Breaking the Israel-Palestine logjam

Renewed efforts to broker peace in the Israel-Palestine conflict will come a cropper until Israeli exceptionalism is broken

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:02 pm IST

Published - June 14, 2016 01:07 am IST

Unequal relationship: “There is no level playing field between Israel and Palestine.” A Palestinian refugee holds a key symbolising the loss of his home, ahead of the 68th anniversary of the 1948 Palestinian exodus, in Qalandia refugee camp near Ramallah.

Unequal relationship: “There is no level playing field between Israel and Palestine.” A Palestinian refugee holds a key symbolising the loss of his home, ahead of the 68th anniversary of the 1948 Palestinian exodus, in Qalandia refugee camp near Ramallah.

For two years since the U.S.-led efforts to get both the Israelis and the Palestinians to negotiate peace collapsed, the international community looked away from this conflict. During this period, Gaza was bombed, violence spread in the occupied West Bank, and ties between the Israelis and the Palestinians fell to a new low, closing hopes for a restart in the peace process. The Obama administration effectively gave up on finding or facilitating a solution to the crisis. It was this void that France stepped into when it announced plans to host an international summit on Israel-Palestine peace earlier this year. The conference early this month was attended by diplomats from 29 countries, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, even as Israel and Palestine were absent from the event.

There were no great expectations this time. And the summit produced few concrete steps to be taken forward. But France believes the conference was of great significance. The plan was to provide a “clear framework with defined parameters” for the resumption of negotiations. The initiative proposes two states based on the 1967 border with Jerusalem as capital of both. An international contact group comprising Arab states, the European Union, and the UN Security Council members will sponsor direct talks between Israel and Palestine. They also plan to hold a conference between the warring sides by year end. But for this to succeed, the status quo should be broken. Will France be able to do that?

Violence and peace

The Palestine Authority has welcomed the initiative as a “flicker of hope”. But the Israeli government has slammed it. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s position is that Israel will hold direct talks with “a demilitarised Palestinian state that recognises Israel as a Jewish state and a national homeland for the Jewish people”. This appears more like a delaying tactic than a genuine demand for resuming talks for various reasons.

First, the Jewishness of the state of Israel is a matter of contention at least till the fate of the Palestinian refugees is settled. Second, there’s no level playing field between Israel and Palestine. One is the mightiest military power in West Asia which has direct support of the U.S., while Palestine is not even a fully recognised nation state. For a just solution to emerge out of talks, theoretically speaking, there has to be a balance between the two sides, which can happen only through the mediation of the international community. Also, direct talks between the Palestinian Authority, formed in 1993, and Israel have not produced any major tangible outcome so far. So Mr. Netanyanu’s idea to have direct talks without international intervention looks practically and historically problematic. Third, Mr. Netanyahu’s lack of interest in the peace process is not a secret. During the election campaign early last year, the Prime Minister said no Palestinian state would be formed under his watch. Though his right-wing government re-emphasised its commitment towards a two-state solution after the polls, its focus has never been on peace. If so, the government wouldn’t have continued with the settlement policy even at a time when tensions between the two peoples were high. How is Israel going to hold talks with the Palestinians at the same time they are grabbing more Palestinian land?

Where are the sticks?

This Israeli intransigence has already dealt a fatal blow to the two-state solution. Despite the vilification of Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas by both the Israelis and extremists on the Palestinian side, he’s still the best bet for a negotiated settlement. Yes, he lacks the authority of his late predecessor, Yasser Arafat. His administration is chronically corrupt and lacks popularity. But the Palestine Authority he runs is committed to a two-state solution, whereas Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls the Gaza Strip, calls for “Israeli withdrawal from the entire Palestinian territories occupied since 1948”. No one knows what comes after the 81-year old Mr. Abbas, who has already signalled his intention to step down. So restarting the peace process at the earliest is an imperative. But then what?

The problem in the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict is that there’s a pro-Israel bias among the Western powers which stops them from putting real pressure on Tel Aviv to deliver. Israel knows that it can get away with anything. It’s the only nuclear armed nation in West Asia, though it hasn’t officially declared that. It faced allegations of war crimes against Palestinians in Gaza. It continues occupation of the West Bank in violation of the UNSC resolutions. Despite criticisms even from its allies in the West, Israel’s settlement policy remains intact. Still, were there any meaningful international efforts to hold Israel accountable for its actions or to put pressure on its leaders to change their policies?

The Obama administration has been vocally critical about some Israeli policies. The personal equation between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu is known to be tense. But in the UNSC, Mr. Obama has been a consistent protector of Israel. Over seven years, the U.S. has vetoed all Security Council resolutions specifically critical of Israel. Other Western countries are no exception. Take the case of France, which has organised the latest peace conference. Former French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius had said in January that France would unilaterally recognise Palestine as a nation state should the peace process fail. But Mr. Fabius has since been replaced by Jean-Marc Ayrault and France is no longer talking about recognising the Palestinian state.

The international community could actually take a lesson out of the Iran example. World powers were on the same page in putting pressure on Iran, through a mix of international sanctions and threats of isolation, over its nuclear programme. Even Iran’s allies such as Russia and China joined hands with the U.S. and Britain to build a global pressure regime which eventually worked in forcing Tehran to compromise. What was one of the most contentious global issues till a few years ago was settled amicably in a rare case of the triumph of public diplomacy. Why can’t a similar method be adopted in dealing with Israel, which is also a violator of accepted global norms? This is unlikely to happen immediately. But unless the Israeli exceptionalism is broken, there won’t be peace in the Israel-Palestine conflict. To break that, there has to be both carrots and sticks. Right now, there are only carrots in the kitty, plenty of them.

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