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Israel-Palestine Conflict - Need for a New Third Party Negotiator

January 30, 2014 at 12:40 am

According to a Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Poll in April 2006, a majority of Israelis and Palestinians favored third-party intervention in peace negotiations. The 60-year-old conflict between these two parties has given rise to so much resentment, complexity and discord over the years that a third-party mediator seems almost necessary. America has always been the conventional choice for such a role; and the onus to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict has largely fallen on the shoulders of US administrations – past and present.  Yet, although the United States might posses the power and influence to take on such a role, it might not necessarily have the political or economic will to follow through.

Noam Chomsky recently wrote an opinion editorial titled, ‘A Middle East Peace that Could Happen (but won’t)’ where he propounds that the US remains as much a problem to peace as Israel. Several obstacles lie in the path of US intervention in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Recent US domestic policy to finance an $800 billion healthcare bill for instance can limit future foreign policy actions. After the healthcare bill, the stimulus bill and TARP, expensive projects to furnish cost-heavy foreign policy decisions will be met with some resistance in the Congress. Even if a strong foreign policy agenda were possible, other competing interests in Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran would slow down the Israel-Palestine peace process considerably, if not halt it completely.

The most obvious reason why the US will not be able to play an effective third party negotiator is because of its strong ties to Israel, which have often crippled its ability to take any decisive action to contain the worsening conflict. Decisions by Israel to continue settlement building in East Jerusalem, their new law for revoking Palestinian residency permits there and heightened security at shared heritage sights threaten to de-rail the entire two-state solution process, and stern admonishments from Secretary of State Hilary Clinton are just not enough at this crucial juncture. Granted, efforts by George Mitchell have now brought about the possibility of a resumption of talks for another four months, but this is not the first time such talks have taken place under the stewardship of the US.  Already we see several speed bumps ahead, especially with regard to settlements in East Jerusalem.

It’s time to face the facts, or rather the ‘facts on the ground’, that have pushed the situation to a breaking point: The peace process  rests on the assurance of a two-state solution, and without the five ‘final status’ issues this solution becomes irrelevant. The planned separation wall is currently in violation of the 1967 borders, there are over 500,000 settlements in the West Bank – half of them in East Jerusalem (the supposed future capital of the Palestinian state), shared Israeli-Palestinian aquifers cannot satisfy both populations with enough water and the refugee situation is only worsening as this impoverished population grows in number with every passing year. It is safe to say that all these issues have reached a damaging level, where having any kind of peace at all, along a two-state solution, is seriously in doubt.  Some believe that the situation has already become impossible to repair and this has led to a new wave of thinking which is now critical of the two-state solution that has dominated Palestinian ideology until now.

A continued state of colonization or a forced one-state solution could very well lead to a third intifada, ethnic cleansing and untold Israeli and Palestinian casualties. This in turn can prove detrimental for many regional and international players. There could be a third wave of refugees pouring into surrounding countries, a need for millions of dollars in international aid, the rise of extremist behavior, heightened Israeli-Arab tensions, proxy wars and arms proliferation in the region. Needless to say, the cost of such a conflict in the Middle East would be great. The situation has reached a stage where the onus to resolve this conflict rests upon others besides the US.

A recent feature by Foreign Policy magazine interviewed major thinkers involved in this conflict to surmise why the peace process has failed so far, and to extract some ‘out of the box’ ideas on how the conflict could be resolved. While most personalities interviewed focused more on who to blame (another problem for another day), some did suggest alternative solutions that could work to resolve the conflict. Addressing the 5 contentious final status issues, abandoning past fallacies of special envoys and externally proposed peace plans, even tipping the scales to favor or reward the negotiating process through concessions were some of the few solutions suggested. But despite the fact that many of those interviewed have blamed the failures of the peace process partially on the US, none of these thinkers have suggested changing the principal third-party actor altogether. Former World Bank President James Wolfensohn did touch upon this idea – stating that there is no perfect plan at this point, and that what is truly required is an intervention.

He is right – Any peace agreement will first require Israelis and Palestinians to accept painful compromises – there is no perfect plan now, only hope for an intervention, and such an intervention can only be executed by a neutral and influential player; someone who has something to offer and to take from both sides if the peace process is not adhered to, but also someone who both parties can trust. So who are these potential peace brokers?

A Gallup poll, conducted in 2006, identified two parties that were the most acceptable as a third party negotiator to both Israelis and Palestinians:

The European Union (EU) –

The European Union has donated over $900 million in aid to the Palestinian Territories since the 1970s, and Israel enjoys a large amount of privileges with the EU in several fields, including travel, trade, research and academia under a series of agreements, dating back to 1975. The Union no doubt enjoys a level of trust and a level of influence with both parties. It is already a veteran in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and has years of experience dealing with the conflict. Europe’s geographic proximity also plays an important role in its ability to mediate the conflict – due its closeness it has a deeper sense of urgency to work toward a secure environment in the Middle East, it can impose substantial trade penalties on illegal settlement industries and it can also maintain a closer watch on goods smuggling through illegal tunnels between Gaza and Egypt. Measures like this could help curb the worsening situation in the occupied territories. The EU is also in a better position to provide aid, development, security and medical assistance if needed. 
However, the structure of the EU makes it difficult to have a common position in the Israel-Palestine conflict.  Any decision requires a consensus between all 27 member states. So far the effectiveness of the EU has suffered from a divided stance, with France and Germany falling on one end of the spectrum, more in favor of the Israelis, and Greece and Italy falling on the other, more in favor of the Palestinians. The EU has both the trust and the influence to become more active in the peace process, but its composite nature could very well render it a ‘Toothless Tiger’.

Japan –

Japan has played a significant role to enhance development in the Middle East. Along with the United States and the EU, it is one of the largest donors to the Palestinians, having donated over $800 million from 1993-2006. Japan has been instrumental in supporting the Palestinian election process, education, employment generation projects, institution building, refugee assistance and basic infrastructure projects. It has also supported the main regional players who are directly affected by the peace process, namely Egypt, Jordan and Syria, through grant aid, loan aid, technical assistance and infrastructure projects, which show the influence Japan could have, not just with Palestinians, but Arab countries as a whole. 

Japan has already begun to dabble in the peace process. It has proposed a ‘corridor for peace plan’, which constitutes an agro-industrial park in the West Bank that will help build the Palestinian economy and bring it one step closer to an independent statehood. Japan has offered to transport the goods from this agro-industrial park to Jordan, where they would then be shipped out to be sold abroad.

Despite its good intentions however, Japan’s biggest disadvantage is its lack of experience. Until the 1990s Japan was one of the few industrialized nations to follow Arab demands to boycott Israel. As a result it hasn’t formed any substantial economic relationship with the Jewish State which could have helped it to influence both parties involved in the conflict instead of just one. In addition Japan is a relative newcomer to diplomatic circles. So far it has taken on a largely developmental role in the Arab world and is only just beginning to understand the intricacies of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. There is no doubt that Japan will be more involved in the peace process in the future but its lack of experience might prevent it from having a lead role. What is truly required right now is a catalyst and a leader.

Apart from the survey findings, potential dark horses or wild cards could include:

Turkey –

Indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria have shown that Turkey can lead third-party negotiations in the region.  It has also tried to resolve the nuclear deadlock between Iran and western countries via an alternative plan for nuclear exchange in cooperation with Brazil.  It’s safe to say that Turkey has made itself quite comfortable as a diplomatic leader in the region, and if Syrian and Israeli discussions over the Golan Heights are successful, there is a very good chance that Turkey could extend this discussion to include the other occupied territories as well. Turkey is currently the only country in the Muslim world that shares close ties with Israel. Military, diplomatic and trade relations between Turkey and Israel allow it the strength to push for peace. It can use these relations to implement concrete measures. Turkey has a substantial presence within transnational bodies – NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) for instance – which it can use to harness public opinion for the peace process. In an extremely parched Middle East, Turkey can also utilize its substantial freshwater reserves to push for diplomacy. It was also one of the first countries in the region to offer peace-keeping forces, which would be extremely useful in the event of a two-state solution. Surprisingly, the country enjoyed more support from Israelis than Palestinians in the 2006 Gallup survey, but Palestinian opinions might have changed since Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s outburst defending Gazans at the World Economic Forum (WEF) and Turkey’s exclusion of Israel from a joint NATO military drill.

Of course incidents such as these have also led to a breach in Turkish-Israeli relations, and this could prove detrimental to the peace process. If it wants to portray itself as a neutral player between Palestinians and Israelis, the AK Parti has to strike a careful balance between its identity as an Islamic party and its secular beliefs. This will serve Turkey’s best interests, not just with regard to Israel, but also with its ascendancy into the EU, and its internal security struggle with the extremely secular Turkish army as well.

There is also competition amongst other regional players for a position of such influence.  Turkey’s diplomatic efforts might receive resistance from Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia – large diplomatic players that have played an important part in the peace process and as bordering states have much at stake. If Turkey is able to coordinate effectively with these Arab countries, it might very well be able to handle a major role in bringing about peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Qatar –

In the past decade this tiny oil-rich Arab state has emerged as a formidable mediating force, with its tentacles reaching into mediation efforts in Lebanon, Palestine and even Sudan. The strength of Qatar so far has been its ability to reach out to the fringe elements involved in these conflicts, thereby making peace talks more inclusive and hence more reliable.  Qatar’s strong military and energy relations with the United States give it a chance to forge ties with Israel and improve trust relations. Its international media projects, like Al Jazeera and the Doha debates, have given it a voice of influence in both the Muslim World and the West.
Qatar has offered substantial amounts of aid towards the Israel-Palestine conflict in the past- it delivered $50 million to Palestinians after the Gaza war. Such assured efforts towards financial backing can mean a lot to Palestinians in the future, during the processes of state building. With relations between the GCC nations growing stronger, Qatar can also enlist the support of its fellow GCC compatriots to bring about a pan-Arab effort for a two-state solution.

Once again, however, Qatar’s diplomatic turn around after the Gaza war has placed it in a less than favorable light with Israel and some western forces. Considering the seriousness of Israeli-Iranian relations, Qatar’s pro-Iranian foreign policy threatens to shut it off from a role as mediator. In order to portray itself as a practical negotiator, Qatar will have to enter into Israel’s circle of trust.

Russia – 

In recent years, Russia has returned to its position as an influential player in the Middle East. It has taken a novel approach, looking to strengthen ties with powerful yet ostracized players in the region, like Syria and Iran. In this way, Russia provides a unique angle that most partners of the Middle East peace Quartet are unable to access. The former soviet state has ties to Palestine through Iran and Syria – two countries that enjoy a favorable position with the Palestinian public at large.  Russia has supported Iran’s nuclear program, assisting the Islamic republic with its nuclear plant in Bushehr, while it has also forgiven 73% of Syria’s $13 billion dollar debt. Recent talks indicate that Moscow is looking to invest all efforts to renew negotiations between Israel and Arab states, stating clearly that it would like to have a larger diplomatic role in the Middle East.  Russia has conducted talks with 2006 Palestinian election winner Hamas, something that other international players mentioned like Japan and EU are unable to do, because they have branded Hamas a terrorist organization. Russia also has certain complicated yet undeniable ties to Israel. Russian Jews form a large part of Israel’s population – 20% of Israeli citizens in the past 2 decades have come from Russia, and Russian is the third most widely spoken language in Israel, after Hebrew and Arabic.  In fact, a large percentage of Israel’s more conservative settler population is Russian, including Israel’s current foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman. Russia could find a way to influence this particular stratum of Israeli society. Russia also has plenty to offer a future two-state solution. Its abundant gas reserves and foreign reserve funds can be invested into the Palestinian economy.  In addition, geographical proximity has given Russia both a sense of urgency to maintain security as well as a practical understanding of facts on the ground.   As a member of the Security Council and the Quartet, Russia wields substantial international force as well. If necessary, it can impose sanctions and execute immediate international security actions.

However Russia’s internal security issues with its Muslim minority population, particularly in Chechnya, and its conflicts with surrounding countries like Georgia, might hinder its efforts to get involved in the Israel-Palestine conflict. It also seems to have its hands full with Iran and Syria. Perhaps Moscow will choose to play a supporting role rather than a lead role in the peace process in order to avoid getting into murky waters with its US counterpart. Another point to keep in mind is that, despite its past history, Russia today is still an emerging nation; its primary interest is economic, and this takes priority over political motivations.  So, while Russia could provide a new international approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict, it might not choose to take a lead role in the peace process, due to conflicting interests.

What is truly required in a third party negotiator is a country strong enough to offer substantial financial, technical and diplomatic support to a Palestinian state, both during and after a two-state solution comes to fruition.  In order to provide a level of legitimacy to the peace process, the negotiator would have to be suitable to not just the Palestinians, but to the Israelis as well. Having said that, a third party negotiator would have to be able to exert a considerable amount of influence on the occupying power in order to be effective. Israel will no doubt have to make greater sacrifices for an independent state of Palestine, and so far it has not taken too kindly to direction, not even from its closest ally – the US.
Of course, in the end a multi-national effort is needed to push the Israel-Palestine peace process forward, as was the case during Apartheid in South Africa and  the invasion of Germany in WWII. In the event of a two-state solution efforts by transnational organizations like the UN, NATO and even the World Bank will be necessary, especially for post-negotiation development and security assurance through an international peace keeping force. But what is required first is a strong, influential and resourceful country that can lead this effort. The question that we truly need to address is not what, why, when or where but who. Who can play the role of a third party negotiator in the Israel-Palestine peace process?

Gitanjali Bakshi is a research analyst for a political think tank in Mumbai, India called Strategic Foresight Group (SFG). She specializes in strategic, political and security issues in the Middle East – with a focus in Conflict Prevention & Conflict Resolution. She was principle researcher for the ‘Cost of Conflict Middle East’ report, has authored several articles on security in the Middle East, and has a particular area of interest in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.