Why the two-state solution is not dead – yet

Speaking at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies on 14th March, Gershon Baskin argued that the solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict is just waiting to be implemented. But fundamental problems with the peace process itself mean that hopes are still at a low ebb.

It is easy to understand why people may have given up hope on the Israel-Palestine peace process. It is 24 years since the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, Israel and the US agreed in 1988 to work towards a two-state solution to the dispute – an outcome that would allow for the coexistence of two sovereign countries in the territory between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea.

Since then, the two parties have signed five separate agreements designed to pave the way for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. All five have failed.

In September 2010, the two sides held the first face-to-face talks for 20 months, but the meetings came to nothing. This year, in early January, negotiators returned to the table after another 16-month gap, but with little hope of success.

Since early 2011, media attention has been drawn away from what for many years has been the defining issue in the Middle East. Last year, the toppling of a series of authoritarian regimes across the region set the agenda. More recently, the slaughter of thousands of Syrian citizens by the regime of President Assad and the debate over a possible military strike by Israel or the US against Iran have dominated.

But as if to remind us that the relationship between Israel and the Palestinian territories remains one of the fundamental determinants of the region’s future, on 9 March an Israeli air strike set off the bloodiest violence since August last year.

The strike, which the Israeli government claimed was directed against two militants it believed to be planning an attack on Israel from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, was met with 160 rockets fired from Gaza into southern Israel.

Retaliatory strikes by Israel have killed at least 22 Gaza residents. An Egyptian-brokered truce was signed on 13 March, but has already been broken.

Against such a background, it is perhaps surprising that a talk I attended on Wednesday entitled “Is the two-state solution dead?” concluded with a resounding ‘No’.

Speaking at London’s School of African and Oriental Studies, Gershon Baskin, a peace activist and founder of the Israel Palestine Centre for Research and Information, argued that the answers to all the region’s problems have already been agreed.

“This conflict is resolvable. Period. Not only do we know that it’s resolvable, but we know what the solution looks like. Thousands of hours of negotiations have already been done, and all the parties know exactly what concessions are needed.

“We have answers to every single issue to the minutest detail. And the majority of Palestinians and the majority of Israelis accept those concessions.”

Baskin contends that the implementation of a solution to the conflict is held back not by a lack of agreement on what must be done, but by four key problems with the process itself.

First – as was highlighted in recent days by the almost immediate breach of the ceasefire – neither side has faith that the other will keep its word.

“No one believes that a solution is possible. They all say: we want peace, but there’s no partner to negotiate with on the other side. And they’re right. The result of 20 years of failed negotiations is that you’d have to be crazy to trust the other side. They’ve signed five written agreements and all five have been systematically breached by both sides.”

Second, the negotiation process itself is flawed.

“We have a failed process. Five agreements have been negotiated by intelligent people over many years yet they have entirely different views over what they wrote. None of the agreements has an effective means of dispute resolution. All five agreements say that in the case of a breach, they will negotiate. And if that doesn’t work, they will go to mediation. But who will mediate? There’s nothing there. If mediation doesn’t work, they will go to arbitration. But there’s nothing said about the process of mediation. We need monitors to deal with dispute resolution who are acceptable to both parties.”

Attempts have been made at mediation, such as the efforts of US Senator George Mitchell during the Clinton administration and the ‘roadmap’ agreed by George W. Bush, which also included the appointment of a mediator.

But Baskin argues that all of them have been marred by serious shortcomings.

“Mitchell failed because he didn’t realise the Middle East wasn’t Northern Ireland. If he’d started drafting the agreement and then taken it from one side to the other, as Jimmy Carter did with Egypt and Israel, we’d be in a very different place today.

“Bush’s roadmap built in a monitor to oversee the process who is there to this day, but his reports are given in secret to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. If the reports are not made public and the leaders of both sides are not made accountable to their citizens, then we don’t have a process.”

The third stumbling block is that there is insufficient international leadership to overcome the first two problems.

“The US election means that it is out until November. The EU is out because of its own economic problems and its reluctance to be a player in the Middle East despite it repeatedly saying it wants to be. And Russia doesn’t care enough to do anything.”

If the process is to move forward this year, says Baskin, the onus must be on Israel and Palestine themselves to commit to the process.

This leads to the fourth and final problem: the reluctance of the two parties to enter into unconditional negotiations.

“I’ve never heard of any dispute being settled by not talking. If the Palestinians stick to their position of not negotiating while settlements are being built, who are they hurting? And Israel is not doing anyone any favours by not talking either.”

The current political configuration in Israel and the West Bank creates a window for action right now, says Baskin, but it may not last long.

“The next leadership contest in Palestine will not be a competition over who is more moderate: there is a very real possibility that Hamas will take control of the West Bank as well. In Israel, if Netanyahu does the deal he brings with him 80-90 per cent of Israelis. But if anyone else does the deal this won’t happen.”

Unfortunately, for all that the solution might be there to be implemented, such fundamental problems with the peace process mean that hopes of resolving the conflict in this window remain at a low ebb.

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Richard Nield is a freelance journalist, photographer and filmmaker covering the Middle East and Africa. In 10 years covering the region, he has been published and broadcast by clients including the BBC, Reuters, Al Jazeera, The Economist, The Financial Times, The Independent and Foreign Policy magazine. He has reported from throughout the region, including Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, South Sudan, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.