EU on Palestine: Is There a Credible Peace Plan?

Op-eds / The Gaza Campaign

The UN General Assembly passed on Friday with overwhelming majority a resolution which upgrades Palestine’s rights at the world body as an observer state, without offering it full membership. In the EU, opinions are still divided in the absence of any common position on the day after the on-going Israel-Hamas war.

In a statementEU’ foreign policy chief, High Representative Josep Borrellacknowledged the result of the “momentous” UN vote.

He also recalled EU’s commitment to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, based on the two-state solution, “with the State of Israel and an independent, democratic, contiguous, sovereign, and viable State of Palestine, living side by side in peace and security and mutual recognition, and with Jerusalem serving as the future capital of both states”.

It is vital to restore a political horizon towards a two-state solution, he added. The EU stands ready to work with Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and regional and international parties toward this goal. But the EU member states continue to be divided in UN votes and for Borrell, who repeatedly has complained about the lack of a common EU position, this must have come as a set-back.

Less than half of the member states voted for the upgrade of Palestine’s status in the UN (Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, France Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, Portugal, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain). Two member states, the Czech Republic and Hungary, joined those few countries who voted against it. The rest abstained, claiming that time was not yet ripe for this step.

Furthermore, the European External Action Service (EEAS), which Borrell heads, seems not to have a clue about how to end the war and jumpstart a peace process towards a two-state solution. In his remarks before the start of the Foreign Affairs Council (Development) meeting a week ago, he was asked whether he had any peace plan to present.

“At the moment, there is not, unhappily, the possibility of starting to discuss peace plans,” Borrell replied. “What we have to do is continue working for a ceasefire, the release of hostages, and then, the start of a political process. I think that the next Foreign Affairs Council will be important for that.” That meeting will take place on 27 May.

He is right that the most urgent thing right now is to pressure both sides in the war, Hamas and Israel, to agree on a hostage deal in the context of a phased ceasefire which naturally would be extended to a permanent ceasefire. A ceasefire in Gaza would likely also lead to a ceasefire in the north between Hezbollah and Israel. For this to happen, Israel must stop its limited offensive in Rafah before it escalates.

But without a credible peace plan, or rather roadmap, for an exit from the war and the transition to a two-state solution on the ground, there is no hope and political horizon for neither Palestinians nor Israelis. In fact, there is already a such a plan, “The Israeli Initiative”, which was presented last month by a policy team at two Israeli think tanks (the Mitvim Institute and the Berl Katznelson Center).

“We are doing a lot to disseminate the initiative in Israel and abroad but we feel that we are working in a vacuum,” Dr Omer Zanany, head of the Foreign and Security Policy Team at the two institutes, told The Brussels Times. “Ours is the only concrete proposal for relaunching the peace process towards a two-state solution.”

The Initiative is based on the lessons learned from the mistakes in the past and the examples of political-diplomatic turning points (such as the Egypt – Israeli peace treaty after the October war in 1973). In line with Josep Borrell’s often stated assessment, the Oslo Accords in the 90-ies failed because the lack of clear political horizon and the definition of the final goal (a Palestinian state).

Another failure was Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 without any peace agreement. It did not work and led to to a vacuum which was filled by Hamas who took over power after elections, only to violently expel its political opponents from the Gaza Strip and never more allow any elections.

Zanany insists on that Hamas with its Jihadist ideology is an obstacle to peace and must be removed from power – not necessarily by military means but by offering an alternative to them. Currently Hamas enjoys widespread support in particular the West Bank but that could easily change, as in the past, if there were to be a political horizon for the Palestinians.

The Initiative also offers Hamas a political future on the condition that the organisation accepts the Quartet’s three conditions for participation in Palestinian elections – recognition of Israel, recognitions of previous agreements with Israel and last but not the least the abandoning of the path of terrorism.

“The biggest threat against Hamas is a political solution,” he explained. “The non-military way to neutralize them is to allow them take part in the political process on the condition that they accept the conditions of the Quartet.” The Quartet refers to the Middle East Quartet (consisting of the UN, the US, the EU and Russia) which was established in 2002.

Russia is of course out of the picture now and has aligned itself with Iran. Another difference that matters is that the process will almost immediately start with reconstruction of the Gaza Strip, including economic “mega projects”, and tangible state building measures by a revitalized Palestinian Authority.

International peace conference critical

This time, setting a broadly supported political vision at the outset will provide impetus for a rapid transition from the current state of conflict to a political process which will result in a Palestinian state in a phased process which would take up to five years. “An international peace conference in the very first phase of the process is critical,” he says.

The idea of an international peace conference is also one of Borrell’s favorite ideas. At the conference, both Palestinians and Israelis will have to make commitments and decide on confidence-building measures. Israel among others will have to stop construction in the settlements and agree on a connection between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

The Initiative is based on the understanding that Israel will declare that it will recognize a demilitarized and viable Palestinian state in accordance with a stable political settlement. (In his statement, Borrell excluded the word “demilitarized”.) Omer Zanany refers to Ehud Olmert, a former Israeli Prime Minister who was forced to resign in 2008 because of corruption charges.

To Olmert’s credit, he almost succeeded in agreeing on a roadmap for peace with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the Annapolis peace conference in 2007. Olmert defined “demilitarization” as “a state with limited arms”. The two sides were very close to a solution which would have seen Israel withdrawing from almost the whole West Bank, with agreed land swaps.

Without going into the gritty and nitty of the core issues in the conflict – final status issue such as borders, Jerusalem, and the return of refugees – the Initiative leaves it to the Palestinians and the Israelis to negotiate about the peace settlement in the two final years of the process. In the meantime, he foresees a joint mechanism with all relevant stakeholders to prevent escalation over the Temple Mount/Haram a-Sharif.

Will Israel allow elections in East Jerusalem? “It will be necessary and was already foreseen in the Oslo Accords,” he replied.

“Have you estimated how many Israeli settlers would have to return to Israel in a two-state solution?” This is a major issue and tot mentioned in the Initiative but he estimates them to 100,000 – 120,000. Not counting Jerusalem, the majority of them live in cities and settlement blocs which are foreseen to become part of Israel in a “peace for land” solution including land swaps.

Do you foresee the possibility of Israeli citizens remaining in a future Palestinian state? “Too early to discuss this.“

Does the Initiative foresee a return of Palestinian refugees to the future Palestinian state or to Israel? “Surely to the Palestinian state depending on its absorption capacity,” he replied. “Israel may symbolically receive up to 50,000 refugees in family reunion programmes.”

What makes Zanany optimistic this time is that the solution will be anchored in a robust regional framework, supported by the US, the EU and moderate Arab countries that already have made peace with Israel. The goal is also to promote Palestine’s economic integration in the region and make it less dependent on Israel. “Once there is a Palestinian state, we can talk about a confederation,” he added.

That said, nothing is agreed upon until everything is agreed. He is aware of the immense obstacles in even getting started.

First of all, the current Israeli government must be replaced after elections, the sooner the better. Hamas will not disappear by itself and therefore there needs to be a change in the equation to remove it from power. Iran could also be a problem but if the Palestinian issue will be solved, they will lose its pretext to continue its destabilizing role in the region by proxies and threatening Israel.

The article was publish on May 13th in The Brussels Times.

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