The end of 2016 saw a number of remarkable events around the issue of Palestinian statehood.
United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334 condemned
all measures aimed at altering the demographic composition, character and status of the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, including, inter alia, the construction and expansion of settlements, transfer of Israeli settlers, confiscation of land, demolition of homes and displacement of Palestinian civilians, in violation of international humanitarian law and relevant resolutions.
The isolation of Israel from international public opinion was clear in the 14 votes in favour and the decision by the United States not to use its veto.
Five days later John Kerry’s last major speech on the Middle East as US Secretary of State, defended their decision to abstain. He re-iterated US support for Israel and reminded listeners that half of the entire Foreign Military Assistance of the USA goes to Israel – including a $38 billion package agreed in 2016. However he went on to argue that Israeli settlement activity in the Occupied Palestinian Territories was a major obstacle to peace.
But here is a fundamental reality: if the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic – it cannot be both – and it won’t ever really be at peace.
Kerry’s speech was not unusual in its public support for a two-state solution, but rather in the strength with which he argued that settlements were designed to make a two-state solution impossible and that a permanent Israeli occupation would further isolate Israel.
Despite these diplomatic moves 2016 was a very difficult year on the ground. There are now almost 600,000 settlers living in the Palestinian Territories – an estimated 75% of that figure have moved there since the 1994 Oslo peace accords. Over 1,000 Palestinian homes have been seized or demolished throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 2016 alone, impacting 1,600 Palestinians, including over 600 children. Most were destroyed due to the lack of permits, as Israel almost never issues such permits to Palestinians living in zone C as set out in the Oslo Accords (about 60% of the West Bank).
Israel’s increasing isolation is also seen beyond official diplomacy in the growing influence of the Boycott Disinvestment and Sanctions campaign among civil society, including trade unions, churches, student unions and local authorities in particular in Europe and North America. Veolia’s exit from Israel in 2015 was triggered by its 7-year, BDS-induced loss of worldwide tenders worth more than $23 billion, and was followed in 2016 by the exit of Orange, CRH and G4S (to a large extent). Federica Mogherini, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, the governments of Sweden, Ireland and Netherlands, as well as Amnesty International, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), have defended the right to advocate for BDS in the face of attempts by Israel to characterize it as anti-semitic.
Despite this activity there is little hope of diplomatic progress. Progress is only likely to be made if there is a greater recognition that the existing peace process is dead. No two peace processes are alike, however international research, including research on the Northern Ireland conflict has increased our understanding of successful peacebuilding. The work of William Zartman in the USA is premised on his argument that political actors have not negotiated peace agreements while they believed they could win militarily. If they thought military victory was possible they pursued it and tried to clean up the mess later. Zartman argues that only when a government or group, involved in a prolonged conflict sees itself in a ‘mutually hurting stalemate’ will they look to negotiate a peace agreement. The role of international mediators can often be to nudge them towards a situation where peace agreement seems more appealing than continuing its existing policy.
The current Israeli government clearly prefers the status quo of occupation and settlement building to a negotiated peace. The Palestinian Authority wants talks, but has no power to achieve them, and without an agreement cannot either defeat or adopt Hamas. Some members of the Israeli government would seek to expel Palestinians altogether, but the majority reject both that high-risk approach and negotiations for the status quo. William Zartman’s work and my own application of it to the Northern Ireland case suggest that the key to opening talks with any significant degree of success will be to make talks more attractive and make a pursuit of continued occupation and settlement building less attractive. This is a very challenging agenda for the international community, still rightly extremely sensitive of accusations of anti-Semitism. However the United Nations Resolution, the important speech by Secretary of State Kerry and the growing strength of the Boycott campaign, may be the first signs that Israel will pay a much greater diplomatic and economic price in the future if it continues to pursue its current policies. In that context a new peace process may be successful.