The case for an international agency

The stalemate between Israel and Gaza is unlikely to be resolved either by Hamas, Israel or the UN. It is time to ask: could the creation of a temporary international agency dedicated to enforcing peace be the solution?
January 17, 2009

The tragic stalemate between Israel and Palestine should have ended long ago. It has involved 60 years of bitter conflict, including numerous international wars and the displacement of refugees following the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and the Israeli occupation of Palestine after 1967. The struggle seems never-ending. It is a woeful tale of missed opportunities, broken promises, moments of hope shattered by renewed acts of aggression and an entrenchment of polarised positions.

Even prior to the current escalation, the Israeli blockade was having a calamitous impact on the population of Gaza. In the immediate weeks and months ahead, crisis management will be required to halt the violence on both sides, but temporary ceasefires are not a solution. Nor do international resolutions appear to be effective. At the same time, neither condemnation nor ad hoc aid can heal these festering wounds. This is a conflict with far-reaching implications, first and foremost for the people of Palestine, but also for the stability of the region and beyond. Yet it is also a conflict within which practical measures may be suggested, and attempted.

To halt the apparently growing disconnect within the region, both the Organisation of Islamic Conference and the League of Arab States must present a clear statement of their positions, whilst the Arab Peace Initiative needs to inject new momentum into its proposals, regaining traction amongst the parties and international partners. Survival in these harsh, but staggeringly beautiful lands requires cooperation over scarce resources, on the provision of employment for our youth, and on regional trade agreements. To be enduring, any meaningful peace initiative must address the region as a whole, inclusive of Iran, Israel and Turkey.

Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has recently emphasised that the UN is coordinating efforts at promoting a ceasefire, but the question remains: with whom, and which efforts? For it has to be said that at some level the UN lost its international credibility when it joined the Quartet. While it is certain that united international pressure is needed to achieve a ceasefire, a ceasefire in and of itself cannot win the peace. At this precise moment, too, it seems unlikely that either Israel or Hamas can themselves initiate a process. The West is perceived as biased. The Arab leadership is seen as divided and, in some instances—where it seeks to contain the madness—as guilty of complicity. And, of course, the Palestinians are regarded as weak because they have been divided amongst themselves by the outside world.

Given these dire circumstances, one question should be seriously considered: could a temporary international stabilisation agency take over formal legal jurisdiction in both the Occupied Territories and the disputed areas of Israel?

Such an agency would assume a temporary caretaking role, and would establish and oversee the development of provisional democratic self-governing institutions: institutions potentially able to ensure the conditions for a peaceful and normal life for all inhabitants of Israel and Palestine. It would also meet simultaneously the demand for an end to occupation while minimising fears of being seen to concede on political positions. The Israelis, given their previous record, are unlikely to welcome such an agency; but its primary responsibility would be to undertake effective peace enforcement, inclusive of decisive action against any act of terror or violence. As such, the agency would be an even-handed, international mediating force which could protect Arabs from Israelis, Arabs from Arabs, Israelis from Arabs, and Israelis from Israelis.

Gaza has been effectively destroyed. In the Gaza Strip therefore the agency would instigate and supervise the restoration of basic services, the rebuilding of national institutions, and the training of the now-decimated police force. Throughout the Territories it would also assist in rehabilitating refugees, attracting and managing development funds and projects, monitoring any future elections, and facilitating final status negotiations with the Israelis. Additionally, it should be empowered to assist the Palestinians in the promotion of national unity, the development of a coordinated national strategy, and the empowerment of the Palestinian people. This will naturally require the reconstitution of the PLO, with regional support, through forthcoming elections including representatives of all parties, of current prisoners and of Palestinian refugees, so that it becomes truly representative of the Palestinian people.

One-off summits are insufficient. They are simply events and cannot breathe new life into a moribund process. Under the circumstances and in the light of past experience, it is clear that a new framework is needed to consider the long-term security needs of all parties to the conflict. There needs to be a safety net to ensure that no one party can jeopardise continued conversation, and to achieve a negotiated settlement through a process of regional dialogue and cooperation on regional economic and security issues.

Such an initiative would require a carefully chosen Track II team of regional representatives, inclusive of civil society, academics, facilitators and others—partners with the widest experience of the region who are able to adopt a nuanced approach to the various issues. Their task would be twofold—to mediate, negotiate and facilitate with the necessary sensitivity (especially as regards issues such as refugees and the real and symbolic importance of holy sites) and to advance cooperation on trans-regional issues such as water, energy, the environment, arms control, economic development and refugees. The team would meet on a regular basis in both public and private sessions and would also have the responsibility of ensuring that all the communities involved are kept well-informed of any suggestions or proposals.

There is no need to reinvent the wheel; rather the team could build on the positive aspects of Madrid (1991) and of all the plethora of initiatives since. For example, it could draw on the positive experiences resulting from the Jordanian-Israeli Peace Treaty which opened the door to numerous joint Jordanian-Palestinian industrial, commercial and financial ventures which have had a positive impact on the Jordanian labour market for both men and women, inclusive of Palestinian workers living in Jordan. Likewise, the negotiations could reference the ongoing Jordanian-Palestinian-Israeli research projects in the fields of agriculture, water, energy and the environment—issues of common concern in a shared geographical space.

Our mutual contiguity demands a final definition of frontiers, while a long-term sustainable peace depends on a recognition of interdependent sovereignties across the entire region.