Israel / Palestine: What Is to Be Done Now?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

John V. Whitbeck

International lawyer; former adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team in negotiations with Israel

Today’s issue of LE MONDE, France’s preeminent newspaper, features a front-page editorial entitled “Israel-Palestine: the renunciation of Obama.” This editorial contends, realistically, as follows: “At the conference center of the city which the Israeli authorities consider as their indivisible capital, the president of the world’s greatest power dressed up as artfully as possible a renunciation. The White House no longer wishes to be bothered with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” (“Au Centre de conférences de la ville que les autorités israéliennes considèrent comme leur capital indivisible, le président de la plus grande puissance mondiale a habillé le plus habilement possible un renoncement. La Maison Blanche ne veut plus s’occuper du conflit israélo-palestinien.”)

A similar appreciation has been offered by a former British ambassador in the Middle East: “One is reminded especially as we enter Easter Week of Pontius Pilate,” famous for publicly washing his hands of further involvement in a bothersome and frustrating situation.

Since the American involvement with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has for decades been entirely negative, designed (successfully) to prevent the end of the occupation and the achievement of peace with some measure of justice, this should constitute unmitigated good news for all who genuinely seek the end of the occupation and peace with some measure of justice.

However, the question which results is “What is to be done now?”

One possibility would be for the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah to reconsider and act upon the course of action proposed in my “Open Letter to President Abbas,” published in February 2012 and transmitted below.

Alternatively (and preferably), France, the UK and other willing European states could take the lead, as the French and British were discussing doing before Obama announced his planned trip, which froze (hopefully only temporarily) this potential European initiative.

This initiative could now be revived, with European states announcing firm parameters or terms of reference, substantially consistent with international law and relevant UN resolutions, for achieving a definitive Israeli-Palestinian peace based on two states and inviting Israel and Palestine to send duly empowered representatives to a specified city on a specified date to undertake, with full European support, continuous, intensive and final negotiations on all permanent status issues with a view to reaching a definitive peace agreement, on the basis of two states and in accordance with such parameters or terms of reference, no later than a specified and firm deadline date (probably no less than 6 months nor more than 12 months after the date of commencement of the negotiations).

To make this initiative credible and fruitful, the European states would also need to issue a firm commitment, in the event that no definitive peace agreement were reached by the firm deadline date and either Israel or Palestine then chose to shift its goal from partition of the territory of the former Palestine Mandate into two sovereign and independent states to the realization of a single democratic state, free of any form of discrimination and with equal rights for all, in all of the territory of the former Palestine Mandate, to understand, accept and support such choice and to work with all concerned parties to achieve the realization of such a single democratic state as expeditiously as possible.

The most obvious reason why Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have failed for the past 20 years is that “failure” has always constituted success for Israel, since the only consequence of “failure” has been a continuation of the status quo — indeed “status quo plus,” since “failure” has always permitted further land confiscations and settlement construction and the creation of further “facts on the ground” intended to render the occupation even more permanent and irreversible — and this has always, in Israeli eyes, been the best of all possible worlds.

If any renewed negotiations are to offer real hope, rather than continuing to be a farce and a fraud, the consequences of “failure,” in Israeli eyes, must, for the first time, be substantially worse than the consequences of success — indeed, ideally, nightmarish, as the prospect of being confronted by a morally pure and internationally supported anti-apartheid movement seeking full rights of citizenship in a single, fully democratic and non-racist state would surely be.

With the United States having now effectively abdicated its prior monopoly stranglehold on the “Middle East peace process”, one must hope that Europe will now recognize that its moment has come – and will seize it.

If Europe fails to do so, Palestine must seize the initiative and set the agenda itself.


An Open Letter to President Abbas

February, 2012

Dear President Abbas,

There was visible and audible euphoria at the UN General Assembly in September when you announced Palestine’s application for UN membership, at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters in October when Palestine was admitted as a member state and at UNESCO again in December when the Palestinian flag was formally raised in your presence (and mine).

Since then, nothing …

It is understood that you agreed with the Quartet to freeze Palestine’s diplomatic initiatives until January 26 to permit a final effort to initiate meaningful negotiations with Israel. Predictably, that effort failed. However, January 26 has long passed. Still, nothing …

I shared your surprise that, with nine of the states on last year’s UN Security Council having already extended diplomatic recognition to the State of Palestine, you could not line up even the nine affirmative votes for Palestine’s admission as a member state necessary to force the United States to choose between a veto (infuriating the Muslim world and much of mankind) and an abstention (infuriating Israel and its American supporters).

However, even though the turnover of five non-permanent members on January 1 does not appear to have changed the eight-affirmative-votes-only reality, this does not mean that there is nothing that Palestine can constructively do to recover the initiative and positive momentum of last fall.

You could proceed promptly to the UN General Assembly to obtain an overwhelming vote to upgrade Palestine’s status from “observer entity” to “observer state”. The memberships of the UN and UNESCO are substantially identical, and only 14 states voted against Palestine’s admission as a UNESCO member state. Logically, even fewer states should oppose “observer state” status for Palestine at the UN.

Immediately after having Palestine’s “state status” confirmed at the UN, you could make a formal — and historic — statement comprising at least the following three elements:

(i) The announcement of the merger or absorption of the Palestinian Authority into the State of Palestine;

(ii) An undertaking by the State of Palestine, during a one-year period in which the State of Palestine would seek in good faith to achieve a definitive agreement with the State of Israel on all modalities for ending the occupation on a two-state basis, to assume and perform all of the functions, rights and obligations previously assumed and performed by the Palestinian Authority under existing agreements between the PLO and the State of Israel, including security cooperation if the State of Israel is willing to cooperate with the State of Palestine; and

(iii) A commitment by the State of Palestine, in the event that a definitive agreement with the State of Israel on all modalities for ending the occupation on a two-state basis is not reached within this one-year period, to consult the Palestinian people by referendum as to whether they prefer continuing to seek to end the occupation through partition, with a sovereign Palestinian state on only 22% of the territory of historical Palestine, or  henceforth seeking the full rights of citizenship in a single democratic state in all of historical Palestine, free of any discrimination based on race, religion or origin and with equal rights for all.

If there remains any hope of actually achieving a decent two-state solution on the ground, presenting the issue and the choice, both before Israel and before its Western supporters, in this manner should stimulate the most intensive effort imaginable to actually achieve it. If, even with the issue and choice presented in this manner, a decent two-state solution were to prove impossible to achieve, the Palestinian leadership and people, having acted reasonably and responsibly, would be standing firmly on the moral high ground, ready to shift their goal to the only other decent alternative with the maximum conceivable support of the rest of mankind.

During this decisive year, you could also seek admission of the State of Palestine, successively, to several more carefully chosen UN agencies, such as the World International Property Organization, the World Health Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency, as well as to the International Criminal Court, the International Court of Justice and, potentially, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and even the Commonwealth, choosing those targets which both appear most constructive in practical and strategic terms and in which success is highly likely.

You could leave the Security Council waiting, always open for a vote at a moment of your choosing, perhaps after a change of government in a member state. In this context, you will surely have noticed that François Hollande, tipped by the polls to become the next French president in May, has included in his campaign booklet “My 60 Pledges for France” the following pledge: “I will support international recognition of the Palestinian state.”

Necessarily, you would stop issuing “Palestinian Authority” passports and start issuing “State of Palestine” passports.

By proceeding in this way, you would affirm the existence and reality of the state in multiple ways, through a steady succession of manifestations of statehood, while building a tangible record of “successes”, avoiding any visible “failure” and keeping Palestine and the imperative need to end the occupation on the “front burner” of the world’s attention.

In addition, an overwhelming General Assembly vote in support of “statehood status” for Palestine, coupled with a steady succession of “facts on the ground” manifestations of statehood, would make it more difficult for Security Council members to resist or block full UN membership for Palestine at such time as you may deem it opportune to seek it.

As always, I wish you courage and wisdom in seizing the initiative and setting the agenda so as to achieve, finally, some measure of justice and a decent future for the Palestinian people.

John V. Whitbeck

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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