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UNITED NATIONS INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE IN SUPPORT OF ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN PEACE PANEL 4

Peace is possible – frameworks for a way forward - United Nations Office at Geneva, 29 and 30 June 2016
30 June 2016

Drawing lessons from the past, panelists offer suggestions to move the peace process forward

(Issued as received)   GENEVA, 30 June -- In the third plenary of the United Nations International Conference in Support of Israeli-Palestinian Peace, a number of participants presented ideas on what the next steps should be to restart the peace process.  Speakers came from a wide array of backgrounds, examining the roles of the United Nations, parliamentarians, and civil society organizations. 

Speakers were Mr. Alvaro de Soto, former United Nations senior official, experienced mediator and former United Nations Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process; Mr. Ayman Odeh, a member of the Israeli Knesset, and the head of the Joint List, the third largest party in the Israeli parliament; Mr. Yair Hirshfeld, former negotiator and Senior Lecturer at Haifa University; Mr. Eckhard Volkmann, Deputy Director of the Inclusive Peace and Transition Initiative;

Mr. DE SOTO offered general lessons from his experience in the UN.  His advice on third party actors in the peace process boiled to two rules:  1) “don’t jump into empty pools”, implying that participants must choose their battles very carefully rather than accepting any challenge that came along; and 2) “Make sure that every third party effort had unity and integrity”, i.e. that the situation was ripe for change, the timing was right, and it did not dilute or attempt to replace other efforts already underway. Multi-lateralism, in his view, was over-rated.

Mr. ODEH spoke about the role of parliamentarians in support of the peace process as well as his identity as a Palestinian citizen of Israel.  Prime Minister Netanyahu, he noted, wanted to exclude Arabs from participating in the Knesset, which he found deeply disturbing and alienating. 

Mr. HIRSHFELD discussed the potential of track II methods, that is, informal diplomacy and dialogue that was designed to supplement traditional diplomacy when it was underway or to start a diplomatic process if it wasn’t.  In the search for Israeli-Palestinian peace, he advocated seven activities that he believed must all be pursued. One cannot propose, he said, what cannot win elections nor gain public approval, so nothing that was against the interests of Israel should be suggested. 

Mr. VOLKMANN spoke on the role of civil society organizations in the search for peace.  After research over 10 years, his group had identified seven roles that were found to be most effective. 

Mr. DE SOTO drew on lessons he learned in his career of over 30 years in the United Nations.  He joined the Secretariat of the 5th Secretary General, Javier Perez de Cuellar, in 1982.  It was, he said, one of the most productive periods of peacemaking in the 70-year history of the United Nations.  The United Nations even contributed to the process of ending the Cold War during the years 1988-1991. Now retired, this was, he noted, the first time that he had been invited to speak at the United Nations when he did not have to advance an official position or provide a disclaimer about his views.  As such, he felt he could speak without restraint.

To begin, he offered general reflections on UN peacemaking, that is, as a third party interlocutor that was mandated to somehow advance a negotiation for the purposes of peace.  He followed, he said, two rules. 

First, “don’t jump into empty pools”.  According to Mr. de Soto, the most successful third party diplomatic actors avoided the temptation to offer good offices for anything and everything that came up.  “You have to choose your battles,” he explained.  This consisted of a balance of timing, assessment of the opportunity for success, the “ripeness” of the situation, and similar factors. 

This was not as straightforward as it might seem, he said.  For example, ripeness might include a situation in which there was a record of solid failure.  When stakeholders had reached such a “mutually hurting” point of stalemate, he explained, they might realize it would be more costly to continue as they were rather than negotiate.  Timing was also crucial, he said:  if you failed at the wrong time, it could inflict more lasting damage over time than having not undertaken the mission.

Second, any third party effort should ensure that it operated under conditions of “unity and integrity”.  This meant that, if an acceptable mediator or facilitator were already engaged in the process, it would probably be counterproductive to attempt to join the effort.  For example, his team waited to join negotiations to end a conflict in Central America only after the American diplomats had given up. If one ignored this rule, he argued, it could result in the protagonists playing third party interlocutors off each other, or shopping for the approach they preferred.

He also thought that multi-lateral or collective efforts were over-rated in the search for solutions – they tended to blur strategies, perhaps even blunting them. They could also dilute or disperse responsibilities, again undermining clarity. 

Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it represented a particularly difficult challenge.  There was, he said, “too much history, too little geography”.  To paraphrase Winston Churchill, he continued, “They had more history than they could digest”. 
The Quartet seemed like a clever idea; bringing together different attributes of its members, but it also created inconsistencies. In 2006, after the “Hamas imbroglio” had damaged the legitimacy of the process, he explained, the United Nations found itself in the awkward position of attempting to correct previous mistakes in Gaza while working as a member of the Quartet.

Often, he said in conclusion, the principal parties should bring about changes of their own, internally.  Israel had its most rightwing government ever, he explained, and it was unlikely to transform itself.  That meant that the evolution of it might be very slow, for example, perhaps only the younger generations of Jewish and Israelis can effect the necessary change. 

Mr. Ayman ODEH spoke about his role in the peace process as a Palestinian Israeli legislator in the Knesset.  Arabs, he said, represented 20 per cent of Israel’s population.  He did not, he said, feel as if he were 100 per crent Israeli because he was not Jewish, but he wanted to feel 100 per cent citizen, to belong fully.  This represented a crucial challenge to the prospects of Israeli-Palestinian Peace. “Israel cannot,” he said, “obtain peace if it doesn’t take into account the Arabs in Israel.”  On their own, of course, the Israeli Arabs cannot accomplish much through the political process.  What they need, he said, was an alliance with the left to counter the government of Benjamin Netanyahu.

As leader of the opposition, Mr. Netanyahu had 56 Members of Knesset, which consisted of a 120 total.  For a moment, it seemed possible that Arab members might have helped to decide who would become Prime Minister.  However, Mr. Netanyahu recognized the danger and took steps to ensure this would not occur. “He went into the Knesset waving an Israeli flag,” he recalled, “inciting fear.”  He also took steps to exclude Arabs from parliamentary action, which Mr. Odeh found alienating and dangerous. 

What must be done, he concluded, was to increase voting, hopefully as high as 75 per cent turnout.  Palestinian Israelis also must fight for legitimacy as full citizens – their exclusion only favored the right, Mr. Odeh observed.  Finally, the occupation must come to an end via peaceful means.  “We must exert democratic pressure to do it,” he argued. “The situation harms both peoples morally, economically. We need hope.”

Mr. Yair HIRSHFELD offered his prescriptions for track II diplomacy as part of the peace process.  The definition of track II, he explained, referred to a specific kind of informal diplomacy, which could assist official (track I) diplomacy.  It was not independent, intending to replace governments, but normally worked in cooperation with governments to move the peace process forward.  Only on rare occasions, he said, should track II attempt to build coalitions to counter government policy or behaviors.  The government of Prime Minister Netanyahu, he argued, was one of the cases where coalition building might be necessary.

To address the current situation, Mr. Hirshfeld identified seven activities that should be pursued both together and sequentially.  It was designed to build confidence through the pursuit of common interests.

First, you needed to build a strong organizational structure for peace, which he was currently developing. Second, you cultivate a moderate majority, speaking to the “big centre”.  This would require the creation of a movement of both Israelis and Palestinians between 200-300,000.  While not enough to sway elections in the country, it would enable group action.  Third, the economic development of the West Bank and Gaza should be pursued, including the development of infrastructure, housing, and industry as it is in the interest of Israel to have a prosperous Palestinian State.  In particular, he said, Area C of the West Bank must be developed. Fourth, the two-State solution must be advanced through dialogue and activism.  Fifth, you must work to clarify a roadmap that participants could agree upon and monitor the progress they were making. Sixth, the traditional and religious elements of both societies had to be respected and legitimacy with them established.  This would require careful and patient dialogue.  Seventh, the elephant in the room had to be addressed – the settlers.  Some resolution had to be found, he argued.  At the moment, he believed, 25 per cent of the settlers would be willing to move out of homes in the cause of peace, 40 per cent were undecided, and the remaining 40 per cent would “never move”. 

Mr. Hirshfeld also mentioned what could not be done.  “No Israeli government would commit to remove the settlers,” he said, that won’t win elections.  And “Sanctions against Israel won’t work”.  It was “wishful thinking” to imagine otherwise. 

The Israeli military was strong, but Palestinians know that the demographics favored Arabs. In addition, “Palestinians hold the key to the Arab world for Israel,” he argued. However, they shouldn’t obstruct everything because everyone would be left worse off.  “We are all on one ship,” he said. “We need hope and legitimacy.”

Mr. Eckhard VOLKMANN, Deputy Director of the Inclusive Peace and Transition Initiative, shared the research of his organization regarding civil society as an actor in the peace process.  A 10-year long research project compared the effectiveness of contributions made by civil society organizations. The results, he said, were backed by statistics.

The most effective actions included protection against violence; monitoring human rights; monitoring implementation; advocacy; processes of socialization and the promotion of inter-group social cohesion; the facilitation of dialogue; and service delivery.  Having a clear strategy on why you want civil society to help, he said.

Mr. Volkman cautioned that there were several challenges that could limit the effectiveness of these actions.  Lack of political will could lead to stalemate or slow progress.  The non-implementation of agreements also hindered the actions.

He concluded with a description of what his organization could do. They could aid in the negotiation with the powers that be.  They also broadened dialogue, offering alternative and out-of-box thinking. Systematic process design was also a service they offered.  Finally, they can advise on whom to bring to the table, not only power players but also the marginalized who could contribute to the process. 


Discussion

Addressing Mr. de Soto, Mr. Shtayyeh said that the United States and France could not define what their exact role should be – honest broker, facilitator, etc.  Mr. Shaath stated that Norwagians never over-estimated their ability to influence, which made them effective facilitators, a role they were better suited to than the United States as strategic partners of Israel. He observed that the US presence in international or multi-polar fora could be stultifying.  Mr. Hirschfeld, he said, seemed to be a dreamer; the problems he addressed – exploitation of the occupied territories, the siege of Gaza, the takeover of the seas, control of internal borders – represented formidable problems of the worst type. 

Cuba singled out the example of the recent Colombia agreement, which if successful would make Latin America a zone of peace. The parties in Colombia, he noted, acted in accordance with international law and the UN Charter. The process appeared fair and sustainable, acknowledging sovereignty, the independence, and territorial integrity of the parties.  He argued that the experience might be applicable in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. 

The representative of the State of Palestine addressed Mr. Hirschfeld, saying that Israel should simply stop settlements now.  “We must negotiate about this monster,” he said, “but it must stop now.”

Youth with a Mission, a faith-based NGO, asked panelists what role they thought youth could play in the peace process. She mentioned that Israeli authorities blocked her organization from working in the occupied Palestinian territory. “We are blacklisted,” she said. 

South Africa said its experience was relevant.  The Quartet was a big failure, he said, asserting that it cannot lead as presently constituted.  

Ms. Golan said that statistics showed that a majority Israeli citizens wanted the two-State solution, as did Knesset Members, but a majority also did not believe it possible. The peace camp in Israel, she said, was looking for what to do.  While she found some of Yair Hirschfeld’s points hard to believe, she respected them –she observed that he had proposed ideas in the past that she did not subscribed to but that he ended up as an architect of the Oslo process.

Mr. Odeh responded to a question about the definition of the Israel as a Jewish State. He argued that Palestinians should enjoy equality rather than be treated as second class citizens. 

Mr. De Soto noted that while the United States couldn’t claim impartiality as the Norwegians did, under the right circumstances it might be able to “deliver Israel”.  The Security Council should lay down parameters for solution in a new resolution, offering a vision of the final status.

Mr. Hirschfeld responded that he had to work with the current government. Peace initiatives couldn’t, he reiterated, go against Israeli interests.  He wasn’t sure that a new Security Council resolution would be useful. 

Closing remarks

The Chair of the Palestinian Rights Committee thanked participants for the   active participation and exchange of ideas.  It underscored, he said, the role that UN could play in the search for peace. 

Mr. Miroslav Jenča, Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs at the United Nations, stated that the conference proved once again that Israeli-Palestinian peace was possible.  A comprehensive agreement to implement the two-State solution was the only way forward.  A sustainable peace, he said, would be achieved only through the promotion of an environment conducive to the process – with confidence-building, both parties living up to their commitments, and the resolution of core issues.  Despite the setbacks, most still believed that the two-State solution would enable Israelis and Palestinians to live side-by-side. The United Nations was ready to support any measure or initiative that would move the process along.  Recently, he noted Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon visited leaders in the region as well as witnessed the conditions in Gaza.

The Quartet report, he hoped, would soon be released and would reinforce the notion that the two-State solution represented the only way to peace. The settlement activities must end.  Palestinians, he concluded, must have the right to build a future on their land.   Hope will create conditions to re-start negotiations, whereas continued frustration might only lead to violence.

H.E. Mr. Riyad Mansour, Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine to the United Nations in New York, expressed gratitude to all participants.  The conference was being convened in Geneva at this precise moment because, he said, there was no more time left – if nothing was done, the situation threatened to become explosive.  The French and the Quartet recognized that, and the revival of the Arab Peace Initiative was also a sign.  Even the Swiss got involved, he observed.  The Palestinians, he said, must put house in order as well.  As witnessed by the spike in youth violence since last October in Jerusalem, the situation was a ticking time bomb.  Jerusalem and the holy sites were the focus of today’s alienation – Palestinians, he said, “can’t take it any more, and after 50 years of occupation, the violence is spontaneous and unplanned.”  Palestinian trust, he said, can be earned by taking practical steps – stopping the settlements was most important.  The Quartet must see this – if its members did not, he argued, they were irrelevant. 

There were many models and much experience to guide the process, he concluded.  It appeared that a multi-lateral processes similar to the Madrid process worked best in the region, particularly with the success on the Iran file.  It was possible that in spite of the political difficulties in Israel, peace was possible. Without peace, he said, “the house will burn down”.


For use of the information media; not an official record

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