By Andrew Wilson
Nothing would please the international community more than to see a comprehensive solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The world is attentive to this long-running conflict not merely out of concern for Palestinians or for Israel’s security. Rather, it understands the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a festering sore that inflames the entire body of nations. The violence of the last decade, from New York to Jakarta, from London to Tehran, has been fueled in part by passions arising from the conflict over this land, which is holy to three great religions.
Having established the Quartet (Russia, the U.S., the EU and the UN) and commissioned it to work with both parties for a negotiated solution, the international community would like to see their compliance with the Quartet’s agenda: to begin with, that each side present clear and comprehensive proposals on borders and security. The Palestinian side put one forward in November. So far, the world still waits to hear what the Israeli solution might be.
This issue was raised during the exploratory talks in Amman, but the results were ambiguous at best. Conflicting news reports in recent days about what Israeli envoy Isaac Molcho did or did not say about the border that Israel purportedly intends to propose only strengthens the case for a complete and public presentation of the borders it envisions.
Yet, Israel’s willingness to even offer a proposal remains murky. On Wednesday, it announced plans to retroactively legalize what had been illegal dwellings at the Shvut Rachel outpost and to approve the construction of 500 new units at Shiloh, both settlements deep inside the West Bank. These were only the latest in a steady drum-beat of Israeli moves over the past five months aimed at expanding its presence in disputed territory that many would expect to become part of a Palestinian state.
Responding to the Shiloh announcement, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Robert Serry called the actions “deplorable” and said they “move us further away from the goal of a two-state solution.” He also noted that the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon had chastised Israel for such activity during his visit earlier in the month.
This latest Israeli expansion makes the Quartet's goal of receiving a border proposal by both sides more relevant than ever. Thus, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said, “We want to see clearly a comprehensive settlement that delineates borders and resolves many of these issues.” We applaud him for saying this, particularly just prior to the AIPAC conference when the US is expected de rigueur to reiterate its support for Israel. We hope that President Obama will underscore the concerns raised by Toner this point when he meets with Prime Minister Netanyahu at the White House on March 5.
Still, where are the Israeli statements that might testify to its intent to present its proposals on borders? Israel cannot hold off this request indefinitely by simply holding its tongue on the matter. We would expect the United States, which speaks highly of its friendship with Israel, to scold its friend where scolding is warranted.
Palestinian officials, however, are not helping matters by threatening to leave the negotiating table, because the other side is not meeting its conditions. Instead, they should be holding Israel’s feet to the fire to put forward its proposal, insisting that communications progress and not falter. According to the Quartet’s agenda, the major Palestinian demand, a settlement freeze, will only be negotiated after the proposals on borders are submitted, Hence the ball is still in Israel’s court to submit a mapped-out proposal on borders. If the Palestinians can show resolute patience and continue to publicly express their hope that Israel will eventually comply with the Quartet, it will further concentrate the minds of the international community to require that Israel make good on its stated commitment to at least fulfill this first step in the peace process. By walking away from the table, the Palestinians only give Israel an excuse to do the same.
Nevertheless, the responsibility lies with the world community to hold the conflicting parties accountable if it expects both to comply with the Quartet’s stated agenda. Governments can no longer stand by and wait for this to happen. It is time for the international community to plan measures to ensure such compliance.
Looking back at the Camp David Accords that led to the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, it was the role of the Americans to persuade, cajole, push, and coerce the two sides until they would sit down and sign an agreement. It didn't matter that everyone could see that a treaty was in both Israel’s and Egypt’s best interests. There were too many obstacles to reaching an agreement for Israel and Egypt to surmount them on their own. Without America’s carrots and sticks, no agreement would have been possible. Today we again need a carrots and sticks approach. And who can provide them other than the international community, particularly the nations of the Quartet?
What might some of these carrots and sticks be? The Europeans, collectively Israel's largest trading partner and already seething over Israel’s unbridled settlement expansion, are privately discussing enacting trade sanctions against Israeli industries operating in the West Bank. They have a range of options to penalize Israel economically, some of which they are testing against Iran. Another sort of stick might be a legal process, whether through UNESCO or other international agency, alleging criminal acts.
Europe would rather not employ the blunt instruments of trade sanctions, boycotts, legal proceedings and the like, particularly against a friend and democratic ally like Israel. In a more perfect world, the majority of Israelis would be cognizant of the suffering of the Palestinians and understand that continued occupation only worsens the outlook for their own nation. A minority does understand, and fight doggedly. But when a people have grown accustomed to the status quo, and are too self-absorbed in their own insecurity to feel for the plight of those they oppress, then sometimes the right thing to do for friends is to give “tough love.” The economic pain that would ensue from measures to disrupt or curtail trade with Europe would wake up the Israeli people to the cost of disregarding the European conscience.
At the same time Europe can admonish the Palestinians that if they want to attain a state they should avoid behavior antagonistic to Israel, such as the recent pronouncement about Arab rule over Jerusalem. Europe can require the Palestinians to be better negotiating partners, as a condition for their support.
Employing such sticks is not out of the question. The nations of the EU continue to deplore settlement expansion while turning a sensitive ear to Palestinian pleadings. Last week Haaretz columnist Carlo Strenger reported on a Berlin conference that questioned whether there is any longer a commonality of interest between Germany and Israel, or whether Israel is gradually turning into a liability. One year ago Netanyahu could boldly lecture President Barack Obama to the applause of a conservative Congress, but now he has to contemplate the possibility of an Obama victory in November. Today, public calls for boycotts are still the preserve of the far left. But events are moving rapidly, and Israel should be under no illusions.
When President Obama meets Prime Minister Netanyahu next week, ostensibly to talk about Iran, he should make it clear that the United States regards the solution of the Palestinian issue to be a high priority among America’s national interests. He should tell Netanyahu that he will not stand in the way of European punitive measures if Israel continues to drag its feet. On the other hand, Obama can promise economic assistance to help Israel with the expenses of settling an agreed border, including incentives for settlers to relocate and funds to provide them with new housing within Israel.
The clock is ticking towards April 3, the date when Israel has promised to make its presentation according to its interpretation of the Quartet’s agenda. Until then, the world community should be doing everything in its power to encourage Israel and the Palestinians to build a working relationship with each other in which to present their positions. Then it could offer international mediation in the spirit of further cooperation, friendship and assistance, building on the presentations of both parties.
The foot-dragging and stalling have gone on long enough. Whatever the situation of construction in the settlements, Israel must come clean with its own vision for a viable two-state reality, so that the world may assist it and its partner for peace. It must present an initial map. Peace will not be found in either silence or in a policy that never presents a border; such a policy would undoubtedly be refuted by the governments of the world.
In the absence of positive moves by both sides involved in this long-standing conflict, sooner or later pressure will be applied for compliance. To think otherwise is to ignore the current global environment.
Andrew Wilson is co-author of the Citizens Proposal for a Border between Israel and Palestine, an independent initiative to draw a map based on the principles of fairness, contiguity, access, minimizing dislocation of the population, and enhancing conditions for economic development.
[Photo courtesy of Rusty Stewart]