The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict – Is it Beyond Resolution?

 

Dr Tony Klug, advisor to ORG, Vice-Chair of the Arab-Jewish

29th April 2015   

 

I am delighted to be here at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, in such elegant surroundings and distinguished company. My appreciation to everyone involved for the invitation and thank you all for coming.

I hope this doesn’t sound too discourteous, but I want to begin this evening by lamenting that I am here at all. The tragic conflict between Palestinians and Israelis should have – and I believe could have – been ended years ago, in the turbulent century that gave birth to it. It doesn’t really belong in the 21st century, which has its own burdens.

The question before us today – as reflected in the topic of this talk -- is less how to resolve the conflict and more whether it is resolvable at all. That this issue has climbed to the top of the agenda is a sad commentary on the way things have panned out. But then again, have they panned out? Are they not still panning out? And might the pendulum not swing again, as it has often done before?

What I propose to do this evening is take a brief look at the swing of the pendulum, consider whether the outlook really is all gloom and doom or whether there are some grounds for hope that may be exploited, bring into the mix some historical perspective, share with you some of my own experiences, impressions and ideas acquired over decades of involvement on both sides, and end with some proposals about what may now be done at the international level to enhance the prospects of finally reaching a peace agreement.

 

An Emotional Roller-Coaster

I suppose the region we know as the Middle East has been a roller-coaster of hope and disappointment in recent times. We can all recall the great joy and expectation just four years ago, when the peoples of the Arab Middle East rose up in country after country in protest at the corrupt and dictatorial regimes that had governed their lives for decades. Inspired and led mainly by the youth of the region – male and female – there were lofty expectations that these long-subjugated populations would at last enjoy the offerings of freedom and democracy. 

Yet in every country that experienced an uprising, with the exception until now of Tunisia, the situation today is dire. Countless numbers have suffered horrific deaths and mutilations, and millions of new refugees have been created. Egypt is more autocratic than ever, and Syria, Libya and Yemen are suffering extreme civil strife, might be on the verge of breaking up and, together with Iraq, are subjected to the routine terror of brutal jihadi groups, including the self-proclaimed Islamic State and assorted Al Qaida affiliates or would-be affiliates. The atrocities, as we unhappily know, have infiltrated other regions and countries of the world, including our own.

Expectations had also been raised in the part of the Middle East region that is our focus this evening -- Israel-Palestine -- by the newly installed President Obama in September 2010 when he inspired the UN General Assembly with his talk of securing a Middle East deal “within a year” that would lead to a new member, Palestine, being welcomed into the world organisation.   

Alas, it did not work out that way. But some three years later the indefatigable US Secretary of State, John Kerry, declared that the aim of the Israeli-Palestinian talks he was about to revive was to end the conflict once and for all, and bring into being an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel -- this time within nine months. 

But the nine months passed with no deal. The talks ended in acrimony, with Israelis and Palestinians blaming each other and calling for retribution. Within three months, it duly arrived with a vengeance when hostilities erupted once again over Gaza – the third time in six years – trailing a path of death and destruction.   To the already fragile hopes for peace, a further blow was apparently delivered just last month, when the hard-line Likud party headed by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu won a convincing victory in the Israeli election on a platform of no Palestinian state on his watch, implying the indefinite continuation of Israel’s rule over the West Bank.

Many experts saw the election result as the last straw and have concluded that the conflict is impervious to resolution. It is possible they are right. But they will definitely be right if we allow ourselves to be so consumed by the obstacles that we fail to divine the potential opportunities, assuming there are any.

 

Four ‘Silver Linings’?

So we need to look beyond the fog of despair and see if we can find any cracks in the wall. I think I have detected four silver linings, each of which provides a ground for hope. If you believe you can add to them, please let us know during the discussion session.

My first ground for hope is – paradoxically – the collapse of the bilateral talks.

The second ground – equally paradoxically – is the results of the recent Israeli elections.

I shall return to explore these two paradoxes presently.  

 

US ‘Re-evaluation’

The third ground – in the wake of Netanyahu’s pre-election pledge to rule out a Palestinian state – was the announcement by President Obama that his administration would be re-evaluating its attitude towards Israel’s approach to peace-making. His announcement was not exactly a bombshell. The backcloth was a steady dampening of US-Israel relations on Netanyahu’s watch. Post-election, the Israeli prime minister sort of recanted his pledge, but the damage had been done.

It is unlikely there will be a dramatic change in US-Israel relations in the near future. But there is talk of the US reconsidering its practice of routinely vetoing every UN Security Council resolution to which the Israeli government objects. The ramifications of such a move should not be underestimated. Potentially, it could lead to the endorsement of a firm deadline for Israel to end its occupation, which the Palestinians have been pressing for. It could also open up the possibility of Palestine being admitted to the UN as a full member state.

This eventuality would leave Israel, with its military bases in the West Bank, in the invidious position of being in daily violation of the sovereign territory of an independent UN member-state. In many respects, Israel’s legal position would become a nightmare.

 

Failure to Anticipate

My fourth crack in the wall – more tenuous perhaps than the others but telling nonetheless – takes its cue from the miserable record of the commentariat, myself included, to anticipate in advance almost every seismic shift in the Middle East in contemporary history.  

What venerable expert foresaw the seminal Arab-Israel war of 1973?  Or the dramatic Sadat Initiative four years later, when the Egyptian president flew to Israel on an unprecedented peace-making mission?  Who saw coming the first Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, in 1987?  Or the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accord in 1993?  Or the second Palestinian Intifada in 2000?  Or the sudden uprooting by the Israeli government of all Israeli settlements in Gaza in 2005?  Or the 2006 election victory of Hamas?  Or the Arab uprisings in 2011?  Or the tearing apart of Syria, the effective disintegration of three other Arab states and the rise of the so-called Islamic State?

The soothsayers have been caught unaware time and time again. So let’s not be too certain it won’t happen again. This conflict has a habit of surprising us and this alone provides grounds for hope. As some doors shut, others have a habit of unexpectedly opening.

 

Collapse of Bilateral Talks

To return to my first silver lining – the breakdown of the Kerry-led talks. A popular view is that this is a major, possibly irretrievable, setback to peace. But this view rests on the assumption that the talks were in principle capable of reaching a successful conclusion. But in my view at least, there was no basis at all for this conviction other than wishful thinking, a common and powerful force in this conflict by the way.

The long-standing fantasy throughout the protracted negotiations process was that there was a nucleus of goodwill on the part of both parties and that they shared a principled commitment to a common outcome that they were also capable of delivering. These assumptions might have had some grounding during the period of the Oslo Accords in the 1990s but they have had almost no purchase since those heady days. The unwarranted premise of goodwill has, all along, fatally precluded the vital need for a robust enforcement mechanism. Some gentle coaxing was thought to be sufficient.

Among others, I have been banging on about these deficiencies since at least the turn of the century. What has been particularly frustrating was not just that the negotiations were manifestly phoney and incapable of achieving their stated aim but that they were blocking out more apposite approaches to peacemaking.

An array of original proposals from various sources have appeared and disappeared over the years, but you have probably never heard of most of them as they were all shunted aside by the phantom of the negotiations train. I was intimately involved with some of these proposals, two of which I shall use to exemplify the general point.

Twelve years ago, in May 2003, I put forward a proposal in conjunction with the Oxford Research Group that called for a three-to-five year international protectorate or trusteeship over the West Bank and Gaza Strip pending full Palestinian independence. The explicit premise of the proposal was that restarting negotiations was pointless. The paper maintained that, other than effective capitulation, there was nothing the Palestinians could offer a right-wing Israeli government that would satisfy its territorial ambitions and ostensible security needs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, or its wider political and ideological agenda.

Equally, the paper argued, the Israeli government had nothing to offer the Palestinians that would come close to meeting their minimum aspirations for an end to occupation and independent statehood. Therefore, the paper concluded, renewed negotiations would almost certainly founder and yet more time would be frittered away.

But the protectorate proposal – which had high-ranking advocates in the United States too – never received a serious hearing because decision-makers were insensible to alternatives to bilateral negotiations. At present, I’m not pushing the idea myself but I gather there is talk in some circles of possibly reviving the proposal.

In a pamphlet published six years later, in May 2009, shortly after President Obama started his first term, I put forward a different proposal that also required firm international leadership. I shall elaborate the proposal later, as I believe it has returned to relevance. At the time, we had hoped that the new US administration would give it serious consideration and there were some initial indications of this. But the hope soon evaporated on the familiar alter of bilateral negotiations. Entitled ‘Visions of the Endgame’, the proposal rested on the same explicit premise regarding their futility.

The pamphlet argued that attempts to revive what it called “sham negotiations” between the reluctant parties, or action to build trust between an occupying authority and an occupied people, were a waste of time. It advised against replicating “the drawn-out methods and repetitive errors of previous efforts”. Failure this time, it warned, would “effectively close the door on hope and bring the alternatives of endless strife perilously close.”

Well, the sham negotiations were revived, the old methods and errors were replicated and they have indeed brought us perilously close to the point of endless strife. I believe the record is a strong indictment of international diplomacy. Now that the train-to-nowhere has, at last, come off the rails, the way might be clearer for more promising and imaginative proposals to get a hearing.  So, this is why I hold that the collapse of the talks is more a matter to welcome than lament. It is unleashing a buzz of creative ideas from different sources, some new ones and some old ones revised and refashioned.

My remaining ground for hope, in the set of four, was the recent Israeli elections. I imagine this too raised a few eyebrows. So let me explain.

 

Deceptive Israeli Election

There is a widespread impression that Israeli voters swung decisively to the right in the election, further complicating future peace-making efforts if ever the international community were seriously to get its act together. The good news, such as it is, is that the swing was actually in the opposite direction.

What has misled people is that the right-wing Likud party of Prime Minister Netanyahu has substantially increased its number of seats from 20 to 30 in the 120 seat Israeli parliament, the Knesset, giving it a decisive victory over Labour’s 24 seats. This gap in Likud’s favour was far in excess of expectations on the eve of the vote and seemed to reward Netanyahu’s vow not to countenance a Palestinian state.

But a closer look at the figures reveals that the voters who flocked to Likud at the last moment were from the two parties further to its right and from the two ultra-orthodox religious parties that are considered to be Likud’s natural allies – although, of course, it’s never as simple as that!

While Likud itself gained 10 seats, the further-right and religious parties together lost a total of 14 seats, giving rise to a net loss of four seats by the right-religious bloc. This loss was very costly, as it meant that the five parties in this bloc – Likud and the four others – won a total of 57 seats, exactly four short of the critical 61 seats majority needed to govern without having to pull into the coalition a party from the centre or the left.

It is still uncertain what coalition government will emerge from the ongoing negotiations among the parties, but should it be formed as expected from the right-religious bloc, plus the new centre party Kulanu with 10 seats, it will be inherently unstable. This will be all the more so since there is strong friction between the far-right parties and the religious parties, and little regard by any of them for Netanyahu.

So there is no certainty that the new government will survive the full four-year term. This could again mean early elections or, if Kulanu were to choose at any time to switch allegiance, an alternative coalition government, headed by Labour, possibly could be cobbled together. In either case, the trigger could be serious inducements by the international community to end the occupation and the conflict. In sum then, far from the election results being a solid barrier to outside pressure, they could be more of an invitation to build up the pressure.

The other interesting development in this election was the emergence of what is known as the Joint List, an amalgam of three mainly Arab parties which had run separately in previous elections. There was a fear that at least two, if not all three, of these parties – which draw their support predominantly from the Palestinian citizens of Israel -- would fail to meet the new minimum requirement of 3.25% of the national vote to take their place in Israel’s parliament, up from 2% in the preceding election.

For clarification, Palestinian citizens of Israel – sometimes also referred to as Israeli Arabs – comprise roughly twenty per cent of Israel’s 8.3 million population and have the right to vote in and stand for the Knesset. This is in contrast to the 2.7 million Palestinians who live under Israel’s rule in the occupied West Bank, who do not have such rights. Roughly 1.7 million Palestinians inhabit the Gaza Strip, ruled by Hamas.

The change in the percentage threshold for election to the Knesset had been promoted by one of the far-right parties precisely to keep the Arab parties out of the parliament, but instead inspired them to come together and form one electoral list, under a young charismatic leader, Ayman Odeh, that fired the imagination of their potential supporters and drew considerably more of them to the voting booths than for many years.

In the event, the Joint List polled 10.5% of the votes, capturing 13 seats, two more than their combined total in the previous election. You could say that, indirectly, two of the four seats lost by the right-religious bloc – including by the party that initiated the percentage change -- ended up in the mostly Arab bloc.

The Joint List is now the third largest party in the Knesset – after Likud and Labour -- and, potentially, a political force to reckon with. This could have a positive influence in the future, internally on improving the plight of Arab citizens of Israel, and externally on future peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians at large.

With these four qualified rays of hope firmly in mind, I want to move on shortly to the possible strategies the international community could now adopt following the failure of bilateral negotiations. But before we talk strategy, we need to be clear about goal, for a strategy without a clearly defined goal has no ultimate purpose.

 

Two Peoples, Two Histories

But in order to talk goal, we need to have a basic grasp of what, historically, lay at the root of the conflict. What makes the parties tick? What is the minimum that each could live with? Leaving our own predilections and prejudices at the doorstep, we need to feel the humanity of both peoples and acquire these fundamental insights from the inside if we want to make informed judgments about what may advance a practical and sustainable resolution of the conflict.

I believe we in the west, in particular, need to be wary of our own unconscious cultural biases, and our historical instincts to impose on the peoples of other lands our preferred values, systems and political inclinations, whether they emanate from the right, the centre or the left. The one-size-fits-all approach of ‘here’s a solution, where’s the problem?’ has caused mayhem around the world for generations and some of it has been blowing back on us in recent times.

In the early 1970s, when, as a younger man, I embarked on my doctoral thesis on the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, I had in mind to write a short objective history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as the opening chapter. My meticulous supervisor cautioned me about the imperatives to stick scrupulously to the facts, to be neutral and balanced in my approach and assessments and not to be influenced by the strong emotions and passions of either side. 

I set out to do as he had advised but soon recognized that the task was impossible and that the only way to make sense of the facts and get to grips with what was firing both sides was to see the conflict as the protagonists see it, subjectively through their eyes, each in turn, with all the imbalances and emotion and historical traumas left in. I came to realize there is no one history of the conflict to tell. There are two peoples and two histories, which clashed on the same piece of territory at the same period of time. 

What then are these two core perspectives? Let’s take a quick empathetic look at the essence of each in turn, without fear or favour. Chronologically, it makes sense to start with an Israeli Jewish perspective and move on to a Palestinian Arab perspective.

 

An Israeli Jewish Perspective

The underlying case for a Jewish homeland was strikingly, if inadvertently, put by the poet Lord Byron, as far back as 1815, when some of the worst tragedies to face the Jewish people, including the tsarist pogroms and the Nazi Holocaust, still lay a distance ahead. This was several decades before Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, was a twinkle in anyone's eye, and a full century before the Balfour Declaration of 1917 with its promise by the British government of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, the Land of Israel, the birthplace of the Jewish people. In his ‘Hebrew Melodies’, Byron, who was not Jewish himself, wrote: "The wild dove hath her nest, the fox his cave, mankind their country, Israel but the grave!" By "Israel," of course, he meant the Jewish people.

Once the Zionist movement eventually came into being, however, all sorts of conspiracy theories and malevolent intent were soon fastened onto it by its detractors, some of it giving off a familiar anti-Semitic whiff, not so different from that which played the decisive role in winning so many Jews and others to the Zionist cause in the first place.

Conceptually, Zionism was a distressed people’s proud, if defiant, response to centuries of contempt, humiliation, discrimination and periodic bouts of murderous oppression. The Israeli state was the would-be phoenix to rise from the Jewish embers still smouldering in the blood-soaked earth of another continent. The underlying purpose was the affirmative one of achieving safety and justice for a tormented people, not the negative one of doing damage to another people.

 

A Palestinian Arab Perspective

Yet, in the attempt to rectify the enduring Jewish calamity, the reality – as we step out of one pair of shoes and step into the other pair – is that damage was inflicted on another people, on the luckless Palestinian Arabs who paid a heavy price and are still paying it. In common with their Arab brethren in neighbouring countries and other colonized peoples, the Palestinians had long yearned for their independence free from foreign rule, only to find that, in their case, another people, mostly from foreign parts, was simultaneously laying claim to the same land. Naturally, the Palestinians resisted. Any people would have resisted. In their place, Israelis most certainly would have resisted.

The Palestinians, in like fashion, did not set out to damage anyone but aspired to what they felt was rightfully theirs. Displaced, dispossessed and deserted, they were among the principal losers in the geopolitical lottery that followed the horrors of the Second World War.

The figures are disputed, but around the time of the first Arab-Israel war of 1948, roughly 750,000 Palestinians, out of a total of some 900,000, fled their homes in fear of their lives. Naturally, they did not want to flee and many of them did lose their lives. You could say the Palestinians bore the knock-on consequences of Nazi atrocities. Their original felony was, in essence, to be in the way of another distressed people's frantic survival strategy, fuelled by an industrial genocide for which the Palestinians’ bore no responsibility and played no part. Virtually everything that has happened since then is in some way a consequence of all this.

This tragic historical clash – the product of centuries of virulent European anti-Semitism at home and rampant imperialism abroad, crowned by double or, in this case, treble British-French dealings – is the root of the conflict. Almost everything else has been grafted on retrospectively.

Self-serving explanations of the type that portray either people as innately wicked or falsify their histories or disparage their sufferings do not in any way aid understanding of the problem. They merely confound the issues, deepen the hatred and poison the air. The core case for each side stands proud in its own right. Neither one is invalidated because the other side also has – in its own terms – a compelling case. Imagine how different their attitudes towards each other might have been if their aspirations had not collided on the same piece of territory.

 

Not Zero Sum

Even so, what should be clear is that this is not a zero-sum conflict. Although both sides tend to measure their advances in terms of the setbacks to the other, this is folly and ultimately self-destructive. Neither people is going away and in the end both of them will enjoy their places in the sun or neither will. They are fated to live alongside each other.

But any suggestion of symmetry falls apart not just on the ground that one side has a sovereign state and the other does not, but also because the existing sovereign state is physically in occupation of the land and lives of the other. Like any occupation, the Israeli occupation corrupts relationships. It would be no different if the boot were on the other foot. Occupations brutalise the occupier as well as the occupied and inevitably they are resisted and foster violence. This is probably one of the few cast-iron laws of history. Thus, ending the occupation is the sine qua non. No end-of-conflict is possible without this.

But wouldn’t this mean endangering Israel’s security, a fear frequently expressed by Prime Minister Netanyahu among other Israeli politicians, particularly from the right wing? Not according to more than a hundred retired Israeli generals and intelligence, security and police chiefs in an ad placed in Israeli newspapers last November in which they urged the Israeli government to bring the occupation to an end as its highest priority within the framework of a peace settlement with the wider Arab world, which they regarded as realistic. They proclaimed this not to be a question of right or left and warned against political blindness thwarting the opportunity.

This was a powerful plea by top security experts for the Israeli political leadership to demonstrate the will to solve the problem and leave it to Israel’s celebrated ingenuity to find a way to withdraw from the bulk of the West Bank without jeopardizing its own legitimate security needs.

 

The Two-State Paradigm

In the real world of today where, in practical terms, does all this leave us? Drawing on the analysis in the opening chapter of my doctoral thesis, I concluded that the only way to resolve the conflict between the two peoples was the creation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, alongside Israel.

I put forward this proposal – also published in a 1973 Fabian pamphlet – because it seemed blindingly obvious from my own research, travels and personal engagements that both peoples overwhelmingly wanted their own state and were not prepared to settle for anything less. I could not see any other way of accommodating and reconciling these common, basic, minimum, irreducible aspirations.

More than forty years on, during when the national imperatives have, if anything, hardened, I still cannot see a plausible alternative to what has, somewhat misleadingly, come to be termed the ‘two-state solution’, even if there are more formidable obstacles today in the way of its fruition than in the early 1970s. I refer in particular to the huge growth in the number of Israeli settlers now living in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, from fewer than 5,000 at the time of my initial writing to an estimated 580,000 today. 

Over the last four decades, the two-state formula has steadily acquired strong global backing and become the firm international consensus. The PLO formally adopted the paradigm in 1988 at its congress in Algiers, following years of agonized internal debate. The immensity of this move should not be underestimated. It was a hard pill to swallow as it meant lowering Palestinian sights from the hitherto immutable demand for 100 per cent of the land and accepting a scaled-down state on the remaining 22 per cent, comprising the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

A two-state outcome was adopted as official international policy by way of a UN Security Council resolution in 2002, the same year as the twenty-two member Arab League issued the Arab Peace Initiative that envisaged a comprehensive regional peace deal based on two states. In 2009, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu declared that he was willing to support the creation of a Palestinian state, even if his commitment was heavily conditioned.  Opinion polls consistently reflected more than two-thirds support for the two-state idea among both Palestinians and Israelis.

More recently, however, support appears to have been receding amongst both peoples. But this can be misleading because, for one thing, there is no consensus on an alternative. People talk loosely of a ‘one-state solution’ but have very different takes on what that would mean. And whatever it means, it would entail starting all over again in terms of attracting the support of national governments and international agencies.

From my soundings, right-wing Israelis who use the ‘one-state’ term mean, in essence, a Jewish state in which West Bank Palestinians would in principle have some rights. Palestinian supporters of one state, with some exceptions, mean in essence an Arab state which would include the full right of return for the roughly four million original refugees and their descendants, and in which Jews from the former Israel would in principle have some rights.

Hamas means a Muslim state with, in principle, lesser minority rights for non-Muslims. Secularists outside the region mean a unitary, democratic, secular, non-sectarian state, in the image of western-style states. There are other designs too, including federal, confederal, bi-national, cantonal and multi-confessional models.  

For the most part, these diverse ideas are ill thought out, unrealistic, and often contradictory. No less importantly, they are regarded as deeply threatening by most people from one side or the other. There are strong indications that national allegiance in many parts of the world continues to have an important appeal to many people. This is well exemplified in the case of a grouping as close as Benelux, in which the constituent states of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg have still retained their official independence and separate identities.

Optimistically, a confederative arrangement along the lines of Benelux could be a possible future template for Israel, Palestine and maybe Jordan. But confederations comprise independent states which volunteer to give up some of their sovereignty to a supranational authority for common benefit. An Israel-Palestine-Jordan link-up, without Palestine first attaining sovereignty, would not be a confederation but an Israeli- Jordanian condominium over Palestine.

The apparent decline in Israeli and Palestinian support for two states is partly because people on both sides are losing faith in it as a practical proposition. There is good reason for this. But I fear that it is also partly because of a common growing illusion that a deal based on mutual recognition is no longer necessary. There is a danger that we are returning to an earlier era when both sides rejected the national aspirations of the other, because they are no longer convinced that they need to recognize and accommodate the other people’s national rights in order to attain their own.

On the Israeli side, there appears to be a growing perception of the Palestinians as weak and divided and that, after nearly fifty years of Israel ruling the West Bank, they will have to accept their fate as a defeated people. The Palestinians, on their part, have seen a dramatic shift of international sympathy from the Israeli side to the Palestinian cause, which has fuelled the belief among some of them that they don’t after all need to come to terms with the Israeli reality, as time will take care of the problem. So, they too are loosening their allegiance to the two-state idea.

But there is a fundamental fallacy here, for the two-state idea was never based on support for it by the two peoples. Indeed, it was conceived at a time when there was little or no such support by them. The idea was predicated on the zeal of each people for their own state. There is no discernible evidence that I am aware of, of a reduction in this sentiment on either side, or any prospect of it in the near future. Probably, the contrary is true.

Indeed, if the Palestinians were offered their own genuine state tomorrow, alongside Israel, it is almost certain that they would overwhelmingly jump at the opportunity. Other considerations apart, they are in desperate need of a guaranteed refuge from the persecution, massacres and expulsions they have periodically been subjected to in one or another Arab state during times of turmoil, most recently in Syria. At different times, it has been in Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait and Iraq.

The two-state idea would lose its force only if both peoples, or at least one of them to begin with, no longer sought self-determination in their own state. Until such a time, it remains the only plausible option, even if it is of declining feasibility. This is the rub. It seems to me that the most likely alternative to two states by design is not the utopian vision of one united harmonious state but two states by disaster.

What do I mean by that? Should all avenues to the peaceful birth of a Palestinian state through agreement ultimately prove, for whatever reason, to be dead-ends, the situation is likely to move into a phase of perpetual conflict, which may give birth to a Palestinian separatist movement on the West Bank with the potential to develop into a full-blown insurrection, probably marked by violence and counter-violence, atrocity and counter-atrocity.

Eventually, it might culminate in the emergence of a bedraggled Palestinian state alongside an isolated Jewish state. The ‘two-state solution’ will –  in a sense – have come about, but through chaos not consensus.

So if a state for each people, ideally with close ties and open borders, remains the only plausible basis for resolving this conflict, what strategies may advance this goal in place of failed bilateral negotiations?

 

Palestinian Options

Before we get to possible international strategies, it may be useful to consider the actions the Palestinians themselves are pursuing or contemplating. In a nutshell, they include seeking recognition of Palestinian statehood by other parliaments and governments – a campaign which, by the way, is actively supported by an expanding group of eminent Israelis – pressing the UN Security Council to set a deadline for ending the Israeli occupation and lay down the parameters of a Palestinian state; calling for a temporary international presence in Palestine; urging the EU to take action against the settlements and settlers up to a total ban on their produce and their freedom to travel within the EU and making it illegal for EU nationals to invest in the settlements; joining the UN’s specialized agencies; pursuing Israeli officials for alleged war crimes at the International Criminal Court; and supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign at one level or another.

In this connection, only last week, hundred of Israelis signed a petition addressed to the international community to impose an economic and cultural boycott on the settlement enterprise, despite such expressions of support having recently been made illegal in Israel.

If these measures prove to be unsuccessful, the Palestinians may consider supplementing them with scaling down or ending security co-operation with Israel, dissolving the Palestinian Authority and promoting non-violent civil unrest.

An important consideration for the Palestinians is the risk of some of these actions rebounding on the Palestinians themselves. But the major challenge facing them is to transform a formidable wish list into a coherent strategy with an unambiguous goal.

To move on to the concluding part of the talk: what path or paths could the international community now take, in place of bilateral negotiations, to expedite the end of conflict?  I want to present to you two possible strategies.

 

Is it, or is it not, an Occupation?

The first is a proposal conceived jointly by the Palestinian-American thinker and business executive Sam Bahour and myself, published exactly a year ago. The proposal takes as its starting point the need to resolve a fundamental ambiguity at the heart of Israel’s control of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza, encapsulated by the key question ‘is it, or is it not, an occupation?’

The entire world thinks it is an occupation and therefore considers the Fourth Geneva Convention and other relevant provisions of international law to apply. Successive Israeli governments have disputed this on technical historical grounds, while claiming that they do observe most of the requirements. In practice, this legal ambiguity has served the occupying power well, allowing it to cherry-pick the Geneva Convention as suits its purpose.

In its eyes, it is not an occupation when it disregards the provisions that forbid annexing and settling parts of the captured territory. But it is, in effect, an occupation when it shields behind the clauses that prohibit altering the legal status of an occupied territory’s inhabitants to justify treating them differently from Israeli citizens.

A second question is, at what point does an occupation, with its connotation of temporariness, cease to be an occupation and become a permanent or quasi-permanent state of affairs? After nearly 48 years, has that point been reached?

Our submission is that the occupying power should not, any longer, be able to have it both ways. Rather, the laws of occupation should either apply or not apply. If it is an occupation, it is beyond time for Israel’s provisional custodianship to be brought to an end. If it is not an occupation, there is no legal justification for denying equal rights to everyone who is subject to Israeli rule, whether Israeli or Palestinian.

Our proposal is that the Israeli government should be put on notice that, by the 50th anniversary of the occupation, it must make up its mind definitively one way or the other. A half a century is surely enough time to decide. This would give it until June 2017 to make its choice between relinquishing the occupied territory – either directly to the Palestinians or possibly to a temporary international protectorate in the first instance – or alternatively granting full and equal rights to everyone living under its jurisdiction.

To be clear, this is not a call for a unitary state. How Israelis and Palestinians wish to live alongside each other in the future is for them to decide. The point of our proposal is to bring into sharper focus the political and legal ambiguities surrounding the occupation and to compel a decision. Should the Israeli government not go for the first option of withdrawal, the international community would be free to hold it accountable to the benchmark of civic equality, pending an eventual agreed solution to the conflict.

A refusal to accede to either demand amidst growing international pressure could lead to an unsettling future for Israelis of increasing isolation and a pariah status, as the country tries to fend of accusations of apartheid. The hope is that this prospect would spark off new political currents, culminating in the election of a new government ready to agree a genuine two-state compact with its Palestinian neighbours. The Arab Peace Initiative, for which there has been polling evidence of growing support among the Israeli population, might offer the best framework for such a deal, as urged by the retired Israeli generals.

The appropriate agency to initiate this proposal could be the UN General Assembly or, more ambitiously, the Security Council. But before bringing it to these bodies, it would be useful to build a momentum through governments around the world, country-by-country, making the simple public demand of Israel to declare whether it regards its rule as an occupation or not. If an initial few governments – maybe one or two from each region of the world – were to instigate the campaign, others could be induced to follow in a sort of bandwagon effect. Civil society could be encouraged to exert pressure on their governments where necessary. 

By and by, we also observe that Palestinians suffer discrimination all over the Middle East and we argue that, in the modern era, there is really no justification for continuing their limbo status. In almost every Arab state, their rights are routinely curtailed and they are mostly denied citizenship, even where they, their parents or their grandparents were born in the country. We call for the principle of civic equality for Palestinians to extend throughout the region, although I’m not sure we’re very optimistic about its prospects for the immediate future.

 

Visions of the Endgame

Previously, I alluded to a second possible international approach – originally elaborated in my 2009 pamphlet ‘Visions of the Endgame’. This would also entail decisive international leadership, plus a robust enforcement mechanism that would not easily be derailed by the first atrocity or disrupted by the delaying tactics of any party.

The proposed initiative would include participatory as well as coercive elements and comprise three main steps. First, there would be an invitation to the principal parties to tender their respective visions of the endgame, based on the international consensus of two states, by a fixed deadline of say six months. They have had many years to think about it, and it should not require more time than that. This request would put the ball firmly in their courts, concentrate their minds and provide them with the opportunity to flesh out their rhetorical positions.

In the second step, the international community would formulate the definitive plan to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and resolve the wider Arab-Israel issues. This move would go ahead whether or not one or more of the parties declined to play ball at the first step or tried to procrastinate. Ideally, the international plan would be endorsed by the UN Security Council.

The third step would be the implementation phase, comprising a schedule of bespoke interim targets for each party to achieve according to a fixed timetable en route to the final destination. Attached to every way-station would be a package of strong inducements that would reward implementation or penalise failure at every stage.

The proposal would not preclude bilateral negotiations. The parties would be free to agree any matter directly between themselves during the first two phases, extending over a period of roughly one year. Whatever they might agree would go into the definitive plan. What they fail to agree would be left to the international community to determine, meaning that the status quo – which invariably favours the occupying power – would no longer be the default position. Practical negotiations would also be necessary at the implementation stage, once the parameters have been determined

The international body probably most suited to this task is the so-called Quartet, comprising the US, the UN Secretary General’s Office, the EU and Russia, possibly supplemented by the Arab Quartet of Egypt and Jordan – both of which have diplomatic ties with Israel – plus Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Together with colleagues, in the wake of the collapse of the bilateral talks, I have started again to promote this proposal. We would be glad of any assistance in putting it around.

Well, I hope that wasn’t too incoherent and I’m sure there was plenty there to disagree with. Inevitably, there are many areas and issues I have not touched on. Maybe some of them will be raised in the discussion session to follow. Meanwhile, I should like to thank those of you who are still awake for your attention. 

Dr Tony Klug