The French Initiative to convene an international conference on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on January 15th is a momentous opportunity to offer a new approach that would mitigate the hostile relationship between the two sides and create a new socio-political environment conducive to restarting peace negotiations with a realistic prospect for success.
By Dr. Alon Ben-Meir*
Recent developments in connection with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict demonstrated the huge gap between the Israeli government and the international community’s position about the settlements in the occupied territories and the prospect of a two-state solution. United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334, followed by Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech condemning the Israeli settlements and characterizing them as a major obstacle to peace, were largely on the mark. But ending the settlements enterprise will not, in and of itself, resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Unfortunately, both the UN and Kerry have ignored other critical issues, particularly the poisonous socio-political atmosphere between the two sides, the fault lines in the peace process itself, and Hamas’ and other Palestinian extremists’ position that calls for Israel’s destruction, to which Kerry made only scant reference.
The French Initiative to convene an international conference on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on January 15th is a momentous opportunity to offer a new approach that would mitigate the hostile relationship between the two sides and create a new socio-political environment conducive to restarting peace negotiations with a realistic prospect for success. However, the agenda of the conference and its outcome should seek to provide a framework for the Trump administration to align itself with because without the US’ ultimate support, it will have no lasting impact in securing a viable Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Although the UNSC called for taking “immediate steps to prevent all acts of violence against civilians, including acts of terror, as well as all acts of provocation and destruction,” the resolution fell short in condemning Hamas by name and calling upon its leadership to renounce violence and accept Israel’s right to exist.
This glaring omission plays squarely into the hands of Netanyahu’s right-wing government, which claims that Israel continues to be existentially threatened and only when the Palestinians unequivocally accept Israel’s existence will negotiations produce a lasting peace agreement.
In his speech, Secretary Kerry defended the US abstention in the UNSC, which allowed the resolution to pass, because it recognized the critical importance of combating terrorism and ending all acts of violence: “Everyone understands that no Israeli government can ever accept an agreement that does not satisfy its security needs or that risk creating an enduring security threat like Gaza transferred to the West Bank…. [but] the vote in the United Nations was about preserving the two-state solution.”
Both the UN resolution and Kerry’s speech, however, failed to recognize that the conditions on the ground have dramatically shifted not only because of the settlements, but also because of the psychological dimensions that impact and impede progress on every conflicting issue.
There is profound distrust between the two sides which is compounded by mutually deep concerns over security, coupled with strong illusions held by right-wing Israeli and extremist Palestinian constituencies that claim to have an inherent right to the entire land stretching from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River.
Hamas has made this claim time and again, and recently Israel’s Education Minister Naftali Bennett stated that Israel should annex Ma’ale Adumim (located 4.5 miles east of Jerusalem), followed by Area C in its entirety, which is under Israeli control and is more than 60 percent of the West Bank.
As Bennett, Netanyahu, and other coalition partners see it, the expansion of settlements and the retroactive legalization of many others built without initial government approval will create irreversible facts on the ground making a two-state solution simply inoperable, which is precisely what they want to secure.
To be sure, the UN resolution and Kerry’s speech are nothing but a call in the wilderness. Other than putting some political pressure on Israel and warning the Palestinians to stop incitements and acts of violence, there is no realistic international enforcement mechanism to compel either side to adhere to the UN resolution or Kerry’s plea.
Netanyahu feels confident that as president, Trump will restore the US’ traditional support of Israel’s position and provide it with political cover any time attempts are made by the international community to pressure or coerce Israel to embrace policies contrary to its perceived national interests.
The timing of the French Initiative may seem odd as it is taking place only five days before the inauguration of President-elect Trump. The French government, however, wants to build on the momentum produced by the UN resolution and Kerry’s speech to engender wider international consensus beyond the UNSC against the settlements and save the two-state solution, which is viewed as sine qua non to enduring peace.
Furthermore, the French are hoping to prevent the incoming Trump administration from rushing into taking a position completely supportive of Netanyahu and scuttling what’s left of the peace process, especially at a time of regional turmoil and extremism, which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict feeds into with consequential adverse effects on the European community.
For the French conference to succeed, however, it should not merely echo what the UN resolution and Kerry’s speech called for, and not simply push for the resumption of direct or indirect peace negotiations that will meet the same fate as previous talks. The conferees must adopt a three-track approach that will be conducive for the resumption of constructive negotiations leading to a peace agreement that the Trump administration can support.
Given the intense distrust, deep sense of mutual insecurity, and persistent illusion that either side can have all, it is critically important to begin the first track with a process of reconciliation for about two years to largely mitigate these three major obstacles.
During this period, neither side should be required to make concessions regarding any of the major conflicting issues—which in any case neither side is prepared to make at this juncture—but instead take government-to-government and people-to-people measures to create a new socio-political environment supportive of meaningful negotiations.
The government-to-government measures should include: halting the mutually acrimonious public narrative, taking no provocative action (e.g preventing the Palestinians from suing Israel at the International Criminal Court), substantially slowing the expansion of settlements and providing only for natural growth, encouraging joint economic development ventures, further strengthening security cooperation to prevent violence, and releasing some Palestinian prisoners with no blood on their hands as a good-will gesture. Finally, textbooks should be modified to reflect the reality and rights of both peoples, which is one of the most critical measures that must be taken so that the next generation of Israelis and Palestinians see each other as friends and neighbors rather than eternally sworn enemies.
In the area of people-to-people interactions, both sides should undertake several measures (some government-facilitated) including: engaging in an open public discourse to air out some of their concerns and aspirations for the future, allowing more Palestinian laborers to work in Israel, encouraging the media to report on any positive developments, facilitating tourism in both directions, emboldening women activism, supporting student interactions, providing Palestinian youth opportunities to study at Israeli universities, embarking on joint sport activities, and exchanging art exhibitions.
The purpose of these activities is to humanize the Israelis and Palestinians in each other’s eyes, stop the stereotyping, and construct a new relationship based on mutual acceptance and trust, which are essential to peace making.
To significantly allay Israeli concerns (real, perceived, or exaggerated) over national security, the second track is for the conference to call on Hamas and other Palestinian extremists to forsake violence and join the Palestinian Authority in the search for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Hamas is an integral part of the Palestinian body politic, without which no Israeli-Palestinian peace can be forged, let alone endure.
The conferees should especially call on Turkey and Qatar to pressure Hamas (on whom they enjoy tremendous influence) to renounce violence and accept the inevitability of Israel’s existence without necessarily surrendering its arms. As an incentive, Hamas should be removed from the EU and US’ list of terrorist organizations and provided with targeted financial aid to build housing, medical facilities, schools, and infrastructure, and pull the Palestinians in Gaza out of their rampant poverty and despair. Under such circumstances, Israel would ease the blockade and ultimately remove it altogether under conditions of peace.
The third track is the adoption of the Arab Peace Initiative (API) as the overall framework for peace, which could rally the whole Arab world behind the French Initiative and create a roadmap for the establishment of Israeli-Palestinian peace in the context of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.
The conferees should task three foreign ministers from Egypt, France, and the US to persuade Israel and Hamas to embrace the API, which offers several common denominators between them. There is perhaps no better time than now to do just that because of the intensifying collaboration on security and intelligence sharing between Israel and key Arab states in the Gulf, along with Jordan and Egypt, who seek to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and focus on the Iranian threat.
By adopting these three tracks, the conference will put the Israeli government and the PA to the test, as they cannot profess to seek a two-state solution but then refuse to undertake such measures of reconciliation which are essential to a genuine peace agreement.
I am convinced that if the conference does not adopt the above outlined approach and subsequently elicit the endorsement of the Trump administration, it will fail. The failure will deprive the French and, by extension, the EU from having much of a say in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the future, in which their stakes are extremely high.
Given that the US is and will remain the main interlocutor between Israel and the Palestinians, the conference will provide Trump (through the three-track approach) the time and opportunity to genuinely assess the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After all, Trump would not want to grant Netanyahu’s wishes and let him expand the settlements and annex more Palestinian territories if such a move kills any prospect of a two-state solution and subjects Israel to a perilous future.
Trump, who boasts of being the greatest dealmaker, should take heed of the above and, with the support of the European community led by France, effect a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians which will indeed be the deal of the century.
*Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.