There may be no happy ending to the Israeli-Palestinian clash, says Britain's former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Israelby Tom Phillips / July 18, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
“Song for Peace” is written on the bloodstained paper that was in the jacket pocket of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin when he was assassinated on 4th November, 1995 by Yigal Amir, a member of an extremist Israeli nationalist group
For the last six years I have served as a British ambassador in the Middle East, first to Israel and then to Saudi Arabia. I leave the region with particular sadness that in this period the chances of a solution to the long-running conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians—on which, ultimately, turns the issue of Israel’s acceptance in the region—have grown bleaker. These are my ten rules for why this is the case.
Rule 1: “The worst thing will always happen at the worst possible time”
Examples are legion. A few follow.
The assassination in 1995 of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister, was the one fatal act which could have—and did—effectively end any hope that the Oslo peace process would get anywhere, even if the formal last rites were delayed until 2000 in Camp David. Hezbollah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers in July 2006 destroyed any chance that Ehud Olmert, then prime minister, would be able to make a large unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank, as he had promised during his election campaign, in the wake of the withdrawal from Gaza by Ariel Sharon, his predecessor. The Goldstone report on Operation Cast Lead [a United Nations fact-finding mission, led by South African jurist Richard Goldstone, on the Gaza conflict of 2008-2009], published in September 2009, appeared at just the moment to make it even harder for Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, to descend from the tree into which he had been encouraged to climb by faulty American tactics in the starter phase of the Obama administration. Obama settled in at the White House—an American president at last fully understanding why solving the Palestinian issue is vital for American, and western, interests—just as Israel voted for a right-wing government which would thoroughly complicate his efforts.
One sub-rule of this main rule is the complexity of overlapping political timetables. Peace making is all too often on hold because there are Israeli, or American, or even Palestinian, elections. The rhythm of peace-making efforts is constrained above all by the short horizons of the American system, and the intense preoccupation of Israelis with their own political system (see Rule 8).
Rule 2: “Everyone is afraid of being a sucker”
Fears of being a sucker (a “fryer” in Yiddish and now Hebrew) are an explicit part of Israeli political discourse, but are just as evident in the Palestinian approach to peace making. Both sides feel that concessions they have made in the past have not been reciprocated, and are therefore determined not to take the first step this time around. Such worries prevent the Israelis in particular from coming to terms with the reality that since they hold the majority of the cards, they will inevitably have to make the greater concessions. And the West Bank barrier—now as much psychological as physical—means that most Israelis can ignore the morally questionable realities of occupation.
The corollary of this rule is that each party, to avoid being a sucker, acts in a manner destined to prevent progress, thus ensuring an outcome which is actually a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The rule applies more widely in the region. There is no Arab inclination publicly to suggest the possibility of a less than fully prescriptive, or even a graduated, approach to the Arab Peace Initiative (which offers Israel the prospect of normalisation in the region) because those governments assess that Israel would simply take advantage of any first move on their part and leave them suckered. Besides, they’ve got enough on their plate at the moment (see Rule 9).
Rule 3: “Only the Americans can, and the Americans can’t”
There is no prospect of the Israelis and Palestinians doing their own deal—the key issues are simply too hard (see Rules 6 and 7). No one but the Americans has the leverage and the historical record to persuade the Israelis to make the necessary concessions and to underpin any deal with the necessary security guarantees. The maxim “we can’t want it more than the parties” is fundamentally fake: neither side has yet reached the level of exhaustion where it is ready to offer the necessary compromises, and both would prefer to avoid the most testing questions. Indeed, both sides need to be able to tell their constituencies that while in an ideal world they would not have gone so far, Uncle Sam has made it clear there is no alternative. But the United States has only fitfully been willing to play such an imperial role, and the Americans can never be a genuinely impartial broker—the whole weight of their system and their perceptions tilt them towards the Israelis. The problems this can cause were brutally apparent at the Middle East peace summit at Camp David in 2000, when Yasser Arafat, then Palestinian Authority chairman, rightly suspected every American initiative of being pre-cooked with the Israelis. Obama has yet to prove he will be the president who proves there can be exceptions to this rule, although there are now hopes that he might press harder on this issue in Obama Term 2. Assuming, of course, the next four years are not Romney Term 1…
Rule 4: “It’s easier for a right-wing Israeli government to make peace than a left-wing one” (a rule sometimes called “only Likud can”)
This rule is, I suspect, both true and untrue. Proponents point back to 1979 and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s deal with Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat for the return of the Sinai; or Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir’s acceptance of the invitation to go to the Madrid peace talks in 1991; or Sharon’s uprooting of settlements and withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. They perhaps omit, for example, that it was Rabin who made peace with Jordan in 1994. Yes, any deal struck by a right-wing Israeli government will be an easier sell to a sceptical Israeli public than one struck by a government of the left. But I think the rule severely underestimates the equal and opposite reality that any government of the right will find it far more difficult to make the necessary compromises on what is not only seen as a critical security buffer, but is also the “Biblical homeland”—Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and East Jerusalem. That’s why the settlers have been so successful in exploiting an Israeli system in which many share their longing to “return,” and have been able to establish so many facts on the ground which severely complicate (and may already have blocked entirely) the path to peace. Begin could give away the Sinai since only a few Israeli extremists would have claimed that this area too formed part of God’s original promise.
Rule 5: “Incrementalism doesn’t work”
Partly because of Rule 2—everyone is afraid of being a sucker. Most models of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking are designed to leave the really hard issues, Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees, to last. But the Palestinians in particular worry that this means that those issues will never be on the table: hence their understandable insistence on the “nothing agreed until everything agreed” mantra. The fact that the Israelis have never been prepared to agree that there should be no change to the status quo in relation to issues to be left to the final stages of negotiations (such as no further building in East Jerusalem) compounds Palestinian worries about the risks of incrementalism, as do their bitter memories of the way settlement construction continued apace during the Oslo process.
Rule 6: “It’s all about Jerusalem and the Right of Return”
Analysts dispute whether this is a conflict about land or religion. I believe it is essentially a dispute about identity, with land and religion as principal expressions of the identity issues involved. The two issues which are key to the identities which are in conflict are Jerusalem and the Right of Return—the Palestinian refugee issue. Any Israeli or Palestinian leader who cannot say that each morning is ducking how hard it will be to make progress. Of the two, the refugee issue is the easier, although any internal Palestinian leader will be wary of signing up to any deal which means that his brethren in camps in Lebanon and elsewhere cannot come back to Jaffa or Haifa—unless perhaps such a deal comes with the firm backing, and resources, of the international community including the Arab world. Bear in mind also that the Israelis will baulk even at acknowledging that there is any such thing as a Right of Return (even if it is not to be implemented), rejecting the implication that there was such an original sin at the heart of the creation of the Israeli state. They would argue that responsibility for the problem should be shared with the Arab armies who invaded in 1948 and even with those Palestinian leaders who advised their communities to get on the road. And that it is wrong for Israel to take a hit for this particular refugee problem when Arab states have never come under critical scrutiny over the manner of the departure of their Jewish citizens in the early years of the Israeli state.
Rule 7: “There cannot be a deal on sovereignty of the Old City”
The core of the Jerusalem identity issue is the Old City, and a main lesson of 2000/2001 (from Camp David through to the parameters proposed by President Bill Clinton) is that it is not possible to do a deal dividing sovereignty there between the Israelis and the Palestinians, particularly when it comes to the Temple Mount/Haram-al-Sharif. The 1947 UN partition plan got it right—there will have to be some kind of special arrangement, at least for the Old City. There are models, and sovereignty could be given to God (leaving Israeli and Palestinian mortals to agree only to administrative arrangements), or kicked into touch (as when Olmert, in his potentially taboo-breaking 2008 offer to Abbas, suggested an interim arrangement for the Old City). Without such a deal, there will be no wider Israeli-Palestinian deal. And without an Israeli-Palestinian deal including a satisfactory resolution of the Jerusalem issue, Israel will never be accepted by the Islamic world.
Rule 8: “The difficulty of reaching a deal is compounded by the dysfunctional political systems on both sides”
This rule is easily illustrated on the Palestinian side. The gap between Fatah, dominant on the West Bank, and Hamas, controlling Gaza, raises the question of whether the Palestinian Authority will ever feel able to make compromises to do a deal with the Israelis. Fatah is also still struggling to make the transition to a credible political party, and too many Fatah knives are aimed at Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s back. On the Israeli side, a political system of proportional representation with a low threshold for parties to win seats in the Knesset is all too often a recipe for short-lived governments held hostage by the smaller and harder-line members of any coalition. Intriguingly, Benjamin Netanyahu’s deal with Shaul Mofaz, now vice prime minister, raises the possibility of a government with sufficient political bandwidth to go all the way, if it wanted to. But does it?
Rule 9: “The international community has never wanted it enough”
The Palestinian issue has been left unresolved too long. It was not until the 1937 Peel Commission that some British officials had the courage to understand that the full meaning of the 1917 Balfour declaration, and that the only way to meet the national aspirations of the two sides, was a two-state solution. Since 1948, and above all since 1967, international will to push for such an outcome has all too often been lacking, with the Americans in particular only slowly coming to the same realisation of what peace will take, having rejected the European Union’s 1981 Venice declaration, which in many ways started the process of scales falling from international eyes.
If—at least for the foreseeable future—the only alternative to a two-state solution is continuing conflict (see Rule 10), and if such conflict represents, as it does, a threat to wider US and western interests in the region and more widely, then a sustained international drive to achieve a two-state deal should be a no-brainer. But as the experience of the Quartet (the US, UN, EU and Russia) confirms, the Americans are genetically indisposed to move into a genuinely multilateralist mode on this issue; and the EU has failed over the years to translate declaratory clarity into operational strategy and tactics, or to use its potential weight as Israel’s most important export market and economic partner. And both have failed to put their efforts together and link them to a wider regional drive to bolster moderation and contain or constrain the extremists. We should focus on transatlantic agreement on the big carrots which could be deployed to encourage the parties to move in the right direction, and the big sticks which might be necessary if they are reluctant to do so.
The other side of the “we’ve never wanted it enough” coin is that an argument can be made that the international donor community has in effect propped up the Israeli occupation by pumping in aid money which has taken the edge off Palestinian frustration. There are good humanitarian reasons for much of the assistance which has been given, and indeed (more recently) good state-building ones. But I fear the staggering level of international assistance has fostered a widespread dependency culture in Palestinian political life (for all Fayyad’s valiant efforts to reverse it) which has contributed to their leadership problems. Has the time come dramatically to scale down the funds we give the Palestinians, in order to put the full weight of the occupation on Israel, a burden I do not think they would be able to endure given, inter alia, the heavier weight it would mean to a society which needs to think of itself in morally positive terms?
A further question: why isn’t the moderate Arab world more active in pressing its western partners to get its act together and sort this one out? There are many reasons, and just at the moment the pressures of the Arab Spring, the deepening Sunni-Shia divide in the region, and the linked perception of a need to counter an Iranian push for greater regional hegemony, have inevitably pushed the Palestinian issue down on the Arab agenda. But one reason—of which Israel should beware—is the Arab reading that Israel needs a two-state solution more than the Palestinians, and, like the Crusader kingdom, will face eventual extinction if it does not make its peace with the locals rather than continue to rely on its overseas backers (for the US now read Christian Europe then). So the Arabs can wait.
Rule 10: “Failure in the most likely outcome”
This is the most complex conflict I know. And it may already be too late to achieve a two-state solution, even if that would have been the right solution, and the only possible solution. I cannot imagine any American government able to do what is necessary to press the Israelis to take the steps which are ultimately in Israel’s interest. I cannot imagine any Israeli government able to take the steps necessary to rein in the settler movement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem for a sustainable two-state solution to be achieved. I find it hard to imagine any internal Palestinian leadership with the authority to make the compromises on the Right of Return without which no Israeli would support a peace deal. And it’s difficult to envisage any Arab leader ready to translate the Arab Peace Initiative into actionable, supportive activity.
Nor can I imagine any viable alternative to a two-state solution. I don’t think it’s realistic to think of going back to ideas such as a UN Trusteeship for the Occupied Palestinian Territories. I don’t believe either side is ready seriously to contemplate an Israel-Palestine federal model, although I am intrigued at the thought of how that might offer a way into the Jerusalem issue—the seat of a federal government serving both parts of the federation. I am intrigued too—but not convinced—by the concept of separate Israeli and Palestinian governments within an overall single state—the “parallel state” model. Nor do I believe it would be feasible, or indeed right, to try to live with the new realities on the ground and offer to pay Egypt and Jordan to soak up Gaza and a rump West Bank, hoping to push the Arab world to accept a version of Greater Israel.
This might be a Jewish and Arab problem, but it is a Greek tragedy. When you put all the above rules together, they mean there cannot be a happy ending. I hope I’m wrong.
Correction: the print edition carried the wrong orientation of the image because it was taken from Getty images where it was wrongly displayed