Israel-Palestine: a man, a plan, and an outcome

Tony Klug
29 July 2009

"We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now" - Martin Luther King

A succession of flawed peace initiatives has left the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the verge of becoming irresolvable. The current political developments on both sides - including the assumption of power in the wake of the election of February 2009 of the most hawkish government in Israel's history, and continuing Palestinian factionalism - are reason enough for deep despondency. Yet for one reason alone, there is a perceptible if cautious optimism in the air: the election of an inspirational United States president, Barack Obama, who (amid many other policy challenges) is committed to making a serious effort to resolve the conflict.

Tony Klug is an analyst of middle-east affairs and a special advisor on the region to the Oxford Research Group. He is the author of How peace broke out in the Middle East: a short history of the future (Fabian Society, 2007)

This article is based on the author's pamphlet, Visions of the Endgame: a strategy to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict swiftly to an end (May 2009), published by the Fabian Society in association with the Oxford Research Group.

Also by Tony Klug in openDemocracy:

"The West Bank and Gaza Strip: an international protectorate?" (7 May 2003)

"Israel-Palestine: how peace broke out" (5 June 2007)

"Two states for two peoples: solution or illusion?" (21 July 2008The intense diplomatic activity now underway - reflected in the simultaneous visits to the middle east of several leading officials of the Obama administration - is evidence of this serious engagement. But the slightly more hopeful mood will be of passing interest only unless it is used to bring the dispute swiftly to an end. Since the core parties are manifestly unable to resolve the conflict themselves, and in the light of its propensity to pollute international relations, the entire international community (among which, for historic reasons in this region, the US has a predominant role) has an obligation to act quickly and decisively.

Such an intervention would almost certainly be welcomed, overtly or covertly, by huge numbers of Palestinians and Israelis desperate for a way out of their seemingly intractable problem. In this sense, the long-term interests of the US, Israel and the Palestinians coincide  - but it is up to the US government to bring them into alignment. 

Accordingly, a robust international strategy needs to be devised and boldly pursued with the aim of attaining substantial and irreversible progress within the first two-to-three years of the Obama administration. No one involved can afford to replicate the drawn-out methods, conceptual flaws and repetitive errors of previous efforts. Another failure will effectively close the door on hope, with potentially disastrous consequences.

The need for speed

 "The only alternative to coexistence is co-destruction" - Jawaharlal Nehru

To end the conflict, two things have to be got right simultaneously: the destination and the strategy. But this is a double-act never yet achieved.

For some three decades following the Arab-Israeli war of June 1967, there was neither a viable nor a commonly agreed destination. To the extent that the conflicting parties projected eventual outcomes during this period, they were either deficient or misconceived - the Allon plan and "Jordanian option" for the Israelis; a version of the "one-state" idea for the Palestinians; United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 for the international community.

The common flaw was their failure to respond to the key question at the heart of the conflict: how to resolve a bitter clash between two charismatic national movements? To Resolution 242, the Palestinians were just homeless refugees, not a stateless nation. To the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) charter, the Jews were merely a religious minority, to be treated accordingly. To Israel's former prime minister Golda Meir, "it was not as though there was a Palestinian people...they did not exist".

A solid international consensus - backed by majority Palestinian and Israeli opinion - eventually emerged, around the turn of the century, in support of two viable states as the backbone of a solution. Thirty vital years had been heedlessly squandered before the recognition finally dawned that any proposed solution that failed to accommodate the minimum national aspirations of either people - let alone both of them - was incongruous and bound to fail. 

So, finally, the international community got the destination essentially right. But it still had to get the strategy right - and this it has persistently failed to do. There has been any number of initiatives - the Oslo process, the "roadmap", the Annapolis summit among many other dead-end, stillborn or toothless plans. But whatever their respective merits, they rested on too many doubtful assumptions, were too vague about the objectives or allowed the parties to evade their commitments through a lack of effective enforcement-mechanisms. When each eventually collapsed, the reversion to the status quo inevitably benefited the state that already existed, enabling it to continue chiselling away at the territory of the putative other, bit-by-bit eroding the feasibility of the only destination that made sense.

In consequence, even the most pragmatic Palestinian opinion has been losing faith in the two-state outcome. Variations on the one-state theme have been coming back into vogue, despite the tough prospect embracing the idea would entail - engagement in a bitter long-term struggle with uncertain consequences in search of an objective that has not been clearly thought through, remains contested and is not necessarily regarded as achievable.

In parallel, Hamas rockets, which have terrorised the population of southern Israel for years, have deepened the sense among Israelis that peacemaking is futile - that Palestinians are not serious about peace and that a state in the West Bank is merely a device to attack Israelis from closer range and finish them off. 

This mutual disenchantment has been putting the hitherto consensual destination under severe strain. Irretrievable collapse would usher in an era of indefinite strife. At this point, the only way to restore confidence in the destination is to move rapidly towards it. 

The need of the moment

 "Things do not happen. Things are made to happen" - John F Kennedy

The challenge then is to formulate a strategy that will be effective in both fashioning the endgame and swiftly achieving it, irrespective of the political complexions of the parties to the conflict. In a situation where everyone knows both where they are and (more or less) where they need to get to, the key is to lay the track from here to there.

In this endeavour, we should be careful not to be sidetracked by issues which, while important in themselves, are not directly instrumental in resolving the conflict. Stimulating the West Bank economy, relaxing internal travel restrictions, reducing the number of checkpoints, releasing some prisoners, even easing the blockade of Gaza are essentially humanitarian measures that may make Palestinian life under Israeli rule more bearable - but they do nothing to end the occupation. 

Moreover, moves by other governments to restrict the supply of certain weapons or spare parts to the combatants (mainly affecting Israel) or enforcing the accurate labelling of goods from West Bank settlements may be a legitimate way of registering public disapproval of certain practices, but again are marginal to advancing a final agreement. 

However, a total freeze of all further settlement growth - backed up, if necessary, by firm enforcement measures - is a different matter, owing to the potential of this issue fatally to subvert any peace process based on two entities. It is a good sign that President Obama has so far taken a firm stand here.  However, not even this matter should be allowed to impede the progress of a broader peace strategy, which urgently needs to be prosecuted in parallel. Otherwise, it would mean effectively handing a veto to one of the parties as a reward for its diversionary tactics. 

This said, an authentic invitation to the settlers to stay if they wished under Palestinian state sovereignty would take the sting out of much of the issue. Some may take up this offer, some may accept compensation for returning to Israel, some might remain in settlements that are transferred to Israel as part of an equitable territorial swap. Rather than threatening hundreds of thousands of settlers with the dubious prospect of the Israeli military attempting to drive them out by force, a menu of choices as indicated coupled with an end to all subsidies and a definitive deadline for the withdrawal of army protection following a peace agreement could be more practical and effective. A new coalition government in Israel may need to be assembled, with Kadima replacing the far-right parties, to initiate such steps; or it may require a new election.

From some pro-peace circles, the call has gone out to speedily resume negotiations between the parties and revive mutual confidence-building measures. But there is no reason to believe that negotiations between these innately unequal parties will be any less of a sham than before or that the trust ostensibly built between an occupying authority and an occupied people will be any less hollow than in the past. These are dead-end tracks and should be strictly avoided, at least initially. The time for bilateral negotiations has come and gone. Without firm outside guidance and pressure, no substantive progress can be expected. The need of the moment is for decisive international leadership.

Five aims, three steps

 "It always seems impossible until it's done" - Nelson Mandela

My pamphlet - Visions of the Endgame: a strategy to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict swiftly to an end (May 2009) - outlines a quick, clear and strong strategy designed to accomplish five things:

* flush out the ultimate positions of the belligerent parties

* engage them rigorously in a peace process

* outline a clear horizon for the process

* establish an effective enforcement-mechanism

* maintain a stance robust enough to avoid being derailed by the "next atrocity" or disrupted by the furtive manoeuvrings of any party.

The proposal comprises three main steps. 

The first move is an invitation to the principal parties from (say) the Quartet (United States, Russia, European Union, United Nations) to tender their realistic visions of the endgame by a fixed deadline of around six months. This impels them to take responsibility, foments internal debate within each society and helps catalyse new political currents. If, for any reason, the US-led quartet is unable to preside over the initiative, the role could fall to President Obama himself and his eminent team.

In the second move - whether or not the parties observe the first deadline - the Quartet formulates a definitive plan to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and resolve the wider Arab-Israeli issues. The plan draws on the proposals submitted by the parties, but also on past agreements and near-agreements, and other sources. The endorsement of the plan by the UN Security Council would give it added political weight and solid international legality.

In the third move, the Quartet presides over the implementation of a schedule of interim steps along a fixed timetable towards the final agreement, at each stage rewarding implementation and penalising failure. 

During the first two phases, extending over a period of roughly one year, the parties are free to negotiate and agree any matter directly between themselves. Whatever they agree goes into the definitive plan. What they fail to agree on is left to the Quartet - or the US government - to determine. Crucially, the default position is no longer the status quo.

Israel's prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, in his speech on 14 June 2009,  felt obliged to utter (three times) what for his Likud bloc had been a forbidden phrase: "a Palestinian state". True, he hedged it with strict preconditions, as part of an attempt to balance Barack Obama's demands with the exigencies of holding his coalition together. More recently, he has been trying to shift the public debate in Israel from the West Bank settlements to the issue of Jerusalem where he feels he may generate stronger support, especially among US Jews. 

But he may have met his match in Obama. In his first six months in office, the US president has shifted the debate with - and within - Israel towards the nature and shape of a Palestinian state. The world now waits as he contemplates his next move. It is vital he maintains the momentum and keeps his eye firmly on the big picture - the endgame - and not allow himself to get distracted, even when the side-issues concerned are important.

Obama is yet to visit Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories as president. It could be a big moment. A well-timed visit, maybe together with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah and a joint appeal from them to both peoples, could help cultivate new peace movements in both camps and spark off a self-sustaining peace dynamic. Obama has the wind with him, but time is of the essence. If the rekindled but fragile hope is not to give way once again to the virus of despair, the wind must not be allowed to blow itself out.

In the words of the old classic, it's now or never. 

Also in openDemocracy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2009:


Paul Rogers, "Gaza: hope after attack" (1 January 2009)

Ghassan Khatib, "Gaza: outlines of an endgame" (6 January 2009

Avi Shlaim, "Israel and Gaza: rhetoric and reality" (7 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the Israel-United States connection" (7 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the wider war" (13 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "After Gaza: Israel's last chance" (17 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the war after the war" (22 January 2009)

Tarek Osman, "Egypt's dilemma: Gaza and beyond" (12 January 2009)

Menachem Kellner, "Israel's Gaza war: five asymmetries" (14 January 2009)

Khaled Hroub, "Hamas after the Gaza war" (15 January 2009)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "The failure of force: an alternative option" (16 January 2009)

Martin Shaw, "Israel's politics of war" (20 January 2009)

Conor Gearty, "Israel, Gaza and international law" (21 January 2009)

Mustafa Kibaroglu, "Turkey-Israel relations after Gaza" (26 January 2009)

Sadegh Zibakalam, "Iran and the Gaza war" (26 January 2009)

Khaled Hroub, "The ‘Arab system' after Gaza" (27 January 2009)

Hugo Slim, "NGOs in Gaza: humanitarianism vs politics" (30 January 2009)

Lucy Nusseibeh, "The four lessons of Gaza" (4 February 2009)

Martin Shaw, "Uses of genocide: Kenya, Georgia, Israel, Sri Lanka" (9 February 2009)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "Palestine's right: past as prologue" (11 February 2009)

Colin Shindler, "Israel's rightward shift: a history of the present" (23 February 2009)

Eyal Weizman, "Lawfare in Gaza: legislative attack" (1 March 2009)

Akiva Eldar, "The United States and Israel: moment of truth" (18 May 2009)

Gershon Baskin, "The state of Israel: key to peace" (19 May 2009)

Gideon Levy, "Barack Obama: Israel's true friend" (25 May 2009)

Akiva Eldar, "Binyamin Netanyahu's mirage" (15 June 2009)

Gershon Baskin, "Israel's path: from occupation to peace" (7 July 2009)

Hazem Sagheh, "Arabs and the Iranian upheaval" (9 July 2009)

Akiva Eldar, "Iran, the Arabs and Israel: the domino-effect" (27 July 2009)

Hazem Sagheh, "Israeli settlement, Arab movement" (28 July 2009)

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