Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Written evidence submitted by Dr Emanuele Ottolenghi

  Dr Emanuele Ottolenghi is currently Leone Ginzburg Research Fellow in Israel Studies at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies and at the Middle East Centre of St Antony's College where he teaches Israeli politics and history. He is a regular commentator on Middle East and Israel affairs for the Italian Daily Il Foglio and Il Quotidiano Nazionale, has a regular column in the Italian monthly Jewish magazine Shalom, and is currently writing a book on Israel's failed experiment with prime ministerial elections. Ottolenghi read political science in his native Bologna, Italy. He worked as a junior research assistant at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem between 1993 and 1995. He holds a PhD in political science from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Since 1998, he is at Oxford University. He has written extensively on Israel, its domestic politics and elections in academic publications, most recently in Survival, the academic quarterly of the International Institute of Strategic Studies. He has appeared on radio and TV in the UK and Italy, and contributed Op-Eds to The Guardian, the Daily Mirror, The Jerusalem Post, Newsday, The Houston Chronicle, The Jerusalem Report, The Australian Financial Review and Italy's 24 Ore (financial daily).


  The last four years have been mind-boggling to many observers of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute: how could it be that a moment before peace, war broke out?

  This puzzling sentiment is expressed in the titles of books, articles and memoirs written by some of the key players in the 1990s rounds of negotiations that led eventually to final status talks in Camp David and Taba and who were involved in the formulation of the Clinton parameters: Dennis Ross' forthcoming Missing Peace, Shlomo Ben Ami's So close and yet so distant, Gilead Sher's Within reach.

  This broadly shared view of a near miss has reinforced the conviction that renewed diplomatic efforts or additional concessions may eventually deliver. In turn, this conviction rests on the assumption that making peace is a shared interest of the two parties, something that can inevitably lead to a compromise that is mutually beneficial and acceptable. Finding the point of equilibrium on the map was then, and remains now, the accepted way forward.

  This approach forgets an important rule in international relations: two parties will reach an agreement only if there exists an overlapping zone of interests between them. It is in that mutually shared intermediate zone that the basis for agreement is found.

  Due to the existential nature of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, no overlapping zone of interests existed in 2000. The final status talks revealed the chasm and left the players with no fall-back position. Hence, there was no agreement, partial or comprehensive. Four years later, it is hard to imagine that the cumulative pain the two sides have inflicted on one another might have narrowed the gap, strengthened mutual trust, or created incentives for cooperation. If anything, the gap is wider.

  In the current conditions, it is unlikely that the two sides will initiate meaningful political negotiations: red lines have shifted back, and there has been a discernible pattern of regression in terms of what each side is willing to concede in return for peace. In such circumstances a condition of stalemate ensues, which can be overcome only under the following conditions:

    —  The cost of stalemate and attrition becomes more burdensome than return to negotiations.

    —  One side is utterly defeated and forced to surrender and accede to conditions dictated by the other side.

    —  An outside force imposes a settlement on both sides.

    —  Each side's red lines shift as a result of changes on the ground, both endogenous and exogenous.

    —  Unilateral, bilaterally agreed upon, or multilaterally negotiated steps are taken to de-escalate the conflict, ease attrition with a view to breaking the stalemate at a later stage.

  Each of these options will now be assessed separately.


  The current conflict remains preferable to peace-making as long as its cost is perceived to be higher than the pursuit of one side's national objectives by continuation of hostilities.

  As long as the Palestinian side demands recognition of Israeli responsibility for the refugee problem, a formal apology and the granting of a legal right, at least at the formal level, for refugees and their descendants to return, Israel will consider negotiations a non-starter and view the current situation as a better option to induce a change in the Palestinian position.

  As long as Israel's demand for control over vast portions of the West Bank and Gaza and the retention of settlements remains, the Palestinian side will not be likely to accede to negotiations again, preferring instead to force its opponent to concede territory under pressure of violence.

  In this sense, violence can be understood as the preferable tool for convincing the opponent of the need to lower the price. Unless that perception changes, and the stakes are correspondingly lower, neither party will see any advantage in the return to the status quo ante and will prefer unilateral action to negotiation.


  If the Israeli side were to utterly defeat the Palestinian side, then Israel could dictate conditions of surrender, imposing a settlement or an arrangement suitable to its own perceived national interests. The same could be said of the Palestinian side, if it were to defeat Israel. However, a victory is unlikely for either side, despite the vast disparity in firepower and the different tactics adopted by the two sides, asymmetric warfare by the Palestinian side and counter-insurgency by the Israeli side. Short of a total victory that neither side is likely to achieve or that the international community is likely to allow, continuation of conflict can over time make negotiations possible again as stalemate become too costly. How long that will take however is impossible to predict, especially given the high threshold of tolerance to pain both societies have displayed.


  If neither side can win, neither side is willing to make further concessions and neither side is ready to put down arms, the international community might choose to step in to impose a settlement along the lines that are today generally recognised as the only possible, viable, realistic solution to the conflict, namely a two-state solution based on the December 2000 Clinton Parameters.

  This is however an unlikely alternative. Since December 2000 the willingness of either side to accede to those criteria has been eroded by the impact of nearly four years of conflict, with the attendant lack of trust and accumulated recriminations. As other experiences show, imposed settlements on recalcitrant warring sides can hold only at the price of prolonged international presence on the ground and co-operation of the parties to the conflict. Neither condition is likely to materialise at present. International intervention, co-operation and mediation are likely to work only once the two sides have recognised the need to change course. It is at that stage only that a constructive role for the international community can be found to mediate, facilitate or enforce mechanisms to monitor, enforce and stabilise the peace.


  The likelihood of change in what each side sees as its own non-negotiable basic demands is not to be excluded, although change is slow and incremental, and often caused by unexpected and unrelated events. War in Iraq made the likelihood of a conventional attack on Israel from its eastern flank highly unlikely in the medium term, leading to a revolutionary reassessment of Israel's military doctrine and defence posture in the Jordan Valley. The impact of the last four years of conflict on Israel's public opinion have produced a significant shift in perceptions on the future of the Territories, settlements and Palestinian statehood. However, collapse of Israeli trust in the Palestinian partner and Israel's perception of the conflict as existential in nature has disqualified at present the existing Palestinian partner in Israeli eyes and destroyed any credibility of those political forces willing to engage the Palestinian leadership in a diplomatic process similar to the one that collapsed in late 2000. If a similar process were to occur on the Palestinian side, with recognition of the futility of violence against Israeli civilian targets, an effective cease-fire and a willingness to drop demands for Israel's granting of a right of return to refugees, then the possibility of an agreement would again materialise. These two developments are dependent upon a profound change in Palestinian self-image and narrative and on the effective return of central authority to Palestinian areas that can challenge and check armed groups and local warlords.


  In the absence of mutual trust and incentives to return to negotiations, the two sides can nevertheless seek to change conditions on the ground in a way that could ultimately be beneficial to both. Even if unilaterally taken, such steps may help de-escalate the situation on the ground. Israel's current Gaza disengagement plan must be seen in this light. Israel sees disengagement as preferable to both negotiations (which at present it considers futile) and continuation of the present status quo (which it views detrimental to its long-term national interests). Israel's plan includes measures that would benefit (or at least not harm) the Palestinian side, since Israel would relinquish territory and dismantle settlements without necessarily receiving Palestinian concessions in return. Removal of Israeli military and civilian presence in Gaza would ease pressure on the civilian population and create an opportunity to de-escalate. Without jeopardising its national interests, the Palestinian side may choose to ignore, oppose or engage the proposal. An active engagement, fostered by co-ordination between the two sides on smooth implementation of each stage of the process and support from outside players could turn a unilateral measure into an opportunity to change the status quo.


  At present, despite frequent reference to the "Middle East peace process" and the vast array of official and unofficial documents and peace plans that fall under the label, the situation is one of stalemate. The Middle East peace process is a misnomer, because the Middle East proves to be a much broader region than the localised Israeli-Palestinian dispute, because the wider regional issues are as volatile and demanding of attention as the dispute, and because at present, in the Israeli-Palestinian context, there is neither peace nor process.

  Given the circumstances, international diplomacy must lower the stakes, set more realistic, if less ambitious goals, and realise that short of peace, currently unattainable, there are several alternative options available at present that are preferable to conflict and more realistic than reconciliation.

Dr Emanuele Ottolenghi

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Prepared 29 July 2004