I don’t often write about foreign policy and I very rarely write about the situation between Israel and Palestine. This isn’t because I don’t care. My focus in my writing is predominantly from a domestic political perspective, but I know that decisions about contentious foreign policy issues have strong and lasting effects on domestic politics. I know that even in non-national elections, these issues get caught up in the hurly burly of politics.
For a small, but very vocal minority on the left, international politics – in particular the politics of the Middle East (and South America to an extent) are more dominant issues in their discourse than domestic concerns. For those of us outside of these groups, their passion and polarisation seems both overwhelming and frightening. There is a sense that to try to ask questions is to blunder in, at anytime risking being labelled anti-Semitics or Islamophobic, a Trot or a Tory.
As the latest crisis in Gaza unfolded, I realised how little I really know about a conflict that has lasted all my life. I asked on Twitter whether there were any news sources that both sides considered to be unbiased where I could find basic information. The answer was both expected and depressing. It was no.
I was reminded of a passage in Deborah Mattinson’s excellent book Talking to a Brick Where she says that audiences in focus groups frequently found clips not from Newsnight or the Today Programme to be the most informative, but clips from the children-oriented Newsround. I was discussing this with a friend last night; A woman just as intelligent and well informed as myself, and just as lost in the background of some of the long running stories that are reported – from the Middle East crisis to Rwanda, the Congo, and Thailand. We agreed that what would be ideal would be a “pre-news” programme that explained the background to the issues before the actual news explained the recent developments.
With this in mind, I approached two friends from the Labour Party, Luke Akehurst – Director of We Believe in Israel and Seph Brown from the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding to see if they would answer some quite basic questions from their own perspectives on the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Given all that was happening and the demands that made on their time, I am incredibly grateful to them for agreeing to do so.
I tried to keep the questions quite basic and unbiased. I presented the same questions to both of them. I have alternated whose answers are presented first and tossed a coin to decide whose answers would be presented first on question one.
I am presenting their answers without commentary below. They have helped me to gain a greater degree of understanding of the conflict. For anyone feeling as lost as I was and too daunted by the vitriol and passion that is flung around in equal measures on this topic, I hope this helps:
1. What are the principle areas of contention and what are the principle areas of agreement?
Luke Akehurst: A majority of Israelis and Palestinians would accept the principle of a two state solution (though there are large and determined minorities opposed to this). In previous rounds of talks the key areas of contention have been how to delineate the exact borders (i.e. what happens to Israeli settlements in the West Bank), the future of Jerusalem, and whether Palestinian refugees and their descendants should have the right to return to Israel.
Seph Brown: The international community is solidly behind the two-state solution. Polling suggests that Israelis and Palestinians prefer this solution as well. Unfortunately, this is effectively where agreement ends. The status of Jerusalem is contested, the final borders, resource rights and the status of the 5million Palestinian refugees who live in and around Israel and Palestine all need to be settled. All the while these issues remain unresolved, the Israeli occupation entrenches further and radicalism appears to be on the increase. Even the two-state solution itself – as dozens of leaders and commentators increasingly suggest – may be no longer viable.
2. What reasonable solutions have been proposed over the years and what has the response to these been?
Seph Brown: There have been numerous official and unofficial initiatives over the years (in fact the 1993 Oslo Accords began as a secret channel between PLO officials and two Israeli academics). The 1947 partition plan was rejected by Palestinians and Arab states on the basis that it gave most of the land to the minority population. This is a running theme throughout negotiations and their breakdown –Palestinians being asked to accept a smaller and smaller portion of the land they used to own 100% of. The Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 offered Israel full recognition and security guarantees within the pre-1967 from all 22 Arab states– Israel rejected this out of hand.
Luke Akehurst: In 1947 the UN proposed a Partition Plan for Palestine which the Jewish community accepted but the Arab side rejected.
After the 6 day war in 1967 the UN said that Israel should withdraw from territory captured but it was entitled to recognition and secure borders (the land for peace formula). Israel accepted the principle.
In 2000 Clinton proposed a 2-state solution. The Palestinians would get most of Gaza and the West Bank, Jerusalem would be shared, and a limited number of refugees would be allowed to return to Israel. Israel accepted in principle but the Palestinians rejected.
3. What can, should and would be given up by the Palestinians to achieve peace?
Luke Akehurst: The hardest concession for the Palestinians is on the right of return. But this is the key concession to make peace possible. Israel will only accept a two state deal if it means 2 states for 2 peoples, i.e. they will not have to accept a huge influx of Palestinian refugee descendants that would undermine Israel’s character as a Jewish state. The Palestinians also have to show flexibility on the exact borders. Territory equivalent to the pre-1967 borders is feasible, but they will have to accept Israeli annexation of major settlement blocks, including in Jerusalem, in return for land swaps.
Seph Brown: The Palestinian view is that they made their “historic compromise” when in 1988 their leadership, the PLO, recognised Israel within the pre-1967 lines. This meant giving up 78% of the land of historic Palestine, leaving them with only the West Bank and Gaza. Asking Palestinians to give up more is likely to exacerbate the situation further – Radical groups and their ideologies are based on the reality that moderate Fatah have failed to achieve liberation through compromise. That said, it does seem highly unlikely that Israel will allow Palestinian refugees to achieve their full Right of Return.
4. What can, should and would be given up by the Israelis to achieve peace?
Seph Brown: Having complete military and economic hegemony, Israel holds most of the cards. The simple truth is that rather than using this position to negotiate peace, it invests heavily in the occupation and expropriation of more and more Palestinian land on the West Bank through expansion of settlements which are illegal under international law. Israel must remove these settlements to allow the creation of a viable and secure Palestinian state. Moreover, Israel’s blockade of Gaza does not prevent weapons getting to Hamas; it gives Hamas an income through taxation of the smuggling tunnels and causes massive suffering to 1.7m Palestinians in Gaza – a failed policy which needs to end.
Luke Akehurst: Israel will have to give up control of most of the West Bank and accept a degree of security risk in doing so. It will also have to accept an arrangement which gives sovereignty of Arab east Jerusalem to the Palestinians and shares sovereignty in the Old City. It should also be willing to evacuate isolated settlements or see them come under Palestinian sovereignty. A gesture or creatively worded device to address Palestinian ‘right of return’ may also be necessary.
5. Isn’t the building of illegal settlements counterproductive? Doesn’t it lead to a greater security threat for the Israeli People?
Luke Akehurst: Most construction is in parts of Jerusalem and West Bank settlement blocks which Israel can expect to keep in a final status deal. New construction outside those areas will ultimately be abandoned (as settlements in the Sinai and Gaza were).
The settlement blocks are motivated in part by security concerns, as they enable Israel to hold key points which makes their borders more defensible. Without the West Bank Israel’s coastal plain (where most of its population and industry are) is 8 miles wide at its narrowest and overlooked by strategic high ground, and Jerusalem is vulnerable to being cut off.
Seph Brown: Yes and yes. There has not been a single point during negotiations that settlements have not expanded – even during the ‘freeze’ of 2010. Israel invests billions of dollars on their construction, mortgage and transport subsidies, on top of the military occupation itself which protects them. Settlements control 42% of the West Bank and most of its natural resources. Settler violence against Palestinians increased 144% in from 2009-2011 – 90% of incidents reported to the Israeli police are closed without indictment. In 2011, 622 Palestinian homes, water cisterns and other essential structures were demolished, displacing almost 1,100 Palestinians – 60% to make way for settlements.
6. Are rocket attacks from Gaza on Israel counterproductive? Don’t they lead to a greater security threat for the Palestinian people?
Seph Brown: I want to say “yes and yes” but unfortunately, Israel has proven that violence pays. While Fatah and the PLO attempt legitimate, non-violent responses to the occupation (from weekly grassroots protests to appealing to the United Nations) they are labelled “rioters” and “unilateralists” by Israel and her supporters. Meanwhile, Hamas achieved the release of over a thousand Palestinian detainees through the abduction of a single Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. Hamas responds to the blockade and attacks on Gaza with rocket fire on civilian areas (which are war crimes) and then Israel negotiates with them. To empower moderates we must engage with their nonviolent initiatives.
Luke Akehurst: Yes. And there is no conceivable justification for them since Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip completely in 2005. They are also immoral as they target civilians indiscriminately.
7. Does the reputation of the two sides of the conflict matter to them? Does reputational damage affect them internally?
Luke Akehurst: Israel is pulled between 2 inclinations. On the one hand Zionism is about wining international recognition and legitimacy for Jewish national rights in their historic home, and so Israelis care that the rest of the world recognises their legitimacy. On the other hand Zionist ideology and Israeli political culture (and Jewish history) teaches that the Jews can only rely on themselves and the rest of the world cannot be trusted to protect them. There is also a strong sense that the rest of the world simply does not understand what’s going on and the threats Israel has to deal with.
Seph Brown: All parties care about their internal constituencies first, followed by their core international supporters. No amount of international condemnation has ever prevented settlement expansion nor completely deterred Israelis and Palestinians from resorting to violence. Israel is really only concerned by the United States’ position – as we have seen through recent events at the United Nations. But it is important to realise that there are not just “two sides” but many stakeholders all playing to a specific constituency – different parties in Israel and Palestine. For example Fatah seeks a broad nonviolent base, while extreme groups like Israel’s ‘hilltop youth’ or Islamic Jihad have a smaller base unaffected by reputational considerations.
8. What impact should levels of inequality between the two sides have when pursuing peace?
Seph Brown: The sheer asymmetry between Israelis and Palestinians is a fundamental cause of the conflict. Extreme inequality can be found at all levels. GDP per capita is around 10 times higher for Israelis than Palestinians. On the West Bank, Palestinians can receive as little as 36% of their W.H.O. daily recommended allowance of water – settlers get 242%. In Gaza, 90% of water is unusable – in part because Gaza’s only sewerage plant was destroyed by Israel in Operation Cast Lead (materials to rebuild it have been banned under the blockade). There is also a legal inequality: Palestinians in the West Bank are subject to military law, while Israeli settlers under civilian law. Such examples of discrimination contribute to increased tension.
Luke Akehurst:Both sides make claims to be the weaker party. The Palestinians say they are occupied by a strong state and army. Israel says it is surrounded by 22 hostile Arab states. At the end of the day, in the negotiating room, each side has something the other wants. Israel has land that the Palestinians want and the Palestinians have their historic claims which Israel wants to see closed in order to gain fixed borders and regional and international legitimacy. This is why negotiations happen at all. This is why a deal is possible in the right circumstances.
9. Given the insecurity felt by the Israeli people and the internal politics that have emerged as a result is full Israeli engagement with a peace process a politically viable option?
Luke Akehurst: Yes, for the reason given above, and because polling shows most Israelis would prefer not to be occupying another nation, which is huge drain on the country in so many ways.
Seph Brown: Polling routinely shows that politics in Israel is becoming increasingly right-wing, but it also tends to show that the peace process simply isn’t a very high priority for most Israelis (over economic and social issues for example). Therefore, until the most recent flare up, there simply hasn’t been any pressure on Israel’s government to engage with the Palestinians. For Israel’s current right-wing coalition the theme is decidedly conflict management rather than conflict resolution – so long as settlements continue to expand. External pressure will be the only way to kick-start negotiations – which is one of the reasons the Palestinian Authority appealed to the UN for help.
10. Does the peace process – as it did in Northern Ireland – have to involve engagement with organisations deemed terrorist (by external organisations) such as Hamas?
Seph Brown: Israel and the west are already negotiating with Hamas (albeit behind closed doors or through mediators). The reason for this is that Hamas is a part of the fabric of Palestinian society – it commands 30-40% support among electors – so trying to ignore them will derail any peace talks before they have begun. Hamas have shown themselves to be open to negotiations (despite their constitution ruling them out) and also capable upholding agreements (see the Shalit deal or various ceasefires). Hamas have an undeniably grim founding charter, but the guiding principle we need to bear in mind is that you do not make peace with your friends – but your enemies.
Luke Akehurst: The reason Hamas is not in the peace process is not inherently because it uses violence but because it is ideologically opposed, as its very core, to the existence of Israel. There can be no peace with Hamas unless Hamas changes, though there may be an option for de-facto long term ceasefire between Israel and Hamas-controlled Gaza.
The best hope for a peace agreement is for Israel to agree terms with Palestinian moderates, which then puts Hamas in the dilemma of having to support or reject the deal.
11. If it does, what conditions much Hamas adhere to before it can be a success?
Luke Akehurst: Hamas has to accept that Israel is here to stay. It’s not going to happen in the foreseeable future as they are currently under no pressure to make that concession.
Seph Brown: No-one can negotiate with a gun to their head. Therefore, just as Israel must end settlement construction for talks to begin, so Hamas must renounce the use of violence as a political tool. It is unreasonable (and unsustainable) for any party to have to negotiate while their constituencies are under threat. However, the other two ‘Quartet principles’ are unnecessarily restrictive: 1) Many Palestinians believe it deeply unfair to recognise Israel without reciprocation of their own state. 2) Asking Hamas to abide by all previous diplomatic agreements – when most have been so comprehensively violated they are irrelevant – could prove counterproductive.
12. If it does not, who can act as honest brokers in the process and how can they get all sides to agree?
Seph Brown: Egypt has shown itself one of the few partners willing and able to bring the parties to a place where agreements can be made. However, this may not be sustainable in the long term since it is Israel and Palestine who will have to live side by side and will have to be able to speak directly and on an equal footing on a whole range of issues. It is not practical to rely on mediators in perpetuity.
Luke Akehurst: See above. The Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt can help mediate practical ceasefire and coexistence arrangements between Israel and Gaza, but if armed groups in Gaza continue to arm, the fighting will resume at some point.
13. What role should the USA play in brokering peace?
Luke Akehurst: The US is in the strongest position to act as mediator as it has most leverage with the parties and the rest of the region. It needs to pressure, cajole and incentivise the parties along the way and keep them focused.
But the US can’t make peace happen. The key breakthroughs in the past – Israeli-Egyptian peace, the Oslo Accords – have been brought about by the parties themselves due what they thought was in their interests, not because of US pressure.
Seph Brown: Many commentators agree that the United States has shown itself incapable of being a truly honest broker, primarily because of decidedly partisan domestic circumstances in congress and amongst the general public. However, as the only power capable of making the massive financial investment which will be needed to secure and implement any peace deal, US close involvement will continue to be essential. Necessary compensation to settlers and refugees, continued training of Palestinian security and bureaucratic infrastructure will amount to billions of dollars over many years.
14. What role should the rest of the international community play in brokering peace?
Seph Brown: In the end, Israel and Palestine need to work out their differences together, but the international community has a pivotal (and as yet, untapped) role in ensuring the best possible environment for talks to be fruitful. First, the international community has to recognise both Israel and Palestine within their pre-1967 borders. Then we must enforce international law and ensure our economic activity reflects this. Israel’s settlement programme is roundly condemned, but we continue to trade with the settler economy en masse. As an initial practical and measured step, this has to stop.
Luke Akehurst: The Arab world should back the Palestinian moderates and the two state solution. Europe should use its leverage on the Arab states to make them do that and it should play a supporting role, closely coordinated with the US in top down talks. Europe can also help with Palestinian state building and promoting grass roots coexistence and dialogue. The EU should not try to launch its own initiatives, not coordinated with the US. It never helps.
15. Why have sides on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in the UK become about left and right?
Luke Akehurst: The far left adopted the Palestinian national cause when it embraced post-colonialism after 1967, and it incorrectly painted Zionism as a colonial movement propped up by the US, which it regarded as the greatest danger to world peace.
People who are warmer towards the USA and the promotion of liberal and democratic values also tend to be warmer to Israel, which represents democracy in a sea of Middle Eastern autocracy.
Seph Brown: My view is that this is only really true at the far ends of the spectrum. The hard left have an anti-imperialist obsession with Palestine while the hard right have an Islamophobic fervour which drives them to support Israel. In the Labour and Conservative parties you will find a whole range of views. In reality, the boiling down of this issue to left and right has an extremely damaging effect on the discussion. Labour are particularly bad at this, labelling one another ‘Trots’ and ‘Zionists’ for taking various positions. Israel-Palestine is essentially a human rights issue and should have little relevance to left or right wing ideologies.
16. Why have the facts themselves become contentious? Why is it impossible to find a source of news that neither side believe to be biased?
Seph Brown: A Palestinian-American academic, Edward Said once said “facts get their importance from what is made of them in interpretation… for interpretations depend very much on who the interpreter is, who he or she is addressing, what his or her purpose is, at what historical moment the interpretation takes place.” The only proper thing to do with this issue – like any other – is to trust no single source and ensure that you cross-reference everything you read.
If you are worried about biased news, the only real sources to consider are those on the ground, working in the region and able to give hard evidence of life in Israel and under the occupation and blockade in Palestine.
a) Join Caabu (The Council for Arab-British Understanding) to receive our Daily Broadsheet digest of all Middle East news and come to our public events on a range of issues.
b) The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) supply excellent maps, presentations and humanitarian factsheets giving weekly field updates on settlement growth, settler violence, home demolitions and more.
c) Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) is a healthcare charity who documents an array of health issues across Occupied Palestine.
d) B’Tselem is an Israeli human rights NGO who operate on the ground in Occupied Palestine to document human rights abuses by the government, settlers and Palestinians.
e) Al Haq is a Palestinian human rights NGO who seek to enforce the rule of law in Occupied Palestine.
f) Breaking the Silence is an Israeli NGO for former soldiers who seek to expose abuse and malpractice by the Israeli army in Occupied Palestine.
g) Human Rights Watch have an active programme of reporting abuses in the region.
h) Defence for Children International has an active Palestine Section who document abuse against children in the military court system and elsewhere in Occupied Palestine.
Luke Akehurst: A huge amount of high quality research means the truth about the history is available. However, most people don’t have time for all that so they are vulnerable to being spun a biased version by one side. This is also true of many of the journalists writing about the conflict, who in any case apply their prejudices or political orientations. The extent to which history has been rewritten about how we got to this point, particularly by left wing British journalists, is mind boggling. For a fair and reasonable account, albeit from an Israel-sympathetic perspective, see BICOM’s(Britain Israel Communication Centre) FAQs (http://www.bicom.org.uk/resources/faqs/).
Tags: Israel, Luke Akehurst, Palestine, Seph Brown