by Hans van den Broek, Andreas van Agt, Frans Andriessen and Laurens Jan Brinkhorst
Published: Internationale Spectator, September 2011
In recent years, the Palestinian Authority has worked hard on making the necessary arrangements for an independent Palestinian state. And not without result. In spring this year, the IMF, the World Bank, the United Nations and the donor countries declared that the Palestinian political and financial institutions were ready for independence.
After a 20-year process without peace, the Palestinians want to turn this achievement to account in September in the form of a United Nations resolution calling on the member states to recognise the independence of Palestine.
President Obama set this in motion a year ago, when he said in a speech to the UN: “When we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations - an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.”
September has moreover been designated by the Middle East Quartet as the date for the successful completion of the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, ushering in the establishment of a Palestinian state. But after Obama’s speech to the UN, those negotiations rapidly foundered as the Netanyahu administration accorded priority to settlements over peace.
The step by the Palestinians to realise their right to self-determination via the UN is the immediate outcome of Israel’s on-going colonisation and the international unwillingness to call a halt to that colonization. Which takes us to the core problem: the lack of political will, particularly on the part of the US and the EU, to exercise the necessary pressure to persuade Israel to bring to a stop its illegal and destructive policy.
American leadership lacks credibility
In the first few months after he was elected, President Obama aroused expectations that he had the necessary will. In his famous speech in Cairo he said in June 2009: “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop."
Little over a year later, there was no longer any trace of this firmness. Obama gave in to pressure from Netanyahu and the American Israel lobby; a settlement freeze was off the table. The efforts subsequently undertaken by the Americans to relaunch the negotiations were exercises in diplomatic window-dressing.
In February this year, the lack of American leadership led to an embarrassing exposure. In a vote in the Security Council on a resolution condemning the Israeli settlement policy, the United Kingdom, France and Germany (EU-3) voted in favour, while the US used its veto in order to torpedo the resolution – even though the text was a reflection of American statements.
Upon conclusion of the vote, the EU-3 issued a joint declaration in which they demanded an immediate cessation of all settlement activity, including that in East Jerusalem, and laid down parameters for the negotiations: a territorial solution on the basis of the 1967 borders, security agreements that respect the sovereignty of the Palestinians and effectively protect Israel’s security, a just solution to the issue of Palestinian refugees, and Jerusalem as the future capital of both Israel and Palestine.
The EU-3 hoped that these parameters would then be endorsed by the Middle East Quartet, consisting of the US, the EU, Russia and the UN. This was thwarted by the US when they cancelled two meetings of the Quartet in succession.
Two speeches in May by President Obama, one to the State Department and one to the Israel lobby AIPAC, were then slotted in for the US to regain the initiative. For anyone hoping that the US might be seeking to project itself as an honest broker, the result was a disillusionment. Not a single critical word about the settlements crossed the presidential lips, although there was a firm rejection of the national reconciliation process on the Palestinian side and the intention on the part of the Palestinians to take their case to the UN. The signal will not have escaped Netanyahu: Israel can continue to rely on unconditional support and will be spared any political pressure.
The fact that after his speech at the State Department Obama was nevertheless criticised by Prime Minister Netanyahu for referring to the 1967 borders, tells us little about Obama but a lot about Netanyahu. As Marwan Muasher, the former deputy Prime Minister of Jordan, noted by way of reminder: “Every negotiation - whether public or private - between the Palestinians and Israelis has used the 1967 borders as the foundation for an ultimate deal.”
By way of illustration, this is what Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, stated in the Israeli parliament in 2008: “We must give up Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem and return to the core of the territory that is the State of Israel prior to 1967, with minor corrections dictated by the reality created since then.” 1967, with minor corrections.
And in November 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton uttered the following words: “The United States believes that through good-faith negotiations, the parties can mutually agree on an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state, based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, […].” Words from the joint statement after a meeting between Clinton and – that’s right – Prime Minister Netanyahu. What Obama was not allowed to say, Netanyahu had himself stated six months before.
It is no accident that Netanyahu operates in this way. His rejection of the 1967 borders is a means of frustrating the diplomatic process, right at the point at which there could and should be movement.
His demand that the Palestinians recognise not just the state of Israel, but Israel as a Jewish state, also fits in with this pattern. Netanyahu is making this new demand, even though Israel has not been prepared to determine its borders since 1948. And that while he is leader of a party whose manifesto states: “The Government of Israel flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river”; “Jerusalem is the eternal, united capital of the State of Israel and only of Israel”; “The Jordan river will be the permanent eastern border of the State of Israel.”
The fact that Netanyahu has now accepted the establishment of a Palestinian state in words means little; at the same time he is rendering such a state physically impossible. This is illustrated by a number of reports in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: new development plans for five settlements and 942 new dwellings in the Gilo settlement (April); plans for 1500 new dwellings in the Har Homa and Pisgat Ze’ev settlements (May); and plans for 294 new dwellings in the Betar Ilit settlement and 42 in Karnei Shomron (July).
In July Haaretz also published measures taken by the Israeli army which, it must be feared, will result in an intensification of the settlement construction in “strategic areas” such as the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea region. Haaretz’s conclusion is clear: “The inclusion of the Jordan Valley, northern Dead Sea and area surrounding Ariel in the "settlement blocs" whose takeover the administration is advancing, would prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state with territorial contiguity.”
Despite this illegal and peace rejectionist policy, the US position has shifted even more towards that of the Netanyahu administration since President Obama’s speeches. This is evident from a document quoted by the British-Israeli political analyst Daniel Levy.1) At issue is a text proposal that the Americans made at a meeting of the Quartet, in mid-July, evidently after intensive coordination with the Netanyahu administration.
In this document, Levy concludes, United States essentially asked the other Quartet members – i.e. including the EU – to accept the illegal settlement policy, for the text contained a crucial passage from Obama’s AIPAC speech: “The parties themselves will negotiate a border between Israel and Palestine that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967, to take account of changes that have taken place over the last 44 years, including the new demographic realities on the ground and the needs of both sides.”
This looks like an outright authorisation of annexation. Compare this with the EU position: “The European Union will not recognise any changes to the pre-1967 borders including with regard to Jerusalem, other than those agreed by the parties.”
Another provision for which the US sought Quartet support was: “A lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland of the Jewish people.” Meaning: the other Quartet members were asked to concur with a provision that would further marginalise the vulnerable position of the Palestinian minority in Israel and annul the Palestinian right to return – even before that right has been the subject of serious discussion.
In addition the US wanted to have included: “… nor can the two-state solution be achieved through action in the United Nations.” What the US was asking for here is highly curious: that the UN, in its capacity as a member of the Quartet, would fall into line with the US in delegitimising the UN as a forum for diplomatic action.
The EU, UN and Russia understandably failed to agree to the US document. In the ensuing stalemate no final statement was issued. The Quartet has become paralysed. Meanwhile September is approaching rapidly.
On the road to the UN
Let there be no misunderstanding: the Palestinians are prepared to return to the negotiating table, provided two conditions are met negotiations on the basis of clear parameters, including the 1967 borders, and a settlement freeze. Netanyahu has rejected both conditions. For the Palestinians it is crystal-clear: September has become inevitable.
At the time of writing (early August) the possibility that there could still be an unexpected twist cannot be ruled out, but is unlikely. It is reasonable to assume that the UN will indeed address the issue of the Palestine state and that the matter will come to a vote.
Precisely what that vote will entail is not clear at this stage. The Palestinians are aspiring to full UN membership. This would however require a two thirds majority of the General Assembly following on from a recommendation by at least nine members of the Security Council – and without any permanent member deploying its veto prerogative. What is certain is that the US would exercise its veto; full membership remains unattainable for the time being.
A plausible alternative is a resolution in the General Assembly (UNGA) upgrading the UN status of the Palestinians from “observer” to “non-member state” and urging the 193 member states to recognise Palestine on the basis of the 1967 borders. The chance that such a resolution would be adopted is substantial – 120 UN member states have already recognised the State of Palestine.
Such a resolution, if widely supported, would be more than symbolic politics. This is also understood by Israel. The Netanyahu administration is accordingly pulling out all the stops in order to counter the vote.
The arguments it is advancing in order to do so are numerous. Israel contends for example that the Palestinian decision to turn to the UN is an act of unilateralism. In order to give this argument more force, Israel among other things quotes a clause from the Oslo Accords: “Neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the permanent status negotiations. ”
This is chutzpah. For what could be more unilateral and has transformed the situation in the West Bank more radically than the settlement policy? Furthermore, how can turning to the UN – the most multilateral forum on earth – be evidence of unilateralism?
The UN vote would also obstruct if not end the peace process, predicts Israel. Why should that be so? A UN resolution calling for the recognition of the State of Palestine on the basis of the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital, would in essence do no more than endorse the existing international consensus: a consensus that is existentially threatened by the Israeli settlement policy.
Only negotiations can lead to peace, Israel contends. That is correct. The UN vote in September is indeed no alternative to negotiations. But it does create a framework for such negotiations. And it is here that the true significance of the resolution lies: it sets clear limits on Israel’s unilateral policy, which would wipe the 1967 borders off the map.
Another argument, packaged as a warning, is that violence will erupt in the Palestinian territories as the UN vote will arouse expectations but not lead to tangible change. An internal report by the Israeli intelligence services states however that violent protests are not in fact likely, reported Haaretz.
Another warning by Israel concerns Hamas. The UN vote would legitimates that movement, whereas it still refuses to recognise Israel. It is evident that Hamas still needs to take many steps to be a partner for peace. But the same also applies to Israel. Latching on to September in order to accentuate Hamas’s total isolation would have the effect of strengthening the radical forces within that movement and weakening the leaders who would accept a territorial solution on the basis of the 1967 borders.
By means of such arguments Israel is trying to weaken the support for a UN resolution. The battle here concerns the Western democracies, not the majority in the UNGA, as they will vote in favour whatever happens. The voting behaviour of the Western democracies will determine the weight and hence the political implications of the resolution in question.
The race for the US was soon run; they will vote against, including in the UNGA. The real battleground is Europe. Unfortunately, Europe is increasingly divided. The EU-3 are also not on the same page. Germany has already stated that it opposes the UN vote. France, by contrast, takes a positive line. The United Kingdom has not yet determined its position. The Netherlands is utterly opposed.
It might be expected that all the member states, including the Netherlands, are aware that it is five minutes to midnight for the two-state solution, if not later. September may be the last moment at which a political deed can be performed to rescue the two-state solution.
Performing that deed means: voting in favour. In favour of the 1967 borders. In favour of serious negotiations leading to a viable two-state solution. In favour of a just and lasting peace.
The step to cast a vote in favour would not be a major one. The majority of the countries and international organisations already treat Palestine in practice as a state, including the UN and the EU. Furthermore eight of the 27 EU member states have already recognised the State of Palestine, while the remainder maintain diplomatic relations with the Palestinians.
Those member states that nevertheless cast a vote against will be sending an unambiguous and far-reaching political signal. A vote against the Palestinian state is a vote in favour of the settlements. An abstention amounts to tolerant support of the settlement policy.
Dutch policy counter-productive
It is clear that the diplomatic role of the US as pace-maker has run its course, at least until after the presidential elections at the end of 2012. For this reason the EU needs to take the lead if progress is to be made.
A proactive and energetic European Middle East policy depends on unanimity and the political will to exercise pressure, including on Israel. In no other member state would there appear to be less such will than in the Netherlands. No other member state stands out more in respect of the policy of toleration and reward for Israel than the Netherlands. Tolerating illegal policy; rewarding in the absence of any quid pro quo by Israel. The position taken by the Netherlands in the EU context is nothing short of deplorable.
The government justifies its unconditional support by the argument that it will soften Israel’s stance. The contrary, however, is true. As a result of the policy of tolerance and reward Israel now labours under the misapprehension that peace and settlements can go hand in hand.
Another argument is that Israel needs support to defend itself against the “delegitimation” from which the state is said to be suffering. Where does this leave the consideration that Israel is bringing the growing criticism on itself by persisting with a policy that is unworthy of a democracy and the rule of law?
Moreover, there is the concern about Israel’s security. This is justified, as Israel has enemies – Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, to name a few. But here again, Israel is in significant measure creating its own insecurity by persisting with the occupation. Furthermore, is the Dutch government aware that in July a group of former Israeli officers and diplomats travelled to Washington in order to convey the message that, contrary to what Prime Minister Netanyahu asserts, the 1967 borders are in fact capable of being defended?
Does the government also remember that 22 Arab states, united in the Arab League, submitted a peace proposal to Israel in 2002 and 2007 for the mutual recognition and normalisation of relations, in exchange for a just solution to the refugee issue and an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders – a proposal that Israel did not even deem worthy of serious consideration?
September is the moment to salvage the 1967 borders and hence the prospects for peace. The hour of truth will then dawn – not just for the Palestinians, but also for Israel.
Andreas van Agt was Prime Minister of the Netherlands and is chairman of The Rights Forum.
Frans Andriessen was Minister of Finance of the Netherlands and Vice President of the European Commission.
Laurens Jan Brinkhorst was Minister for Economic Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister of the Netherlands.
Hans van den Broek was Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands and the European Commissioner for External Relations.
Andriessen, Brinkhorst and Van den Broek are members of the Advisory Council of The Rights Forum (www.rightsforum.org).
1) Levy, Daniel. “America’s attempted Quartet sophistry”, Foreign Policy, 22 July 2011. See also: http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2011/07/22/palestine_israel_the_un_and_america_s_attempted_quartet_sophistry
For fuller notes see: www.rightsforum.org/spectator2
The above article appears in the September edition of Internationale Spectator, a Dutch monthly about international politics of Institute Clingendael in The Hague.