The West Bank and Gaza Strip: an international protectorate?

Tony Klug
6 May 2003

Introduction: a roadmap with no vehicle

An international initiative to bring the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians to a belated but final conclusion is imperative, urgent and achievable. Moreover, it would almost certainly be welcomed, overtly or covertly, by the traumatised mass of Israelis and Palestinians for so long locked in a deadly embrace.

It is unlikely that local political leaders, left to themselves, will ever be able to agree the terms of a solution. International involvement holds the key.

In its way the current ‘roadmap’ initiative of the US-EU-Russia-UN ‘Quartet’ (published on 1 May 2003) recognises this. It has several clear merits, as follows.

It keeps alive vital goals that should not be buried.

It foresees an end to “the occupation that began in 1967” and the termination of all forms of violence and terror.

It reaffirms the principle of “land for peace” in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions.

It looks forward to “the emergence of an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbours.”

It upholds “agreements previously reached by the parties” and endorses the “Saudi Plan” – ratified by the Arab League Summit in Beirut – that calls “for acceptance of Israel as a neighbour living in peace and security in the context of a comprehensive settlement.”

The roadmap establishes what it calls “a realistic timetable for implementation”, involving three phases, culminating in “a final and comprehensive settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by 2005.” This timetable is hopelessly unrealistic – in itself a minor point, but an indication of the wishful thinking and doubtful premises that permeate so much of the plan.

Another notable example is the belief that the violence may be permanently ended while the occupation remains in place. But the major – and fatal – weakness is the roadmap’s lack of an effective enforcement mechanism. The Quartet will only monitor, evaluate, assist and facilitate.

This places the roadmap, in its present form, essentially within the tradition of previous plans – including the Mitchell, Tenet and Zinni initiatives, to name three of the most recent – that likewise depended on incremental ‘confidence-building’ steps, backed up by little more than outside exhortation. There is no compelling evidence to indicate that this plan will avoid a similar fate.

The plan relies upon the goodwill of both parties and their commitment to a common outcome that they must also be capable of delivering – assumptions that are far less grounded today than they were during the more optimistic but ultimately fated Oslo period. As a “performance-based plan”, it once again hands an effective veto to enemies of a peaceful settlement on both sides who have never hesitated in the past from sabotaging progress when given the chance.

Yet momentum in its favour appears to be building up. It is said to be the ‘only game in town’. And who dares defy the four-power Quartet under the vigorous leadership of the US? So the Sharon government supports the roadmap – subject to a mere one hundred amendments. The Palestinian Authority (PA) is supportive too, even though the “provisional borders” of their future state will certainly be far less generous than the ones they rejected at Camp David in summer 2000, let alone the ones that came close to being agreed six months later at Taba.

Almost everyone is paying lip-service to the roadmap, but few really believe in it. No one wants to be blamed for its eventual failure. It is indeed ‘the only game in town’.

As it stands, the roadmap looks set to lead nowhere. If it is to achieve its destination, what it needs is a sturdy, bullet-proof vehicle – an unassailable institutional framework – which no amount of traps, diversions or land mines can derail while it drives toward a comprehensive peace based on parameters already well-known.

An International Protectorate as vehicle

The vital missing vehicle is a transitional International Protectorate for the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This international authority – which would formally replace the Israeli occupation authority as the legal power – could be seen either as an alternative to the roadmap or as a complementary framework to enable its implementation.

The proposal is based on seven pillars, which I believe to be more or less self-evident. Strung together, they seem to point to one compelling conclusion.

The situation is grave – and set to get worse

Peace between Israelis and Palestinians, it is widely held, is further away than ever before. Never has there been such fierce deadlock, mutual animosity or utter despair.

On one side, there is an occupation authority committing grave human rights violations and contravening the Geneva Convention more or less at will, with the apparent support of the majority of the Israeli population. On the other side, Palestinian militants are continuing their campaign to blow up Israeli civilians, again with the apparent support of the majority of the Palestinian population. Each side lives in daily terror of the other, with casualties mounting.

The outlook is even more grim. The prolonged siege of Palestinian towns and villages is leading to a humanitarian disaster, which a seriously impaired Palestinian Authority is incapable of remedying without considerable outside help.

Potentially irretrievable divides are emerging, which the unfolding situation in Iraq may well exacerbate. It is possible that prospects for a peaceful settlement – based on two states – will be buried indefinitely. Rival ideas of a one-state solution are resurfacing in some circles on both sides. These are not only ill thought out and unrealistic, but regarded as deeply threatening by one side or the other.

On the broader scale, the situation carries a potential threat to inter-communal relations in other countries, to regional stability and world peace. The international community thus has a direct stake in its resolution, and minimally the right – if not the obligation – to intervene.

The situation has never been closer to a resolution

This is the other side of the paradox. According to polls, most Israelis want to withdraw from the territories, end the occupation, evacuate most settlements and live peacefully with a Palestinian state. In parallel polls, the Palestinians have consistently indicated their willingness, under these conditions, for reconciliation with the Israeli people and state.

What is more, there is an unprecedented international and regional consensus on the contours of a final peace accord, centred on two viable states, the evacuation of most Israeli settlements, Jerusalem as the common capital, the Clinton parameters of December 2000 regarding some of the finer details, a fair and practical solution to the refugee issue based primarily on absorption into the Palestinian state with suitable compensation, and the prospect of Israel’s full acceptance into the wider region under the Saudi Plan.

All this is the fruit of a decade of negotiations. We know how to resolve this conflict. There is light. So why can’t we have peace now?

The parties cannot solve the problem themselves – they have no exit route

First, there is a complete breakdown of trust between Israelis and Palestinians, such that any concession either side may conceivably contemplate would instantly be dubbed ‘reward for terrorism’ or ‘surrender to repression’.

Second, there is nothing the Palestinians could really offer a right-wing Israeli government (other than effective capitulation) that would satisfy its territorial ambitions and ostensible security needs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, or its wider political and ideological agenda.

Recasting and reforming the Palestinian administration will not prompt the current Israeli government to change its spots. Nor will a further excising of Palestinian textbooks, a prolonged abatement of violence, or even spontaneous democratic transformations throughout the Arab world. These ends, each doubtless desirable in its own right, may be cited expediently. But they are more pretext than reason for this Israeli government’s dissension from the international consensus on territorial and related questions.

Third, the current Israeli government has nothing to offer the Palestinians that would come close to meeting their minimum aspirations for an end to occupation and independent statehood. Perceiving no prospective benefit from its standpoint, a Likud-led government may be expected further to evade or obstruct negotiations – whether they are in the form of direct talks, an international peace conference, the dispatching of yet more toothless envoys or any other such device.

Against this background, reviving negotiations at this time is pointless

Thus international pressure to revive substantive negotiations, within existing parameters, would almost certainly founder. Yet more time would be frittered away.

None of this is to imply that Israel’s security problems are fake. Threats to the existence of the Israeli state in the past from a plurality of Arab states were common, authentic and sometimes blood-curdling. More recent assaults on the lives and limbs of Israeli citizens by Palestinian terror groups have been bloody and horrific, and the menace is still ever-present.

The impact of such threats and deeds on a people whose extinction has been threatened, in a different context, within living memory, and who saw it carried through almost to the end, is especially poignant. It would be imprudent for would-be peacemakers to make light of this.

For all these reasons, many Israelis are deeply concerned about the security implications for their country, and for their personal safety, of an Israeli retreat from its current positions. It is this that accounts primarily for the support of roughly two-thirds of Israelis for Sharon’s strong-arm policy of re-invading Palestinian towns and villages and dealing harshly with their inhabitants.

Coincidentally, two-thirds is about the same proportion that favours an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories: an apparent paradox that reflects the visceral fear of ordinary Israelis. While ready to give up the territories, they are not prepared to relinquish them to the Palestinians. This is the political legacy of the suicide bomber.

Even a more “dovish” government would find it politically difficult to relinquish the West Bank and Gaza Strip to a Palestinian administration. A party that stood on such a platform is unlikely to attract the support of the electorate in the first place, a supposition that appears to have been borne out by the results of the recent election.

Indeed, the Israeli Labour Party under its former leader, Amram Mitzna, had advocated direct negotiations with the PA, including with its president Yasser Arafat. Should these fail to reach agreement, he favoured a partial unilateral withdrawal from the territories. But such a move would entail no commitment on the part of the Palestinians, including on security questions, and would fail to satisfy their political aspirations, supported by international opinion, for a full end to occupation and the establishment of a viable, contiguous state based on the 1967 borders. Nor would it lead to an end of conflict.

Furthermore, many Israelis view the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon under Ehud Barak (prior to his summit at Camp David with Yasser Arafat) as having rewarded Hizbollah violence and thereby encouraged a strategic turn to violence by the Palestinians. The result has been a reluctance to repeat such a measure.

All these factors have contributed to the present stalemate. What is required now is a mechanism to reconcile the aspiration of ordinary Israelis to withdraw with their fear of the consequences of so doing – and with the need to secure the future of the Palestinians. As indicated, the two peoples, left to their own devices, have no current prospect of achieving this. The answer lies not with gentle coaxing toward further incremental measures – a serially discredited method – but with a more direct and comprehensive approach.

Squaring the circle – an International Authority

A transitional International Protectorate would deal directly with the heart of the issue by taking immediate steps to end the Israeli occupation, rather than attempting to establish another diversionary procedural mechanism which somehow, eventually, might meander toward the same outcome.

An International Protectorate would provide urgent, impartial protection to each side from the violence of the other, and generally create a breathing space. For this, it would need serious muscle. But the aim is not to contain the conflict but to end it. So the security role is not enough. It must be accompanied by a political mandate.

Among the protectorate’s specific tasks would be to assist the Palestinians in restoring basic services, reviving civil society, and rebuilding national institutions, with the explicit end of fostering the establishment of an independent, democratic Palestinian state after, say, three-to-five years.

It would generate development funds, monitor national elections to international standards, oversee the training of security forces and other vital personnel as appropriate, and generally ensure good governance.

It would facilitate and mediate final-status negotiations, initiate a refugee return and rehabilitation programme to the nascent Palestinian state, and generally co-ordinate an array of internationally sponsored projects that the drive towards independence is likely to require and excite.

Virtually none of these vital tasks could be carried out properly – or indeed at all – as long as Israel remained the occupying power, both because it would continue to provide a magnet for Palestinian attacks and because it would retain an effective veto over any initiative.

These two factors, together with the persistent contravention of the Geneva Convention, further underline the cardinal need for a ‘switch in mandate’ through a once-and-for-all change in the identity of the occupation authority.

Variations on the theme of an International Protectorate have been put forward by different proponents of the idea over the last year or so, particularly as regards its structure and scope.

One way to envisage its structure is in terms of three tiers. The first, upper tier would confer international legitimacy and legality on the Protectorate and its scope of authority through a UN Security Council resolution. The latter would also chart the broad parameters of a projected final settlement based on the aforementioned international and regional consensus.

The resolution would designate, as the second tier, a ‘Mandate Authority’ to oversee the work of the Protectorate. A likely candidate for this authority would be the ‘Quartet’ of the US, EU, Russia and the UN, possibly expanded to include other appropriate powers.

The third tier, the Protectorate administration, would be divided between the civil and security tasks, with military personnel drawn from countries assented to by both the Palestinians and the Israelis. One proponent, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, has suggested designating the security task to Nato. Alternatively, it could fall to a ‘coalition of the willing and acceptable’, which may include troops from the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, possibly Turkey, possibly Egypt, possibly Jordan or others. It is hard to imagine this working without the US playing a prominent role.

As for its scope of authority, again there are different views. For example, Martin Indyk, former US ambassador to Israel, has suggested that the mandate would initially embrace Oslo Areas A and B, comprising some 42% of the West Bank, with a possible extension to 52% to provide better contiguity.

But this minimal model is unlikely to attract much support among the Palestinian mainstream which may fear the boundaries of the Protectorate, without firm assurances to the contrary, will delimit the borders of their future state. This could lead to a further layer of mistrust and risk the Protectorate being perceived and treated as another hostile occupation.

To allay these fears, it is envisaged here that the Protectorate, under the authority of the UN Security Council, would claim formal jurisdiction over all the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in place of the Israeli occupation authority.

It would then pragmatically delegate back, in part or in full, interim de facto authority over designated areas of territory or programme to either the Israeli occupation authority or the Palestinian Authority. The aim would be for agreement among the parties at every stage where possible, based on a general picture of the end-game but without prejudice to matters of detail to be determined in final-status negotiations.

Over the years, international interventions have played a key role in various conflict situations around the world, their mandates varying with circumstances and needs. Examples include Namibia (1989), Cambodia (1992), Rwanda (1993), and more recently East Timor (1999) and Kosovo (1999). Within the region, a multinational task force in Sinai and a UN force on the Golan Heights have operated successfully for many years.

A strategic use of international pressure

It may safely be said that this proposal – like all proposals that would deny their agenda – would meet with the vehement opposition of the current right-wing Israeli government. To win its compliance, it is highly likely that considerable international pressure will be needed.

However, this would be true for any major proposal. How else, for example, could the present Israeli leadership be prevailed upon to engage seriously in the Quartet’s roadmap? How else could it be forced into participating in an unwanted international conference – an important feature of the roadmap – or into sitting face-to-face with unwelcome Palestinian negotiators? And how else, once there, could it be influenced into making any sort of meaningful concessions?

Yet, if misdirected, there is a danger of international pressure being wasted, discredited and easily undermined. The focus of any pressure needs to relate to the end-game, not to the devising of new forums for direct or indirect negotiations as if setting up the process were somehow an achievement in its own right.

Once sufficient international political will is engaged – still seriously lacking at this time – a point may finally arrive when a Likud-led Israeli government would have to choose between acquiescing in the International Protectorate idea or facing a progressive sequence of sanctions designed to force its hand. In these circumstances, even such a government may divine the writing on the wall and enter into negotiations to try to salvage what it may from the new, sharper, reality.

The repercussions for Israeli society of an end to a thirty-six year occupation of the land and lives of a neighbouring people and the return to Israel of large numbers of settlers, some of them militant and bitter, will be mixed and profound and far too numerous to contemplate here. Naturally, there will be dislocations. But the continuation of the occupation is itself causing severe internal rifts. They are made worse by intensive economic distress within the country due in part to the financial cost of sustaining the occupation, which would not be possible without huge US annual subventions. It cannot be assumed that these will be so readily forthcoming in future years.

If surgery is delayed for much longer, the combination of the external and internal pressures may put in peril the future nature, if not the very existence, of the Israeli state. This is a consideration that any Israeli government – whatever its political character – will have to weigh seriously sooner or later.

What advantage is there for the different parties?

The proposal for an International Protectorate, once disseminated and debated, could have far-reaching effects within both Israeli and Palestinian societies. Within Israel, by driving a wedge between the security and ideological arguments, it could help crystallise the issues, isolate the ideologues, and inject a new political current around which disparate groups may unite and campaign. It could provide the bemused pro-peace constituency with a badly needed fillip.

Within Palestinian society, it could drive a parallel wedge between the mass of the population who are desperate for the Israeli occupation to end so that they may get on with the business of building their state, and the ideological merchants who will only be satisfied (if they ever will be) when Israel is extinguished from the political and geographical map .

For most Israelis, unburdening themselves from the occupation will be an enormous relief. Daily fear of terror attacks should markedly recede and they may be able to travel freely again, both at home and abroad. A serious peace process and normalisation of relations with their neighbours and the wider Arab region should lie ahead. Relations with the rest of the world should pick up again. A united – if shared – Jerusalem would at last be recognised as Israel’s capital city. Embassies would move there, tourists return, the economy revive and the social fabric stop tearing itself apart. Above all, it would restore the sense of a future.

In some Palestinian circles, the proposal may be regarded initially as yet another device for delaying independence. But in reality, far from statehood lurking around the corner, the drift is in the opposite direction. The Palestinians of the occupied territories today are effectively a nation incarcerated. The termination of the Israeli occupation and the entire paraphernalia of repression would mean a new start – politically, materially and psychologically.

It should reverse the creeping humanitarian disaster and herald the end of crippling physical restrictions. Daily fear should also be removed from their lives. The Protectorate should lead to a practical and acceptable resolution of the refugee problem and to a fully functioning, independent, democratic Palestinian state taking its place as a full member of the United Nations. For Palestinians too, it would restore the sense of a future.

The global benefits could be huge. If, finally, it lanced the abscess of this conflict and led to its resolution along lines now well-known, it would remove a major thorn in international, regional and, frequently, personal relations. It would – indubitably – require a major commitment from the international community in terms of political, economic and military resources. However, the potential rewards are vast and the opportunity surely should be grasped while it is still available.

If the roadmap is to avoid the same ignominious fate as its predecessors, it should be amended to incorporate an International Protectorate as vehicle and enforcement mechanism. Failing this, the Protectorate idea should be further developed and held in reserve against the future collapse of the roadmap.

Meanwhile, even in the context of other regional crises, a groundswell in support of an International Protectorate over the West Bank and Gaza Strip may be built up: both in preparation for later participation by the US and other powers, and as a means of influencing global policy in this direction.

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