March 29, 2009
This post is inspired by an excellent debate hosted last Friday by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, which examined “Israel-Palestine in the New political Configuration: Future Prospects.”
Two ideas strike me as worth consideration, despite the current negative political environment in both Israel and Palestine. The first is to establish an international trusteeship; and the second is to start by negotiating directly with Iran.
The complexity of the Israel-Palestine is awesome. History gives it a profound emotional underpinning. Negotiations cannot succeed between the Israelis and Palestinians when neither side is politically strong enough to make concessions. The Israeli political scene is going through a fundamental re-alignment, on both the left and the right. On the Palestinian side, no resolution is yet in sight of the Fatah-Hamas split.
While one main wing of Hamas is terrorist, it has to be recognised that the organisation is not corrupt like the PLO and looks after Palestinians on a day-today basis. The refusal of Israel and the West to talk to democratically elected Palestinian government ministers (qua ministers not qua Hamas), was a calamitous decision. If you believe in democracy, the ‘wrong’ result has to be accepted. The waging of economic warfare against Hamas is a failed strategy. It is time to talk to Hamas without preconditions, although there is no guarantee that Hamas will talk to Israel.
There are differing views on whether negotiations with Syria should be sought. Turkey remains willing to mediate. Some believe that peace is achievable and that this would weaken the Iran-Syria relationship. Others think that the bilateral approach should be eschewed in favour of a comprehensive, regional solution.
No-one outside Iran knows what the Iranian leadership is really up to. Does it intend to produce nuclear weapons or only develop the ability to do so? Is Israel really the target, as Ahmadinejad suggests? Or is the objective to challenge Israel for regional hegemony? Or is it directed at the Sunni Arab states? The threat may be valuable to Iran but the use would be catastrophic, as the mullahs well know; they are certainly not mad. And Ayatollah Khameini and not President Ahmadinejad is the final decision-taker.
Iran is now the main perceived threat of the Israeli people, replacing ‘the Arabs: indeed, this threat is also felt by several Arab states. Iran has a territorial claim against Bahrain and a dispute with the UAE. Sunni states, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE, fear Iran stirring up their Shia minorities.
President Obama has not fully stated his Iranian policy but it is clear that he is in favour of direct talks (which must be without pre-conditions) and does not believe in a military solution. But his room for manoeuvre may be hampered by the Jewish lobby. If Obama starts negotiating with Iran, what trade-offs will he demand from Israel? Israel regards this as en existential threat and ultimate milit-tary action by prime minister Netanyahu cannot be ruled out.
Path to peace
Obama wants an integrated solution to peace in the Greater Middle East, apart from the Israel-Palestine issue, Obama has to cope with Iraq and Afghanistan as well as Iran, not forgetting the economic crisis. It is by no means sure, therefore that Obama will really get involved in his first term.
The 2002 “Arab Peace Initiative” should be brought to centre stage, although it only contains the skeleton of a settlement, namely:
· Full Israeli withdrawal from all the territories occupied since 1967.
· A just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem in accordance with
U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194.
· Acceptance of the establishment of a sovereign independent
Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
· The Arab states to enter into peace agreements with Israel.
· Normal relations with Israel.
Now let’s look at the two ideas: establishing an international trusteeship, and negotiating directly with Iran. The two are not mutually exclusive.
The idea is first to end the occupation of the West Bank, then to establish an international trusteeship over Gaza and the West Bank replacing Fatah, Hamas and the Israeli Defence Force, and finally to achieve peace. The idea was previously rejected by both President George W Bush and Israel, but Israel is now more open to international involvement. However, the Palestinians are unlikely to want others to run their affairs and will need a lot of persuasion.
The territories would be held in trust for the Palestinians while the trustees worked with responsible Palestinian partners to create the institutions of a viable, independent state and while final status negotiations between Israel and representative Palestinians defined the state’s final borders. The trusteeship for Palestine would required an international force of at least 10 000 troops, led by special forces, who would be responsible for maintaining order, dismantling the infrastructure of terror, and rebuilding the Palestinian security forces.
The trustees will have to have iron fists clothed in diplomatic gloves. They will have to re-assure both sides that security will be maintained, which means a commitment to military action if necessary. The trustees will have to understand the (hyper-) sensitivities of the various parties, including Israeli pre-occupation with security and the Palestinian concern to be treated with dignity. The composition of the trusteeship and its forces will be of critical importance They must be trusted from the outset. The precedent of Kosovo should be examined.
Given the Iranian threat and its influence on Syria, Hamas and Hizbollah, the first focus might be on seeking agreement with Iran. President Obama sent a video message to Iran, which was spoiled it by unnecessarily referring to Iran taking its rightful place in the community of nations but “that place cannot be reached through terror or arms…” (see post of 23 March). Despite Ayatollah’s apparent rebuff, the president should persist in seeking negotiations without pre-conditions. Maybe he should respond positively to the Iranian proposal to open comprehensive negotiations, sent to President Bush in 2003 via the Swiss Ambassador, which was arrogantly ignored by Washington.
Change of attitude
For progression to be made towards peace, the US and its allies must understand the significance of the history of the region and the different cultures. A new found sensitivity has to be found.
America leadership remains essential, but Europe can play a valuable role, particularly in state- and institution-building. The United Nations would provide the umbrella and Russia, the fourth member of the Quartet, must be engaged.
Power of imagination
We tend to approach the Israel-Palestine in the light of the status quo and previous negotiations. However, the issue is politically dynamic and we should not be limited by preconceptions. Do we really understand the problems and the context in which they sit? Until we do, the core elements of a solution cannot be identified.
There has been a loss of hope among reasonable people on both sides. They don’t know what to do any more. The peace camp has contracted. Insecurity, fear and frustration are the order of the day.
One thing is obvious. There must be an immediate freeze on Israel extending the settlements in the West Bank. Despite the illegality and verbal commitments, de facto obstacles to peace have been built by successive Israeli governments of both left and right. Astonishingly, the United States (and for that matter, Europe) has taken no serious steps to curb the settlement building.
Author : Stanley Crossick