Preventing peace in the Israel-Palestinian conflict

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by Claire Martin

The Israel-Palestinian conflict has endured despite various attempts over time to produce any resolutions for sustaining peace. In order to examine this conflict, a distinction between the negotiating aspect of the obstacles to peace and the obstacles of implementing peace proposals for these issues will be made, focusing solely on the obstacle towards negotiation. The core issues are the most difficult to negotiate: the situation of the refugees and the status of Jerusalem. This is because the resolutions are predicated on a fundamental restructuring in the meta-narratives of both Israel and Palestine. Although the expansion of settlements has increased violence and distrust between Israelis and Palestinians, this problem is the easiest to negotiate as it is primarily upon the onus of Israel to resolve. They have already conveyed a willingness to evacuate settlers in order to attain peace. Unfortunately, the proliferation of Palestinian terrorism has degraded the peace process and sustained the conflict. It has not only prevented Israel from negotiating but created a divide within the Palestinian Authority, making it much harder to negotiate than the issue of settlements. The difficulty the security question poses to negotiations is that there would need to be a Palestinian leader willing to prevent violence or a fundamental restructuring of the Palestinian narrative in order for terrorism to disappear. Until then, terrorism will continue to effectively undermine any negotiations for peace.

The ‘right of return’ concerning the Palestinian refugees is arguably the most difficult to negotiate, primarily because it would rely on a significance compromise to the meta-narratives from both the Israelis and the Palestinians. The right of return is an integral component of the Palestinian meta-narrative, and has been constructed from the events of 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Also known as Nakbah or ‘catastrophe’, the forced Palestinian exodus during the war has remained a traumatic event in Palestinian memory, and Israel’s subsequent denial of their full right to return has only fuelled the need for it to be permitted as a condition for peace. However, for Israel the denial of the Palestinian’s full right to return is integral to their very existence. The anti-Semitic attitudes of Europe, typified by the German Holocaust in the 1940s, has validated the Zionist’s and most of the Jewish population’s need for an established homeland. The persistent threats to Jewish existence has remained a focal point in their narrative, driving their need for maintaining a Jewish National Home. Considering that the return of five million refugees would inevitably lead to the termination of an existing Jewish majority state, a full right to return would never be permitted. Israeli leaders such as Benjamin Netanyahu have stated that there would be no peace deal until the Palestinians gave up this right, declaring it ‘not right, not justified and not legitimate’. This stance has been reiterated over time and substantiated as the Israeli narrative does not consider itself responsible for the mass exodus of Palestinians. Despite a significant revaluation of this aspect within their narrative, there has only ever been the proposal for a small number of Palestinians to return to their homes within Israel, suggested by Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2000. However, this concession was conditional upon a permanent abandonment on the full right to return. PLO leader Yasser Arafat refused. Although viewed as stubborn, his refusal was recognition that the Palestinian narrative argues that the right to return is an individual right, not a collective one. Furthermore, concessions later made by Palestinian leaders on the right to return had tremendous backlash. From this, we can observe that the right of return is an integral part of the Palestinian narrative which has remained unchanged. The prospect for resolution is compounded by the Israeli narrative that major refugee concessions would be an existential threat. Thus, the right of return has shown to be a nonstarter in regard to negotiations, with the narratives of both sides precluding this possibility.

Jerusalem can be described as a microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict due to its religious and national value in both the Palestinian and Israeli narratives and is as significant an obstacle as the refugees. There are two separate elements to the status of Jerusalem: the sovereignty over the city (nationalistic) and the status of the holy places (religious). Jerusalem is important for Palestinians, given that it encompasses the Haram Al-Sharif where it is believed Muhammad ascended to heaven. Jerusalem also embodies Palestinian national aspirations and would be their capital in a future Palestinian state. Achieving sovereignty over it would invariably mean a step closer to statehood. For Israelis, Jerusalem is the holiest city in Judaism containing the sacred Jewish Temples. Jerusalem has also informed the early Zionist’s nationalistic aspirations for a Jewish homeland, in which Shiri Landman argues that Jerusalem ‘represents the link between the Jewish people and their homeland’. Thus, Jerusalem forms an indispensable part of the Israeli and Palestinian’s narrative and identity. For this reason, Jerusalem has been central in conflicts dating back as far as the 1929 Arab riots and as recently as the Second Intifada in 2000. Ever since the 1967 war that saw Israel unite East and West Jerusalem, leaders have vowed to ensure Jerusalem would remain the ‘eternal and undivided capital of Israel’. However, in the Camp David summit in 2000, Ehud Barak conveyed a willingness to compromise, despite the fact that most Israelis would never agree to renouncing any part of Jerusalem. In a landmark move, he offered sovereignty over some areas of East Jerusalem and ‘permanent custodianship’ over the Temple Mount, breaking a huge Israeli taboo and relinquishing control over what had deemed to be an indispensable part of Israeli identity. However, Arafat refused and offered no counter-proposals to the concession. From the perspective of the Palestinians, the concessions made were negligible as sovereignty was not granted over the Haram Al-Sharif. Nonetheless it indicated that the Israelis understood the need to negotiate Jerusalem for peace. Arafat’s declaration that Israel had no religious grounds for sovereignty over Temple Mount confirmed to Israel a much larger suspicion that the Palestinians did not believe in the legitimacy of Israel as the national home for the Jewish people. Arafat’s comment confirmed the Palestinian meta-narrative that viewed Israel’s existence as a ‘colonial creation’ and also a lack of acknowledgement in the validity of the Israeli narrative. Thus the status of Jerusalem showcases the unbridgeable gap between the Israeli and Palestinian narrative, even with the most conciliatory of proposals.

When viewing the obstacles to negotiating a peace deal between Palestinians and Israelis, the issue of settlements appears to be the easiest to navigate as Israel has already indicated a willingness to dismantle the settlements for peace. The Israeli settlements that were established after the occupation by Israel in 1967 were by and large an attempt by the Israeli government to create ‘facts on the ground’ and gain a Jewish majority in strategic regions in the West Bank. This was so Israel could annex these areas in the event of a peace treaty.  Aside from being a strategic move, there was also a religious motivation within the Likud government and movements such as Gush Emunim. Both idealised a ‘Greater Israel’ that had led to the expansion of the settlements and increased violence, most notably with the First Intifada in 1987. This ‘creeping annexation’ by Israel has fuelled the mistrust of the Palestinians regarding Israel’s sincerity concerning a two-state solution. This view was substantiated during the Oslo and Camp David talks where there seemed to be more checkpoints and no halt to the growth of settlements. Despite the growth in violence and mistrust, the Israeli government has shown a willingness to re-evaluate the situation of the settlers. Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 called the settlements a ‘cancer’ and an ‘economic burden’. This was further supported by Ehud Barak, who proposed at Camp David to withdraw from roughly 92 per cent of the West Bank along 1967 border lines, offering to dismantle most of the settlements and concentrating them within the 8 per cent of the West Bank annexed by Israel. Many settlers have even indicated they would be willing to move behind those lines in return for economic compensation and will not oppose the will of the Israeli government if they were to negotiate settlements for peace. Although there is an opposing religious movement within the biblical heartland, they would not form a significant barrier to negotiating peace as they are a minority. Arafat’s refusal of Barak’s offer in 2000was not on the basis of the settlements however, but rather because the offer was in tandem with an unacceptable proposal for the future of Palestinian refugees. Thus, whilst the settlements cause violence and distrust, Israel has already shown a willingness to significantly dismantle most of the settlements, reducing their impact as an obstacle to peace.

Palestinian terrorism is a significant obstacle to negotiating peace as it has ruined popular support for the peace process, divided Palestinian unity and driven Israel to needing assurance of peace before any negotiations take place. Although terrorism is not the core reason for the conflict, like the refugees or Jerusalem, it has nonetheless sustained itself primarily due to the failures of the Palestinian leadership in peace-making. Ensuring safety from Palestinian violence and terrorism has always been a priority for Israel but the First Intifada in 1987 conveyed to leaders that a land-for-peace process was necessary to reduce the violence. The 1993 Oslo Accords were initiated by Yitzhak Rabin in order to reduce Palestinian terrorism and move towards resolving the Palestinian-Israeli dispute permanently. The accords lifted spirits for, as the first time in history, there was official recognition from each side and a pledge by the PLO to renounce and combat terrorism. However, during these accords and afterwards, there were unprecedented levels of terrorism mainly executed by the radical Palestinian organisation Hamas to undermine the peace process. They were angered by the PLO who were seen to be compromising on core issues by engaging in negotiations. However there were also allegations that Arafat encouraged the terrorism, and during the Second Intifada many Fatah (a party within the PLO) members were involved. The Palestinians wanted considerable steps made towards autonomy and observed an increase in Israeli settlements and security measures during Oslo and Camp David, which was taken as evidence that Israel was not intent in providing Palestine with statehood; subsequently violence increased. Both had lost faith for the peace process with each believing the other did not want it. Despite the fact that most Palestinians still prefer Fatah, its lack of progress towards statehood saw the popularity of Hamas rise due to their uncompromising attitudes and attacks against Israel, particularly in the Second Intifada. Hamas’s strength, fortified in Gaza after the Israeli withdrawal in 2005, meant that they would now need to be included in the peace process.  However not only has Israel declared they will never  negotiate with a terrorist entity, Fatah and Hamas have bifurcated views on the future of the Palestinian state, compromising Palestinian unity. Israel’s peace for land ethos that developed as a result of the Second Intifada has put the onus on Fatah’s leadership to manage the extremists before any peace agreement is to be made. This makes the issue of security a greater obstacle than the settlements. Thus, in order to begin negotiations with Israel, Fatah would need to not only renounce violence but actively prevent it, which they have continually shown an unwillingness to do. Hamas’s legitimacy would also need to wane. However, this can only be done by a fundamental restructuring in Palestinians meta-narrative, allowing Fatah to compromise on key issues and make progress towards peace. Until there is concerted attempt by Fatah to prevent terrorism or a challenge of the Palestinian narrative, terrorism will continue to undermine and prevent peace.

The Israeli-Palestinian is a conflict so complex that even the most conciliatory leaders are unable to find a solution. The expansion of Israeli settlements has exacerbated the levels of violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Despite this, settlements are the easiest of the issues to negotiate as the responsibility is upon the Israelis to compromise and they have already shown a willingness to do so. Palestinian terrorism has led to the disintegration of support for the peace process. Not only has it destroyed diplomatic relations between the Israelis and Palestinians, but also within the Palestinian leadership and for this reason is more difficult to negotiate than the settlements. Although not a core reason for the conflict, its resolution is primarily contingent upon strong leadership or resolving the core issues. However, considering the impossibility in negotiating these core issues, terrorism continues to move the Israeli-Palestinian conflict further away from peace. Thus, the obstacles that have proved to be the most difficult to negotiate are the Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem, as they require a significant restructuring of the Palestinian and Israeli narrative. Due to their integral nature within their respective narratives, neither has been willing to make significant compromises large enough to successfully negotiate for peace. 

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