I’ve just returned from the Middle East as part of delegation of National, Labour and Green MPs. We visited Israel, Palestine and Jordan. The aim was to gain knowledge, exchange views, and develop friendship links with fellow parliamentarians in the region. An Israeli-NZ group already exists. I and the chairman of the Jordanian foreign affairs committee are moving to form a Jordan-NZ group.
Israel: Day 1, we travelled through West Bank (Area C, under full Israeli civilian and military control), passing the settlements, visiting kibbutzim, and then into the occupied Golan Heights. Day 2 involved discussions in Jerusalem with members of the Knesset (including the Speaker who was acting President), foreign affairs committee members, and foreign ministry strategic analysts. On day 3 we visited the institute that ‘incubates’ corporate start-ups and some agricultural institutes whose researchers aspire to ‘cheat Nature’ through genetic modification.
Palestine (day 4): We proceed to Ramallah through the Qalandia border crossing, inspecting the Wall, meeting the district mayor (who had spent 21 years in an Israeli prison), and holding discussions with the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, presidential adviser for foreign affairs, and members of the foreign affairs committee. In particular we heard about the prisoner hunger-strike from Khalida Jarrar, MP, who had done time herself in the past.
Jordan (days 5 & 6): Visit to the Ramtha refugee camp on the Syrian border (see previous blog), and discussions with former and current cabinet ministers (parliamentary affairs, education, health), with the foreign affairs committee chairman, and with Prince Hassan bin Talal, brother of the late King Hussein.
What is one to conclude about the Middle East in mid-2012? I lived three years in the region. I arrived in 1999 when the situation was (relatively) stable and optimism was high. Then came the Jenin IDF incursion, the 2nd intifada and 9/11. When I left in late ’02, things were grim and tense. I cannot say they have improved since.
The over-riding issue is the occupation. Palestine is the only territory recognised by the UN as occupied in the world. So first and foremost, it is about land. As the Palestinians read it, the original Palestine from the Red Sea to Lebanon has been progressively reduced – from 80% in the Peel Commission (1937), 44% in the UN Partition Plan (1947), 22% in the current occupation (1967) to 12% by the Israeli ‘Swiss cheese’ policy of the settlements and the Wall (2008).
Some 2.5 million Palestinians thus cram into West Bank-Gaza, one fiftieth the size of New Zealand. The population density of Gaza is 4,000 per sq. km. The global average is 45. New Zealand is 15. So it is not only about land, but population, resources and carrying capacity as well.
The Palestinians see the land issue as a progressive loss over the past century. The Israelis see it as a return of their lost land after two millennia. Neither is wrong. History can throw curve-balls. So they have to share. The question is on what terms, and who gets to decide.
Other parts of the territory issue are the status of East Jerusalem, repatriation of the ’48 and ’67 refugees back to Israel, the on-going Israeli settlement policy in West Bank, and the Wall. And water-sharing.
Adumbrating these small challenges is the issue of recognition. Israel insists on the name ‘Jewish State of Israel’. Few agree. Palestine wants recognition now as independent state. Many have extended that. A few, inside Israel, dream still of a one-state solution. Few believe that is wise or practicable. The international community maintains the two-state solution. A number believe this is becoming less feasible with the passage of time and circumstance. But there is no alternative. Meanwhile each side pursues competitive population expansion – Israel though immigration, Palestine through reproduction. At halftime, numbers are roughly even.
In a deep-rooted conflict, a political settlement is feasible only when several independent factors are positively aligned. At present, this is not the case.
- Globally, things are about to go on hold until the US election in November.
- Regionally, things are dynamic to the point of chaos. The Arab Spring remains volatile. The imminent Egyptian presidential election will set the politics for the surrounding terrain. And the Israelis perceive Iran to be an existential threat, oblivious to the existential dread that occupation has generated within the Palestinian psyche closer to home.
- Nationally, the reshaped Israeli government, involving Netanyahu teaming up with centrist Kadima, strengthens the PM and offers new opportunity. But for what end – conflict or peace? In Palestine, elections are overdue, with both Hamas and Fatah losing electoral ground and reluctant to proceed.
Positive alignment in the Middle East is a crapshoot.
Beneath it all is the psychological dysfunction of a zero-sum relationship between the sons of Abraham. Israel continues to linger in post-Shoah grief, retaining a victim mentality, aggrieved at what it perceives to be a biased and unsympathetic international community. Palestine rages and whimpers in turns, seemingly powerless to affect events. And the region explodes around them both, with a distracted world focusing elsewhere.
What can New Zealand do to help? Not a lot, but something. We should:
1. Urge a peaceful campaign of non-violence from Palestine, including Hamas. Nothing will be more potent in eliminating the underlying Israeli rationale for harsh security measures. Nothing will attract greater world support.
2. Offer some further modest support, beyond our UN observers and peacekeepers, direct to Palestine and Jordan, and even to Israel, perhaps in support of conflict resolution and inter-community engagement (rugby?). Budget cuts are in vogue, but values and priorities are eternal.
3. Urge a clear policy of Palestinian recognition, by both Fatah and Hamas, of Israel’s right to exist within secure borders. Time for Palestinians to face the reality.
4. Recognise Palestine as an independent state with potential membership of the United Nations, as 132 countries have already done. As NZG policy is to indicate recognition through action rather than formal declaration, this can be done by upgrading the accreditation of Palestinian delegation in Canberra as full embassy status. We should do this irrespective of the policies of Australia, UK or US; a global affairs policy requires us to act as a responsible, and independent-minded, global citizen.
5. Advance the circuit-breaker – a final settlement will not be reached through political negotiation, whether that is bilaterally pursued in asymmetrical fashion, regionally-orchestrated from multiple and conflicting interests, or imposed from on high by global power. Urge both sides to formally agree, in advance, to accept the outcome of a final settlement through judicial means, with the International Court of Justice reaching an advisory opinion on all relevant issues, backed by Security Council binding authority.
The fifth point – a switch by both sides from the political to the judicial route – would be the ultimate challenge to national leadership, especially for Israel. But Netanyahu is in a strong political position at present. He is capable of the vision and he currently has the power. The people of both sides want peace. And 21st century politics requires the rule of law, not political machination and raw power.