A conference on peace took place in Tel Aviv this week (12 June) under the impact of US President Donald Trump’s recent visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia where he tried to relaunch the dormant peace process. He has been talking about an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement as the “ultimate deal” but not yet published any framework for a solution.
Trump’s victory in the presidential elections was greeted by joy by the Israeli right-wing parties who thought that he would move the American embassy to Jerusalem and give a green light to continued settlement construction in the occupied territories. He however disappointed them and called for constraint, thereby pursuing the same policy as his predecessor.
Although it’s doubtful that Trump possesses the insight and the determination to bring about peace in the Middle East, the experts in one of panels at the conference didn’t exclude that he might push the parties to some kind of agreement. One reason is that they are too afraid to anger him and be blamed for failure.
The conference was arranged for the fourth year by Haaretz, Israel’s leading opposition newspaper, and included panels, interviews and speeches by well-known Israeli and Palestinian politicians and representatives of civil society.
This year’s conference took place close to the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War in 1967 when Israel defeated the Arab armies that were threating its very existence. The astonishing victory has been celebrated in Israel but also given rise to soul-searching about the consequences – the unintended occupation of territories populated by another people, the Palestinians.
The occupation was supposed to be temporary until a peace solution was reached, where Israel would trade land for peace, but has now lasted for 50 years with no end in sight. Parties in the current Israeli coalition government is even denying that there is an occupation and want Israel to annex big parts of the West Bank and transpose Israeli law in the settlements.
The Israeli President, Reuven Rivlin, addressed the conference and reminded the audience that “We are so focused on the Six-Day victory, that we forget one thing: the continuation of the war” with new wars. He listed them all, from the attrition war directly after the Six-Day war to the latest Gaza war in 2014, and continued:
“The dispute between right and left correlates today directly to the core questions at the heart of the State of Israel: Our ability to live here safely versus our existence as a democratic state. The room for mistakes is tiny. The price of each mistake is high. And that is why the decision is becoming increasingly difficult, complex, valuable, and threatening.”
Warning about the absence of a dialogue between different political camps, he said that, “If Israeli society will not be convinced of the depth of the democratic process and the need to accept democratic law, this decision may tear us apart.”
A message from Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas was broadcast during the conference. He called on Israel to end the occupation and repeated this commitment to peace. He urged the Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu not to miss the opportunity presented by Trump’s initiative and said that he was willing to meet Netanyahu at any time.
The occupation was also the topic in a heated debate between the Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog and Haaretz journalist Gideon Levy. The latter has during 30 years documented the evils of the occupation in an article series called “Twilight Zone”.
In the view of Levy, the occupation is immoral and should end immediately but Herzog and other politicians seem only willing to admit that “bad things” happen because of the occupation. Herzog doesn’t foresee a solution for the impasse any soon for which he, contrary to Levy, blames both the current Israeli government and the Palestinian side.
Asked by The Brussels Times, Gideon Levy said that he doesn’t expect that his articles influence the Israeli public opinion but that “if you believe in something, you have to continue”.
The first peace conference in 2014 took place in a tense situation just before the outbreak of the Gaza war. This conference took place against a worsening humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip after the Israeli government’s decision not to provide more electricity to the Strip after Mahmud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority reduced the funds it pays for the power.
According to humanitarian organizations the power cuts will reduce the power supply to three hours a day and have disastrous effects on the running of hospitals, water supply and waste treatment. Even worse, it may ignite a new war according to observers in Israel.
The European Union (EU), one of the sponsors of the conference, was represented by Nick Westcott, Managing Director for the Middle East and North Africa at the European External Action Service (EEAS). His speech on “Why peace is necessary, urgent and possible – and why there is a role for Europe” was greeted with applause by the audience.
While EU as Israel’s biggest trade and research partner is fully committed to Israel as a free, secure and prosperous country, it’s also concerned about the occupation (the “elephant in the room”), because it’s a threat to Israel’s future and the settlements a breach of international law.
“The time for a peace agreement is probably as good as it ever will be,” Westcott said but declined to elaborate on the parameters of a two-state solution when asked by The Brussels Times. EU has offered the two parties to the conflict a privileged partnership to motivate them to make peace. It adheres to the recommendations in last year’s Quartet report and supports Trump’s initiative.
New figures on settlements in the West Bank
Time for a feasible two-state solution however is running out. Haaretz published just before the start of the conference new census figures showing that more than 40 % or 170 000 people of the settler population in the West Bank is living outside the settlement blocks which Israel want to annex in a land swap with the Palestinians. The figure is double to was thought before.
The Israeli prime-minister is also reported to have asked the Trump administration that in any further peace agreement with the Palestinians, Israel will seek to allow isolated settlements that won’t be annexed to its territory to remain as enclaves in the Palestinians state under Israeli sovereignty.
Israel was proposing adopting a “model like the one that exists along the border area of The Netherlands and Belgium”. In the Dutch-Belgian case, however, only two small municipalities (Baarle-Hertog and Baarle-Nassau) are concerned with enclaves numbering altogether less than 10 000 inhabitants, speaking the same language and straddling the agreed border.
As already mentioned, it’s not clear what Trump’s initiative is about but apparently it’s based on the assumption that Israelis and Palestinians will be induced to accept a peace agreement if the Sunni Arab states will support it. Israel will get something in return from the Arab states and the Palestinians will have an Arab cover for making concessions.
This according to Dennis Ross, a former US peace mediator. Speaking at a health conference in Haifa (6 June), he gave his personal perspective on the situation in the region. Without outside help, the two parties cannot achieve peace. There is a psychological gap and lack of trust between them. If negotiations would start tomorrow, they wouldn’t produce anything.
“But I have to qualify,” Ross said. “It won’t be cheap for Israel. The Arab states must show that they have delivered for the Palestinians. A solution along these lines would break the stalemate but it wouldn’t be the ultimate deal.” Unfortunately, the maximum the current Israeli government is prepared to give to the Palestinians doesn’t meet their minimum demands.