Written evidence submitted by Dr Emanuele
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
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
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
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
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.
A SETTLEMENT IS
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
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