By Stephanie Fenkart
The following remarks are based on a trip to Israel and Palestine from 15th to the 22nd of February 2019. A small civil society delegation from Austria consisting of the president, Hannes Swoboda, and director, Stephanie Fenkart, of the International Institute for Peace (IIP) in Vienna, the director of the Austrian Study Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution in Schlaining, Austria, Gudrun Kramer and Wilfried Graf, director of the Kehlman Institute for International Conflict Resolution, met various experts, politicians and civil society representatives in Israel and Palestine. This was organized in order to get a picture of current new developments around the million dollar question: How to re-initiate a peace process?
The sole responsibility of this commentary lies upon the author, Stephanie Fenkart.
Peace Wanted Alive: The Israeli – Palestinian Dilemma
The so-called Israeli-Palestinian conflict accompanies international relations since 1948 when Israel was founded after the WW II. Until now, 2019, more than 70 years later the effects of the conflict have widespread influence on the local, regional and international level.
The most important topics for a resolution of the long-lasting conflict concern the border issues between Israel and Palestine, the status of Jerusalem, the refugee issue and security dimension. Israel will face elections on 9th of April 2019 and elections in Palestine are already more than due. Last elections in Palestine took place in 2006 – 13 years ago. But seems to be more than doubtful that they will take place soon due to manifold internal, regional and external reasons.
( meeting with the labor party in the Knesset)
Many experts claim that the topics in question, taking into account the reduction due to the complexity of the conflict, could be solved, if the parties would be willing to do so. The real barriers are not the technical solutions concerning borders, religious sites, security and refugees, but psychological barriers which, in essence, show that identity is more important than ratio. Core beliefs are stronger than arguments. This is true for politicians on both sides, but it also reflects the constituencies of the people living either in Israel or in the Palestinian areas.
A solution for one of the core issues, borders, could be a land swap. The Israeli settlements, which mostly reside close to the green line (the 1967 border), would be swapped with Israeli land, which would become then part of Palestine. The settlers, who are far away from the border, would have to be compensated by the Israeli state and ultimately evacuated. What is essential, is to find creative ways to sell this to the citizens concerned. This has shown until now to be the most difficult part.
The Jerusalem issue could be a back to back solution with physical but porous borders between West- and East-Jerusalem and which includes real estate issues. The questions concerning the old city could be tackled by a special regime model concerning the holy sites. An international body could be supportive and could add to security concerns.
When it comes to security, it is worth noting that it is almost exclusively dealt with from an Israeli perspective. While security threats today mostly consist of possible terrorist-attacks and air strikes from the Palestinian side, it is quite ignored that the Israeli settlements in the Westbank do have a security cost as well. It is likely that the Palestinians will accept these security concerns and could become part of the solution.
(above: Entering Nablus, Area A in the West Bank; below: Checkpoint from Bethlehem to Jerusalem)
The refugee issue is probably the hardest one, practically but also symbolically. Questions around responsibility, refugee rights (especially the right of return for the est. 700 000 Palestinians and their families who fled in 1948), the permanent place of residence or citizenship and compensation are the most crucial ones and strongly depend on identity as well as on personal and communal feelings. A big national, public campaign could be part of the solution of this very complex and broadly – especially amongst the Israeli youth – neglected problem. The devastating situation of the refugees in the camps in Lebanon and in Syria touches the very humanity of every single person and it seems that the disregard or the brushing aside of these aspects are crucial to keeping up Israeli identity, which in itself, is deeply rooted in displacement, expulsion, genocide and non-enjoyment of basic human rights resulting from the extraordinary cruel treatment of the Jewish people throughout history. A solution for the refugee problem also lies in the interest of Israel, as many see the refugee camps as ticking bombs. Because the refugees within the camps in the Westbank or Gaza lack basic human rights, future prospects, economic or social security uprisings like the first and second Intifada seem more likely there. Interesting enough, considering the long-durée of this constant deprived situation for the Palestinians since 1948, the big majority of them acted relatively peaceful towards their occupiers. The hope to return to their homeland is still vivid in many, but a tendency towards a two-state solution can clearly be noted within the Palestinian population. Very unfortunately, the Israeli government clearly favors the status-quo. With nine million Israelis, of whom two million are Israeli-Arabs, Israel also controls the close to five million Palestinians under their control in Gaza, the Westbank and East Jerusalem. From this point of view, a one-state solution seems impossible, and a two-state shared homeland vision is unfavorable from an Israeli point of view. A stable instability with relative peace is what Israel prefers, especially since the Hamas took control in Gaza and is steadily threatening Israel. Just on February 13th, the launch of two missiles towards Tel Aviv from Gaza has been reported and peace seems ever far away.
(the 759 km separation wall in Bethlehem considered by Israel as a security barrier against terrorism, while Palestinians call it a racial segregation or apartheid wall; most of the wall lies within Palestinian territory).
What is striking though, is that the wording within Israel has changed. There is not much talk about peace, as it is, after so many years, widely perceived as illusionary. Notions which are heard are rather about conflict management or conflict transformation instead of conflict resolution or even peace for Israel and Palestine. It becomes more difficult to talk about the legitimacy of different narratives, between victim and victimizer. It is either this or that. The long history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resulted in distrust and disrespect between the parties involved. Even though cooperation is desperately needed. It is difficult to talk about disagreements and not to fall into the trap of naming, blaming and shaming the other party. Intergroup, intragroup and inner dialogue initiatives which should operate in a safe space could be one element of opening up parts of the societies. With a step to step approach, the collective trauma, which has been experienced by Israelis and by Palestinians, could be one of the common grounds for a common understanding. However, this topic is very sensitive and should be tackled with high diligence and respect for the experiences, feelings and emotions of the respective counterparts. Self-reflection and – criticism is always a big challenge for every human being without the injustices which have been an integral part of the history of the Jews and the Palestinians. Taking into account the structural and psychological elements of the conflict is crucial to open up safe spaces where a dialogue could ultimately happen and where different opinions can exist next to each other. Trying to understand the other is the basis for a possible compromise. However, this would also mean that the stronger side, would have to give up some of its privileges. A circumstance which is very unlikely in the current situation and which also has a big regional component.
(the temple mount or al-Haram al-Sharif which is subject to one of the biggest religious conflicts between Jews and Palestinians)
Israel within the region
Elections are going to take place on April 9th in Israel, but it is doubtful that it will bring a major transformation. As the parties within Israel are getting more fragmented, many of them will try to form alliances. Benny Gantz, a former chief of general staff, leader of the newly formed party Israel Resilience and biggest challenger of Benjamin “Bibi” Netanjahu, just declared his alliance with Yair Lapid - in exchange for a rotating prime minister - should they be able to form a government. With the labour party far away from the expectations and the ever week Meretz, the center-left is quite abandoned, and it is likely that a right-wing government in Israel will continue to rule the country for the next legislative period. Depending of course on the performance of Benny Gantz and his alliances. When it comes to a possible solution with Palestine, it is clear for Israel, that the status quo is the most favorable. A one-state or two-state solution is conceived as a high-security risk by the government, a price which Israel doesn`t seem willing to pay.
The Warsaw summit on “Peace and security in the Middle East” which took place on the 13th and 14th of February 2019, jointly hosted by the US and Poland, was widely perceived as a way to press the EU towards a more aggressive stance at Iran. It is without saying that the active participation of Netanjahu serves his plan to overshadow the Palestinian issue for the sake of anti-Iran sentiments - in alliance with the Arab states. While Iranian representation was not welcomed, the Palestinians boycotted the event by claiming that the conference is a US-Israeli conspiracy aimed at eliminating the Palestinian cause.
The foreign policy of Israel is concentrating itself on the existential threat of Israel posed by Iran, and it has already been quite successful, taking into account the withdrawal of the USA from the JCPOA – the nuclear-deal with Iran - and the quiet normalization of Israel-Arab relations, resulting also from the “friendship” between MBS and the middle-east advisor and son-in-law of president Trump - Jared Kushner.
Even if the king of Saudi Arabia, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, has repeatedly reaffirmed that the Palestinian question will be a top priority for Saudi-Arabian foreign policy, few things have been done to actively support the Palestinians on the ground in all those years. However, Saudi Arabia`s Crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) recognized the Jewish people´s right to their own land in April 2018, in an interview which was published in The Atlantic. This clearly indicates a shift in the foreign policy of SA, which is seeking the backing of the US after the widely condemned killing of Saudi dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi. The Warsaw summit and its results became most crucial for two parties who did not participate. Palestine and Iran.
Even though it is unlikely that Israel is seeking a direct confrontation with Iran considering the high amount of missile-armament of the Hezbollah in Lebanon and the ugliness which would come with a war considering the many militant forces against Israel in the neighbouring countries and within the occupied territories, the rhetoric between Iran and Israel has become more aggressive in the recent two years. Analysts, however, say that Israel, with the support of the US, is rather trying to change Iran`s strategy, than going to war as the sense of possible costs is increasing. At least this gives some hope in the direction of a stable instability instead of the threat of imminent war. Nevertheless, the proclamation of the US to withdraw their troops from Syria (which are actually being shifted to Iraq) wasn`t picked up very well by Israel who now fears to be alone in the fight of Iranian supported troops in Syria. With Russia as a main factor in the region, especially since its entering into the Syrian war, there is a big difference between Israel and the US when it comes to policies towards Iran and Syria. As long as there is no stability, especially within post-war Syria, the region will stay fragile in the years to come. If you analyze the countries involved (US, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Gulf States, different European countries, etc) and the different games they play, the Israel-Palestinian conflict is rather involved in global than in regional politics. A possibility for a stabilization could be the start of talks on a non-aggression pact between Israel, Iran and the US. However, considering the low trust, especially between Israel and Iran and the US and Iran, this seems to be more in the spheres of wishful thinking.
One of the biggest elephants in the room seems to be the so-called “Ultimate Peace Plan for the Middle East”, designed by two lawyers and Trump`s son-in-law Jared Kushner, which is now in the phase of pre-launching. Even though nobody seems to know about the details entailed in this plan – it will supposedly be published after the elections and before the Israeli government will be formed – trust in the success of this plan is very low. The Palestinians rejected it already by arguing that the Trump administration is a biased mediator in this conflict. This has to be seen in the light of recent moves from Washington towards Israel like the shift from the US embassy to East-Jerusalem, declaring Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel, the shuttering of Palestinian diplomatic offices in Washington and the cutting of funds for UNRWA, which could have enormous humanitarian consequences for the many Palestinian refugees – more than 5 Mio – which are looked after by UNRA in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. If the plan is to stand any chance of success, both parties would need to agree on enormous compromises, which seems to be unlikely from both sides at the moment.
A land for all?
In light of the historic injustice and the unimaginable atrocities the Jews experienced during the Holocaust, the crave for a safe haven for Jews, is more than legitimate. The events preceding and following Israel`s independence, however, which have manifold reasons and are not to be blamed upon one single actor, led to a situation where a people, the Palestinians, suffered the loss of many of their basic human rights until now. The slogan “a land without a people for a people without a land” may refer to the lack of the existence of a Palestinian nation-state before 1948, but it also dismisses the existence of this people living on this land for centuries, as if they never would have been there.
(Yad Vashem - The World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem)
When Israel declared its independence in May 14th1948 it included in its 14th paragraph the commitment to implement the UN Partition Plan described in resolution 181 (II) of the General Assembly from 29th November 1947. The Partition plan foresaw an independent Arab and an independent Jewish state, as well as a Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem. The Jewish state was to receive around 56% of the land area of former British Mandate Palestine, encompassing 82% of the Jewish population, though it would be separated from Jerusalem. The Plan also called for an Economic Union between the proposed states, and for the protection of religious and minority rights. The plan was accepted by most of the Jewish population but rejected by much of the Arab population which led, one day after the declaration of independence of Israel - to the attacking of Egyptian, Lebanese, Jordan and Iraqi military entities against Israel. Hostilities, though, already started after the publishing of the UN Partition plan in 1947 between Jews and Arabs when the region was still under the British Mandate. When Israel won the war against its neighbors, they negotiated ceasefire agreements with Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria manifesting the so-called green-line, which marked the demarcation line and served as the de-facto border between Israel and its neighboring states until 1967. This war led to the fleeing or expulsion of an estimated 700 000 Arab Palestinians (250-300 000 already before the declaration of independence) from their homes, nowadays referred to as the Nakba, the catastrophe. The status of the refugees, and in particular whether Israel will grant them their claimed right to return to their homes or be compensated, are key issues in the ongoing Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
After the Six-Day War in 1967, the territories captured by Israel beyond the Green Line came to be known as the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, Sinai Peninsula (the Sinai Peninsula has since been returned to Egypt as part of the 1979 peace treaty) and East Jerusalem.
(view of a Jewish settlement in the Westbank)
The new status of Jerusalem opened up the possibility for Jews to pray at the Western Wall for the first time since 1948 even though the Al Aqsa-Mosque, and therefore also the Temple Mount / al-Haram al Sharif, remained under the sole administration of the Jordanian Muslim Waqf. Jews, however, are allowed to visit the Temple Mount. Interestingly, the Tora prohibits Jews to visit the Temple Mount due to the holiness of the site. Ongoing conflicts concerning religious sites in the Old City of Jerusalem, nevertheless, are still part of the arena of the Israeli-Palestinian and Jewish-Arab conflicts. There are many suggestions on how to dissolve the conflicts around the holy sites in the old city of Jerusalem, but it seems that solving a religious conflict is even more difficult than a political one. it touches on the very identity of the believers and has to be seen within historical deprivation of the respective religious beliefs and leaves only a very narrow space for compromises.
(people praying at the Western Wall)
In 2018 the Knesset passed the so-called nation-state law declaring Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, which is part of the Israel constitution. “Israel is not a state of all its citizens,” Netanjahu wrote on Instagram in March 2019 in response to criticism from an Israeli actor, Rotem Sela. “According to the basic nationality law we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people – and only it.” This sharp statement has to be seen in the light of the electoral campaign, but it clearly shows an understanding of Israel which excludes the equality of nearly 17% of their citizens, which are Israeli Arabs, the Palestinians who remained on their land after the creation is Israel in 1948.
The promising concept of two states with a shared homeland seems to be far from becoming reality, but it is nevertheless a concept which is worth not giving up to soon. It tries to combine international commitments with realities on the ground and would require many joint political, legal and economic institutions as well as compromises from both societies. As mentioned above, strong economic ties have already been part of the UN resolution in 1948 and could also be profitable for the Palestinians. The states will be separate, but strongly interdependent while accepting the two states as the geographical homeland of Israelis and Palestinians. The strength of this concept lies in the acceptance of Zionism as part of the self-determination of the Jewish people, while granting the same rights to Palestinians.
Until now, all the different concepts failed to tackle one crucial issue: namely to create a narrative where all parties could be convinced that they would gain from a peaceful solution. They would gain normalization, they would gain security, they would gain acceptance in the international community and they would gain freedom.
Time is overdue to stop reciprocal allegations towards the other sides. Both sides faced injustices, both sides committed violence. This must stop and has to be tackled in a reconciliation process once an agreement could be ultimately put in force and violence ended. The way to normalization is long and it doesn`t seem to make any progress in the near future. However, the question stays: What is the alternative?
History cannot be reversed, Israel has a right to exist and so does Palestine. The status quo, however, can never be an alternative for a state which claims to be a democracy.
(above: a picture taken in the refugee camp Balata which is the largest camp in the Westbank and home to 27 000 people on 0,25 km², below: city of Nablus)