Separation wall in 2015. Credit: Muath Khatib | The Elders
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a priority for The Elders ever since the organisation was founded in 2007. Since then we have undertaken four Elders’ missions to the region, most recently in 2015 with Jimmy Carter and Gro Harlem Brundtland. But as we know, the prospects for peace appear remote and optimism about a viable two-state solution is in short supply.
What signs of hope might there be? This was the question I kept asking myself during a recent staff trip to the region. We travelled to Israel and Palestine to meet and listen to a wide range of people on both sides, from politicians and journalists to peace activists, civil society representatives and international diplomats. One key aim was better to understand the political, social and security developments since Elders last visited in 2015, in order to assess how the organisation can effectively support groups working for peace and human rights.
The challenges are certainly daunting. More than two decades after the Oslo Peace Accords, the political will to deliver a credible two-state solution that gives justice to Palestinians and security to Israelis remains elusive. The Israeli government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, perhaps the most right-wing in the country’s history, shows little serious interest in securing an agreement with the Palestinians and continues to enable and expand new settlement building across the West Bank and East Jerusalem which is illegal under international law. On the Palestinian side, the division between Fatah and Hamas is as bitter and entrenched as ever. This lack of unity exacerbates the plight of the people of Gaza, who are still suffering from a deplorable humanitarian crisis due to the decade-old Israeli blockade.
There are Palestinians who are acting courageously to open space for the future to be different from the past. But fatalism, cynicism and alienation are widespread, particularly amongst Palestinian youth who often view their leaders as self-serving, corrupt and ineffective. Many Israelis by contrast feel that life is relatively good, and that the threat and occasional reality of attacks from Palestinians makes security a priority which sublimates other considerations such as the human rights of Palestinian people. Outside Jerusalem, everyday contact between many in the two communities is relatively rare, and for most Israelis the occupation feels like an abstract concept rather than a daily reality. In both cases, voices for peace, empathy and reconciliation are all too easily marginalised.
Nevertheless, I was inspired by our meetings – particularly with Israelis who challenge prejudices and assumptions in their community and are determined to expose the injustice and abuses of the occupation. The work of groups like B’Tselem, Breaking The Silence, Gisha and Peace Now is vitally important and deserves the support of groups like The Elders, especially when they are subject to increasingly intrusive harassment from the state.
From an international perspective, the bloodier conflicts elsewhere in the Middle East attract greater attention and since the collapse of talks brokered by former US Secretary of State John Kerry in 2014, there has up to now been no appetite in Washington for a renewed diplomatic initiative.
The role of the United States remains crucial, however, and I was struck during the visit by how much the election of Donald Trump has shaken old certainties. Initial euphoria among the Israeli right, for example about Trump’s campaign pledge (as yet unimplemented) to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, has given way to a more sober realisation that all of US foreign policy is in flux, and past assumptions and statements may not be a reliable guide to future actions.
In this context, I was interested to see recent remarks by the new US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, speaking last week at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington:
“Desperate people subject to humiliation and abuse will inevitably resort to violence. People who are robbed of their humanity and dignity will inevitably want revenge. They are also vulnerable to manipulation or coercion by extremist groups.”
Her words apply as much to Palestinians entering their sixth decade of occupation as to anyone else in the world. I see them as a challenge to Israelis, Palestinians and the international community – particularly the US -- alike. The status quo is not sustainable, even if it suits some in all three camps to claim so: just as in an earthquake zone, at some point a quake will come, even if we can’t be sure quite when or where. A two-state solution remains the only way to ease the seismic pressures: delivering peace, justice, security and human rights in a democratic way.
The Elders will not give up in their quest towards this goal, supporting brave groups on all sides who share the vision of peaceful co-existence and a just solution to this seemingly intractable yet eminently resolvable conflict.