January 23, 2021
Palestinian men rest at an aid distribution centre of UNRWA in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. (File/AFP)
Any mention of a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians any time soon is bound to raise eyebrows. For nearly 20 years, every initiative has failed to get off the ground because of the unwillingness or inability of at least one of the sides to depart from their habitual positions and behavior patterns.
Nevertheless, in recent months, especially since the signing of normalization agreements between Israel and a number of Arab countries and more recently the result of the US presidential election, there is some sense of a mini-momentum for bringing the peace process back on track. Is it merely wishful thinking? Probably, but any flicker of hope for peace deserves at least some consideration and examination of the conditions that could make it more probable.
A much welcome gathering in Cairo at the beginning of this month, of the foreign ministers of Germany, France, Jordan and Egypt, discussed a possible revival of the peace process, in an expression of this renewed, though cautious, optimism that some progress can be made in bringing the Israelis and the Palestinians back to the negotiation table. With the Trump administration and his fantasy so-called peace plan now confined to history, diplomatic efforts can be resumed, albeit exploratory ones, to test the water on both sides to see if at least an initial dialogue is possible.
After more than 27 years of failed efforts to bring about the peace that was envisaged by the Oslo accords, the international community needs to lose its despondency and instead tackle the issue head on with determination and courage. During the Oslo negotiations the very fact that Israelis and Palestinians were talking peace was a welcome novelty that could generate domestic and international support and carry the process forward. In light of the eventual tragic consequences, in addition to the current climate in both societies, any revived peace process should be driven by the international community, and should be limited in time and results orientated.
For the Palestinians in particular, a process without results would be not only futile, but also dangerously damaging for the peace camp. After more than 70 years of millions of their people living as refugees, and more than half a century of living under occupation and blockade, there is not much for Palestinians to celebrate in negotiations themselves, unless they can see radical changes on the ground. Further prolonged rounds of endless talks that fail to yield any result would mean not only the prolonging if not the perpetuation of the occupation, but for all intents and purposes its legitimization.
After more than 27 years of failed efforts to bring about the peace envisaged by the Oslo accords, the international community needs to lose its despondency and tackle the issue head on.
Equally worrying in recent years has been the prevailing mood in the international community that since a comprehensive peace agreement is impossible to achieve, there is no point in trying to prevent the entrenchment of the current situation or even stop it from deteriorating. For the past four years the Israeli government has enjoyed a US tailwind as it expanded more settlements and toyed with the idea of annexing parts of the West Bank. This led to questioning whether an independent Palestinian state would ever materialise, let alone one whose capital would be Jerusalem, while the plight of 5.5 million Palestinian refugees in desperate need of a just and fair answer to their decades-long predicament is being ignored.
There is no reason to question the sincerity of those who met in Cairo in wanting to resuscitate the stalemated relations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but it is legitimate to ask what they are prepared to do for this to become a reality. For the next few months both Israeli and Palestinian politics will be preoccupied with their respective elections, which will make any meaningful dialogue in the spirit of compromise next to impossible. Still, there is now an opportunity, given the new and possibly proactive US administration, the normalization agreements, the prospect of elections to the Palestinian Authority and the restoration of the PA’s cooperation based on Israel’s commitment to past agreements, to join forces and push to prepare the ground for a peace dialogue.
In a joint statement at the end of the Cairo meeting the participants laid down what could become the foundation for negotiations, as long as they can use their influence to make this happen. In recent years the sands have shifted in many quarters of the international community toward accepting as fact the unilateral actions taken by Israel in the occupied Palestinian Territories, almost conceding that this is the new benchmark for peace negotiations. But this approach, even if tacit, is counterproductive, undermines the rule and role of international law and is morally reprehensible.
Therefore, the statement by the four foreign ministers in Cairo that past UN resolutions must be the basis for any future negotiations, which means that any future negotiations on territorial compromise should be based on the June 1967 borders, was crucial. Territorial compromises may be necessary, but must not be based on legitimising Israel’s illegal acts of building settlements in the West Bank and installing more than half a million Jewish settlers there. Instead, the statement decries the fact that the settlements project undermines the prospect of a peace agreement based on a two-state solution with the Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem.
Another sign of the world breathing a sigh of relief at Trump’s departure is the overdue emphasis in the Cairo statement of the “indispensable role of UNWRA in providing humanitarian assistance and essential services to the Palestinian refugees.” While such a call for the international community to honor its commitments to UNRWA is timely considering the organization’s chronic shortage of resources, steps must also be taken to include representatives of the Palestinian refugee community in any future negotiations to ensure that the refugees’ rights are recognized and addressed.
If the international community is serious about resurrecting the peace process it must follow the vision presented in Cairo, but it must also ensure that whoever is elected in Israel and Palestine this year understands that diverting from this vision will have serious consequences.
Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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