Palestine, Israel, US and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: “Maintaining the Stalemate”

July 1, 2016

Talks & Interview

Charles Kennedy

Dr. Charles H. Kennedy, Co-Director Middle East and South Asia Studies Program, Wake Forest University, was invited to give a talk titled Palestine, Israel, US and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: “Maintaining the Stalemate” at the Centre for Public Policy and Governance (CPPG) on May 13, 2015.

Dr. Kennedy began by explaining that the purpose of his presentation was to talk about the Palestine-Israel confrontation within the context of Henry Kissinger’s ideology of the “peace-process”. His talk revolved around the implementation of the two-state solution, which according to him had reached a stalemate. His talk was divided into two parts: one, history of the conflict; and two, main actors namely Palestine, Israel and the United States. Over the course of the seminar, he argued that the resolution of this conflict was more distant now than in 1978, when he had first started teaching courses on the Palestine- Israel confrontation.

Kennedy’s narration of the history of the conflict began with the end of the British Mandate for Palestine in 1948. A two-state solution was proposed by the United Nations in the form of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) Resolution 194. This essentially proposed the creation of a Jewish state, and what was defined at that time as an Arab state. As the British Mandate was dissolved, civil war erupted resulting in Israel not only remaining viable as a nation but also considerably extending its territory. Thus, two significant grievances emerged: one, the process leading to the partition of Palestine was questionable from the perspective of international law; and two, Israeli territory was considerably beyond that determined in Resolution 194. Further, the war created a significant number of refugees or stateless Palestinians, resultantly; it was decided to not accept Israel as a state till these disputes were settled. Thus, Resolution 194 had never been fully implemented and Palestinians till today do not have a state.

The conflict was exacerbated by the 1967 War, when Israel occupied substantial portions of Gaza, the Sinai and the Golan Heights. Israel also nominally controlled areas of Jordan, occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank. It was an intentional war choice to occupy territories which could be traded in the future to gain recognition for the Israeli state. But, Kennedy found no significant evidence to suggest that the Israeli decision makers at the time thought of retaining the territory they had occupied, as it was a foregone conclusion that territory occupied during war had to be turned back. However, the UN Security Council (Resolution 242) that passed fifteen to nothing was intentionally vague. Instead of a clause that would say “Israel will withdraw from all territories occupied in the conflict”, it stated “Israel will withdraw from territories occupied in the conflict”. Thus, allowing everyone to vote for it because it could be interpreted in any way.

“Henry Kissinger invented the term “peace process”, which was arguably vague. It allowed the US to somehow continue its support for Israel, while meaning to satisfy the interests of states it imported oil from”

Explaining the growing role of the United States in the Israel-Palestine conflict, Kennedy stated that though the United States had begun to develop a special relationship with Israel around 1964-65, the year 1973 became a defining moment. The US already had an established policy of supporting Israel, but it also had a core interest in maintaining stable oil supply, which was crucial for the US economy. Thus, the 1973 Egypt-Syria-Jordan war of choice with Israel, and the concurrent oil embargo on the US by Middle Eastern countries was perceived as a threat to vital US interests. It is within this context that the Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger invented the term “peace process”, which was arguably vague. It allowed the US to somehow continue its support for Israel, while meaning to satisfy the interests of states it imported oil from. Thus, by becoming proactive in the so called “peace process”, the US could not really be blamed for taking sides.

“…the process leading to the partition of Palestine was questionable from the perspective of international law; and two, Israeli territory was considerably beyond that determined in Resolution 194.”

There had been two general approaches with regards to achieving a comprehensive solution: an all at once agreement versus one that followed incrementalism. The US had generally oscillated between these two positions. While Kissinger’s peace process was a perfect example of an incremental policy, President Jimmy Carter led Camp David Accords’ (78/79) were an attempt at reaching a comprehensive solution. While Camp David Accords resulted in a series of agreements between Egypt and Israel, the Palestinian issue was not really addressed.

The pivotal 1991 Madrid Conference was a sincere effort by President H. W. Bush for a comprehensive solution in one go. As a condition for Israel’s participation, the US strategically opposed the presence of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which eventually was not allowed to attend. Instead, the US put together an alternative Palestinian delegation with no significant connection to the PLO, permitting the conference to proceed. This however worried the PLO that it would lose its position as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people if recommendations were made for substantial Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories. Similarly, the Israeli government wanted to avoid any kind of solution altogether. Consequently in a surprising and significant turn of events, the two parties mutually recognized each other, implying that an international forum was no longer needed.

Resultantly, between 1993 and 2000, the PLO and Israel made a series of agreements known as the Oslo Accords essentially requiring Israel to withdraw from parts of the occupied territory within certain periods of time. The PLO would take over these areas and administer them, eventually gaining a state for the Palestinians. The Oslo II Accord made the particulars even more systematic in terms of the way the transfer was supposed to take place. However, this process was stalled when Benjamin Netanyahu was elected Prime Minister of Israel as he adamantly opposed the Oslo process and the two-state solution.

Kennedy then proceeded to discuss the main actors of the conflict beginning with the Palestinians. He stated that the mutual recognition of Israel and the PLO (later Fatah) was the most important factor that caused tensions within the Palestinian communities, leading to the emergence of Hamas. Although both organizations shared the common objective of gaining a state in areas that Israel occupied in the 1967 War with Jerusalem as its capital, there were disagreements over strategy. Divisions arose in part when in 2006 Hamas won the election to the Palestinian Legislative Council but was not allowed to come to power given it had been designated as a terrorist entity by the United States and Europe. As a result, an agreement was reached whereby Mahmud Abbas (a member of the PLO) would continue his leadership as the elected President but in a Prime Ministerial dominated system. Eventually a division in terms of governance occurred with Hamas administering Gaza and Fatah administering the West Bank. The dilemma of two separately administered Palestines had been a major hurdle in the unity of Palestinians, making it very difficult to settle the conflict.

…the war made it difficult for both the United States and the Palestinians to change their positions…

He stated that there was little possibility of Israel pursuing a two-state solution, as the Netanyahu government was dependent on political parties that were adamantly opposed to it. Likewise policy makers in the US including successive presidents had been unable to maneuver around the Israel-Palestine dispute. The US had stuck to a stable policy position since 1964, supporting Israel as a special ally which had led Prime Minister Netanyahu to believe that the US would support Israel unconditionally.

The Gaza Wars had hardened the respective positions of the three players. These wars were one-sided military operations with the Palestinians suffering disproportionately in terms of casualties and infrastructure loss. The first of these wars, the 2008 Operation Cast Lead, occurred during the transitional period between Presidents G. W. Bush and Obama. Obama had been advised that the United States should try to find a way to talk to Hamas, thus challenging its designation as a terrorist organization. Previously, in 2006-07 the US, EU, Russia and the UN had provided three conditions to Hamas to be able to rejoin the ranks of a non-terrorist entity: one, declare that it would not have any violent activity with Israel; two, accept all previous agreements between the Palestinians and Israel including the Oslo Accords; and three, recognize the state of Israel. But Hamas’ political position had made it impossible for it to meet these conditions.

“…there was little possibility of Israel pursuing a two-state solution, as the Netanyahu government was dependent on political parties that were adamantly opposed to it.”

The war had ended by the time President Obama was inaugurated. But it put the new president in a difficult situation as he could not challenge the “special ally” relationship with Israel nor communicate with Hamas right after the war. Similarly, the war devastated relations between Hamas and Fatah, as Fatah was obliged to stay out of the conflict given its relationships with the international community and Israel despite the fact that Palestinians were being killed by Israel. Thus, Kennedy explained that the war made it difficult for both the United States and the Palestinians to change their positions, which was the real purpose of Operation Cast Lead.

The most recent, 2014 Third Gaza War or Operation Protective Edge, was a more violent replay of the first, in which around 2,100 casualties occurred, and the objective was the same. Recently, the Fatah-Hamas agreement had taken place as a way to overcome international restrictions on recognizing and communicating with Hamas. It was agreed that the leadership of Hamas would step down and be replaced by members of Fatah, and new elections would be held after an interim period in which Hamas would be able to participate. During this interim period,the conditions that made it impossible for the international community to recognize Hamas would be lifted. The United States supported the idea and saw it as an opportunity to change its policy. However, Operation Protective Edge disrupted these proceedings and once again the US could not engage with an enemy that had just fought a war with Israel.

In conclusion, Kennedy reflected that within such a context, it seemed unlikely that the situation would get any better, reinforcing his earlier skepticism regarding the resolution of the conflict any time soon.

The talk was followed by a lively Q&A session. Addressing a question about US’s approach to a possible two-state solution, Kennedy stated that the United States would definitely support its creation but the challenge was getting to a situation where Israel would accept it and the Palestinians would accept a truncated Palestine. Quoting the late Ariel Sharon, “you have to address facts on the ground”, he listed 100,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank, a wall that deeply impacted negotiations, the continuing debate over the control of Jerusalem and the right of return of Palestinian refugees. Although a Palestinian state seemed inevitable, the nature of that state was yet to be determined.

Responding to a question on the effects of Intifada and Palestinian resistance, he said that the first Intifada along with the Gulf War influenced G. H. Bush to attempt a comprehensive solution. It was primarily non-violent civil disobedience against Israeli policies, but the response was disproportionate. The second Intifada was an all out war in many respects, but ended tragically as not only Hamas but also Yasser Arafat was labeled a terrorist. However, he added that the boycott movement of Israeli products which had started in the West Bank did have some possibility of impacting Israel’s policies and was something that the international community could get involved in.

Answering a question regarding illegal settlements, Kennedy pointed out that land had been central to the problem as it was being appropriated by Israel, and no Israeli politician had been able to dismantle many of the settlements. While Ariel Sharon was willing to abandon far-flung settlements in exchange for protecting the ones that were close to Israel proper, the current political coalition considered this far too accommodating towards Palestinian interests. Palestinian decision-makers were aware of this inflexibility so the public needed to push for an international, legal decision to overcome this.

Responding to a question regarding support for Israel in the US, changing attitudes and a possible shift in US’s Middle East policy, Kennedy agreed that Israel did not have the same public support as it did twenty to forty years ago but the status quo was hard to change as it had an institutional aspect. He explained that because Congress was elected every two years, House members were constantly campaigning and therefore could not afford losing votes. They feared challenging mainstream ideas so as not to appear extremist, liberal or allegedly anti-Semitic.

The last questions was regarding Palestinian statehood within the United Nations. Kennedy referred to the Security Council vote of December 2014 on the proposition that Israel be obliged to leave occupied territories within three years along with the creation of a Palestinian state. Of the fifteen members, eight voted yes, two voted no (US and Australia) while five abstained including Britain. But, what was significant was that only one of the permanent members voted no, while Russia, France and China voted yes. He thus concluded that the consensus that did exist within the Quartet (US, Russia, the EU and the UN) on the Middle East was now evaporating.