In 1993 Israel and the Palestinians signed an agreement that was supposed to lead, through incremental progress and confidence-building measures, to the end of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land and the creation of two separate, viable states. The Oslo Accords, negotiated while I was Prime Minister of Norway, marked a pivotal moment for the region: for the first time, here was a consensus on which lasting peace could be built. This consensus, shared and endorsed by the international community, has provided the foundation of the peace process for the last two decades.
Yet where are we, nearly 20 years later? Settlements continue to expand, negotiations have stalled and a deep sense of cynicism, even fatigue, runs throughout both Israeli and Palestinian societies. After visiting the region three weeks ago, it is clear to me that the Oslo agreement is now on the brink of breakdown. The consequences would be catastrophic; we cannot allow this to happen.
The Elders have just returned from our third visit to the Middle East. The conflict in this troubled region has been a priority for us ever since Nelson Mandela brought our group together five years ago, and we have visited several times to speak to leaders, hear from people on the ground and try to support those who are working for peace.
I always describe myself as an optimist, so this is difficult for me to admit, but Jimmy Carter, Mary Robinson and I shared the same impression on this latest visit: the situation is worse than we have ever seen before. It is true that since Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995, the peace process has not been on a good path. But in the last two years or so, the situation has been going backwards.
In East Jerusalem, we saw for ourselves how Jewish settlements continue to expand in areas that are supposed be part of a future state of Palestine. Israel’s leaders say that they are still committed to a two-state solution, but what we see on the ground undermines such pronouncements. As Palestinian land is increasingly fragmented and annexed by settlements, as ‘Jewish only’ roads carve through the West Bank, and as Palestinian aspirations are frustrated by Israeli regulations and restrictions, the prospect of two viable states seems to be slipping away.
From a viewpoint on the Mount of Olives, Ray Dolphin from UN-OCHA points out settlement expansion around East Jerusalem to Mary Robinson, Jimmy Carter and Gro Harlem Brundtland.
How can we break the stalemate?
While the ‘facts on the ground’ are making the situation worse, there is deadlock at the political level. Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians on a two-state solution have stalled. There does not seem to be much initiative among the international community either. Yet only the international community can apply the pressure needed to break the stalemate.
The United Nations played an important role in recognising Israel, admitting it as a member state in 1949. This fulfilled half of its attempt to implement partition and secure two independent states – a homeland for the Jewish people, and one for the Palestinians. The UN so far has not lived up to its historic responsibility to address the second half of its task: helping to secure the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Now, it has a real opportunity to do so.
During our meeting with President Mahmoud Abbas a few weeks ago, he confirmed to us that the Palestinians will go to the UN General Assembly this month to seek recognition as a non-member state. We fully support this strategy; it is a proactive, non-violent action that could potentially change the current dynamic. If successful, I believe that it will bring us closer to realising the Palestinians’ historic right to their own state, and closer to securing peace.
The democratic transitions underway in parts of the Arab world – particularly in Egypt – also offer an opportunity to reinvigorate the peace process. While they are understandably absorbed in domestic concerns, Egyptians still see the Arab-Israeli conflict as an important priority. We encourage Egypt’s President Morsi and others in the region to take a much more active role in the Middle East peace process.
A warning call
The Elders cannot stand by as the peace process unravels. We are joining those voices sounding a warning call: the two-state solution is at risk of collapse. From what we have seen, it appears that Israel’s government is no longer committed to it. But this will benefit no one in the long run – the Israeli people need peace and security just as much as the Palestinians.
As an Elder, I believe that this conflict is not intractable. Regional dynamics are changing rapidly, and the Palestinian bid for non-member state status is a chance to jolt us out of the current paralysis. Israelis, Palestinians and the international community must seize this opportunity to rescue the two-state solution. This may be the last chance to do so.