Israel and Palestine: Searching for the circuit-breaker

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.

We also had useful discussions with the ‘internationals’ – the Quartet and the UN’s OCHA. Cultural visits included Gethsemane, the Western Wall, Yad Vashem, Galilee, Jaffa, Jerash and Umm Qais.

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.

18 Comments Posted

  1. This is a fantastic move/position by Kennedy and the Green Party. A very pragmatic approach.

    To face up to the need for Palestinians to stop all violence, and recognise Israel. New Zealand voters will respond very well to this. The average Pragmatic person realises that there needs to be concessions on both sides for peace.

    Stopping violence, recognising each other and initiating peaceful dialog at a grassroots level is the start.

    I still feel that Kennedy has some incorrect points (more on my blog below)

  2. I think there are good points. Any peace deal will be hugely unpopular with large parts of both sides, and there needs to be a firm commitment to a fair process.

    I have spent a bit of time in the middle east, and remember with equal despair the first time I heard a Palestinian (a refugee in Aqaba) who wanted all Israel destroyed and would have been proud to have his children die, and the Israelis who would like Palestinians driven from their homes and effectively restricted to concentration camps, and who could not see the parallels with what happened to them in the past.

    Both sides need to swallow some pride, cut back on the idealism and get some more pragmatism, sideline the hardliners and come to a compromise and continue to work to make any solution stick.

  3. Given the Jewish state was established to be a Jewish homeland, in the area of Palestine where there was (by then) a Jewish majority (as at 1947 and recognised as such by the UN), of course it had an immigration policy to allow Jews of the diaspora to return.

    Jewish immigration policy is based on having a Jewish grandparent (any child of a Jewish mother is by definition Jewish regardless of religious status).

    As for the right of return of Palestinians, a Palestinian state is free to allow this. It’s once two states exist that free movement of labour/residency can occur as per the EU.

    The problem is the lack of trust in co-existence that some security hardliners affect and this emboldens the eretz Israel settlers who want continuing occupation.

  4. Yes, but the point is, establishing a state, which then fixes immigration policy to create a certain character of population at the expense of the local population, then insisting that the rights of this population must be regarded as legitimate, makes a mockery of any legal process.

    UK immigration policy isn’t based on you being Anglican, or a particular approved variant of Anglicanism. If Israel’s immigration policy was similar, Palestinians would have a right of return.

    Gregor – I agree entirely. I never suggested my solution was easy or even possible in current circumstances, just that it’s the only way to bring about a settlement. There’s no point discussing a settlement until the circumstances you point to change.

  5. Sam, nation states are sovereign over their immigration policy, I just said what their policy is and why it is, as it is.

    Also inward immigration by Jews to Palestine or Pakeha to Aotearoa is not theft of the land, though this can occur and has in each case.

    PS the UK allows special rights of return to those with UK grandparents, (whether Anglican or not) – similar immigration policy applies in Eire and Spain.

  6. It may sound ridiculous to assert the possibility of a single-state solution (I’d prefer a no-state solution), but no solution will be viable without a real degree of reconciliation. If that happens, anything is possible. If it doesn’t, nothing will work and we may as well stop entertaining the belief that the imposition of a legal solution is going to achieve something.

    @ Sam

    The ‘no state’ proposition is an interesting one; potentially, a modern version of the old Mandate with Jerusalem as an international city or city-state like the Vatican.

    The key point you have made here is the idea of reconciliation. An externally imposed solution will not work.
    The obvious complication is that one side has overwhelming military and economic domination of the other and therefore, no incentive to come to the table. The facts on the ground speak for themselves.
    Furthermore, the Israeli government’s main political and economic sponsor has no genuine desire to see a change in the status quo and will continue to actively undermine any efforts towards a legal solution.

  7. SPC, your point five contradicts your points 1,2 and 3.

    By the same logic, my Anglican grandparents give me the right to live in England, do you see this as valid?

    Persecution in Europe is not a valid claim for taking land in the Levant. If European Jews had demanded Bavaria, they’d have a point.

  8. Scary stuff, BJ.

    “These are cultures in which revenge is a sacrament.”

    “I look on it as a place of limited sanity with a propensity for great violence and injustice. ”

    Pretty nasty view of people isn’t it? Given the propensity of Europeans, Americans and East Asians for violence and injustice on a massive scale, singling out Middle Eastern cultures like this just comes across as kinda racist and prejudiced.

    “Good fences make good neighbors”
    “MIGHT pay to pay the Chinese to use their army to stand between them”
    “free passage of Palestinians between their two bits of territory, and free passage of Israelis, without the two ever actually intermingling.”

    Kind of like apartheid? I’m sure that’ll give them a push to learn to live together.

    “Some of the Israeli right wing probably would need to see the inside of prison cells before that could happen… and so too some members of Hamas.”

    Because people come out of prisons as much more reasonable, well-rounded individuals happy to see the other side of the story, huh?

  9. Neither side can be the clear “winner” in any solution if the solution is to last.

    That means that a court might not be the BEST way to settle things, at least not in the conventional sense of an adversarial justice system, or it might be good at working individual points – WHO ENFORCES THE JUDGMENTS?

    I agree though, with all the points Graham offers. The current arrangements and efforts are not stopping the settlements, not dismantling them, not reducing the problem. Nor will Sam’s view help here.

    Thought Fragments:==============================

    The blood is deep on both sides. These are cultures in which revenge is a sacrament. Both sides have memories far longer than humans live.

    The history of the region goes back thousands of years. The boundaries arranged in 1947 were and would have been a reasonably “fair” arrangement but were not enforced. Israel was born in war with its Arab neighbors and the hostility shown by surrounding Arab States was answered in kind.

    I look on it as a place of limited sanity with a propensity for great violence and injustice.

    No winners unless there is peace and justice. Some of the Israeli right wing probably would need to see the inside of prison cells before that could happen… and so too some members of Hamas.

    “Good fences make good neighbors”… but one has to get the boundary lines correct before one can build any fence.

    It will take generations of peace before the two groups will be generally safe to leave together unsupervised.

    MIGHT pay to pay the Chinese to use their army to stand between. They have the manpower idling useless and no history of favoritism to either side of which I am aware.

    A semi-technical solution to the isolation of West Bank and Gaza would be a corridor between which is Palestinian… but which the Israelis have bridges and tunnels across (a mix along its length). The world’s first vertical political division of territory? I know of no other. This would allow free passage of Palestinians between their two bits of territory, and free passage of Israelis, without the two ever actually intermingling. I suspect that with a rail shuttle and some other amenities it could be made quite an attractive “feature”.

    With hopes that it would eventually become irrelevant as the two groups accept a future that holds both.

  10. Maybe the palestinians could stop firing rockets into, and sending suicide bombers into, Israel.

    Then some progress might be able to be made. Up until the present time, the only positive steps have been taken by Israel.

  11. Sam, Jews could/would claim special circumstances.

    1. Jews have lived continuously in the area, albeit a minority for most of the last 2000 years.
    2. Their national independence in the area for over a 1000 years is historical.
    3. Their religion is, in part, associated with the land itself and future restoration to it.
    4. Persecution based on either their ethnic identity and or religion in Europe and second class status (higher tax and lesser status in courts) along with Christians in the Moslem regions.
    5. Immigration into Israel is not reserved for Jews, it includes taking in refugees – including anyone with a Jewish grandparent (because Nazis persecuted anyone with this ancestry). They do not take in all Jewish converts, anyone converting to Reform (most common form in the USA) or Conservative Judaism in the USA would not be seen as kosher (Orthodox Judaism).

    A right of return for all with links to the area sort of exists in the establishment of a Palestinian state that allows this for their refugees and any peace including labour/residency in either state as in the European Union.

  12. actually, almost all non-Africans have ancestors who lived in the area of present-day Israel. The bulk of early humans migrating from Africa to Asia and Europe most likely did so on foot, and would have gone through the area of present-day Israel. Migration in those days was slow, and involved a lot of backwards and forwards, meaning that they probably lived in that area for generations.

  13. Fair enough, but if you need to look to DNA for evidence, rather than history or personal connections, you a demonstrating a pretty limited link. DNA proves Maori had ancestry back in Taiwan, but nobody would take a land claim on that basis seriously.

    In any case it makes no sense to apply a weak ancestral link to only one group of people. If Israel had a ‘right of return’ for anyone able to prove links to the area, they might have a point, albeit a limited one. To make the claim for a group based on a religious affiliation with one group of the previous inhabitants is legally preposterous.

    “Similarly Maori include in their iwi those they inter-marry with etc.”

    Yes, but a group of Maori who are mostly Anglican don’t offer membership of their iwi to everyone else in the world who happens to be Anglican.

  14. In my opinion the best solution for the israeli palestine conflict would be first letting the arabs living in israel equal rights to the israeli citizens.
    second all the arabs need to join the israel army, you know, being a one nation, no matter if you are jewish or arab, we are all human being.
    after that, if all citizens in israel will have equal rights and obligation, the arabs will forget about their problems and what happened when the jewish state raised in 1948 and the israelies and arabs will live in peace and harmony together in israel as one nation.

    just to let you know guys, im an arab.

  15. Sam, most Jews do have male line DNA in common with other northern Semites (those of Syria, Lebanon and Palestine) – this back to 2000BCE. It is the homeland of the ancestors of most of them. The others share a common culture with them via religion that will (or has already) lead to inter-marriage. Thus they are collectively an ethnic people. Similarly Maori include in their iwi those they inter-marry with etc.

    But you are right in that the concept of Zionism, as supported by Europeans, was of the old fashoioned nation state for a national people with a language and culture in common (pre immigration and multi-culturalism). Modern European sensibility would perceive the need for Israel and Palestine to form a common labour market/residency and economy and thus reduce borders – thus no fences etc. The contra insistance is on a Jewish majority supremacy/identity to Israel that requires two states remaining separate for political citizenship purposes. They are not mututally exclusive. However guarantees for the equal status and treatment of minorities in both states, such usually associated with a secular state, would still be important.

    In international law terms, there are (to be) two states in the UN, and the interest of other nations is in their peaceful co-operation, the rule of law (such as Article 17 of the UN declaration of HR), human rights for all and a contribution to the developmenet of peace and justice in the wider region.

  16. “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.”

    Come off it. The Palestinian position is backed by historical facts, legal documents and written records. The Israeli position is backed by religious nonsense and a dubious assertion of ancestory that most Israelis couldn’t produce a convincing claim to, let alone a shred of actual evidence. If I suggested I have an entitlement to land on the basis of sharing the religion of a group of people from 2000 years ago and a proclamation in my holy book, I’d be laughed out of court. Yet you say this claim isn’t wrong? And then assert the need for a settlement based on the rule of law?

    Accepting the validity of the Israeli claim sounds more like an act of political convenience rather than an expression of commitment to law. If we accept this claim at all it can only be on a de facto basis, in other words, on the basis of the assertion of raw power that you reject in your last sentence.

    I’m not so dismissive of a single-state solution, not because I think this would be anything than hugely problematic, but because I see a two-state solution as equally problematic, the long-term prospects fraught, and the viability of a Palestinian micro-state limited. Especially if we allow the Israeli claim to ‘secure’ borders – political double-speak for annexation of land. In this tiny region – Israel is smaller than Canterbury – no border can be really ‘secure’ as the movement of people between different areas is essential to normal life.

    The ‘two-state’ solution seems a rather Eurocentric idea, based on the belief that ethnic or religious groups should be divided into nation-states. This makes no sense in the Middle East (if this was put into place generally, the region would be an enourmous jig-saw puzzle, Lebanon would need to be split four ways – among Maronites, Shi’a, Sunni and Druze – all in a country the size of Marlborough) and is likely to ensure future conflict.

    It may sound ridiculous to assert the possibility of a single-state solution (I’d prefer a no-state solution), but no solution will be viable without a real degree of reconciliation. If that happens, anything is possible. If it doesn’t, nothing will work and we may as well stop entertaining the belief that the imposition of a legal solution is going to achieve something.

  17. Why not “urge a campaign of non-violence” from the Israelis? Palestinians have been(and still are) practising non-violence for decades. The response is assassinations, arrests, tear gas, tear gas canisters aimed directly at protesters, rubber bullets, sound bombs, water cannons and/or skunk water. Settlers, armed to the teeth, are free to terrorize Palestinians while the IDF looks on. B’tselem reports that the IDF kills around one Palestinian every other day,with impunity. European parliamentarians ,including some from UK, have visited the Defence of Children International in Ramallah and reported back on the shocking abuse of Palestinian children by the IDF and Israeli military courts.

    There are steps NZ could take, on the side of justice. A simple really but important step would be to disinvest Superfund from corporations, including drone-maker Elbit ,Caterpillar maker of bulldozer/tanks for the IDF to use for house demolitions and prison specialist G4S, that profit from occupation and oppression.

    Oh yes there is an Israel-NZ group. But some of us in the Green Party want a Palestinian-NZ Group.

    As for “returning to land that they lost 2 millennia ago”, try reading what the Israeli historian Shlomo Sand has to say on that topic.

    The issue is justice, particularly the right of return as stated in UN Resolution 194. The issue is human rights such as the UN International Rights of the Child and of course the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The issue is the political agenda of Zionism “maximum geography and minimum demography “, ie get rid of as many Palestinians as possible if not out of historic Palestine then into tiny isolated ‘bantustans’.

    The Green Party of the past opposed the apartheid regime. Yet Desmond Tutu and other South Africans tell us that the Zionist regime is crueller than the South African apartheid regime was.

  18. We and they seem to be sharing in a sense of groundhog day, as we move to another zero budget they make zero progress resolving their own political impasse.

    As to an international judicial involvement … the whole point of the international framework to date was to signal acceptance of any outcome the two parties could agree on and assist them with support for their process/negotiation. So any movement from that, to determine the outcome at the international level, would be revolutionary.

    This change is only possible if both parties agree and what guarantees would either want before hand? And could they agree on a mutual set of guarantees?

    1 and 3 are there already, we should do 4, 2 is an on-going field for suggestions.

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