Between words and deeds: prospects for a sustainable peace in the Middle East

June 12, 2013 - nr.83
Summary

Summary and recommendations

In accordance with the tenor of the request from the Senate, in this advisory report the AIV has primarily explored the question of how the peace process in the Middle East can be revived. The need to bring an end to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is more urgent than ever. The prospects of implementing a two-state solution are being seriously undermined by the continued expansion of Israeli settlements near East Jerusalem and on the West Bank, alongside the many other illegal Israeli settlements that have existed for years. The situation in the surrounding region is also highly unstable, and there is a great chance that the Palestinians will again resort to violence, with all its harmful repercussions.

The AIV believes that a two-state solution would still provide the best basis for a peace settlement between the two parties. The option of a binational state may be attractive from a humanitarian and idealistic point of view, but it would meet with insurmountable objections both on matters of principle and on practical grounds. The alternative of permanent Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, coupled with repression, restricted freedom of movement for the local population and unequal distribution of water supplies, is bound to provoke the Palestinians to renewed violence – the only question is when. Furthermore, such a scenario, leading almost inevitably to the further undermining of the civil rights of Palestinians and also of dissident Israelis, would constitute a threat to the rule of law in Israel itself. A two-state solution would however have to be supported by agreements on land swaps, the legal return of Palestinians to their original homes in Israel – in so far as they wished – and security guarantees.

Although the AIV realises that developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are to a large degree determined by political factors (power relationships, political leadership, the definition of national interests and the dynamics of domestic politics in interaction with external interventions), it is important that this conflict be assessed within the generally accepted legal framework, and brought to a satisfactory end within that framework. This report has therefore devoted particular attention to relevant aspects of international law based, among other things, on peoples’ right to self-determination, the rights and obligations of occupying powers and the rule of proportionality when it comes to the use of force.

In this connection, the AIV has taken as its reference point the Advisory Opinion issued by the International Court of Justice in 2004. Though this opinion was initially issued in response to questions about the legality of Israel’s construction of the ‘wall’ (much of it on Palestinian territory), the opinion of the Court encompasses almost all legal issues associated with the conflict. The Court also considered the Israeli settlements on the West Bank in its deliberations. It concluded that Israel’s settlement policy violates international law. The violations concern the Palestinian people’s right to selfdetermination, the freedom of movement of all inhabitants of the occupied territories, and the right to work, health care and education. The Court also believes that the barrier and the settlements violate the Fourth Geneva Convention (relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War) and Security Council resolutions on the matter, because they are helping to change the demographic profile of the occupied territories. There can be no doubt as to the applicability of the Convention in these territories. Given the fact that the AIV – as indicated below – regards it as essential that the EU take an active stance in this conflict, it would also highlight the importance of the provision in the Association Agreements (article 2) with both Israel and the Palestinians, which refers to ‘respect for human rights and democratic principles’.

The AIV has also considered the implications of the reform movements and revolutions that have been shaking large parts of the Arab world to their foundations for over two years now. It has concluded that these regional developments, which reveal complex interrelationships, have so far had no real impact on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in either a positive or a negative sense. Nevertheless, these developments make the need to find a solution all the more urgent, given the prevailing instability in the region. Furthermore, we cannot rule out the possibility that the increased influence of Islamist parties will translate into more overt support for the Palestinian cause. This might prompt the Palestinians to continue their struggle for an independent state with renewed conviction, potentially reducing their willingness to reach a compromise with Israel if no peace initiatives that take sufficient account of Palestinian aspirations are put forward in the near future.

Given the fact that, for all kinds of reasons, both parties will find it difficult to return to the negotiating table of their own accord, active international mediation and external pressure will most probably be essential. In the recent past, hopes have been pinned mainly on the Quartet and its efforts to make the peace process a success. However, the AIV believes that the Quartet has not been able to live up to its initial expectations and ambitions. The formal inclusion of the UN, EU and Russia in the group could not disguise the fact that every attempt at mediation depended on the efforts of the US, which thus had a key position.

Despite the relative decline in American power and the polarisation in US domestic politics, that country remains potentially the best placed to effectively influence relations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Whether President Obama will be prepared to bring America’s considerable weight to bear during his second term, and if necessary to tackle any obstructive posture on Israel’s part, is uncertain, however. There are grounds to believe that the US may intervene actively in the conflict. They include America’s credibility and reputation in the Muslim world and the political capital President Obama stands to gain from a successful demonstration of international statesmanship. There are also, however, factors that give reason to believe that the US will continue to distance itself from the conflict, given the severity of America’s budget crisis, the strength of the pro-Israel lobby and US priorities elsewhere in the world.

The lack of certainty about US efforts in the immediate future makes it even more important to consider the potential role of the EU. The AIV believes that the EU has more scope for breathing new life into the peace process than is often assumed. The Union has close economic and other ties with Israel, and the Palestinians are heavily dependent on the EU financially. Wherever possible, the EU should tie in its efforts for peace in the Middle East with any efforts made by the Americans. This would provide the best guarantee of talks being resumed. But if the Americans fail to make adequate efforts (or if they look likely to move in the wrong direction, by being too accepting of unreasonable Israeli positions), the EU should not shrink from fulfilling its own responsibility as a mediator. Given its ambition, or claim, to be a ‘normative power’, it should focus on generally accepted principles of international law (including humanitarian law and human rights conventions). To lend international peace proposals broad legitimacy, it is also important that countries from the Arab region, such as Egypt and Jordan, or Qatar, be involved in the mediation process.

Of course, the chances of peace in the Middle East depend on the willingness of both parties to resume negotiations in good faith. This will happen only if a majority of Israelis and Palestinians are convinced that a peace settlement based on a two-state formula is ultimately in both sides’ interests. The Palestinians need to recognise that Israel’s concerns about its security, both now and in the future, are legitimate. They must be asked to cooperate fully in minimising those concerns. Such cooperation might include effective action against radical Palestinian groups that engage in violent opposition against the very existence of Israel as a Jewish state in the Arab world. This of course primarily concerns the militant groups in Gaza, an area that is effectively outside the control of the Palestinian Authority. A reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas would therefore be highly desirable. Contact with Hamas must not be avoided. Israel must be asked to introduce a radical turnaround in its settlement policy in the near future. The practice of establishing Israeli settlements far inside Palestinian territory encroaches on the land needed to create a viable Palestinian state. By ignoring repeated calls and warnings from the international community to stop expanding its settlements, the Israeli government has raised serious doubts about the sincerity of its stated desire for peace.

Should Israel prove unwilling to put an end to the growing colonisation of the occupied territories, responsible actors in the international community will have no choice but to follow up their words of protest with actual deeds. In other words, persistent violations of international law and binding Security Council resolutions must lead to consequences if the situation does not change. For the European Union, this might mean restrictions or a freeze on its relations with Israel (and at any rate no upgrading of its cooperation) and, in connection with its international legal obligations, a ban on imports of products from the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.

Finally, the AIV would like to put forward a number of recommendations relating to possible contributions that the Netherlands might make, either directly or indirectly, to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or at least improve the political climate between the two parties:

  1. The Netherlands must focus its efforts on convincing the EU member states of the need, in the near future, to launch a joint initiative to move towards a two-state solution. To achieve maximum effect, this initiative must as far as possible be undertaken in conjunction with the US. If necessary, however, the EU must itself take responsibility and make independent efforts to bring the parties together. The Netherlands must accept that the United Kingdom, France and Germany, as the larger EU countries, should take the lead, in order to maximise the effect of Europe’s actions.
     
  2. When it comes to specifying the details of any European initiative, the Netherlands should actively promote the organisation of a new Middle East conference (preceded by thorough preparations). It would be logical for stakeholder countries in the region to send delegations to the conference, alongside Israeli and Palestinian delegations. The goal of the conference should be to reach agreement on the final parameters for a peace settlement. An alternative to a conference might be a special session of the Security Council requested by the UK and France, and including representatives of the parties to the conflict. The UK and France could submit a draft resolution setting out the final parameters on behalf of the EU.
     
  3. If the above initiative were to fail to win sufficient support, the Netherlands might consider taking the lead, following the example of Norway in the early 1990s, by offering to bring the parties to the negotiating table in this country (either openly or behind closed doors), based on the principles of international law. Depending on the needs and wishes of the parties, the Netherlands could limit its role to that of facilitator, or act as mediator.
     
  4. The Netherlands could also make a useful contribution by actively promoting certain forms of second-track diplomacy. Besides facilitating exchanges between opinion leaders from Israel and the Palestinian territories, it is particularly important to institutionalise a dialogue in which representatives of moderate civil society organisations on both sides can discuss issues of mutual interest, with a view to seeking common solutions.
     
  5. In the opinion of the AIV, the EU should take a stricter line on ensuring that Israel does not enjoy any benefit from its Association Agreement with the EU when it comes to products from the settlements. The AIV would also urge the Netherlands to actively discourage Dutch and European companies from doing business with Israeli companies in the settlements.
     
  6. To aid the development of the necessary capacity and judicial legislation in a new state of Palestine, the Netherlands must redouble its efforts in the area of training police officers, judges and administrative officials.
     
  7. The Netherlands could also usefully take a more active role in the field of ‘water diplomacy’. Given the technical breakthroughs that have been made in desalinisation techniques, the Netherlands could bring its large stock of knowledge and experience to bear in efforts to ensure that an enhanced water supply also benefits the Palestinians.
     
  8. Finally, in a general sense, the Netherlands should join forces with like-minded countries to ensure that the two parties comply with their obligations under international law and, if necessary, help to enforce this. Historical ties and solidarity with Israel must not preclude calling it to account for violating the law.
     
Advice request

Mr F. Korthals Altes
Chairman of the Advisory Council
on International Affairs
P.O. Box 20061
2500 EB The Hague

Date    23 October 2012
Re      Request for advice on new initiatives for the Middle East Peace Process
Ref     151390.01u

Dear Mr Korthals Altes,

In its meeting of 2 October 2012, the Senate’s Foreign Affairs, Defence and Development Cooperation Committee (BDO) discussed the Middle East Peace Process and the need for new initiatives to breathe new life into the process.

Pursuant to section 17 of the Advisory Bodies Framework Act and section 2 of the Advisory Council on International Affairs Act, I am writing to request the Advisory Council on International Affairs (AIV) to explore the scope for resuming the Middle East Peace Process, particularly in the light of recent changes in the regional and global political context. I would ask the AIV to advise on the options that exist for the Netherlands in helping to find a workable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both independently and at European and international level. I should add that all members of the Senate of the States General, with the exception of those of the Freedom Party (PVV), support this request.

Background
New initiatives are badly needed to make headway in the Middle East Peace Process. Due in particular to developments in the region, rapprochement of any kind between the two parties directly involved in the conflict, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, has been impossible in recent years. In May 2012, the EU concluded that developments on the ground were threatening to make a two-state solution impossible. Nevertheless, the fledgling contact between the parties reinitiated in spring 2012 gives the impression that both parties are prepared to work on building mutual trust.

The idea behind the peace process remains the same: Israel has a right to security (and to preservation of its state), while the Palestinians have a right to their own state (and security) as part of the two-state solution set out in the Roadmap to Peace (see, for example, S/RES/1515 (2003)). However, the regional context has now changed significantly. The turbulent events in the Arab region have left their mark on the Middle East Peace Process. As noted by the AIV in a previous advisory report, it is quite conceivable that democratisation in the Arab region could initially have a destabilising effect on Arab-Israeli relations (AIV advisory report no. 79, ‘The Arab Region, an Uncertain Future’). There is uncertainty about Israel’s relations with Egypt and Iran. There are also fears that regional developments, particularly the ongoing conflict in Syria, could strengthen the position of Hezbollah and other groups with an explicitly anti-Israeli agenda. In the aforementioned advisory report on the Arab region, the AIV took the view that the Middle East Peace Process required a new approach and that fresh initiatives were needed in the light of the changing regional context. Such an approach must of course be based on a set of principles shared widely internationally, as expressed, for example, in the advisory opinion issued by the International Court of Justice in 2004 on Israel’s construction of a wall along the West Bank.

The relevant questions are:

  • To what extent do the changes in the regional and global political context affect the negotiating positions of the parties directly involved and the attitudes of any interested third parties?
     
  • Given possible changes in these positions, what scenarios are conceivable for the resumption of the Middle East Peace Process? What new possibilities do these scenarios offer for rapprochement and resumption of peace talks?
     
  • Which organisations, countries or parties are in the best position to put forward new initiatives? What would such initiatives specifically entail?
     
  • Based on the principles of international law, how can the Netherlands help achieve progress in the Middle East Peace Process? What action can the Netherlands take independently and at European and international level?
    The Senate of the States General looks forward to receiving your advisory report.

Yours sincerely,

Fred de Graaf
President of the Senate of the States General

 

Government reactions

Introduction

On 16 April 2013 the government received the advisory report by the Advisory Council on International Affairs (AIV), ‘Between Words and Deeds – Prospects for a Sustainable Peace in the Middle East’, produced at the request of the Senate of the States General.

Government response

Like the AIV, the government believes that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is urgent and that only a peace agreement based on a two-state solution can do justice to the national aspirations of both the Israelis and the Palestinians.

The US diplomatic initiative led by Secretary of State John Kerry currently offers the only realistic prospect of reaching such an agreement. The Dutch government’s efforts are therefore geared to helping to create a favourable climate in which this initiative has the best possible chance of succeeding.

To this end, it is essential that the international community unite behind Secretary Kerry. At the same time, moderate forces on both sides need to be strengthened. This is the only way to foster the mutual trust that is needed to enable the parties to work together towards a better future – for both Israelis and Palestinians – and an end to the conflict. Isolating parties at this stage would only encourage radicalisation. In the government’s view, therefore, sanctions or boycotts are not appropriate, as they would serve only to frustrate Secretary Kerry’s efforts.

The government’s policy on the peace process is shaped both bilaterally – in its relations with Israel and the Palestinian Authority – and at EU level. The Netherlands uses its good relations with Israel and the Palestinian Authority to this end, and takes careful account of each party’s interests and concerns. The government also reminds the parties of their responsibilities and obligations under international law. With regard to contact with Hamas and any future Palestinian unity government, the Quartet Principles continue to apply.

To maximise the effectiveness of Dutch and EU policy, the government seeks to ensure that EU action in this area is united and balanced.

With regard to the AIV’s specific recommendations, the government would observe as follows:

AIV recommendations 1 to 3 

  • The Netherlands must focus its efforts on convincing the EU member states of the need, in the near future, to launch a joint initiative to move towards a two-state solution. To achieve maximum effect, this initiative must as far as possible be undertaken in conjunction with the US. If necessary, however, the EU must itself take responsibility and make independent efforts to bring the parties together. The Netherlands must accept that the United Kingdom, France and Germany, as the larger EU countries, should take the lead, in order to maximise the effect of Europe’s actions. 
  • When it comes to specifying the details of any European initiative, the Netherlands could lobby for a new Middle East conference to be convened (after thorough preparations). It would be logical for stakeholder countries in the region to send delegations to the conference, alongside Israeli and Palestinian delegations. The goal of the conference should be to reach agreement on the final parameters for a peace settlement. An alternative to a conference might be a special session of the Security Council requested by the UK and France, and including representatives of the parties to the conflict. The UK and France could submit a draft resolution setting out the final parameters on behalf of the EU. 
  • If the above initiative were to fail to win sufficient support, the Netherlands might consider taking the lead, following the example of Norway in the early 1990s, by offering to bring the parties to the negotiating table in this country (either openly or behind closed doors), based on the principles of international law. Depending on the needs and wishes of the parties, the Netherlands could limit its role to that of facilitator, or act as mediator.

Goverment's response:

In the government’s view, the current efforts by Secretary Kerry offer the only realistic prospect of progress. The EU’s responsibility lies mainly in building international momentum behind Mr Kerry’s initiative. Offering an alternative approach would be disruptive. It could give parties a reason not to engage fully with Kerry, e.g. because they consider their negotiating position might be stronger in an alternative process. For these reasons, the government does not consider an independent Dutch or EU initiative appropriate.

AIV recommendation 4

The Netherlands could also make a useful contribution by actively promoting certain forms of second-track diplomacy. Besides facilitating exchanges between opinion leaders from Israel and the Palestinian territories, it is particularly important to institutionalise a dialogue in which representatives of moderate civil society organisations on both sides can discuss issues of mutual interest, with a view to seeking common solutions.

Government’s response:

Like the AIV the government believes it is important to promote civil society contacts between Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Where possible and appropriate, the government supports NGOs to this end. The Netherlands Representative Office in Ramallah recently funded an issue of the Palestine-Israel Journal, for example, in which young Israelis and Palestinians collaborated by publishing joint articles on the Middle East peace process and the need for cooperation.

AIV recommendation 5

In the opinion of the AIV, the EU should take a stricter line on ensuring that Israel does not enjoy any benefit from its Association Agreement with the EU when it comes to products from the settlements. The AIV would also urge the Netherlands to actively discourage Dutch and European companies from doing business with Israeli companies in the settlements.

Government’s response:

Since 2000, favourable import tariffs have been applied to products from Israel under the Association Agreement between the EU and Israel. Products from the settlements are not eligible for these preferential tariffs. Israel is cooperating with efforts to ensure that products from the settlements can be recognised as such by the EU member states’ customs authorities. The government discourages economic relations between Dutch companies and companies operating in settlements in the occupied territories. Dutch government institutions perform no services for companies operating in Israeli settlements. The embassy in Tel Aviv provides Dutch companies with information about issues of international law with respect to doing business the occupied territories. Where necessary Dutch companies are held to account for their actions.

In addition, the government is working with EU partners to ensure that businesses are informed about correct labelling of products from the settlements. It is doing so partly in response to an explicit request from the Dutch business community for information concerning existing EU legislation, and partly to agreements made by the Council of the European Union in May 2012.

AIV recommendation 6

To aid the development of the necessary capacity and judicial legislation in a new state of Palestine, the Netherlands must redouble its efforts in the area of training police officers, judges and administrative officials.

Government’s response:

In the past 10 years progress has been made with developing the legal order in the Palestinian Territories. The Netherlands has played a role in these efforts. The government will press forward with its current programme of cooperation with the Palestinian Authority in the area of security and the rule of law. If a peace agreement is achieved, the government will consider the scope for stepping up these efforts.

AIV recommendation 7

The Netherlands could also usefully take a more active role in the field of ‘water diplomacy’. Given the technical breakthroughs that have been made in desalinisation techniques, the Netherlands could bring its large stock of knowledge and experience to bear in efforts to ensure that an enhanced water supply also benefits the Palestinians.

Government’s response:

As early as 2002 the Netherlands, together with the US, played a leading role in the Executive Action Team Multilateral Working Group on Water Resources (EXACT). This is an international partnership in which countries use innovative water projects in the Palestinian Territories, Jordan and Israel to help improve the availability of water, thereby contributing to the peace process. In addition, since 2005 the Netherlands has been part of the Middle East Desalination Research Center (MEDRC), which develops sustainable desalination technologies with a view to increasing the availability of drinking water in the Middle East and promoting water cooperation among Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan. Through MEDRC, the Netherlands funds trilateral training courses in desalination and reuse of waste water for Palestinians and Jordanians. The courses are taught mainly by Israeli water professionals. In 2013 the Netherlands added water as a priority area in its bilateral programme of cooperation with the Palestinian Authority.

AIV recommendation 8

Finally, in a general sense, the Netherlands should join forces with like-minded countries to ensure that the two parties comply with their obligations under international law and, if necessary, help to enforce this. Historical ties and solidarity with Israel must not preclude calling it to account for violating the law.

Government’s response:

The government reminds both parties of their responsibilities and obligations under international law, whether in the context of the peace process generally or of observance of the humanitarian law of war and respect for human rights. Minister of Foreign Affairs Frans Timmermans did so recently during his visit of 17-19 June 2013 to Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Compliance with international law (including the law of war and human rights obligations) is also a standard part of the Netherlands’ regular dialogue with Israel and the Palestinian Authority. These responsibilities and obligations are also addressed in the EU’s bilateral dialogue with each of the parties.

 

Press releases

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