The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is once again at a dead end. Achieving real progress towards sustainable peace requires reorienting the existing diplomatic paradigm in a manner that will help Palestinians build the functioning, democratic state they deserve, while ensuring Israelis have a stable, responsible neighbor they can trust. Europe is uniquely positioned to play a leading role in building sustainable peace, but only if it is prepared to dramatically raise its expectations of the Palestinians and condition recognition of a Palestinian state on ex ante achievement of responsible sovereignty.
Frustrated by lack of progress in bilateral talks, hampered by its partnership with Hamas, and weary of making difficult compromises, the Palestinian Authority (PA) is now seeking recognition of statehood through a Unilateral Declaration of Independence via the United Nations (UN)—rather than through negotiations with Israel.
The move will fail because the UN cannot grant statehood, only membership to existing states, which must be approved by the Security Council—something the United States, Britain, France, and Germany, among others, rightly oppose as an outcome that won’t promote durable peace and may provoke renewed bloodshed.
On the Israeli side, like its Labour and Kadima predecessors, the Likud-led government of Binyamin Netanyahu explicitly accepts the principle of a two-state solution. It does so because it recognizes that in the long-run Israel cannot remain a Jewish and democratic state if it continues to govern the daily lives of Palestinians without either separating from them or making them full and equal citizens.
Yet Israel cannot simply relinquish control of the West Bank either. If there is one lesson Israelis have learned from their withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000 and their “disengagement” from Gaza in September 2005 it is this: unless Israel hands over control to a responsible and capable sovereign, the authority vacuum it leaves behind will be quickly filled by radicals who will leverage their territorial gain (and propaganda victory) to wage war against Israel from the newly gained territory, while sheltering behind the local civilian population.
Ehud Barak’s decision to withdraw from Lebanon to UN-sanctioned international borders—far from ending Hizbollah’s attacks on Israel—foreshadowed the disastrous June 2006 war in which a third of Israelis found themselves within range of Hizbollah missiles and mortar shells. After removing every last settler and soldier from Gaza, the number of Qassam rockets launched by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad from Gaza onto the southern Israeli cities of Sderot, Ashkelon, and Ashdod, jumped nearly 500 percent—from 286 in 2005 to 1,247 in 2006.
The nightmare for Israelis is the repeat of this dynamic in the West Bank—a development which will place practically the entire country under permanent missile threat. That fear is hardly hypothetical. As Professor Yezid Sayigh—a former negotiator of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)-Israel Agreement on Gaza and Jericho of May 1994—is reported to have stated in March 2010:
"Everyone I talk to who knows about the West Bank thinks that Hamas enjoys huge support there and were it not for Israel's overarching control there and the continuing Israeli raids into the supposedly Palestinian–controlled areas, Hamas would take over. People there support Hamas even though they also appreciate the relative normalization of daily life that the Fayyad government has brought".
Buoyed by its success in seizing control of Gaza, the rise in power of its sister organization, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and substantial Iranian military and financial support, Hamas is well positioned to exploit any governance vacuum in the West Bank (or Sinai for that matter). Senior Hamas leaders have declared their intention to seize the West Bank, and caused an uproar among Fatah loyalists when they said Hamas activists would one day pray at Abbas' headquarters in Ramallah, as they had done in Gaza.
Therein lies the crux of the impasse in Israeli-Palestinian peace-making. Under the existing diplomatic paradigm, far too much emphasis has been placed by international power brokers on the formal building blocks of a future peace agreement—borders, hard security arrangements, the status of settlements, Jerusalem, and refugees—whereas fundamental questions regarding the normative character, institutional capacity, and sustainability of the Palestinian polity are underemphasized as an “inconvenient truth” best ignored or kicked down the road to a post-independence phase.
This is a staggering error. As with the pre-accession process of Central and Eastern Europe, Turkey, and the Balkans, positive leverage on Palestinian political reform is higher pre-independence and will greatly diminish once a Palestinian State is already in existence.
True, the 2003 Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution formulated by the Quartet (the United States, European Union, UN, and Russia) stressed, inter alia, the centrality of Palestinian institution-building and reforms designed to end anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incitement by official Palestinian bodies. The Quartet also established a Task Force on Palestinian Reform, which has formed the basis for Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s Reform and Development Plan for 2008-2010.
But the Fayyad Plan focuses on a relatively narrow range of fiscal and administrative issues—notably financial accountability, development of the private sector, trimming the PA’s bloated public sector, and pension reform. It fails to address core functions of state-capacity, democratic governance and the rule of law—including the disarming of Palestinian militias, effective civilian control of security forces, tackling corruption, judicial independence, freedom of religion and expression, ensuring respect for women and minority rights, and educational reforms. Freedom House consistently ranks Palestinian rule in both Gaza and the West Bank as “Not Free”.
In reality, building a functioning Palestinian state willing and capable of living in peace with its neighbors requires overcoming the destructive legacy of Yasser Arafat’s authoritarian rule, a culture of armed struggle, the disruptive role of radical outsiders (particularly Iran, Syria, and Hizbollah), and intra-Palestinian violence. It also demands a determined strategy to reduce aid dependence and ensure economic growth outstrips the high Palestinian birthrate. All this necessitates a long-term process of broad, deep, and detailed reform that would promote effective statehood, the rule of law, and accountable government prior to the granting of international legal sovereignty.
As the largest donor to the Palestinians, a powerful voice at the UN, Israel’s biggest trade partner, and a key member of the Quartet, Europe is uniquely positioned to leverage its governance-based-security and experience in “transformative engagement” to reorient the existing diplomatic paradigm toward a gradual, long-term state-building solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If it musters the political courage to apply its own foreign policy values to the Israeli-Palestinian arena and dramatically raises its expectations from the Palestinians, Europe can sway moderate Palestinians, Americans, and Israelis to follow it towards the realization of a genuine, sustainable peace.
The European Security Strategy, a document unanimously endorsed by European leaders in December 2003, states that: “The quality of international society depends on the quality of the governments that are its foundation. The best protection for our society is a world of well-governed democratic states.”
Truer words have seldom been written, and they are just as true for Israelis and Palestinians as they are for Europeans.