Israeli-Palestinian Peace May Look Entirely Different From How We Imagine It

Op-eds / The Gaza Campaign

Peace between peoples doesn’t have to be a love story – it can also be based on an alliance of interests. There are places where that is already working, thanks to the process of ‘peaceful change’.

I have been a lecturer in international relations and a peace scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for the last 31 years. I am always amazed at the naïve and misguided attitude we Israelis have toward the concept of “peace,” which has become a pejorative in the national lexicon. This is the consequence of a complex and tragic situation, disappointment regarding truncated peace processes and above all decades of Orwellian social engineering to the effect that “managing” the conflict is preferable to any political solution and that “total victory” supplants the vision of the prophet Isaiah.

Part of the confusion and the natural recoil to talking about the possibility of peace on the “day after” the war in Gaza stems from a binary and also naïve understanding of the concept. Many of us, who are still in the grip of trauma, for understandable reasons, tend to think that the Arabs as a whole and the Palestinians in particular want “to throw us into the sea” (we received clear proof of that intention in the horrific massacre perpetrated by Hamas on October 7). Others think that any talk of peace must refer to “true peace,” a la John Lennon, imagining a world suffused with harmony and love, in which the Palestinians have been transformed into ardent Zionists.

But there is another possibility. Peace in its “negative” sense – namely the absence of war, rather than of conflict – is achieved out of vested interests and a sober-eyed reading of reality. There need not be a necessary link between peace and love. Negative peace is made between enemies who reach the conclusion, after a war, out of selfish considerations, that it is in their own interests to reach a political solution. After all, war has no inherent value and it does not allow for a normal life.

Peace is also the normal state of affairs that characterizes relations between most of the countries in the world, including those that are hostile to each other, such as the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, or even the United States and China nowadays. Costa Rica is a demilitarized, thriving country in Central America that does not constitute a threat to its neighbors. And as U.S. President Joe Biden constantly stresses, a completely demilitarized Palestinian state in the format of a two-state solution would bring Israel its coveted security (and peace), with the requisite guarantees.

From the time I was a doctoral candidate at Princeton University, in the late 1980s, I have been studying processes of “peaceful change” as a widespread alternative to war in international relations. The process implies a change in the existing situation, not by way of violence, but as a result of cooperation and negotiations between two or more parties. Territorially, it refers to cases of decolonization, transfer of territories between states (including as a solution for border disputes), the establishment of new states, and a change in the legal status of certain areas without the transfer of territory or sovereignty.

There are hundreds of examples of such peaceful change in the history of Europe, America, Africa and Asia, particularly in the context of decolonization. In the Israeli-Arab conflict, we can point to the successful cases of the negotiations between Israel and Egypt (1977-1979) and between Israel and Jordan (1993-1994). Imagine for a moment what our situation would be today in the absence of peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan.

Conversely, the peace negotiations between Israel and Syria, in 1991-2011, ultimately failed. Moreover, the negotiation process between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization was severed terminally, with the failure of the mediation effort by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in 2014 and the Palestinians’ application to participate in several international institutions, including the International Court of Justice. Nonetheless, as called for in the vilified Oslo Accords, there is still security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, a situation that assists the Israeli security forces in fighting terrorism.

Within the framework of my academic research, I developed a model that presents six background conditions that help to bring about successful peaceful change, together with variables in the process itself. Even if the model is primarily theoretical, it has already been used as part of the mediation efforts of the Organization of American States and the United States after the war between Peru and Ecuador in 1995, which three years later led to a peace agreement between the two countries. If since then we have not heard anything about a territorial dispute between those two South American countries, that augurs well for the future.

The background conditions are: (1) An asymmetrical distribution of power that gives one side a reason to want to preserve the status quo; (2) similar political regimes; (3) normative agreement regarding the application of international law in relation to the territory in dispute; (4) diplomatic involvement of a third party; (5) a previous war; and (6) a third-party threat to one or both of the parties involved in the negotiations.

The variables in the process refer to the degree of cooperation and reciprocity between the parties, the negotiations themselves and the differences between the sides’ interests vis-à-vis the territory (for example, one side wants “national honor” and “economic benefits,” the other wants “security”).

The October 7 massacre and Israel’s justified counterattack in the Gaza Strip shattered the illusion that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians could be “managed,” and brought about the most brutal war between the two peoples since 1947-1949. After the war – and assuming that Hamas does not continue to be sovereign in the Gaza Strip but is supplanted by an international entity for a transitional period – is a gradual process of peaceful change possible between Israel and the Palestinians?

As in the case of Israel and Egypt after the Yom Kippur War, a few years would be required before a process of peaceful change becomes feasible – but not a generation. Ironically, a tragic situation of “mutually hurting stalemate” between the two sides has made them both “ripe” for a political process that could bring about a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside Israel. On the surface, it appears as if the current impasse might be a good candidate for the proposed model, with certain adjustments, per the following favorable condition for peaceful change:

1. The distribution of power between Israel and the Palestinians is clearly tilted in Israel’s favor. Israel possesses the military, economic and even moral shoulders that enable it to be “generous” in the pursuit of its national interest, according to which only a situation of peace can guarantee recognition of its borders, once such borders have been demarcated by agreement. As such, Israel will be able to become a “normal” state that integrates into the region and makes peace with Saudi Arabia and with all the moderate Arab states.

2. Israel is (still?) a liberal democracy, at least within the boundaries of the Green Line, whereas the Palestinian Authority is not a state in the full sense of the word, and its regime is (still) authoritarian (elections were last held there in 2006). Neither of the current leaders (Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, respectively) possesses the domestic legitimacy or the willingness to move ahead in the direction of a political solution. Accordingly, we must surmise that only democratic elections in both Israel and the PA, and new leaderships, will allow for them to advance peaceful change in the coming years.

3. Both Israel and the PLO have recognized and accepted UN Resolution 181, which set out the partition plan of
November 29, 1947, and Security Council Resolution 242, from 1967, regarding “withdrawal… from territories” in exchange for peace, as expressed, among other places, in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at Bar Ilan University in June 2009. It can be said that a normative agreement exists regarding the recognition of the mutual legitimate rights of the two peoples to part of the territory of the Land of Israel/Palestine.

4. The current war has led to a considerable internationalization of the conflict. The United States, the countries of the Arab League, Turkey, the European states and the vast majority of the international community support a solution based on Resolution 181 (a “two-state solution”) and are ready to mobilize for the diplomatic effort that would be required to advance it, following Gaza’s postwar rehabilitation. Renewed ratification by the Arab states, and Israeli recognition, of the Arab League’s 2002 peace initiative could assist in the process.

5. The current war between Israel and Hamas has demonstrated tragically that it will not be possible to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians by military means alone. Hence, the diplomatic path must be tried after not having been attempted substantively for the past 30 years, due to its being torpedoed by extremist elements on both sides, including Hamas and the Jewish messianic – all of whom view the political process and the division of the land as a substantive threat to their fundamentalist, maximalist visions.

6. The external threat posed by Iran and its proxies in the “resistance axis” constitutes an incentive for the moderates in the Middle East, and also for the Israelis and the Palestinians, to embark on a path to peace and compromise. In addition to the external threat, each of the two societies also faces a considerable domestic threat emanating from the extremist elements that demand exclusive ownership of the same land.

A year ago, inside a Salvation Army store in Washington, D.C., I saw an inscription on the wall, attributed to the writer Robert Ludlum: “Hope is stronger than fear.” There are moments in international relations in which a crisis can constitute an opening for a historic opportunity. The bulk of the background conditions for a process of peaceful change between Israelis and Palestinians exist already today, even if at the moment it is mainly fear and despair that prevails between them, rather than trust. May courageous and legitimate leaders arise, among both the Israelis and the Palestinians, who can transcend themselves and the agony of their peoples, and launch a political process after the war with massive third-party assistance. That is the life imperative for both peoples who inhabit this land, neither of which is going away.

Even if this academic model at the moment sounds a bit fanciful, we must talk about peace and about change by peaceful means as a road map for a better future, and demarcate an alternative to Israel’s becoming mired in the Gaza Strip in the wake of its military occupation and the continuation of a guerrilla war of attrition without any
achievable goals.

The article was published on June 21st, 2024, at Haaretz.

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