Israel-Palestine, Quo Vadis?

The United States was the dominant external actor in the Israeli-political process while the regional actors were less significant and reluctant. Recent developments indicate a change of role for these actors. The turbulence in the Middle East provides for a better atmosphere for Israeli-Arab cooperation. Israel and Arab governments face similar threats and have joint interests in fighting these threats.

While Israel is still focused on domestic political upheavals, the Israeli-Palestinian political process is getting renewed attention in the international arena and in the region. France is continuing to promote the French Initiative, which seeks to convene an international conference to jumpstart one more attempt to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through negotiations. For that purpose the French Foreign Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, recently convened an international preparatory meeting on foreign minister level in Paris. At the same time Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, announced his initiative of renewed Israel-Palestinian peace negotiations based on the Arab Peace Initiative (API). In addition former UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who also served as the Quartet’s special envoy to the Middle East, was trying to promote a regional initiative for Peace talks based on the API probably in coordination with el-Sisi’s initiative hoping also to affect the Israeli domestic political arena. In Israel Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s efforts to broaden his coalition government culminated in Avigdor Lieberman’s right wing party, Israel Beitenu, joining the coalition. This development quashed hopes in the international arena, the region and inside Israel that the Zionist Camp (based on the Labor party) will join the coalition leading to a lesser right wing composition of the government with more moderate government policies especially in the Palestinian context.

The French initiative as well as the el-Sisi initiative reflects a consensus that is crystalizing in the international and regional communities and includes the following elements. First, Israel and the Palestinians are not capable of initiating serious negotiations. They cannot be left to their own device because that means continuation of the present stalemate. Second, the stalemate is unsustainable and unacceptable. First, it is a source of regional instability, but what is more harmful is the fact that the so called status quo is in practice a process of gradual slide towards a one state reality that will reach a point of no return, where the two states solution will not be possible anymore. There is still wide global and regional support for the two states solution and broad belief that the so-called one state solution is practically no solution and a recipe for a never-ending war between the two peoples. Third, the conclusion is that there is an essential need for international and regional interventions for jumpstarting an effective negotiations process.

What is common to all initiatives is the wish to determine terms of reference for effective negotiations that will include basic principles for the permanent status agreement, and probably also a time table. The French initiative aims at convening an international conference, in which the main global and regional actors will participate, that will determine these terms of reference and demand the two parties to accept them and start negotiations based on them according to a determined time table. The initiative of Egypt’s president reflects another approach. It wishes to tempt the sides to start effective negotiations by giving a regional context to the negotiations. The two sides are asked to start negotiations based on the Arab Peace initiative, which will determine the terms of reference for the negotiations. Accordingly the Palestinians will get several principles for the agreement that are essential for them; the borders between Israel and the Palestinian state will be based on the 1967 lines, and there will be a just agreed solution for the Palestinian refugees based on UN General Assembly resolution 194. Israel is promised an end of the conflict with the entire Arab world, and a beginning of normalization steps once the negotiations start.

The turbulence in the Middle East provides for a better atmosphere for Israeli-Arab cooperation. Israel and Arab governments face similar threats and have joint interests in fighting these threats. This is the case with Arab states that fight Islamic extremism. A good example is the Egyptian regime, which is engaged in a bitter existential struggle with the Moslem Brotherhood and violent Islamic Jihadi groups that operate mostly in the Sinai Peninsula. The escalating conflict between the so called Shiite axis led by Iran and the Sunni states led by Saudi Arabia serves also as a common ground with Israel. Iran and its allies adopted also strong anti-Israeli policies declaring Israel has no place in the Middle East and that it should be eradicated. Israel and the Gulf states have a strong interest in cooperating against Iran and its allies.

Since the beginning of the Oslo process in the first half of the nineties traditionally the United States was the dominant external actor in the Israeli-political process while the regional actors were less significant and reluctant. Recent developments indicate a change of role for these actors. The Palestinians lost hope that the US will put pressure on Israel to be serious about the two states solution, but at the same time the Netanyahu government lost trust in the Obama administration, and it perceives that Obama is more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and demands and hostile to the current Israeli government. After the failure of the Secretary Kerry mediated negotiations (April 2015) the frustrated US administration lost any hope that it can facilitate effective Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The coming presidential elections in November also inhibit American initiatives because President Obama does not want to hurt Hillary Clinton’s chances of success by new initiatives that will cause friction with the Israeli government.

Although Russia has a tradition of supporting international intervention through the mechanism of an international conference, the Russian attitude towards the French initiative was quite reserved. The President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, proposed the initiative to hold an international conference on the Middle East to restart Arab-Israeli negotiations on all tracks and lead the peace process out of its deadlock back in 2005. During the last decade Russia repeated a number of times its suggestion to hold this Middle East peace conference in Moscow. One example is the announcement of the Russian Foreign Affairs Minister, Sergey Lavrov, on September 8, 2012 at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Vladivostok that Russia will work for the convention of an international conference on peace in the Middle East before the end of the year. Russia failed in garnering enough international and regional support for its initiatives and they never took off. This is probably also the result of the relatively low priority of this subject for the Russian leadership. It does not seem that Russia used all its arsenal of influence and diplomacy to make the idea of an international conference fly. One big obstacle was of course the clear preference of the two sides, Israel and the Palestinians, for US facilitation and mediation. No wonder that Russia was aggravated by the at least partial success of France in generating a process that may lead to the convening of such a conference, which was originally a Russian proposal.

It seems that Russian intervention in the Syrian crisis, demonstrating its decisiveness and capabilities, has put it now in a stronger position. It is also possible that after the stabilization of its stand in Syria Russia will be searching for additional space for activity in the Middle East to ensure it regional stand. The next Russia objective might be deepening its involvement in the Israeli – Palestinian conflict. Russians might believe that they would be able to supply alternative platform compared with the French platform, which in Russian eyes is backed by US, and is unacceptable for Israel, as well as for Russia. The main objective in that Russian move would be to lead the process, and not serving the interests of one side or the other side.

Russia would expect from Israel to support an active Russian role in the Israeli – Palestinian peace process. One may assume these questions were discussed by Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Putin during their recent meeting in Moscow (the third since the beginning of the Russian military intervention in Syria on September 2015). At this point the Israeli reactions to this possible Russian initiative are not clear.

Having said that, it should be clear to the Israeli political leadership that Russia is an important actor being a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a member of the Middle East Quartet, and it can help in facilitating a resumption of the Israeli-Palestinian political process in a way that will enable concrete progress. The realistic approach that characterizes Russia’s foreign policy can be a useful guide.

One of the main causes for the current stalemate is the political situation in both sides of the divide that prevents them from engaging in effective permanent status negotiations. Israel is governed by a right wing government that will not accept an agreement which will demand evacuation of most of the Israeli settlements, albeit not most of the settlers, in the West Bank and will ask for tight security arrangements that will not allow the establishment of a Palestinian state with full attributes of sovereignty. The Palestinians are divided. The Gaza Strip is ruled by the Islamist movement Hamas that does not support negotiations and peace with Israel. The West Bank is ruled by the government of Mahmoud Abbas that is too weak to make the concessions needed for an agreement and to get the necessary public support for an agreement.

Consequently, it is possible to make only limited progress towards the implementation of the two states solution through a gradual process that will have in its initial phase two clear objectives. The first one is to arrest the slow but persistent slide towards one state reality and start moving towards two states reality. That can be done by putting limitations on the building in settlements, and by giving the Palestinian Authority jurisdiction over parts of area C as well as expanding the free movement of Palestinians in the West bank and their capabilities to use area C for infrastructure and economic projects. It can be implemented through partial agreements between the two sides facilitated by the international actors. If it would be found that it is not possible to conclude these agreements because of the high level of mutual distrust, alternatively at least part of these steps can be executed in coordinated unilateral steps of the two parties.

The second objective would be to prepare for resumption of full negotiations when the political stars would be better arrayed by forming the road map leading to these negotiations and the terms of reference of these negotiations based on the previous rounds of negotiations.

In this context an international conference can be a useful instrument. These two objectives cannot be achieved without strong international and regional support to facilitate agreements between the two parties, assist the state building project in the Palestinian Authority, and give security guarantees. The conference should focus on the two above mentioned objectives adopting a realistic approach. A mere repetition of the mantra that the two sides have to restart permanent status negotiations will not be helpful without this clear road map and a willingness of the regional and international community to contribute their share in the execution of the road map.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.