Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with President Donald Trump at Ben Gurion Airport in 2017 (Credit: Amos Ben Gershom GPO)
After more than a century of struggle between Jewish Zionist and Palestinian Arab movements in the region between the Mediterranean Sea and the river Jordan, a fresh approach is urgently needed to deliver peace and justice to all who today call it their home.
Ever since the state of Israel was created in 1948, the US has been the indispensable actor in the region. Israel’s security has been strengthened by previous US-sponsored peace deals, most significantly the Camp David agreement with Egypt brokered by US president Jimmy Carter in 1978.
Today, the US is arguably the one country with decisive influence on both the Israelis and Palestinians. So there is intense global interest in the self-styled “ deal of the century” that President Donald Trump is expected to announce in the coming weeks. In this context, it is worth reconsidering remarks made last year by the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, to the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington DC.
“Peace and security cannot be achieved in isolation from human rights,” she said. “Desperate people subject to humiliation and abuse will inevitably resort to violence. People who are robbed of their humanity and dignity will inevitably want revenge.” One need only look at the history of the Palestinian people over the last 70 years to see how much truth is in her words.
As Americans know from their own history, a people deprived of liberty and dignity will never be pacified. Nor will they meekly accept a settlement imposed by outsiders that redraws borders and redefines sovereignty without popular consent. Any fresh approach to peacemaking must be welcome in principle. The international community needs to be candid: despite decades of dedicated attempts by external mediators, including previous US administrations and the Arab Peace Initiative, the problem is as intractable as ever.
Child in Rafah collect water from one of the working public taps (Credit: Mohammed Al Baba/Oxfam)
A bold new US plan could break the deadlock and encourage Israeli and Palestinian politicians to be equally audacious in their approach to peacemaking. Yet, if it does not address the root causes of the conflict, including historic dispossession, illegal settlement expansion, the status of Jerusalem as a shared capital and the rights of Palestinian refugees, the deal will be doomed to failure.
Economic aid and financial incentives to boost the Palestinian economy via infrastructure projects are welcome, but past attempts to bring about peace through trade and development without political progress have not succeeded. Both James Wolfensohn and Tony Blair, as former envoys, tried to stimulate growth, yet without freedom of movement for Palestinian goods and workers progress remains miserly.
Today there is scant evidence in the Knesset, the Palestinian Authority or the Hamas leadership of the courage needed to grasp the political nettle and work for the common good. The wider geopolitical and security environment in the Middle East is also unprecedentedly volatile, as bloody conflicts persist in Syria and Yemen; traditional alliances in the Gulf are in flux; and sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims reach dangerously high peaks.
If the forthcoming plan is to succeed, it needs to pass three tests:
- Is it a plan that can bring a definitive end to the conflict?
- Will it be acceptable to the Palestinian people as a whole — not only their leadership?
- Will a viable, united and contiguous Palestinian state that has sovereignty over the key ingredients of statehood — domestic security, borders, and control of population — be allowed to develop and prosper? The plan must also be firmly rooted in international law and UN resolutions.
I am a firm supporter of the state of Israel’s right to exist. I’m equally firm in my support of the right of Palestinians to a state of their own. The only way to achieve this is a two-state solution delivering security for Israelis and justice and prosperity for Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.
To achieve this solution, all parties must act urgently and in good faith. Nearly 30 years ago, the world witnessed another deal of the century — the agreement between Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk to end apartheid in South Africa. Mandela’s approach to peacemaking was driven by an unswerving commitment to justice, but also infused with his humane values of tolerance, respect and magnanimity even towards his former jailers.
As people come together to celebrate the centenary year of Madiba’s birth, I hope his spirit guides those in Washington, Tel Aviv, Ramallah and Gaza so that lasting peace can be enjoyed by the people of Israel and Palestine.