Reflections after visiting Israel/Palestine
I recently returned from trips to the Holy Land with members of Churches for Middle East Peace’s Board, Leadership Council, CMEP Field Director Rev. Doris Warrell, and others. We were updating ourselves on the humanitarian situation and prospects for resolving this seemingly endless conflict, while looking for ways to advance CMEP’s mission of education and political advocacy.
Close up, primordial fears and concerns have not changed much. An eloquent rabbi working for conflict reduction and reconciliation confides he is still terrified of a nuclear holocaust coming from Iran. The outlook for reconciliation seems little changed. Four months of negotiations brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry have yielded few visible results. We were told that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas does not engage much in “retail politics.” There is no sign the time is ripe for the kind of bold conciliatory gesture made by Sadat that led to the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel.
The injustice imposed by the occupation continues in its many manifestations as does sporadic violence. We met a Palestinian family who were evicted from their home of over 50 years in East Jerusalem as part of a proclaimed program to unilaterally change the character of their neighborhood from Palestinian to Jewish. We spoke with a Jerusalem resident whose husband from the West Bank could not live with her legally in Jerusalem. Residents of Gaza are routinely denied permits to visit family members in the West Bank for unspecified “security reasons.” Demolitions and demolition orders continue for Palestinian homes, animal pens and schools in the West Bank for lack of building permits that are seldom granted, while the pace of building Israeli settlement housing steadily increases. Plans remain in force to build the security barrier across a the Cremisan Valley near Bethlehem that would separate a Catholic Convent and school from a Catholic Monastery and would cut normal access of indigenous farmers, including Christians, from their fields. Forces in Gaza still plan violence against Israel and occasionally fire off rockets.
While the need to end occupation and resolve the conflict is self-evident, details can be complex. We visited the large settlement of Ariel. When negotiators speak of the need for a contiguous Palestinian state, they are referring to Ariel, located deep in the midst of the West Bank, extending 13 miles from the Green Line. We visited one of its several Israeli-owned industries; about half of its workforce is Palestinian. If Ariel remains part of Israel it could effectively block easy road access to much of the northern part of the Palestinian West Bank. If it becomes part of a Palestinian state, could it retain its Israeli residents and its Palestinian jobs?
The Middle East is now in the midst of tectonic political shifts that are changing the political landscape created by Britain and France after the First World War. I believe U.S. diplomacy over the past year has taken advantage of these shifts to lay the groundwork for progress in managing the conflict between Israel its neighbors. This change is due in part to the new government in Tehran that now may be willing to negotiate a deal that would satisfy western demands to convincingly forego nuclear weapons in return for a limited nuclear capacity and reduced sanctions. Israel’s concern about the security threat from Iran has taken precedence over negotiations with Palestinians. If there is a security deal between the Great Powers (U.S., UK, France, Germany, Russia, and China) and Iran, it will now be harder for Israel to not to consider serious negotiations with the Palestinians.
The Palestinian and Iranian negotiating tracks each are scheduled to come to a head around April. Negotiation deadlines are often missed, but by next summer the pressure on Israel to agree to some elements of a deal is likely to be intense. If there is no real progress by the opening of the UN General Assembly in late September, Palestinians are almost sure to press for sanctions against Israel in UN bodies such as the International Criminal Court.
Secretary Kerry has maneuvered to remove obstacles to an agreement. He got the Arab League to agree that the Arab Peace Initative could include modifications to the 1967 lines. His most recent move was to present a U.S. security plan to both the Israelis and Palestinians that would reportedly keep Israeli forces at the border crossings with Jordan for a limited period such as ten years. Both sides were negative about the plan – which is probably a good start. There are now reports that in the absence of progress in negotiations, Kerry plans to make “framework” proposals soon on final status issues, including security, borders, refugees, Jerusalem, end of conflict, and end of all claims.
There are increasingly visible costs and consequences for Israel in maintaining the occupation status quo. The European Union shortly will issue regulations stating EU cooperation funds cannot be used for entities that operate east of Israel’s 1967 lines, i.e., in the occupied territories. After stiff protests, Israel recently went along with arrangement in order to get access to a major EU research project.
The Europeans have also made known their impatience with the occupation by signaling they may not continue to pay their part of the PA’s operating budget. The US and EU budget support for the PA was established under the Oslo Accords that were expected to expire with the creation of a Palestinian state in 1999. Ever since then the US and EU have been paying a major part the expenses of running the West Bank and Gaza. Some Europeans are now threatening to end payments and put that financial burden back onto Israel if there is no agreement this year.
Resolution of the Holy Land conflict has eluded politicians for decades. Many obstacles remain, including deep public skepticism that any deal on a Palestinian state is possible. Repeatedly, agreements have almost been reached, only to fail at the last minute because the time was not ripe to overcome the considerable political costs of a deal. Since coming to power in 2009 Prime Minister Netanyahu has not agreed to the comprehensive offers made to Palestinians by previous Israeli governments and has added some demands. However, he also has said he does not want a bi-national state nor to “rule over” Palestinians. A majority of the population and of the Knesset (parliament) supports the idea of a Palestinian state, although a majority of the current Israeli cabinet dies not. A Foreign Ministry official told us personally he expects there will be a deal.
Given the current constellation of political forces, the coming year will be a period of intense political and diplomatic activity for Israel-Palestine. With continued strong US leadership and public support, I believe real progress toward an agreement in 2014 is not just possible but likely.
The coming year will therefore be an important time help mobilize public opinion in support of the hard work by the U.S. to bring the parties together and of the hard political decisions that will be needed by both sides to reach an agreement.