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The Maastricht Diplomat

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The Endless Quest for Palestinian-Israeli Peace: A Lecture’s Analysis

The longest, bloodiest and most complex War that has ever been fought in the world’s history. A War in which a myriad of factors intersect and overlap with each other, ranging from socio-economic ones to geopolitics. The War between Palestinians and Israeli is ongoing and is nowhere close to an end. Rather, it’s reaching its highest peak of intensity and brutality. Robert Serry, currently a Professor at the UN-mandated University of Peace in Costa Rica and committed to the Peace Centre at the Hague, masters the art of creating peace, but despite his degree of expertise, over the years, and decades, has not managed to reach an agreement between the two conflicting parties. In a dispute, no one is 100% right or wrong and the responsibilities are shared, more or less equally, between the two disputants. Quote me on this one. Serry has worked in the UN Special Coordination, based in Jerusalem, for the Middle East peace-building process. The former UN Special Envoy sent to Palestine and Israel has also been the first Dutch Ambassador sent to Crimea to solve the War between Russia and Ukraine which broke out in 2014. From the very beginning, Serry shows how patient, conciliatory and balanced a diplomat has to be to tackle from an unbiased the longest unsolved conflict in UN history, with no light shining at the end of the tunnel.

The likely future scenario does not bode well. After Trump’s controversial decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, the tempers flared again in the holiest and most religious city in the world. Moreover, the American Headquarter will be located in the so-called “No Man’s Land”, a territory which belongs to neither Israel nor Palestine. Another act of violent oppression has been perpetrated in the open air by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), which, as it has been reported, killed 2 Palestinians, one of whom was a journalist named Yaser Murtaja, and wounded hundreds during the protests in the Gaza strip. On the 19th of April, Israel’s Independence Day, the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) wants to bring 1 million Palestinians on the streets. The risk of another intifada, Palestinian violent uprisings which would be the 3rd in the last 21 years, is more present than ever. But how did we reach this sky-rocket level of socio-economic, political and religious tensions? As Serry teaches us, “Historia magistra vitae est”. One could erroneously think that the creation of the Israeli state was a mere consequence of the WWII’s Holocaust and its atrocities, representing almost a compensation for the tragedies suffered by the Jews. However, the story is different. The Zionist movement spread and became predominant in many American and European political and cultural centres straddling the 19th and the 20th centuries. His founder, the Austro-Hungarian writer and journalist Theodor Herzl, envisioned in his book, Der Judenstaat (1986), the establishment of a Jewish state in the “Land of Israel”. During the First World War, which reshaped the political map of the entire world, Great Britain played the double agent to preserve its hegemony in the Middle East. While on the one hand, the Brits were guaranteeing the Muslim populations that they would create a pan-Arab state to replace the Ottoman Empire, they promised the Zionists to give the Jewish a land where they wanted it. In fact, in 1917 (in)famous Balfour Declaration, addressed to Lord Rothschild by the UK Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour, the British government took the commitment of securing a land in the then Palestine for the Jewish people. Arab people, however, are not mentioned, but simply referred to as “non-Jewish communities”. Palestine indeed became a British protectorate under the supervision of the League of Nations, giving the colonial power free field to move. The creation of the Israeli state, however, seemed still premature, which brings to the post-Second World War period. The peculiarity of the Jewish state is that it’s the only one in the world which came to be because of a UN Resolution. On the 29th of November 1947, with the UN Resolution 181, the Israeli state was founded and the two-state solution was advanced, with Jerusalem governed by an international regime. All of the Arab states, however, were against this Resolution. Given the fact that this state was essentially created from above by the UN, was it a legitimate one back then, when all of Israel’s neighbours that were also UN members opposed this measure?

That date was the point of no return. History proved irreversible. The 1st Arab-Israeli War was fought in May 1948, with the UN still being a pro-active mediator between the conflicting parties. As a result of that war agreement that was reached, 54% of the former Palestinian territory went to Israel, whereas the rest 46% to the Arabs. It’s interesting that the word “Palestinians” will not make its appearance on the scene until the 6-Day War, in 1967. The outcome of this war of international scale was that Israel was able to conquer the Golan Heights (Syria) and annexe to its territory the Sinai Desert, which belonged to Egypt. In that period, The UN was paralyzed by the Cold War power and geopolitical dynamics and proved an ineffective mediator once again. In the UN Security Council’s Resolution 242, the world superpowers called Israel the “Land for Peace” and invoked the “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict”. As the Professor points out, the missing specification of which territories left a lot of room for manipulation, compromise and border changes. We are, after all, talking about lands, and the contended ones need to be named. The UN lacked an enlightened vision, as the Arab-Israeli clash was seen as a conflict between states and not, and foremost, between people of different religions and cultures. But still, not only the people but even the Arab states were ignored. As for 1948, when the tragic al-Nakba, the exodus of the Palestinian people, occurred, in the League of Arab States there were 3 clear NOs: “No peace, no recognition and no negotiation with Israel”. The Palestinian and the Jewish were never able to reach because the former were never presented with not even acceptable pre-set conditions. This stalemate, moreover, clearly represents an advantage for Israel, as it benefits from the status quo.

In the Camp David Accords (1978), signed by Egypt and Israel with the US President Jimmy Carter witnessing. The first framework of the agreement was condemned by the UN, since it did not involve the Palestinians, who, once again, were excluded from the negotiating tables. The failure of this peace treaty was displayed by the eruption of the 2nd intifada. Whereas during the Cold War the UN was effectively in the hands of two states, in the 1990s the United States became the arbiter of world affairs by claiming to promote a liberal order. In the Madrid Peace Conference (1991) and Oslo Accords (1993) the US dominance was more evident than ever. Palestinians were more than willing to negotiate, but they were not independent, as their delegation was joint with that of Jordan. In Oslo, however, the Hames-led PLO decided to renounce violence, recognised Israel and advocated for a bottom-up peace process. A long-term vision was still lacking, on both sides. The Palestinian Delegation revealed to Serry that the peace agreement possessed inherent internal flaws, which would not solve the situation. There were indeed no restrictions on existing and future settlements, growing in numbers from year to year. The US, despite being considered the only trustworthy partner for peace, was not a super-partisan actor and clearly sided with Israel by limiting the Palestinian’s range of actions. The sequence of events thereafter did not leave any hope for a brighter future. In the 2006 Palestinians elections, Hamas, who justifies the use of violence to restore social justice, won. Asa result, intra-tensions arose between the PLO, the nationalist Palestinians controlling West Bank, and President Abbas controlling the Gaza strip. Moreover, the years 2008-2009 saw the outburst of the 1st Gaza War under the Bush administration, followed by the 2nd (2012) and the 3rd (2014) during Obama’s presidency. The “Quartet principle”, which aimed to ‘project the unity of purposes and actions’ and to streamline the peace process, led by the US, the UN, the EU and Russia, utterly failed. The 2-State solution, envisioned by the UN in 1947, seems further away than ever. The current state of things in Gaza particularly concerns the Professor. Gaza counts 2 million inhabitants, but the living conditions are unbearable. He reports that on a daily basis, more than 100000 CM of water is wasted there. President Abbas claims no responsibility for Gaza and stopped paying salaries. The water quality is only 90%, the unemployment rate is up to 50% and food security only amounts to 57%. Gaza, as of now, has no future. Moreover, the Jewish population is roughly as numerous as the Arab one, which further complicates the prospect of a 2-state solution, with the UN holding no de facto power. As the former UN Envoy denounces, the UN Security Council’s impact is restrained by the veto power of its permanent members. The doctrine of international intervention, to be triggered in case of human rights’ violations and other universally recognised crimes, has to be approved by the US, Russia, China, the UK and France. Due to the conflicting geopolitical interests of these five superpowers, however, this institutional structure does not hold the global stage for wars of these proportions. This inability to implement shared foreign policies often led states to act unilaterally, or within the NATO framework, as it occurred during the Kosovo War in 1999 and in Lybia in 2011. Moreover, the UN Resolutions, agreed upon in the General Assembly, are recommendations, i.e. they are not binding on the UN members, as the principle of national sovereignty is supreme. This represents an enormous problem. It somehow reminds me of Syria, the chemical weapons used by the Assad regime to kill civilians, and Russia’s vetoing a UN intervention in the war. Indeed, a few days ago the US, France and the UK decided to ‘punish’ Syria with air strikes outside of any UN operational framework. But this another story.

Which then brings us to today, and the suggested solution advanced by Serry: the 1-State reality, with two different systems. This necessity emerges due to endless occupation (settlements are nowadays more than 600.000), unrecognised borders, religious tensions and the lack of a viable bi-state alternative. The more the conflict becomes religious, however, the less it can be solved. The main driver is the Palestinian quest for independence, which has to be carried out in an institutional way and not under Hamas’ leadership. For this plan of actions to succeed, however, Jerusalem has to be the shared capital of two states. West Jerusalem would be part of Israel, and East Jerusalem would belong to Palestine. As the 2-state solution is vanishing, however, he advocates that Jerusalem returns to be controlled by an international government. After having lived in the Holy city for seven years, he observes that “you can perceive the imaginary and real lines that divide up the city”. This is the situation, as of today. It’s almost impossible in this dramatic and ever-lasting war not to take a side. President Serry’s sympathy towards the Palestinians is undeniable, and I find myself agreeing with his analysis. However, we shall all keep in mind that both sides have tremendous responsibilities because wars have no rules and are always awful. The use of violence should be never justified and always condemned. However, the Israeli military is the 16th mightiest in the entire world and the military levy is still enforced, with two mandatory years of service for both men and women. In a war, when religion, culture, history and politics get mixed up, it’s extremely difficult to separate one aspect from the other and solve it individually. To that, it adds up the eternal dispute over lands. Here, it’s often the case that the stronger prevails. Until the international community will be a pro-active rather than reactive and passive player, wars such as the Arab-Israeli one will continue and probably escalate even further. The principles and values of peace-buiding, socio-economic equality, political freedom, social justice, liberation from oppression, right to human dignity are there to guide our actions. We (simply) have to follow them.


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