Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum from Dr Rosemary Hollis, Head, Middle East Programme, Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House


  1.  The continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict demands external attention. The toll of deaths and injuries sustained by both communities in the relentless cycle of violence is feeding fatalism and despair on both sides, which in turn makes it harder for the parties to envision peaceful coexistence. In other words, the conflict is becoming more intractable.

  On humanitarian grounds alone, the international community cannot turn a blind eye to the prospect of more fatalities, pain and suffering of the parties involved. Strategically, meanwhile, the continuation of the conflict will complicate the prosecution of the "war on terrorism". Television pictures from the Israeli-Palestinian battlefront are inflaming anti-Western and more specifically anti-US sentiments in the Arab and wider Muslim world, where the United States and allied governments are held responsible for allowing the plight of the Palestinians, and ordinary Iraqis, among others, to endure. This is happening in the wider context of poor economic conditions, unemployment and lack of political efficacy for ordinary people in most Middle Eastern countries, for which the forces of globalisation, and comparative advantages of Western developed countries in riding those forces, are blamed.

  2.  Without a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, figureheads such as Osama Bin Laden, and the terrorist networks associated with Al Qaeda, will likely re-event themselves and find a pool of sympathy if not recruits. Since 11 September, meanwhile, sympathy for ordinary Israelis under attack by suicide bombers and gunmen has increased across the American political spectrum. The efforts of the US administration, notably Secretary of State Colin Powell, and echoed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, to give hope to the Palestinians by depicting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, have been lost in a new wave of suicide bombings and Israeli reprisals.

  3.  The conflict could develop in one of three ways:

    (1)  A new cease-fire is called which actually holds for long enough to begin implementation of the Tenet plan and thence action on the recommendations of the Mitchell Report.

    (2)  The cycle of violence continues for several years, until the parties exhaust themselves and new leaderships on either side are able to start negotiations anew.

    (3)  The conflict escalates out of control, possibly destabilising Jordan and incorporating new acts of terrorism on a wider scale, but thereby catapults the parties into emergency talks and a cease-fire followed by new negotiations based on a new post-war status quo.

  My assessment is that the prospects for (1) are lower than for (2) or (3).


  4.  British policy is based on making prospect number (1) happen, in order to avoid prospects (2) or (3). This is in tune with both US official policy and the formal European Union position. The potential pitfall is that the parties cannot be brought to the point of a sustained ceasefire, sufficient to meet Israeli government requirements for implementing Tenet. The position of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been that there must be seven days of "absolute quiet" before Tenet can be implemented. The Palestinian position is that the cease-fire called by Yasser Arafat on 16 December did result in a marked decline in Palestinian attacks on Israelis for a period lasting into mid-January 2002, and that the Israelis failed to make any moves to cement this situation, instead conducting some "targeted killings" and house demolitions which set off a new cycle of Palestinian retaliation.

  5.  On the Palestinian front, recent British diplomacy has been directed at trying to persuade Yasser Arafat to do all in his power to rein in Palestinian militants and arrest those identified by Israel on their "wanted list". The logic is that this is the only way for Arafat to put the ball back in the Israeli court to implement Tenet. This line does make some sense and has combined European with US pressure on Arafat. The danger is that (a) Arafat cannot deliver, so this approach will not move things along; or (b) Arafat's best efforts will still not be enough to convince the Israeli government; or (c) the Israeli government and key figures in the United States have already given up on Arafat as a peace partner, with or without his best efforts.

  6.  On the Israeli front, British diplomacy seems directed to quietly but persistently putting the case to Israeli officials that heavy handed treatment of the whole Palestinian community in the West Bank and Gaza will marginalize potential peace partners and generate more recruits for militancy. Simultaneously, I believe, British officials are trying to exercise a retraining influence in Washington by emphasising the particularities which distinguish Palestinian resistance to occupation from Al Qaeda terrorism, but the lines were blurred after the suicide attacks on Israeli civilians in early December and have been further undermined by the affair of the Karine-A arms shipment.

  7.  British efforts to influence Israeli thinking are subsumed by the view that Arafat must do more to break the cycle of violence. Meanwhile, British policy is directed first and foremost to influencing US thinking about the conflict on the grounds that Washington is the only external player with any decisive leverage in Israel. However, this strategy is in turn subsumed in the larger agenda of ensuring a British voice in the prosecution of the war on terrorism overall.


  8.  My assessment is that the British approach to the current cycle in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is responsive to the prevailing power balance and appropriately designed to capitalise on Britain's access in Washington, from which Britain's very limited influence with Israel and the Palestinians primarily (though not entirely) derives. However, maintaining access in Washington does tend to require demonstrating support in every way possible, while voicing concerns only in private. This makes it difficult to judge the extent of British influence on US policy.

  9.  As of this writing, Britain, along with other Europeans, has bought into the need to pressure Arafat to act more effectively to end Palestinian terrorist acts. If this policy fails to deliver a ceasefire that can pave the way to implementation of the Mitchell recommendations, and maybe even hastens the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, it cannot be considered a success for the United States or Britain.

  Consequently, it would seem appropriate to consider British policy options in the event of the collapse of the Palestinian Authority. Since the European Union staged the elections which brought that authority into being, and the EU is the leading donor to the Palestinian state-in-the-making, it would make sense to develop a common European policy on how the Palestinian community will be assisted economically in the face of continuing conflict and under what circumstances Europe would envisage holding new elections. This could at least serve as a strategy for conflict management, and keep open the prospects for resolution on the basis of a two-state formula. Abandonment of the Palestinians would bode ill for prosecution of the war on terrorism.

  10.  Irrespective of the fate of the Palestinian Authority, it would be useful to consider how long the requirements of Tenet and Mitchell, for a cessation of violence as a prelude to negotiations, remain relevant. If an escalation in the conflict spins out of control, Sharon's call for a week of absolute calm before there can be talks between the parties could be considered a luxury overtaken by events. The role for Britain could be to explore with the Americans and European allies what framework for negotiations could be devised which could bring about substantive discussion of the endgame. The mere promise of negotiations, especially under the current Israeli and Palestinian leaderships, is not enough to get a sustainable ceasefire, let alone peace. Consequently, it may be time to reverse the order of priorities and begin work anew on the details of a two-state solution.

  11.  Even if the time is not yet ripe for reaching a peace agreement, the much diminished and disheartened peace camps on either side need a signal that the international community has not abandoned all hope and can envisage a peaceful resolution of the conflict. This could help them to organise anew and find their own ways to develop a new peace process.

In any case, the suggestions made here would be in keeping with British policy positions and take forward the role that the FCO has adopted to date in helping to resolve the Middle East conflict.

Dr Rosemary Hollis

January 2002

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