Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks: America’s art of failure

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The mediation process relating to Palestine final status—started by the United Nations, continued with the United States, and currently under the Quartet’s auspices—is far from resulting in a deal that would be acceptable by Israelis and Palestinians. The process has stalled due to Israel’s and Palestine’s stubborn positions on the “final status issues.” Whereas the Security Council has repeatedly failed to bring a resolution on the Palestine final status, the US—as the main broker since the late 1970s—has historically been biased toward Israel. With Trump in the White House, prospects for a just and immediate solution are low. Trump has made a dramatic turn on the US long-standing approach by relocating the embassy to Jerusalem and eliminating all financial assistance to Palestinians. The “two-state solution” is seriously threatened.

The negotiation process to achieve a lasting solution on Palestine’s final status has been going on—intensively—since the early 1990s, involving Israel and Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel and Arab neighbors. Under the United States (US) leadership, and supported by United Nations (UN) and European Union (EU), the process has employed a variety of mediation techniques, including international conferences, secret peace talks, back-door channels, shuttle diplomacy, as well as UN resolutions and state-building programs. The result: five peace agreements—all ending in failure. Israel and PA have been unwilling or unable to settle the Palestine status due to their profound divergences on the so-called “final status issues”: the land and territorial borders of Israel and Palestine, the right of Palestinian people to self-determination, Israel’s illegal settlements, Palestinian refugees, and status of Jerusalem.

Currently, the Quartet for the Middle East created in 2002—and consisting of UN, US, EU, and Russia—mediates peace talks between Israeli-Palestinians based on the “Road Map to Peace” formula. Historically, America has maintained ownership as a broker—with the EU in a complementary role. The UN, on its part, has played the bystander. The US role has been crucial since its involvement in the early 1970s by initiating, leading, or providing expertise and resources to the parties of the conflict (Kriesberg, 2001). Though the American neutrality has been subject to discussions, the world has accounted for its capabilities to brokering a deal between Israelis and Palestinians (Elgindy, 2018). Perhaps, not anymore. Following Trump’s election, the US’s long-standing approach towards Palestine’s status and Palestinians’ rights has undergone a dramatic shift. The US eliminated all financial assistance to Palestinians, including the assistance to Palestinian security forces as well as contributions to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), and relocated the embassy to Jerusalem (Gordon, 2019).

As a result, in late 2017, the Palestinian President titular, Abbas, declared the end of American mediation, calling it “completely biased towards Israel.” (Swisher, The National Interest, December 18, 2017) Trump’s new approach, according to experts, undermines prospects for peace, jeopardizes chances to achieve the “two-state solution” and could transform the conflict into a “potentially lengthy anti-apartheid struggle.” (Elgindy, 2018; Hassan, 2018) Or, maybe the American neutrality would produce better gains for Palestinians, as it creates room for greater UN and EU mediation. Both organizations have been consistent in supporting the Palestinian cause, using economic sanctions against Israel due to illegal settlements; they are also viewed as honest brokers.

The European involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, limited in earlier stages, has expanded in the last decades—in particular—after becoming a member of the Quartet in 2002 and following the adaptation of “Concept on Strengthening EU Mediation and Dialogue Capacities” and Lisbon Treaty in 2009. The EU acts mainly as a facilitator and resource provider, and only in cooperation with the US (O’Donnell, 2016).

Surprisingly, the UN—responsible to maintain international peace and security—was excluded from peace talks right after the creation of Israel’s state in 1948 upon its leaders’ request. The organization remained overshadowed and sidelined from the decision-making, except for serving as the venue of discussions and the UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolutions (Bennis, 2001). However, the UN has gained greater terrain since becoming a member of the Quartet.

Israelis and Palestinians: Stuck in long-held, unrealistic positions 

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict centers around five core issues: the control over land and territory, the right of Palestinians to self-determination, Israel’s illegal settlements, Palestinian refugees, and the status of Jerusalem (Council on Foreign Relations, 2019; Kelman, 1987; Migdalovitz, 2006; Morris, 2004). Any future peace truce, therefore, must resolve all these issues about which Israelis and Palestinians hold diametrically opposing views. Momentarily, a possible lasting deal, as the Guardian’s journalist, Thrall, projects, seems far away as ever because of Israel’s status quo preference. This protracted conflict has produced five peace agreements, including the “Lausanne Conference” (1949), “Camp David I” (1978), “Madrid Conference” (1990), “Oslo Accords” (1993), “Road Map to Peace” (2003), as well as peace talks conducted by the American government—the “Mitchell-led talks” (2010-11) and “Kerry-led talks” (2013-14). All ended in failure.

In an attempt to fix the problem that it had caused, in 1949, the UN convened the “Lausanne Conference,” which failed because Israel and the Arab delegation could not agree on core issues: the Palestinian refugees and status of Jerusalem (UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine, 1949). (Noting that Palestinians were not represented as a party to negotiations until the “Oslo Accords”: they were represented by an Arab delegation composed of Arab nations). In the next two decades, four wars had been fought. The 1973 war (the “Yom Kippur War,” 1973-1974) made a turn in transforming the conflict between Israel and Egypt: the US engages in peace talks and Palestinian issues became central to negotiations (Kriesberg, 2001). America took ownership over the process, culminating in “Camp David Accords” in 1978 and an Israeli-Egypt peace treaty in 1979. The US involvement, in fact, was a merit of the then President of Egypt, el-Sadat, and his belief that the road to Palestine status goes through Washington (Id.).

The “Camp David”—comprising two agreements—the “Framework for Peace in the Middle East” and “Framework for the Conclusion of a Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel” came as a result of long-secret talks and shuttle diplomacy between Israel, Egypt, and Syria conducted by then-Secretary of State, Kissinger (Association for Diplomatic Studies & Training). American negotiators employed various mediation techniques, combining a step-by-step peacemaking strategy and blending traditional principal methods with problem-solving skills, which prepared the ground for a meeting between the US President, Carter, and President of Egypt, el-Sadat (Kriesberg, 2001). After 13 days of secret negotiations at Camp David, two presidents finally made a breakthrough (Association for Diplomatic Studies & Training). Further, Kissinger’s diplomacy led to the disengagement of military forces and Israel’s withdrawal from some of its occupied territories (Kriesberg, 2001).

The “Camp David,” in which Palestinians were not a participatory nor a signatory party, called for the establishment of a Palestinian self-governing authority that would lead to Palestine’s final status within five years (UN, 1979). These accords were of great importance as they produced the first peace agreement between Israel and an Arab country—Egypt, which was followed by the recognition of Israel’s state from Egypt (Fisas, 2014). However, “Camp David,” the framework referring to Palestine status, failed, first—because the parties did not agree to resolve all open issues: the Jerusalem status was the major obstacle (Migdalowitz, 2006). Second, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) rejected the accord under justifications that Kissinger had ignored Palestinians as the party to the conflict, an act that fueled major international support for the Palestinian cause: the PLO was recognized and granted the observer status at the UNGA (Bennis, 2001). In addition, Carter and el-Sadat did not succeed to convene a multilateral conference in the Middle East aiming to achieve a comprehensive peace (Kriesberg, 2001). Moreover, “Camp David” was overshadowed by subsequent events, the assassination of el-Sadat (1981) and the First Intifada (1987-1990).

US Mediation: International conferences, secret talks, shuttle diplomacy… 

International efforts to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have continued— intensively—during the 1980s and 1990s, falling completely on the American hands, and leading to the “Madrid Conference” (1991) and “Oslo Accords” (1993) (Bennis, 2001). In fact, “Madrid,” which called for a comprehensive peace in the Middle East through bilateral and multilateral negotiations on political and economic issues, paved the way for “Oslo Accords.” The latter was important as it marked the first direct meeting between Israel’s and PLOs representatives, who recognized each other’s rights as parties to negotiations (Kreisberg, 2001). The “Oslo Accords” was based on the “land for peace” principle (UNSC Res. 242, 338, 1397), and called for the establishment of a “Palestinian self-governing authority” in the West Bank and Gaza that would lead to a permanent settlement of Palestine status within five years (Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements, 1993). Same as “Camp David,” the “Oslo” failed—because it did not address the refugee issue, territorial borders, status of Jerusalem, and Israel’s illegal settlements—and due to the assassination of Israel’s Prime Minister, Rabin (1995), the election of Netanyahu as Israel’s Prime Minister (1996), and Second Intifada (2000) (Rothem, 2019).

Both “Madrid Conference” and “Oslo Accords” combined complex formulas and various formats of negotiations: a general conference, bilateral meetings between Israel and each neighboring Arab country, and regional meetings on issues of common concern. Interactive problem-solving workshops, back-channels as well as official and non-official meetings involving private citizens, sub-elites, academics, and Diaspora, were conducted aimed at preparing the ground for official negotiations (Kreisberg, 2001). Using back-door channels, opened by Israeli-Palestinian academics and arranged by Norwegian scientists, Israelis and Palestinians were able to explore possible options and constructing formulas for a major peacemaking move, such as the signature of the Declaration of Principles (DOP) in September 1993 (Id.). This declaration led to the Palestinian elections, the establishment of PA authority in the West Bank and Gaza, and then the control over the Gaza Strip and Jericho, and centers of Arab Palestinian life in the West Bank (Id.).

Then it was the “Camp David II” (2000), which unfortunately ended without a written document due to parties’ disagreements on the refugee issue (Morris, 2004); then the “Road Map to Peace.” (2003) And then “Mitchell-led talks” (2010-11) and “Kerry-led talks” (2013-14)—both unsuccessful largely because of Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead” in 2008/09 and “Operation Protective Edge” in 2014. The “Road Map to Peace” proposing a “two-state solution” with Israel and Palestine living side by side as independent states—although expired—still serves as the basis for negotiations. Sponsored by the US and designed by the Quartet, the “Roadmap” calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state through three-timetable phases that lead to the Palestine final status—achievable in an international conference. The importance of this agreement stands on that it places the establishment of security before final settlement and addresses all root and proximate causes of conflict, including Israel’s restrictions. However, its implementation was obstructed by the death of PLO leader, Arafat (2004) and Hamas’ victory in 2006 (Fisas, 2014).

Reasons for failure: America – not an honest broker 

Bad timing, artificial deadlines, scant attention from the US president, the allowance of extremists to set the agenda, lack of bottom-up economic development and state-building approach, as well as lack of trust among parties—some of the reasons for American failure to secure a sustained solution between Israelis and Palestinians (Thrall, The Guardian, May 16, 2017). The Security Council (SC) mentions the historic relations between the US and Israel as the reason for failure, suggesting that any outcome lies ultimately within the US that historically used its veto to protect Israel’s interests in the UN (UNSC). The American government vetoed down all draft resolutions in the SC, including the EU-sponsored one in December 2014, despite suggestions of the then Secretary of State, Kerry, to president Obama to not veto it (Hassan, 2018). Likewise, regional experts single out the “uniquely close bonds” between the US and Israel and Israel’s powerful lobby in Washington as contributors to diplomatic failure (Elgindy, 2018). According to Rothem, however, Americans failed because they did not do three things: addressing Israel’s basic hostility toward Palestinian statehood, helping Palestinians develop the capacity that addresses the power disparity vis-à-vis Israel, and presenting and promoting solutions to the core issues of conflict (2019).

Whereas three American presidents—under whose presidencies this peace process took place—could hardly talk publicly on solutions to the core issues (Rothem, 2019), it was President Trump, however, who went public and remaking the plan for Palestine. By overturning the long-standing US approach, Trump’s White House eliminated all financial assistance for Palestinians, including the assistance to Palestinian security forces as well as contributions to the UNRWA, and relocated the embassy to Jerusalem (Gordon, 2019). Trump’s new approach of coercion intended to force Palestinians to make necessary concessions to Israel, as Gordon warns, will do more harm than good (Id.). First, the plan undermines prospects for a peace deal; second, it risks chances to achieve the two-state solution; additionally, the plan further departs from the international law and Palestinians’ demands and together with Israel’s recent definition of Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People in the Basic Law, it risks to transform the conflict into a “potentially lengthy anti-apartheid struggle.” (Elgindy, 2018; Gordon, 2019; Hassan, 2018) Most importantly, Trump’s new approach questions the American endeavors as an honest broker—whose interest in ending this conflict is a major priority, if not vital for its national security (Elgindy, 2018).

Looking from a positive perspective, the American drop creates a greater opportunity for the UN and EU to step in and take the lead in the process. And perhaps, it is better for Palestinians without Americans than to have them around at the table (Elgindy, 2018).

UN – Sidelined, EU – A Limited Facilitator

Following the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, the UN—upon Israel’s request—was excluded from peace talks about Palestine’s status. The “US-Israeli Memorandum of Understanding” emerged from both “Madrid” and “Oslo” accords in the 1990s, meanwhile, explicitly stated that the UN would not be allowed a role, same as the EU and Japan (Bennis, 2001). Though the UN involvement has expanded in the last two decades, in practice, the organization has no decision-making power due to the US and Russia blockade in the SC. Any decision in this mechanism depends exclusively and ultimately on the US (UNSC). In a recent brief to the SC, the Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, DiCarlo, called for urgent tangible steps to reverse the negative trajectory in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while raising concerns for unilateral actions due to the loss of hope for peace (SC/13895, July 23, 2019).

Nevertheless, the UN has remained active in this conflict through its resolutions condemning Israel’s specific violations of international law in the West Bank and Gaza Strip adopted by the UNGA (including the latest one condemning the relocation of the US Embassy), its peacekeeping mission in Israel-Egyptian border, and the UNRWA (Bennis, 2001). The UNGA has repeatedly voted in favor of an international peace conference under the UN auspices, involving all parties, based on the pre-1967 borders, and including repatriation and resettlement of refugees and freezing of Israel’s illegal settlements (UNGA Res. 68/15, 2014).

Europe, form its part, has made substantial efforts to maintain its influence as a mediator in the Middle East region. Furthermore, the EU is seen as an honest broker. Its position—despite the diverse opinions of member states—has been rather consistent. For example, the Europeans unanimously agreed on the “two-state solution,” “fair solution to the complex issue of Jerusalem” and “a just, viable, realistic, and agreed solution to the Palestinian refugees.” (El Yamani, 2018; O’Donnell, 2016; Pijpers, 2007) Moreover, the organization has continued to reject Hamas as the party to negotiations without having accepted three principles set by the US and EU: an end to violence, recognition of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements (O’Donnell, 2016).

Yet, the role of the European Union has been more complimentary to American mediation (Newman & Yakobi, 2004). At the very beginning, the organization’s mandate was limited as it did not have a single foreign policy at the time. The “Six-Day War” marked a turning point; it was the “Venice Declaration” (1980), however, that fundamentally changed the EU approach towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the region in general (Newman & Yakobi, 2004; O’Donnell, 2016). The “Venice Declaration” called for a two-state solution, affirmed the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination, and sought the PLO’s participation in any peace negotiations (O’Donnell, 2016). The EU involvement further expanded after becoming a member of the Quartet and following the adaptation of the “Concept on Strengthening EU Mediation and Dialogue Capacities” and the creation of European External Action Service and High Representative for Security and Foreign Policy by the Lisbon Treaty in 2009. The organization became a more capable mediator and facilitated internal coordinator. Its capabilities were demonstrated—especially—during Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead” and “Operation Protective Edge” with the employment of two main strategies: a directive strategy and communication-facilitation strategy. It was France, in fact, that took the lead during the “Operation Cast Lead”—in the absence of the US—and ending the conflict (Id.).

Yet, the EU’s capability as a broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is questioned for a number of reasons. First, its authority as a key player is challenged by Israel’s strong opposition (El Yamani, 2018). Second, its decision-making is undermined by differences between members and divisions between the pro-and-against Israel bloc (El Yamani, 2018; O’Donnell, 2016). Further, the EU neutrality as an honest broker is questioned given its trade relationship with Israel: the organization is one of Israel’s largest trading partners, amounting to 34.3 billion euros in 2016 (El Yamani, 2018). The EU, too, is the biggest donor of Palestinians and the UNWRA. The controversy stands on the fact that the EU allows Israel’s troops to destroy the infrastructure in the West Bank and Gaza that the organization finances itself (Id.).

Nonetheless, following the US neutrality, the UN and EU should take the responsibility for the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians to settle the Palestine status. The UN and EU have already resumed economic sanctions against Israel due to illegal settlements in the West Bank (Swisher, The National Interest, December 18, 2017). In tandem, these organizations should prepare the terrain for a final resolution on Palestine in the UN. Again, the Palestinian issue must be solved in the UN—not only because its existence is a direct result of its Resolution on Partition (1947) but also peace accords supported by this organization produce better and sustainable outcomes (UNDP & BCPR, 2008).

Literature cited:

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Bennis, Phyllis. 2001. “What Has Been the Role of the UN in the Israel-Palestine Struggle.” Trans Arab Research Institute. 

Clayton Swisher, “Biased Mediators: The End of Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks, and How It Happened,” the National Interest, December 18, 2017

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Fisas, Vicenc. 2014. “Israel-Palestine, Yearbook of Peace Processes 2014.” School for Culture of Peace. Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona.

Gordon, H. Philip. 2019. “Rethinking US Policy Toward the Palestinians.” Council on Foreign Relations. 

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O’Donnell, Hugh. 2016. “The European Union as a Mediator in Israel-Palestine: Operations Cast Lead and Protective Edge.” College of Europe, EU Diplomacy Paper.

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Rothem, Dan. 2019. “Process Managers: How U.S. Mediation Doomed the Peace Process.” Palestine-Israel Journal of Politics, Economics and Culture.

Thrall, Nathan, “Israel-Palestine: the real reason there’s still no peace,” the Guardian, May 16, 2017.

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Stephen Akpe

    Bright and brilliant ideas. We keep hoping for an end to the Isreali-Palestinian conflict. Nothing should be left behind, the parties, the categories of mediators, the interest-based issues, mediation techniques, must be seen to play their different roles in weaving interventions for a sustainable and durable peace in the middle-east.

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