreement that will end the conflict, even it means full territorial withdrawal. 

As the situation has steadily deteriorated over the past several months, initiatives that once might have been capable of stabilizing the situation – most notably, the recommendations included in the Mitchell Report – have become increasingly detached from the realities on the ground.  With the virtual collapse of the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli assault on Palestinian security organs, the notions of real confidence building, wide-ranging Palestinian security steps or cooperation with Israel have simply become out of reach.

In the current environment, a successful initiative must amount to more than the efforts by General Zinni, the U.S. Special Envoy, to reach a ceasefire or to rebuild confidence. And it must mark a new departure for U.S. policy, with a commitment to a specific final political settlement plan, not just to a process that might produce one.

The first step is for a fair and comprehensive final political settlement plan to be laid on the table by the international community. The vicious cycle in which Palestinians will not lay down their arms until they are persuaded that their political aspirations will be addressed, and Israelis will not contemplate political concessions until the violence has died down, can only be broken by the collective presentation of such a plan by key regional and international actors. 

Such a plan should be agreed by the U.S. and EU, supported by Russia and the key Arab states (Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia), and delivered to both sides by a Contact Group led by the U.S. and consisting of these players plus the UN Secretariat.

The plan itself should be based on the progress that was made during the negotiations conducted at Taba in January 2001, taking account, as well, of subsequent pronouncements by the United Nations Security Council (Resolution 1397 of 12 March 2002) and the Arab League (Beirut Declaration of 28 March 2002). It should have these key elements:

  • Two states, Israel and Palestine, would live side-by-side in accordance with pre-1967 borders, with Palestinian sovereignty over Gaza and most of the West Bank, and land-swaps of equal size enabling Israel to incorporate most of its West Bank settlers.
  • Palestine’s capital would be the Arab neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem, and Israel’s West Jerusalem and the Jewish neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem.
  • Palestine would govern the Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount) with firm, internationally-backed guarantees against any excavation without Israel's express consent; Israel would govern the Kotel (Wailing Wall).
  • Palestine would be non-militarised, and a U.S.-led international force would provide security to both states.
  • The refugee issue would be resolved in a way that addresses the Palestinians' deep sense of injustice without upsetting Israel's demographic balance through the mass return of refugees. The solution here might include not only financial compensation, and the choice of resettlement in Palestine or third countries, but also an option to return to that part of the present Israel which would be swapped for territory on the West Bank.

By building a broad international coalition around such a plan, the United States can cut through the paralysing distrust and help break the current deadlock, building on its own credibility with Israel and enlisting Arab regimes to press Arafat, cut their support for radical and violent Palestinian organizations, and speak directly to the Israeli people about their desire for peaceful and normal relations.

The second step is to achieve a lasting ceasefire. Of course any kind of commitment to this, and to an end to terrorist and other violence, is worth having at any time, and there should be no let up in attempts to achieve this. But the chances of serious promises of this kind being made and honoured will be much enhanced if the international community can quickly put on the table a fair and comprehensive final political settlement proposal. This will provide an incentive to Palestinian militants to end their uprising and empower their leaders to compel them to do so.  And an effective ceasefire will make it more likely that the Israeli public will contemplate significant concessions.

The third step would be for an on-the-ground Implementation and Verification Group to be dispatched to help sustain the ceasefire, verify its implementation, register complaints and assist in resolving local disputes. In the right political context, an on-the-ground third party presence – of the kind to which Prime Minister Tony Blair said on 7 April 2002 Britain would contribute – can be an important ingredient in stabilizing the situation and solidifying the ceasefire while the political efforts carry on. To be successful, however, it will need to be adapted to the complex realities on the ground and attuned to the fears and aspirations of the two sides. 

Israel traditionally has been wary of any international involvement, having had unhappy experiences in the past and believing that most members of the international community are biased in favour of the Palestinians.  Moreover, in an asymmetrical conflict between non-conventional means such as terrorist attacks and suicide bombings on the one hand and conventional military attacks on the other, it always is easier to document, verify and trace responsibility for the latter.  Finally, Israelis will resist any link between the third party presence and political talks, out of concern that it will be rewarding months of Palestinian violence.  For their part, the Palestinians are interested in a third party presence precisely to the extent that it will herald an internationalisation of the process and get more actors involved in the political discussions.  Their main concern is to gain protection from Israeli attacks, intimidation and restrictions on movement.

All this means that the mandate, role and size of the third party presence cannot be precisely prescribed in advance, and will need to evolve as the whole settlement process moves forward. But it is an important element in the equation, and deserves more attention than it has so far received from policy makers.

The hardening of positions on both sides and the toll of eighteen months of ever-escalating violence severely diminish the prospect for success of any initiative at this point.   But without a sustained and concerted political/security initiative by the international community, with the United States at its head, the further escalation and regional spread of the conflict is a virtual certainty. 

(A number of the ideas in this report were originally developed in Hussein Agha's and Robert Malley's "The Last Negociation," which appears in the May-June 2002 issue of Foreign Affairs.)

Amman/Brussels, 10 April 2002

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