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UNITED NATIONS INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE IN SUPPORT OF ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN PEACE HOLDS A PLENARY DISCUSSION
Peace is possible – frameworks for a way forward - United Nations Office at Geneva, 29 and 30 June 2016
29 June 2016
(Issued as received)- The United Nations International Conference in Support of Israeli-Palestinian Peace held its second meeting in the afternoon on 29 June, focusing on learnings from Madrid to the present.
MOHAMMAD SHTAYYEH, President of the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction, and Senior advisor to President Mahmoud Abbas (Ramallah), offered a Palestinian perspective on the peace process. MICHAEL MOLLOY, Former Ambassador of Canada, Founding member of the Refugee Working Group, Former Coordinator of the Middle East Peace Process at the Department of Foreign Affairs (Ottawa) described the multi-lateral process kicked off by the Madrid Conference, and which had played out over a number of years. GADI BALTIANSKY, Director-General of the Geneva Initiative (Tel Aviv), offered a perspective on the two-state paradigm.
The participants agreed that while there had been many successes associated with the aftermath of the Oslo process, as embodied in the Oslo Accords, overall the initiative had failed. There had been a number of takeaways that they had observed as participants in the process.
On the positive side, the Oslo Accords had resulted in the mutual recognition between the PLO and the State of Israel in its pre-1967 borders. They had also introduced the concept of a two-state solution, where the Palestinians would have gained the right to a fully independent and sovereign state of their own, in the pre-1967 territory.
However, the interim accord had been vague, without a clear definition, goals, and a timetable.
It was the process that interested the participants. First, the Madrid Conference had taken place under unique circumstances. With the collapse of the USSR, the United States had emerged as the sole superpower of the time. From its strategic position in the Middle East, in the aftermath of the Kuwait war, it had been able to use both carrot and stick to get the participants to negotiate with each other. To secure Israel’s participation, the then US Secretary of State James Baker had threatened to refuse to guarantee USD 10 billion in loans.
There had also been a number of unusual techniques employed to get the negotiating partners to interact. Beyond the bilateral negotiations between Israel and representatives of the Palestinians, a multi-lateral track had been opened with a large number of participants. This had stimulated a broad range of contacts, creating personal and professional relationships, some of which had endured the shutdown of the process due to political issues, i.e. the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the beginning of the Second Intifada.
The breakdown of the process had led to a long period of inaction and delay, rendering the prospect of a two-state solution increasingly uncertain. Many of the participants believed that Israel was largely to blame: it continued to increase settlements in the occupied territories, maintaining a harsh regime of military domination. In addition, the Government of Benjamin Netanyahu appeared uninterested in pursuing the two-state solution.
At present, the political configuration had changed once again. With the US part of a more multi-polar world, the next phase of the peace process might by necessity be more multi-lateral. The key, participants argued, would be to seek win-win solutions rather zero-sum ones that represented losses for one party.
The Conference will resume its work on 30 June in the morning.
The first plenary segment of the conference featured presentations by MOHAMMAD SHTAYYEH, President of the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction, and Senior advisor to President Mahmoud Abbas (Ramallah); MICHAEL MOLLOY, Former Ambassador of Canada, Founding member of the Refugee Working Group, Former Coordinator of the Middle East Peace Process at the Department of Foreign Affairs (Ottawa); and GADI BALTIANSKY, Director-General of the Geneva Initiative (Tel Aviv).
Mr. Shtayyeh offered a Palestinian perspective on the peace process. He said that on hearing the statements made by Government delegations, he felt hope. The Palestinian cause seemed alive in the minds of people. Nonetheless, he noted that there were depressing realities that worked against hope. On the ground, things could be very unpleasant. For example, a 14-year old had been killed the previous day as he had been stepping out of a swimming pool, a daily occurrence. Then, there were land confiscations, incursions in mosques, an unemployment rate of 28 per cent, and of course, the long political impasse after the Kerry talks. Though neither side was engaged in negotiation at the moment, the French Initiative, the Quartet report, and the Egyptian effort all represented attempts to move ahead.
When he had gone to Madrid in October 1991, his hair had been black, he said. “Now, it is white and I am no longer young,” he said. Kuwait had just been liberated and the war in Iraq had concluded.
The agreement that had come from the Madrid Conference had several components. PLO had recognized Israel in its pre-1967 borders. Another outcome had been the creation of the Palestinian Interim Government Authority (PIGA). This had been essentially accomplished by an exchange of letters. As such, the idea of a negotiation for a two-state solution had been born. Mr. Shtayyeh had been hopeful that the “Interim” term could be replaced by “Independent”. Unfortunately, subsequent phases had gone nowhere; they had been just interim agreements, offering little idea of what the final outcome and timetable would be. In theory, he recalled, by May 1999 the Palestinian State should have moved to independence and sovereignty.
In reality, he argued, he could discern three directions. In economic terms, he believed that the economic exchange was slanted heavily in favor of Israel. “It only goes in one direction,” he explained. The trade figures told the whole story: USD 6 billion of goods were imported from Israel, while only USD 800 million of Palestinian goods flowed in the opposite direction.
Politically, the process was completely stalled. Benjamin Netanyahu, in his view, did not wish to negotiate to achieve the two-state solution. For example, the Palestinian Authority had been supposed to gain full control of Area A of the West Bank, but since 2002 Israel regularly had made incursions into that territory – the agreement had not been respected. He believed that Benjamin Netanyahu was working to destroy the remnants of the agreement, pushing Palestinians out from Jerusalem to reduce their presence to 19 per cent of the population of the city. In the Jordan valley, which represented about 28 per cent of the West Bank, with the most fertile land, he believed that the Israeli position boiled down to “give it to us or we will take it.” Area C, about 62 per cent of the land in the West Bank, was considered by Israel as the land to be used for the expansion of settlements. Gaza was under siege.
The security situation was volatile to say the least. Given the atmosphere of fear, he explained that to go to Jerusalem, he now needed to obtain a permit from the military authorities – it took him, as a VIP, a full two months to get it, but for ordinary people it would take much longer.
Mr. Shtayyeh reached a number of conclusions. First, Madrid had been possible because James Baker had been open to communication and had had a strong will to get something done. He had been unafraid to threaten Israel with refusing USD 10 billion in loan guarantees if settlements continued, and he had done everything in accordance with international law. Secondly, Oslo had benefitted from the will of Yitzhak Rabin, who had been credible to Israelis as a former military man. Unfortunately, the current leaders either lacked credibility even if they were willing to make peace (Ehud Olmert) or vice versa (Benjamin Netanyahu). Thirdly, the interim agreement had not been comprehensive and had lacked realizable deadlines. Fourth, Israel currently wanted the status quo. At Camp David with US President Bill Clinton, Ehud Barak had not been ready for peace, so he had made no peace offer. Fifth, there had been the Kerry initiative: though John Kerry had had 48 rounds of meetings, he could not get Benjamin Netanyahu to sign on.
What should be done, Mr. Shtayyeh asked? In his view, the bilateral paradigm was no longer possible. That was why the French Initiative was so important: if a multi-lateral effort seemed to have worked in the case of Libya and Iran, why not in Palestine, he asked. Moreover, the international community had been putting the peace process in a bind: it offered aid money if the peace track was perceived to advance, but refused when it didn’t – with no funding, the prospects for the peace process shrank even further. In addition, pressure should be put on Israel in the form of sanctions. “You have to make Israel pay a price for its behavior,” he explained. Finally, negotiations needed clear terms of reference that were agreed upon, so that everyone would read from same book: for the Palestinians, such terms of reference emanated from international law and UN resolutions, while at times it seemed that for Israel they came from the Old Testament. Confidence-building measures would help. The process needed an honest broker, he said, but not one in a strategic alliance with one of the partners. “The issue is about occupation,” he said, “it is the last one in the world.”
Israel needed to take into account the demographic realities, he concluded. Both Israeli and Palestinian populations were roughly 6.8 million in the territory from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, but the Arab birth rate (at 3.8 per cent annual growth) was much greater than Israel’s, at 2.8 per cent. “Netanyahu must negotiate peace,” he said, “not make more settlements. He must choose two States, or you will see a de jure apartheid state of the country. It is already a de facto apartheid state.”
Mr. Molloy recalled that the Madrid Conference had kicked off a multi-lateral process that had played out over a number of years. Secretary of State Baker and his team had set up five multi-lateral working groups that had been supposed to support the bilateral negotiations on regional economic development, environment, water, arms control, and refugees. Each of the working groups had received a mandate.
Mr. Baker had put Canada in charge of the refugee working group. Moscow and Washington had taken responsibility for the arms control group. The refugee working group had been supposed to improve living conditions, reunify families, etc. Mr. Molloy suspected that the US had had a deeper motive for involving so many people in the process than for them to act as mere counterweights to the bilateral process. Mr. Molloy believed that Mr. Baker had wanted to break barriers that had prevented Arabs and especially Palestinians from talking to Israelis. Opening lines of communications, in this view, could have been more important than results.
There had been a number of positive aspects. For example, there had been many transfers of knowledge, as in the case of the European-American-Russian confidence-building measures. The arms control group had had 20 meetings and workshops, but it had ground to a halt over the Egyptian perception that Israel had to officially declare the existence of its nuclear arsenal as a precondition for peace while Israel had argued it had to be the other way round – peace would be negotiated, then it would be time to deal with its nuclear arsenal. With globalization gaining ground, the economic group had been more successful – this had addressed finance, trade, agriculture, tourism, and trade fairs. Even though the presence of Israel had made Arab business people nervous, they had made many contacts.
In practical terms, participants had often seen benefits in working together. There had been an agreement on water management. On the environment, training on coping with spills had come in handy when one had actually occurred. Unfortunately, the topic of refugees had proved rather problematic. While the Palestinians had preferred to address the right of return, the Israelis had wanted to address practical issues such as improving conditions in the camps.
In the end, Mr. Molloy concluded, the process had failed to attain any of its bigger goals. Instead, the results had been improvements in softer areas, such as getting foreign leaders to visit refugee camps. Unfortunately, after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the beginning of the Second Intifada , everything had been more or less shut down, though his initiative on refugees had continued for ten more years. “It served a multi-lateral purpose, transferred some knowledge, but did not get one inch closer to resolution of the biggest problems.”
Mr. Baltiansky offered a perspective on the two-state paradigm; he began with an analysis of the agreement reestablishing formal diplomatic relations that Israel and Turkey had signed recently. “What you can learn from this,” he said, “is that reality is stronger than words. Eventually, national interests are stronger than slogans. When leaders make decisions, they are stronger than public opinion; and red lines appear not to be real ones.” For example, though Turkey had said nothing would be accomplished if Israel didn’t lift the blockade on Gaza, they had signed the agreement in the end.
There were other favorable multi-lateral examples. The Quartet report would be released soon. This could lead to a new action plan regarding controversial statements. In addition, the Geneva initiative had described the end game in detail. “Maybe the road shouldn’t be that long,” he explained. “Israel and the Palestinians created detailed models [for a] zone of possible agreement.”
Madrid had begun with a hawkish Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir. It had been a good step to launch a peace process. Oslo had been seen as a historic breakthrough. Now it was time to expand. The French Initiative could perhaps continue what had been accomplished. The Egyptian Initiative could play a positive role. Unfortunately, though Oslo had been said to be irreversible, this may not have been true.
“We need to know the terms of reference of the final goals”, he concluded. Perhaps the Security Council should come up with a new resolution - 242 was almost 50 years old. Nonetheless, the majority of both peoples supported the two-State solution, but didn’t believe it could happen. “The national interest is in the two-State solution, not one State. We need to get people to hope and believe in it again.” The involvement of the international community could prove crucial for this. It could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Prof. YAIR HIRSCHFELD, who emphasized he was the only participant who had been in the Oslo talks, said that while he agreed with much that Mr. Shtayyeh had said – the two-State solution was essential and the Palestinians should get more control over area C – he saw inconsistencies as well: 1) Mr. Shtayyeh wanted to impose sanctions yet build confidence or negotiate; 2) There were more than 600,000 settlers in Palestinian territory. Was it realistic to uproot them? What should be done with them? Could they become part of the Palestinian State?
He had several observations to offer. Oslo had succeeded because 15 years of failure had preceded it, so there had been a pretty good idea of what would work. It was also unrealistic to expect sanctions with the US elections and Europe preoccupied with internal problems such as Brexit. Any negotiation should acknowledge the needs of both sides, but that was not happening today. No one could win or impose inflexible conditions. Finally, civil society could contribute to hope.
Mr. Shtayyeh accused Prof. Hirschfeld of falsifying reality and figures.
NABEEL SHAATH, Representative of the State of Palestine and Member of the Fatah Central Committee, brought up some issues he felt had been neglected. The balance of power was changing, he said. In 1991, there had been new opportunities: the USSR had collapsed and the US, as the sole superpower, had succeeded in the Gulf War and had implanted military power in the region. This power was what had enabled James Baker to jumpstart Madrid – the threat of losing USD 10 billion loan guarantees had pushed Israel to join the negotiations. Once Yitzhak Rabin had replaced Yitzhak Shamir, minds had become more open to the possibility of change.
With the US now operating in a multi-polar world, there were new possibilities. Perhaps it would be possible to re-build an Israeli peace camp. However, Likud didn’t want a two-state solution.
Egypt also wished to mention certain issues it felt were ignored. Though the process had stopped in 1996 when Mr. Netanyahu had come to power, once he had re-entered power it had been clear he hadn’t learned anything. There was also the rise of non-State actors that were different from those encountered before. “We are no longer dealing with just the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, but new forces are rising. They are extremely violent and against peace. We must grab peace before it gets worse.”
Mr. Baltiansky made the final remarks. It was easy to play the blame game, he said. Was it helpful now to complain? “We mustn’t take the easy path, but take the more difficult one that would lead to real results. It can only be win-win. The way things are now, both suffer. Occupation is a tragedy for Palestinians and Israelis as well. We shouldn’t just make the other side lose.”
For use of the information media; not an official record