Time for an Israeli-Palestinian Rambouillet ?
In deciding to comment on the conflict in Gaza, I’m reminded of the old joke from the time of the siege of Sarajevo, in which someone is alleged to have written on a Sarajevo wall, ‘Comrade Tito, please come back to us’, and someone else then wrote below, ‘I am not so stupid’. The bitterness of the polemics over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is certainly on a par with the bitterness of those over the former Yugoslavia, which is enough to make even a Balkan veteran such as myself think twice before venturing onto the Gazan terrain. Yet it is increasingly difficult to remain silent in the face of the escalating calamity of the Palestinian and Israeli peoples.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, in essence, a national conflict similar to those over Bosnia, Kosova, Cyprus and Turkish Kurdistan. Yet for all the similarities, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is also unique, in the peculiar symmetry of the legitimate causes of each of the two sides. There is or was no justice whatsoever in Turkey’s oppression of the Kurds, in Serbia’s oppression of the Kosova Albanians, in Turkey’s dismemberment of Cyprus or in Serbia’s and Croatia’s dismemberment of Bosnia. Any discussion of these cases must proceed from the basis that the respective instances of national oppression or aggression, in each case, are injustices that must be addressed, and that the injustices carried out or threatened by the other sides in each conflict are simply of a lower order of magnitude. For example, no amount of irritation at Greek Cypriot behaviour in recent years, or sympathy for the current Turkish government’s honourable attempts to reach a settlement over Cyprus, can obscure the fact that the Turkish partition of Cyprus is an injustice that should never be recognised. In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, the absolute legitimacy of the Israeli quest to survive in the face of sections of the Arab and Muslim world that do not recognise its right to exist is matched by the absolute legitimacy of the Palestinian quest for national independence and statehood.
Thus, it does not make sense to attribute to either side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the role of national oppressor equivalent to Serbia with regard to the Kosova Albanians or Turkey with regard to the Kurds. Israel’s horrific oppression of the Palestinians is an absolute, and the existential threat to Israel represented by Arab and Muslim rejectionism is also an absolute. Hamas is at once the representative of the oppressed Palestinians of Gaza and the spearhead of the Islamist campaign to wipe Israel off the map. This peculiar symmetry may be attributed to the fact that while on the one hand the conflict is the fault of the Arab states, on account of their refusal since the 1940s to recognise Israel or reach a just settlement as well as their refusal to absorb the Palestinian refugees, on the other hand, the overwhelming weight of the suffering in the conflict has been borne by the Palestinian people. The legitimacy of each side’s case makes for exceptionally rigid discussions about the conflict.
Paradoxically, however, the very intractability of the Palestinian conflict is matched by the obviousness of what the solution should be in the eyes of most reasonable people: firstly, two states based on Israel in its pre-1967 borders and a Palestine comprising the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, with any departure from these borders being based on entirely equitable territorial swaps; and secondly, a Palestinian abandonment of the right of return in favour of just compensation for refugees, matched by just compensation for the Jews expelled from Arab countries after 1948. Such a settlement would be eminently fair and should be welcomed by moderates on both sides, as the alternative to a continuation of the conflict that is increasingly likely to lead to calamity for at least one of them, possibly both.
This being so, the international community should rescue Israel and the Palestinians from their current impasse by imposing a just peace of this kind upon them. An element of coercion is necessary as, without it, domestic opposition might make it politically difficult for the leadership of either side to accept such a compromise. Given the equal justice of both the Israeli and the Palestinian causes, to be acceptable to both the parties and to the international community, the coercion would have to be applied to both sides.
A possible model for the imposition of a fair compromise on Israel and the Palestinians might be the 1999 Rambouillet negotiations to resolve the Kosovo dispute. Less important than the actual compromise offered was the method of compulsion, involving a threat against both sides. As Tim Judah recounts: ‘While the Serbs were being told that if they failed to sign up to the draft proposals they would be bombed, the Albanians were, in effect, being told that if failure was their fault, they would be left to the tender mercies of the Serbian security forces and paramilitaries.’ This follows the dictum of Conor Cruise O’Brien, that ‘Conflicts don’t have solutions. They have outcomes.’ In the case of Israel and the Palestinians, the international community should impose a just settlement by threatening to come down like a ton of bricks on whichever side rejects the settlement. But this should not, let us be categorical, involve a threat of direct military action against either side.
A possible punishment for a rejection by the Palestinians might be international recognition of Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank settlements and support for its crushing of Palestinian resistance by any means necessary, coupled with military support against any retaliation from the Arab or Muslim world. Should the settlement be accepted by Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian leadership but rejected by Hamas, the Palestine Liberation Organisation could avert this punishment by joining with Israel to drive Hamas out of the Gaza Strip, after which the path to a settlement would be clear. Conversely, a possible punishment for a rejection by Israel might be a unilateral recognition of an independent Palestine in the proposed borders and punitive sanctions against Israel, coupled with international support for Palestinian efforts to drive the Israeli Defence Forces from the West Bank. Hopefully, such a double deterrent would ensure acceptance of the settlement by both sides, but if it did not, there would at least be an outcome.
If this proposal sounds harsh, I should reply that allowing the conflict to fester, leading eventually to an attempt at a more radical solution by one side or the other, would be much more harsh.
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