x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Israel alone cannot end the longest military occupation of modern times

The conflict in Palestine is the longest-running military occupation of modern times. To end it requires more international involvement, not less, argues Faisal Al Yafai

 Israel’s chief negotiator Tzipi Livni has said that the United States should give up being a mediator in the talks and merely become a “facilitator”. Lior Mizrahi / AFP
 Israel’s chief negotiator Tzipi Livni has said that the United States should give up being a mediator in the talks and merely become a “facilitator”. Lior Mizrahi / AFP

As the inconsequential talks that now masquerade as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process reach their long-predicted and almost inevitable end, the blame game has begun. As with the official and unofficial checkpoints before it – Camp David, Taba – each side puts more effort into appearing not to be at fault when the talks fail than they do into the talks themselves.

Now Israel’s chief negotiator Tzipi Livni has said that the United States should give up being a mediator in the talks and merely become a “facilitator”, overseeing direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

Ms Livni’s statements reflect two emerging views within the Israeli establishment, both about the role of the United States.

One is that Israel will more easily be able to hold on to its illegal West Bank settlements if the United States is not involved. Any negotiations with Palestinians will be necessarily unequal, because Israel is occupying the country. In the past, Israel has arrested Palestinian politicians and it could use that, and a myriad of other methods, to pressure Palestinian politicians to accept unequal terms.

The second view is more moderate: that is that the pro-Israel lobby in the US is so far to the right of mainstream Israeli politics that it is skewing the negotiations in a hardline direction.

But both views come to the same conclusion: less attention from the United States. And yet both reach the wrong conclusion. The only chance for a two-state solution now is with more international involvement, not less.

Israel alone cannot solve this conflict. Neither America nor Israel alone can bring a solution to the occupation of Palestine. Only with regional involvement can the most intractable issues be resolved, and the way to do that is to expand the Middle East Quartet.

In three years, Israel will have occupied Palestine’s territories for half a century, the longest occupation of modern times. That is half a century during which refugees have been denied a return to their homes; half a century when a viable Palestinian state could not be created; half a century when the history, culture and society of Palestine have been put on pause.

The peace process is non-existent and the political process is broken: it is broken in both Israel and Palestine.

But in Israel it is worse. The political system works better, but the divisions are deeper. None of Israel’s major political parties have a viable solution to end the occupation. None, indeed, appears to consider it a priority. Alone, then, Israel cannot bring an end to its own occupation.

One reason for this is the shifting demographics of Israel.

Citizens of Israel are comprised of Arab Jews (the Jews from Arab countries, mainly Morocco, Iraq and Yemen), the so-called Germanic Jews (Jews who trace their descent to or have recently migrated from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia), and Palestinians.

The Germanic Jews, more accurately called Ashkenazi Jews, are the majority in Israel, only just, although they compose the military and political elite.

Of the 23 current Israeli cabinet ministers, 20 trace their lineage to countries of the former Soviet Union, with only three to Arab countries. (There are, unsurprisingly, no Palestinian citizens of Israel in the cabinet.)

But this weight towards the Germanic Jews, the Ashkenazi, has another side, one that has become increasingly problematic in the past two decades.

The rise of the political right in Israel can be traced to two key events in the 1990s: the death of Yitzhak Rabin and the mass immigration of Jewish communities from the former Soviet Union. This community, at more than a million strong, has within two decades grown to be as large as the Palestinian community within Israel. The “Russian Jews” have changed the face of Israel, politically and socially. The community has brought with it deeply religious right-wing ideas which, because of its influence in the military and among the settler movement, has shifted the political conversation – much to the chagrin of liberal Israelis, especially in the media, and their supporters in the West.

It is not that ordinary Israelis espouse a radical view of the conflict – indeed, surveys consistently show a moderate centre to ordinary Israelis, believing in a two-state solution. But the political clout is held by the ideological right and the politicians have tilted in that direction. Even if politicians wanted to bring the state’s policies in line with international law, the religious right holds them hostage.

More regional involvement could give moderate Israelis political cover. The way to do this is to expand the Quartet to include at least Egypt and Jordan, both of which have peace agreements with Israel, as well as Turkey and, perhaps, the GCC.

Such a regional grouping would be best placed to work out some of the most intractable issues. Israel currently occupies parts of two neighbouring countries, Syria and Lebanon. Egypt and Turkey could at least be reasonably impartial on those questions.

The same applies to Jordan, which has millions of Palestinian refugees, many of whom seek to return to the homes they fled in 1967. The GCC matters because it is the only regional grouping with the financial clout to rebuild a Palestinian state.

Only with help from regional partners can this conflict be resolved. It is clear that Israel alone cannot end its own occupation.


On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai