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Diplomacy has failed dismally

21 May 2021

Is a new approach needed to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, asks Gerald Butt


A SEASON of unprecedented blossoming of Middle Eastern diplomacy came to an end with a crash, with the outbreak of one of the worst bouts of Israeli-Palestinian violence seen in many years (News, 14 May). The basis of some that diplomacy is now in question.

This springtime’s diplomatic successes were impressive: the Qatar crisis in the Gulf was resolved; Saudi Arabia and Iran began mending fences; and Turkey reached out to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. All this was on the back of the Abraham Accords: four more Arab states making peace with Israel.

But, in one key respect, diplomacy failed dismally. The speed at which the recent clashes in Jerusalem detonated a full-blown confrontation across the Palestinian territories — and this time even inside Israel — exposed the extent to which this seven-decades-long crisis has suffered from diplomatic neglect. For diplomats, the Israel-Palestine conflict has become too prickly to handle: too many careers have run into the ground.


THERE were moments of optimism. Henry Kissinger, addressing an ultimately doomed peace conference in Geneva in 1971, acknowledged that Israelis and Arabs had very different expectations when they spoke of peace. But, he continued, “the common goal of peace must surely be broad enough to embrace all these aspirations.”

It never has been, although Israel has come much closer to meeting its aspirations than the Palestinians. As a result, the demand for the recognition of Palestinian rights has been a constant element in peace initiatives ever since.

In 1977, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt became the first Arab leader to visit Israel — a prelude to the first Arab-Israeli peace treaty. He imagined a day when there would be no more war between Egypt and Israel, but said that, “in the absence of a just solution of the Palestinian problem”, there would never be true peace in the region. That did not stop him signing an agreement that excluded the Palestinians. The same goes for subsequent Arab-Israeli accords. They are not the key to unlocking the Palestinian problem.

Many thought that the Oslo Accords, signed by Israel and the Palestinians during the US presidency of Bill Clinton, in 1993, would provide the key. But recent events provide further evidence that this was not the case.

No wonder, then, that statesmen hang back. President Biden, in a speech outlining his foreign-policy objectives, focused on Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen (Comment, 26 February). The Israel-Palestine conflict was not on his priority list.

Part of the problem is the disparity in expectations which Dr Kissinger identified. Also, conditions for a two-state solution — the internationally accepted formula for many years — are deteriorating. In the absence of a diplomatic spotlight, Israel has expanded its presence on the West Bank, the land that would be Palestine, and its capital, East Jerusalem, to a point where no independent state would be viable.


SO, IS this the moment to rethink the whole concept? Yes, says the former Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher. As he wrote in a recent issue of the magazine Foreign Affairs:It is time for the international community to face a stark truth that, polls show, a majority of Palestinians have already come to understand: a two-state solution is no longer feasible.”

The old diplomatic approach has simply run out of steam, a report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace suggests. It is time to focus on a “rights-based approach”. This would “prioritise protecting the rights and human security of Palestinians and Israelis over maintaining a peace process and attempting short-term fixes. It would reaffirm and safeguard Israeli rights to security and peace, while paying equal attention to long-neglected Palestinian rights.”

There are already signs of change. The decision by Palestinians inside Israel (about 20 per cent of the population) to demonstrate in support of those in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the latest conflict seems to indicate a desire to move towards a common position. Israeli Arabs are up for change. Their Joint List is the third largest party in Israel. They are keen to ditch the status quo and explore new options for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Some on each side would oppose a move towards a single state. Right-wing nationalist Israelis would insist, for example, on exclusive Jewish access to Jerusalem. Other Israelis would fear, over time, a demographic imbalance of Arabs over Jews.

On the other side, those Palestinian movements that do not recognise Israel’s right to exist and insist on the return of all refugees to their homes would reject co-existence as capitulation.

But, if a two-state solution is out of reach, if Arab peace deals with Israel fail to achieve a solution to the Palestine crisis, and if further carnage is to be avoided, then perhaps a fresh diplomatic approach is worth a try.

Gerald Butt, a former Middle East Correspondent of the BBC and the
Church Times, is Middle East Adviser to Oxford Analytica, a geopolitical analyst and advisory firm.

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