Putting Peace Back on the Israeli-Palestinian Agenda
Jerome M. Segal
The weakening of Israel’s Supreme Court will make it easier for Israel’s far-right government to pursue its objective of making permanent Israel’s control over the West Bank and the millions of Palestinian living there. Hope for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict no longer exists. Even the opposition does not speak of peace or call for negotiations. As bleak as the situation appears, history suggests that there may be another pathway forward.
In 1947, Britain, as the mandatory power in Palestine, occupied a place analogous to that of the United States today. In words that President Biden might himself use, British Foreign Secretary Bevin informed Parliament that there “is no prospect of resolving this conflict by any settlement negotiated by the parties.” But having judged a negotiated solution impossible. Britain then did what might be done today: It turned to the United Nations for a solution.
From that despairing moment in February ‘47, events moved rapidly. A Special Session of the UN General Assembly was convened. The Assembly established UNSCOP, the UN Special Committee on Palestine to look anew at the conflict and make recommendation as to how to could be resolved. UNSCOP visited the region, held hearings, took testimony and made its recommendations to the General Assembly. With minor modifications, the UNSCOP proposal became the historic UN Partition Resolution which called for an end to the British Mandate and the division of Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. It was enacted in November 1947 as UNGA Resolution 181. All of this was accomplished in just nine months.
What can we learn from the UNSCOP experience? First, that the UN did a pretty good job in detailing the solution: the two-state plan, with a compromise on Jerusalem, has stood the test of time. No better idea has emerged. Today, reversing historic positions, the two-state solution is accepted by the PLO but not by the Government of Israel. In 1947, the big flaw in the partition plan was not its proposed solution, but that there was no enforcement mechanism. In the post-WWII period, the United States was the one party that could have enforced partition and thus avoided the 1948 war and the Nakba that befell the Palestinians. The Truman Administration was unwilling to take this on. The same is true today of the Biden Administration. It will neither support nor enforce an imposed solution.
With no possibility of fruitful negotiations or an imposed solution, there is another option: Again turn to the UN, but ask that it initiate a process that focuses on the two peoples, not the two governments. In particular, initiate a process that could put peace back on the public agenda and use public sentiment to alter the future behavior of state and non-state actors.
Rather than some hortatory resolution, the UN should establish a new kind of peace process, one that does not immediately focus on negotiations. As in 1947, send an International Peace Commission to the region, but the Commission would not seek to mediate between the PLO and the current Government of Israel. Rather its focus would be on the two peoples. Through an open and publicized process, it would engage all segments of civil society on all sides of the conflict, in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Its first goal would be to determine if there remains among the two peoples sufficient underlying will to makes necessary concessions to end the conflict. If so, the Commission would translate this into that set of solutions to the core issues, (statehood, borders, Jerusalem, security, settlements, refugees) that it judges has the greatest likelihood of being accepted by both a majority of the citizens of Israel and by the Palestinian people.
This peace plan would then be made public and in a second round, the Israeli and Palestinian publics, as well as experts from around the world, would be invited to submit comments. This too would be a widely visible public process.
Following this period of public commentary, the Peace Commission would make revisions and then report its recommendations to the United Nations. There are a variety of options as to what will happen next. One is that the UN would call on the Israeli government and the PLO, to take the UN plan as a starting point, and to then negotiate for three months to see if they can reach agreement on mutually acceptable improvements. Likely, the Palestinians would agree, but the current Israeli government would likely refuse to negotiate on this basis. If so, the PLO/Palestinian Authority might, with possible modifications, submit the UN proposal to a referendum of all Palestinians. If it passes, it will be the first time in the entire history of conflict that the Palestinian people have said “Yes” to a concrete end-of-conflict, end-of-claims proposal. We won’t know until we get there, but Hamas may also support this. It has long said that it would respect a peace agreement affirmed by a referendum of the Palestinian people. Either way, through such a referendum, the terms of the conflict will have been fundamentally transformed. On the Palestinian side, the people themselves will have established that they are a partner for peace. On the Israeli side, if the government remains intransient, this will provide, as never before, clarity as to why the conflict persists. From inside Israel and from without, there will be an overwhelming demand for a government willing to meet the Palestinians halfway.