As of January 2024, the war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip is evolving into its ‘third stage’, from aerial bombardment and a massive ground operation into low-intensity warfare and the planned establishment of buffer zones, with or without a limited Israeli military presence in the enclave. The manner of the war’s conduct will determine the range of political options in its aftermath. Significant political-diplomatic discussions regarding the “day after” are essential, despite the Israeli government’s sweeping refusal to do so.
Given the political unwillingness and/or inability of the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships to advance peace, the dire circumstances in the Gaza Strip, and the international and domestic repercussions for several key actors (including the United States, Egypt, and Jordan), the potential benefits of an International Peace Conference (IPC) immediately following the war should be explored.Such a conference could grant domestic and international legitimacy to drawing up a coherent road map for the de-escalation, stabilization, demilitarization, reconstruction, and governance of the Gaza Strip in the immediate term. Moreover, an IPC should also address the ultimate diplomatic resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on UNGA Resolution 181 (the 1947 Partition Resolution) and the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian State in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank on the basis of UNSC Resolutions 242 (1967), 338 (1973),1515 (2003), and 2334 (2016).
International peace conferences usually take place in the aftermath of wars, though sometimes they are convened as a deliberated diplomatic effort to end wars in long and protracted conflicts. They serve as useful diplomatic tools for peacemaking in the form of conflict prevention, management, and resolution. Moreover, they can serve as instruments of peacebuilding regarding issues such as reconstruction, governance, and transitional post-war security and civilian regimes. They also enable focused attention on the issues at hand, bringing together all relevant actors in a multilateral diplomatic setting sponsored by trusted conveners in order to foster diplomatic momentum, formally end wars and establish peace treaties, set road maps and timetables, and even firm deadlines for their implementation, and formulate an agenda to kickstart substantial and sustainable peace processes.
Various IPCs have been held in the aftermath of crises and wars in order to seekan end to the state of permanent conflict involving Israel, the Palestinians, and neighboring Arab States, with mixed results. These include the Lausanne Conference, 1949; the Geneva Conference, 1973; the Madrid Conference, 1991; the Annapolis Conference, 2007; and the Paris Conference, 2017. Past IPCs have not been resounding successes nor complete failures. The Lausanne Conference (1949) was a multilateral forum of negotiations that failed to transcend the limits of the Rhodes Armistices and reach a permanent peace between Israel and its neighbors. Similarly, the Geneva Conference of December 1973 did not result in any breakthrough after the Yom Kippur War (Syria did not even participate). The Paris Conference (2017) failed mainly due to the absence of both Israel and the Palestinians. In a more positive vein, Madrid (1991) and Annapolis (2007) established useful diplomatic frameworks for multilateral and bilateral negotiations rather than constituting negotiating fora in themselves. The logic of an IPC to produce a formal road map and agenda seems to be even more relevant these days, given the urgency of planning “the day after” even before the formal end of the Gaza war.
The Madrid Conference kickstarted negotiating processes that matured into a peace process with the Palestinians and an Israeli-Jordanian peace agreement. Based on this relevant and successful precedent, an IPC following the Israel-Hamas War is a necessary, even if not sufficient, political-diplomatic componentof a road map for Gaza’s rehabilitation and negotiations on a peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The immediate concerns regarding the reconstruction, governance, security, and demilitarization of the Gaza Strip are intrinsically linked to the eventual resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a two-state solution, sincethe political vision (and future reality) is a pre-condition for mobilizing international actors in the immediate term for the reconstruction and governance of the Gaza Strip. Looking ahead, the Gaza Strip’s political future must be organically linked to the West Bank’s. An IPC could constitute a “threshold event” setting a diplomatic clock for transition from the immediate to the medium term, to be completed within 3-5 years of a ceasefire ending the Israel-Hamas war until the signing of peace agreements between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and between the State of Israel and the State of Palestine.
Israel and the Palestinian Authority must participate in the IPC in the immediate aftermath of the war, ruling out the option of elections as a precondition for the event. Despite the need for new leaderships, the required domestic political changes for democratic elections in both Israel and the PA might take months, if not years.
The peace conference will be mostly a ceremonial and symbolic event (without substantive negotiations during its 4-5 day duration) attended by relevant members of the international community, led by the United States and the other permanent members of the UN Security Council. Its agenda should include:
As was the case in Madrid (1991), the peace conference will formally launch bilateral and multilateral negotiating channels in which Israel and the Palestinians (in the bilateral track) will take part under the supervision of Quartet members (the United States, the UN, the European Union, and Russia), in addition to China and the countries of the Regional Quartet (Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia). At the same time, multilateral negotiating channels will be devoted to discussing pressing issues of Gaza’s reconstruction and, in the longer term, cooperation on regional issues such as economic development, the environment, and arms control.
Absent a political horizon based on a peace conference producing immediate change, Israel may find itself mired for years in the Gaza quagmire, against its will. The peace conference proposed here is an integrated (hybrid) model. Itsagenda should include related issues of immediate humanitarian and logistical assistance to the Gaza Strip, the establishment and empowerment of a temporary international authority for the administration of the enclave during a transitional period of several years, and the empowerment and strengthening of the Palestinian Authority. The agenda should also include substantive negotiations ultimately leading to the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel, as well as additional peace agreements between Israel and the Arab states, first and foremost Saudi Arabia.
The article was printed in the Jerusalem Post on January 23.