The following presentation is one I have just made in front of the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs as part of a hearing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The two other speakers who joined me are French Special Envoy Pierre Vimont and Fernando Gentilini, EU Special Representative to the Middle East Peace Process.
Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to speak with you today about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has been with us for over seven decades. I wish I could be more optimistic in offering some kind of solution that could in fact be implemented and lead to the ultimate goal of reaching an agreement based on a two-state solution.
Unfortunately, given the political environment in the region and the reality on the ground in Israel and Palestine, a solution that could answer the aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians seems ever more difficult, and every day that passes, the conflict is becoming more intractable while new facts created on the ground are becoming extremely difficult to reverse. I'd like to first point out six elements that have and will continue to hinder finding a solution, what measures can be taken to improve the peace process, and what role the EU can play in the context of the French initiative:
1) Trump and the US role
I want to begin with the changing of the guard in the United States. Although President-elect Trump has recently stated that he would like to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, which he considers to be a major achievement, his incoming administration has no plan (that we know of) to resume the negotiations and on what basis at any time in the near future. President-elect Trump will largely be occupied with the many issues, both domestic and foreign, that he raised during the campaign (such as defeating ISIS and resolving the Syrian conflict). Based on what I know, he does not see an urgency to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at this particular juncture. It seems to me that Mr. Trump would not want to delve into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unless he feels that his chance of success is rather promising, as he certainly does not want to attach his name to another failed negotiation.
In the interim, we can expect President Trump to follow the policy of his predecessors by fully supporting Israel. No one should expect that the Trump administration will exert any pressure on the Netanyahu government in the foreseeable future to change its direction.
2) The Israeli government
The Netanyahu government is simply not committed to negotiate a peace agreement based on a two-state solution. Although Netanyahu repeatedly states that he is in favor of a two-state solution, I do not believe that he would take any significant measures that would lead to the emergence of a Palestinian state under his watch.
Moreover, several members of his coalition government do not see eye-to-eye on any particular solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and opinions range from those who demand an immediate annexation of the West Bank (specifically Area C) like Education Minister Naftali Bennett, to those like Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who wants to redraw the map completely to ensure a greater concentration of Jews within the eventual Israeli borders.
Anyone who attended the most recent Jerusalem Post conference and listened to the speeches of various top Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Netanyahu and those mentioned above, will realize how deep the gap is between the positions of the various members of the coalition. The only thing they agree upon is that the time is not ripe for any serious negotiations, as none believe that the Palestinian Authority is in a position to negotiate in earnest.
3) The Israeli opposition
There is no political opposition in Israel that can in fact galvanize its forces to provide an alternative to the current government's policy regarding the Palestinians. The various political parties, especially the Zionist Union led by Isaac Herzog, Yesh Atid led by Yair Lapid, and others, are disorganized, do not see eye-to-eye with one another, and lack the fundamental consensus about the need to reach a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians based on a two-state solution.
As they stand today, they present no threat to the Netanyahu government, which is expected to serve its full term ending in 2019, and will most likely win the next election because of the growing shift of the Israeli public to the right-of-center.
4) The Arab States
The Arab States, specifically the Sunni states (led by Saudi Arabia) and the Gulf states, are focused largely on the Iranian threat and their own national security concerns, given the turmoil in the region. They have put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the back burner, and in fact, they see Israel as the front line that would defend the region from Iranian encroachment. Over the last few years, the Arab states (in addition to Egypt and Jordan, who are at peace with Israel) have developed extensive security and intelligence cooperation with Israel, and for them, such cooperation assumes top priority.
However, given the opportunity, they will certainly support a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as long as the framework for the peace negotiations is based on the Arab Peace Initiative (API).
5) The Palestinian Authority
President Abbas, though he occasionally says and demonstrates his willingness to negotiate a peace agreement with Israel based on a two-state solution, is politically weak and will not be able to deliver any significant concessions that will receive public support. Unfortunately, there is not one single strong successor to Abbas, and should new elections be held, it remains a serious question as to who might succeed him, and what policy he or she might follow.
Hamas, on the other hand, continues to call publicly for the destruction of Israel, and does not see eye-to-eye with the Palestinian Authority. It is not likely that both sides could come to terms with one another and join hands in the search for a permanent solution to their conflict with Israel.