Coming at such tumultuous and uncertain times, the Paris Conference on peace between Israel and the Palestinians cannot afford to leave questions unanswered. Instead it has to ink a clearer way forward. To Palestinians, it would be a matter of trust that the commitment of their majority to peace would not be futile. And to Israel’s government, it would signal a necessity – even if it presently does not acknowledge it - to reconsider its policies which practically distance the prospect of a two state solution.
No matter the context, wavering commitment to a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, and how to get there, would only mean perpetual conflict. Many in Palestine are skeptical about any outcome of the conference. Yet, they would not cease knocking on every door to achieve a solution. Israel on the other hand will reportedly not attend. And some of its friends and officials have called for the conference’s cancellation with some going as far as citing the necessity to focus on other regional conflicts instead.
Whether the Israeli Palestinian conflict served as an impetus, at all, in regional conflicts like the tragedy in Syria, the conference could serve as a long standing example of how even handed the international community is willing to be in resolving conflicts. How the Paris Conference will renew focus on Israeli Palestinian peace will affect the perception of the international community’s trust in the eyes of the region. This is one reason why the plight of Palestine should rightly surface again even when turmoil sweeps several other countries in the region.
The conference cannot only assert the two-state solution in the face of those who have come to blatantly oppose it. Such an abbreviated conclusion would be further slighted by Israel and would fall on deaf ears among Palestinians. The conference should spell out how the vision of a two-state solution should be protected and advanced. One thing is for sure, to withdraw and say that the matter is for both to resolve would just allow Israel to further use the imbalance of power between it and the Palestinians to continue illegally confiscating and settling Palestinian land in the West Bank.
Israel and the Palestinians cannot be left alone! It is not only the imbalance of power that mandates the involvement of Europe and US in any peace negotiations between them. Historic support of Israel by the US, and similar political support of Israel by Europe together with substantial financial support from Europe to the Palestinians, necessitates the engagement of both. And Arabs are still committed to pitch in with their peace initiative of 2002.
The urgency behind spelling out the way and means forward should not be underestimated. It is difficult to imagine how West Bankers would believe the prospect of a Palestinian state when they peek out of their windows only to view neighboring land they once owned but are now unable to even reach. The Gaza Strip is on a collision course with a catastrophe as its population remains isolated from the world and as multiple generations of its adults and youth are unemployed and no longer know what hope means. Internal Palestinian division has added self-inflicted insult and serious complications in people’s lives, especially in Gaza. But Israel’s policies towards Palestinians only show how more of an occupied people they have become as they approach 50 years of Israeli occupation.
Those ordinary people who are disheartened with complications in their daily lives are not necessarily against Israel’s security but are not seeing much hope for any of their own. Much less, they have no reason to believe an outcome of any conference which would not moderate what develops on the ground.
While Palestinian public skepticism of prospects of a peaceful outcome increases, Palestinian officials have done well in broadening international understanding of obstacles they face in the way of establishing a sovereign Palestine. Nonetheless, the Palestinian Authority (PA) still has to consummate reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, the two main Palestinian factions which remain divided since 2007, for it to be seen as wholly representative of all Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
Through the venue of the Paris Conference, the international community needs to encourage Palestinians to reconcile and to create a political program that is based on international law. Widening the PA’s representation in any future peace negotiations with Israel would address one of Israel’s concerns – and sometimes bargaining chips – on whether the Gaza Strip would endorse the outcome of any negotiations.
After Israel, the US President-elect and US Congress harshly criticized the United Nations (UN) and its Security Council for passing resolution 2334, the international community will find itself at a crossroads at the Paris Conference. It will have to either express clear support of the resolution and of the UN or will have to duck down to avoid the misguided wrath of Israel and the US. The choice is clear if the conference were to take the side of growing international consensus and that of international law and several UN resolutions.
For Israel to continue occupying Palestinians against their will just compromises its image. It may well be the only true democracy in the region as it argues, but that does not take away the fact that it is the only remaining military occupation in recent history. Israel should care for its image besides having to recoup so much lost time and opportunity of allowing Palestinians to live in dignity and peace in a contiguous state of their own which complements and cooperates with Israel.
For the international community to call Israel out on its illegal policies would not be anti-Israeli. It would simply be siding by what is right. Israel has to recognize that it should not view it as anti-Israeli when even its friends urge it to re-steer a ship that, by all accounts, seems to be headed towards further conflict. We should stop arguing whether any moves on Israel and Palestine by the international community are pro or against Israelis or the Palestinians. This only diverts focus away from what is legal, what earns reasonable consensus and, therefore, what is right to do for the sake of peaceful Israelis and Palestinians.
For the conference to distinguish its renewed focus on the Israeli Palestinian issue, it will have to introduce the vital issue that while Palestinians pursue their statehood, they must be able to develop an unhindered economy in order to be able to support any viable future statehood. The conference will also have to spell out follow-up and accountability mechanisms that are binding to both Israel and the Palestinians, or at least announce the intention to do so, in order to address the practicalities of current affairs between them. And whereas some efforts have taken place to assess the cost of the conflict, more must be done not only to assess the financial cost to Palestinians in terms of lost opportunity, but also in terms of the staggering costs which have been exacted on their civil rights and what all this would mean for the hope of peace.
Sami Abdel-Shafi is a politically independent consultant presently working in the Gaza Strip