international analysis and commentary

Stalemate in the Middle East peace process: in search of a way out

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The US-brokered peace talks are close to collapse: Palestinians and Israelis are considering what will happen “the day after”. The latter is the title of a report released a few weeks ago by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. It predicts that a dissolution of the Palestinian Authority (PA) would throw the economy of the West Bank into turmoil and argues that many Palestinians are increasingly “questioning the wisdom of continued security coordination with Israel, and indeed the existence of the PA, in the absence of progress in the peace process”. In Israel, on the other hand, a senior diplomatic-security forum took place on March 24th in order to present what Israeli columnist Mazal Mualem defined as potential scenarios “of the seemingly inevitable breakdown of the talks with the Palestinians”.

Two ultimate options are often mentioned by diplomats and international media to save the “peace process”: a temporary freezing in settlement construction on the footsteps of the one agreed in 2010 and the releasing of more Palestinian prisoners. The latter option has limited practical value: liberation of the last 26 prisoners remaining in Israeli jails (out of the 104 that the PA and the Israeli authorities agreed to free), many of them convicted for crimes against civilians, would not ameliorate the conditions of the Palestinian people and would further encourage Israel to consider inmates as a political tool. As for the temporary settlement freezing, it has a poor record: the 10 month freezing implemented by Israel in 2010 did not include East Jerusalem and the freezing of public constructions, such as schools and synagogues. It applied only to new constructions, meaning that the ones already underway continued, with the result that in the weeks preceding the moratorium a boom of new buildings was registered. Moreover, in the weeks following September 26, 2010, the day in which the moratorium ended, 1,650 new houses were built, a little less than the total amount built in all of 2009.

In reality, “settlement freezing” – and even the freeing of a few additional prisoners – should be viewed as tools to gain time in order to avoid making hard diplomatic and political decisions. In the long term, both Palestinians and Israelis will likely suffer a backlash for this lack of vision. The way out to overcome the current stalemate, instead, goes through the marginalization of extremist groups and the dismantling of what is de facto a land annexation process – thousands of new settler housing units have been announced over the course of the current talks – that especially in the last few years used the “peace process” as a façade. Such an approach requires more effective forms of international pressure in favor of a solution based on the international consensus.

In the recent past, however, the role of international consensus has been increasingly questioned by several authors. On the Israel National News, for instance, Tom Wilson pointed out that Europeans never expressed any outrage “at Israel’s initial presence beyond the original 1947 UN partition plan. Who ever heard of the occupation of Ramle or Akko [both part of present-day Israel and both supposed to be part of the Arab State suggested by the UNGA]? So what is it about Jerusalem and the ‘West Bank’ that has so excited the Europeans?”

The Palestinian village of Umm Rashrash, present-day Eilat, provides the best possible answer to these questions. Umm Rashrash/Eilat was taken by the Negev and Golani Brigades on March 10, 1949, eight months after the adoption of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 54, which called for a ceasefire while also forbidding any acquisition of territory from that date. Resolution 54 clarified that a threat to international peace existed in the context of Article 39 of the UN Charter, reiterated the need for a truce, and ordered a cease-fire pursuant to Article 40 of the Charter (until 1968 UNSC resolutions never expressly invoked Chapter VII of the UN Charter). At the same time, according to the UNGA’s 181 resolution, Eilat was supposed to be part of the State of Israel, thus the main justification for the conquest of Umm Rashrash/Eilat is based on the UN partition plan – the same plan which, however, did not envisage Ramle, Lydda, Ashkelon, Akka and many other cities to be part of the “Jewish State”. Nonetheless, today’s international consensus does consider all these cities from Akko over Ramle to Eilat to be part of Israel.

The same international consensus also considers settlements and the occupation of the Palestinian territories as illegal. This is even more relevant when considering that Israel’s admission to the United Nations (May 11, 1949) was not unconditional but bound to the full acceptance of the UN Charter and Resolutions (Israel’s original application for admission was, not by chance, rejected by the UNSC): “Negotiations”, assured Abba Eban (1915-2202) in front of the UNGA on May 5, 1949, “would not, however, affect the juridical status of Jerusalem, to be defined by international consent”.

In recent years, two major political actors have been working to foster – or resuscitate – this wide international consensus: the US and the EU. The discourse in the US largely ignores the Palestinian debate and local realities. The position of the Obama administration is that the two parties involved are equal and must start (or restart, or continue) direct negotiations “without preconditions”. This was also the reason given by the US in February 2011 to justify its veto against a UNSC Resolution that held the settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to be “illegal”. The other fourteen members of the Security Council voted in favor of that resolution.

From a symbolic point of view, the US veto had serious consequences. The message that it sent out is that the settlements issue and the exploitation of the natural resources (water, stone, gravel) in the Palestinian territories are subject to negotiation. Washington’s stance was also further problematic because both Israel and the US administration continue to require various pre-conditions from the Palestinians; from recognizing the State of Israel to the rejection of any declaratory or concrete support for armed struggle – and these are the reasons why Hamas has been excluded from the political process.

The EU, on the other hand, is applying a more consistent and nuanced approach. While maintaining a special relationship with Israel (the only non-European country currently invited to participate in Horizon 2020, the EU’s program for research and innovation) and distancing itself from extremist groups, Brussels is increasingly determined to act consistently with the international consensus, humanitarian law, as well as with its own internal policies. The EU Guidelines barring loans to Israeli entities established or operating in the Palestinian Territories will not bring full-fledged peace but represent one symbolic step in that direction. The continent (Europe) that created most of the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy is now required to take a more active role for a lasting solution.