For those following the resurgence of the Palestine-Israel peace process being headed by John Kerry, this essay attempts to provide a quick summary of the basic history and issues. I have written it primarily for readers who are either new to the subject or are maybe familiar but have been away from it for a while.
Secretary of State John Kerry has made a half-dozen trips to the Middle East since replacing Hillary Clinton in February. During this shuttling back and forth, the secretary has been attempting to rejuvenate diplomacy between Israel and Palestine in what could turn out to be another chapter in the now 23-year-old peace process.
In such an event, what will accompany any conference conducted by President Obama will be a blizzard of articles and opinion pieces examining the event from all possible angles. Yet, two salient realities tend to get submerged when the peace process is the focus of attention: (1) the key issues are rather straightforward, well known, and have basically been agreed upon in the past; and (2) the United States plays an enormous role in the success or failure of any future talks.
Diplomacy on the Palestine-Israel issue dates back to 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza, with a number of proposals and initiatives presented throughout the 1970s. This process culminated in the Camp David Accords (1979), brokered by Jimmy Carter and resulting in a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. However, the Palestine question was left out of the equation and shelved for another time. This period, from the June 1967 war to Camp David, encapsulates its own phase of the diplomatic history. Diplomacy on the conflict saw little to no movement during the Reagan administration.
What we call the "peace process" started in 1991 when George H. W. Bush convened an international conference in Madrid, Spain, in an albeit half-hearted attempt to pursue negotiations on the conflict. During the talks set in motion by that conference, a set of back-channel discussions opened in Oslo, Norway, and eventually produced the Oslo Accords (1993). Neither a resolution of the conflict nor a treaty, the accords were essentially a set of items to negotiate at a later date. The sticking point that remains in place to this day is the portion of the West Bank called "Area C."
Under the second phase of the accords, called Oslo II, this area comprising 73 percent of the West Bank was described in the accord thus: "[E]xcept for the issues that will be negotiated in the permanent status negotiations, [Area C] will be gradually transferred to Palestinian jurisdiction in accordance with this agreement." In other words, three-fourths of the West Bank would sit in limbo until decisions were made in "permanent status negotiations."
PLO leader Yasser Arafat and the Israelis each applied their own interpretation of what this clause meant, each assuming that the West Bank, or at least the bulk of it, was theirs. But Israel's interpretation weighed considerably more than Arafat's, the former being the occupier and the latter being the occupied.
A few smaller agreements were achieved after Oslo throughout the 1990s, all basically footnotes to the accords. By the year 2000 Bill Clinton was looking for a coda to his presidency. That summer the president invited Arafat and Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak to the presidential retreat at Camp David, where Carter had conducted summitry between Israel and Egypt twenty years prior. Known as Camp David II, Clinton and Barak confined the discussions to a narrow framework the Palestinians had already rejected, namely, them possessing only 70-some percent of the West Bank, and that percentage sliced into pieces, or cantons. Though a measure of progress was made, this was the last major peace summit on the Palestine-Israel issue.
After the meetings came to an impasse, Clinton issued a last-minute set of "parameters" at the White House, to which the Palestinians and the Israelis agreed, with much caution and reservation. After the Clinton Plan, the Israeli and Palestinian delegations met at the Egyptian town of Taba, where they
agreed to continue negotiations. Taba was the closest the conflict has come to being resolved.
Barak cancelled Taba and was defeated by Ariel Sharon in Israel's elections. By this time George W. Bush had entered the White House. Like Reagan, the Bush II administration gave diplomacy scant attention.
Following Taba, three independent peace proposals were produced that could still serve as reasonable templates for future negotiations. In 2002, Saudi Arabia issued a proposal wherein Israel would withdraw from the Palestinian territories and the Arab League (all 22 members) would normalize relations with Tel Aviv. The following year, two plans were announced by non-governmental Israeli and Palestinian teams: the People's Voice and the Geneva Accord. Both of these agreements bear much resemblance to one another, and share much in common with the Clinton Plan.
Below I will run through the issues that are central to resolving the Palestine-Israel conflict, and will use as benchmarks the Clinton Plan, People's Voice, and the Geneva Accord. (The Saudi proposal stands as a valuable opportunity, but is more general compared to the specific, detailed plans contained in the others.)
BORDERS. The internationally recognized border separating the state of Israel from Palestine (the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem) is what is called the Green Line. By the end of the June 1967 war, Israel had crossed the Green Line and occupied the Palestinian territories. The response to this was a UN Security Council resolution, which are legally binding. Resolution 242 states that acquiring territory by war is inadmissible, making the occupation illegal. The Green Line is the diplomatic point of departure.
TERRITORY. The state of Palestine, as mentioned above, will be comprised of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Israel withdrew, or "disengaged," from the Gaza Strip in 2005, which leaves the West Bank and East Jerusalem to be negotiated. (Jerusalem is discussed below.) The Clinton Plan calls for the Palestinian state to include 94-96 percent of the West Bank, allowing contiguity (that is, preventing the territory's division into separate pieces), and land swaps between Palestine and Israel for the amount of the West Bank annexed by Israel.
SETTLEMENTS. In the West Bank there are 121 government-sanctioned Israeli settlements (not including East Jerusalem) and about 100 unsanctioned "outposts." Under international law, all are illegal. The settler population is roughly 300,000 in the West Bank and just under 200,000 in East Jerusalem. The West Bank land expropriated by the settlement program is 42 percent, though the developments themselves constitute only 1 percent (see btselem.org). In any final agreement, it is expected that most settlers will be concentrated into "blocks" along the Green Line.
JERUSALEM. After the 1948 war, during which Israel declared independence, Jerusalem was divided, with the western portion becoming Israeli and the eastern falling under Jordanian control. After the June 1967 war, Israel occupied East Jerusalem. The Palestinians, however, desire East Jerusalem as their capital. The Clinton Plan and the Geneva Accord propose Palestinian sovereignty over Arab areas of East Jerusalem, and likewise for Israel and Jewish areas. The capital of Palestine will likely incorporate most of East Jerusalem and the neighboring town of Abu Dis.
REFUGEES. As a result of the 1948 war, some 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from what would become Israel, with refugees moving into Arab-controlled Palestine and the surrounding Arab states. The UN currently has registered 4.7 million Palestinian refugees. The non-binding resolution 194 passed by the UN General Assembly (1948) affirms the right of return for all refugees. Israel, however, rejects this as a solution. The Clinton Plan, People's Voice, and Geneva Accord propose right of return to the state of Palestine only, or compensation.
If Kerry's recent travels and meetings do result in a larger diplomatic event, the above issues will more than likely be problematized by commentators and politicians. While reading the coverage and commentary, it is important to keep in mind that the peace process is usually political theater. Consequently, the reportage tends to also be scripted on account of the major news outlets trying to avoid precision.
Since 1967, the United States and Israel have rejected the peace process, ensuring that the Palestinians remain occupied, stateless, and ghettoized. (See ch. 5 of my Straight Power Concepts in the Middle East for a review of the history with ample notation.) This is not an instance of two equally matched sides unable to "get along," and whose disputes are arbitrated by a neutral party. This is an instance of the world's sole superpower tending to its interests in the most strategically valuable region on earth by ensuring that one of its primary clients remains militant and obdurate, and that the population it occupies does not become an inspiration for other poor and vulnerable groups to pursue self-determination.
However, the majority of Palestinians, Israelis, Americans, and the international community are in favor of the conflict's conclusion based on a two-state solution: Israel and Palestine. The path forward is clear and there is precedent from which to work. Much depends, however, on Obama and whether he will adhere to doctrine or give substance to his rhetoric.