Illusions and Delusions about Peace in the Middle East

A commentary by Andrew Whitley, with introduction by Sir Vincent Fean

I commend to you Andrew Whitley’s thoughtful analysis, below, of current British Government policy on the Israel/Palestine conflict. Andrew asks if our Foreign Secretary’s recent visit signals sustained Government commitment to a just end to the 1967 Occupation, or was a walk-on part of little consequence. Either way, Britain has responsibilities from the time when she made contradictory promises and ruled in Mandate Palestine. Today Britain can exert influence, if she chooses to do so.

The PLO Leadership pressed Dominic Raab now to recognise the second state  – Palestine – in the two-state outcome which Britain maintains is right for both peoples. The Balfour Project continues to advocate Government recognition of Palestine alongside Israel. Mr Raab’s response to Abbas? It’s when, not if – but it’s not now. Which begs the question: if not now, when? The two-state outcome is disappearing before our eyes: British action is needed.

Mr Raab urged the PLO to re-engage with Israel, including resumed security cooperation, and to re-examine President Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’, which discards international law and  does not bear serious examination. It was never intended as a basis for negotiation; it is an instrument of coercion of the Palestinians. Can Britain rediscover her own voice and work for an outcome which respects international law and UN Security Council Resolutions? Hope springs eternal – and with hope, a determination to press our Government to do what is right.

Sir Vincent Fean, chair of Trustees, Balfour Project

Illusions and Delusions about Peace in the Middle East

Andrew Whitley
Balfour Project Trustee

Barely 10 days after President Trump made the surprise announcement that, with US help, Israel and the UAE had agreed to “normalise” their relations, Dominic Raab is this week making his first official visit to Israel and Palestine as Foreign Secretary. The Consulate-General in Jerusalem – the UK’s interlocutor with the proto-state Palestinian institutions in Ramallah – said his visit would “affirm Britain’s willingness to help facilitate a return to Israeli-Palestinian dialogue as a step towards a lasting peace”.

Cajoling the Palestinians into resuming direct talks with Bibi Netanyahu’s government has been a consistent theme from London for some time. It chimes with what Washington, too, has been urging. Influential Arab voices such as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia have also been saying the same privately to the Palestinian leadership and to foreign visitors. The unmistakeable message to the Palestinians from all of them is: Get on the train, fast, before it is too late; it is already leaving the station. If you do not act now you will be left behind. Johnson and Trump may be at odds these days over policy towards Iran, but they are in close lockstep over Israel and its improving relations with the Arab world. It seems they also concur on how to go about tackling the unresolved Palestinian question.

What is there to object to in resuming bilateral peace talks? After all, at the end of the day, the conventional wisdom goes, it is Israelis and Palestinians who will have to live with each other, to share the land and its resources.  To try and answer that question, one must first ask what the British Government has in mind when it presses President Mahmoud Abbas to reopen direct talks after a breach of six years. One must press for the details, including on what role the United Kingdom itself envisages playing and in what international context.

First, on what substantive basis should talks resume? Should they be based on Trump’s “Deal of the Century” unveiled in January – a plan widely denounced as providing cover for further Israeli land grabs in the West Bank? The British Prime Minister and his Foreign Secretary have repeatedly said that the plan can be a useful starting point for peace talks. Is the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem then going to be the venue once again for clandestine talks-about-talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators? I would not bet on it.

Should the talks be based on existing, international-agreed, parameters and Security Council decisions which Britain helped craft, starting with Resolutions 242 and 338 after the June 1967 war and continuing to UNSCR 2334 of December 2016, which bans Jewish settlement building? This is what the Palestinian leadership itself and many others continue to insist on.

In the theatre of the absurd that passes for much of international diplomacy these days, a more accurate way of viewing the new Israeli/Emirati relationship is to see them as a couple in a clandestine relationship who have finally decided to go public with their declaration of love.

What about the Arab Peace Initiative (API) launched by then Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz in 2002? As recently as 2015, most Arab states were still working jointly on promoting this initiative, which they saw as an international support mechanism for the Palestinians. Today many Israelis and foreign observers consider the API to be a dead letter. They would note – correctly – that when the UAE agreed to normalise relations with Israel there was no mention of it. It would be a big mistake though to ignore widespread popular sentiment in the Arab world against the UAE/Israel agreement. For all the spin from Abu Dhabi about the UAE having normalised relations with Tel Aviv in order to forestall Israeli annexation of the West Bank, most Arabs see the deal as a blatant betrayal of the Palestinian cause. Arabic social media commentary has made these opinions crystal clear.

In the theatre of the absurd that passes for much of international diplomacy these days, a more accurate way of viewing the new Israeli/Emirati relationship is to see them as a couple in a clandestine relationship who have finally decided to go public with their declaration of love. The US-brokered accord is about many things: responding to a perceived mutual threat from Iran; Israel’s and the pro-Israel lobby’s enduring relationship with power in Washington; trade, investment, and technology; and the Emirates’ appetite for ever more advanced Western weaponry. But it is not at all about the Palestinian cause. And the British Government assertion that the agreement will give a “much needed boost for peace in the region” is likely to prove mere wishful thinking, with little substance to back up the claim.

During an era when the news coming out of the Middle East is unrelentingly bleak, it may appear churlish to be dismissive of what, to many, will seem like a rare ray of sunshine. The Balfour Project believes strongly in Israel’s right to live in peace and security in the region, to be accepted and integrated into its neighbourhood. But it believes equally passionately that one must not, and cannot, deny or ride roughshod over Palestinian rights – individual and collective, human or national – in the process. That is the trouble with the Johnson Government’s rush to take advantage of what it calls “new dynamics” resulting from the UAE agreement with Israel to press the Palestinians prematurely into resuming talks.

Deeply divided and at an historically weak point, the Palestinian national movement is not ready today to enter into unconditional, and unprepared, talks with a vastly more powerful adversary – one moreover that will still have the full weight of the United States behind it regardless of who wins the November elections. Nor should talks be on the basis of the Trump plan with its archipelago of bantustans masquerading as a Palestinian “state”. This plan and the Israeli threat of de jure annexation of much of the West Bank, temporarily suspended by Netanyahu in response to the accord, are mortal threats to international law.

While waiting to see whether there will be a new tenant in the White House next January Britain could usefully start to prepare the diplomatic ground for a more structured peace initiative that has a better chance of success. This would, of necessity, be one that could (a) command a broad consensus in the international community and (b) be based on human rights, international law, equity, and mutual security. To get there, though, will require real leadership and a willingness by Britain to forge its own path, not to simply continue playing Sancho Panza to America’s Don Quixote. The United States remains the indispensable actor on the stage of the Israeli/Palestinian drama; but that does not mean other states cannot make valuable contributions, not least by pressing Washington to be more even-handed.

To regain credibility on the stage it once dominated as the Mandate power for Palestine, Britain should abandon failed policies. Not the least is its self-defeating refusal to deal with Hamas, the party that won the last, internationally recognised, elections held in Palestine almost 15 years ago. It should then press Fatah and Hamas into real political reconciliation, so as to be able to present a broad common front towards Israel ahead of any new peace talks. It should also encourage Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) to forge a new working relationship. (The Palestinians’ unilateral withdrawal from “security coordination” with Israel is having many unintended negative consequences for ordinary Palestinians.) The two sides cannot avoid dealing with the other. Britain should also press Israel to transfer all of the taxes it collects on behalf of the PA without any unlawful confiscations. This money, after all, is the PA’s lifeblood. Without the ability to pay its civil servants and security personnel, the entire shaky edifice of Palestinian state-building under occupation will likely soon collapse, leaving Israel to deal with the mess. In that worrisome scenario a new violent intifada could easily erupt, one made even more dangerous for being effectively leaderless.

For its part, the Palestinian leadership should dispense with its old ritualistic reflexes such as calling for emergency meetings of the Arab League and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation whenever it faces a crisis, as if these states were capable – or willing – to pull Palestinian chestnuts out of the proverbial fire. The UAE has just proven the contrary. Critically, what is missing today, though, is a real sense of Palestinian agency: to end the occupation and fulfil the century-old, collective dreams of self-determination.

The Conservative Government’s newfound wish to get involved again in the thick of an issue one of its Labour predecessors tossed to the United Nations in 1947 should be welcomed by all who care about the UK helping bring a modicum of peace to the region. Parliamentarians from all four nations of the United Kingdom, especially those in the Houses of Commons and Lords, should thus pay close attention to what happens next – and stand ready to call the Johnson government to account if the gap between its rhetoric and actions yawns too large.

Is the Raab trip going to be the harbinger of a period of much more active, muscular, and sustained British diplomacy, as befits its proclaimed post-Brexit role on the world stage? Or will it prove to be just another walk-on part in this mad theatre of illusions and delusions called the Middle East? We fervently hope events will show it is the former, not the latter.

Andrew Whitley is founder and executive director of Geo-Political Advisory Services (GPAS), a UK-based consultancy that works on the alleviation of armed conflict in the Middle East and Asia. He was previously Policy Director and interim Chief Executive of The Elders, the organisation of global figures founded by Nelson Mandela. He has worked as a journalist with the BBC and Financial Times and later, with the United Nations. He was the founding director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division.

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