Report from the Ground
The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict at a Crossroads
UNSCO, Jerusalem, 1 July 2011 - The familiar adage that ‘a week is a long time in politics’ could be perfectly applied to the Middle East in 2011, as every few days brings fresh tumult. Regional uncertainty is bringing uncertainty to Israel and the Palestinians, as well.
UN Middle East envoy and UNSCO chief Robert Serry told the Security Council in May that as unsustainable status quos are being challenged in many parts of the Middle East, the Arab-Israeli conflict will not be immune, and ‘one way or another, change will come to it too’. Mr. Serry and his team based in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Gaza are working to encourage renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks and Palestinian reconciliation on a positive basis.
Brokering calm in Gaza
For UNSCO, stabilizing the situation in Gaza has been a key priority. Upsurges of violence threaten to escalate into full-scale conflict, while the population continues to be affected by Israeli closure measures. At the same time, there have recently been some notable achievements. In April, Mr. Serry and his team helped to broker calm in and around Gaza between Hamas and Israel, resulting in a sharp drop in missile attacks from Palestinian armed groups and in operations by the Israeli army. An uneasy calm since has largely held.
In addition, UNSCO has also been intricately involved in negotiations to allow in materials for much needed UN projects in Gaza. In June, the Israeli authorities agreed to admit resources to allow for the construction of 1,100 residential units and for the building of 18 schools. “It means $265 million of projects have been approved by Israel since the visit of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in March 2010, which was the first sign of an adjustment of policy, even before the tragedy of last May’s flotilla clash”, said Mr. Serry. “UN agencies are still understandably frustrated by the pace of approvals and continuing restrictions on construction materials entering the market, and the needs in Gaza are vast. But we have both more calm and more projects than before, and we want to build on that”.
Palestinian reconciliation as an important benchmark
According to UNSCO, the key next step for Gaza’s future must be Palestinian reconciliation. The combination of changes in Egypt and Syria, and the pressure from the Palestinian street, helped encourage Palestinian factions to reach an agreement. UNSCO continues to try to overcome distrust between Gaza and Ramallah. Mr. Serry was sent by the Secretary-General to Cairo to be present for the conclusion in May of a Fateh-Hamas reconciliation deal. “The UN supports unity and wants it to succeed. But let’s not be naïve. Unity can either take us forward or back, depending on how it unfolds. Now is the time for the Palestinians to put in place a government that can engage and be engaged. A new government should be able to support the President’s programme, uphold the impressive statebuilding achievements in the West Bank, sustain the calm out of Gaza while beginning reconstruction, reintegrate the Palestinian institutions, and prepare for elections”, said Mr. Serry.
Achievements of the Palestinian Authority
Preserving and enhancing the statebuilding achievements of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank are core goals for UNSCO. In a report to donors in April, UNSCO concluded that “in six areas where the UN is most engaged, (Palestinian Authority) government functions are now sufficient for a functioning government of a state.” But the report also noted that these gains were approaching their limits. Mr. Serry highlights these during frequent trips to the West Bank. For example, he has visited Hebron on a number of occasions this year, meeting the Palestinian Mayor and Governor, and seeing their difficulties in developing the city, given the continued control of the surrounding area by the Israeli authorities. “There’s only so much (Palestinian Prime Minister Salam) Fayyad can do constrained by occupation”, Mr. Serry said. “Israeli steps on the ground are vital to roll back measures of occupation.” Mr. Serry maintains close contact with the Israeli military officials responsible for coordinating its activities in the occupied territory, in order to bring about concrete improvements that can enable the PA to pursue its agenda. While frustrated at the pace of change by the Israeli authorities, Mr. Serry notes the sincerity and determination of key officials: “I value my candid and trusting relationship with key Israeli decision-makers. We work on the basis that where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
September deadline for relaunch of peace talks
The urgency of diplomatic progress has become ever more apparent as September looms closer - the target date for the parties to reach agreement on the relaunch of peace talks. In the absence of progress by then, Palestinians may approach the UN to seek membership or some form of recognition for a Palestinian State. In the meantime, Mr. Serry has been working closely with envoys of the Middle East Quartet (comprising the United Nations, United States, European Union and Russian Federation) in an effort to secure and promote an international consensus on the most constructive way forward. “This year, for the first time, the Envoys engaged on a united basis with the chief negotiators from both sides. We had serious discussions on how to move forward, especially on borders and security”, said Mr. Serry. United States President Barack Obama, in his May speech on the changes in the region, laid out important principles on both issues. “The speech set a proper framework for the parties to come back to talks, if they seriously want to do so. The Quartet can build on this, but ultimately it’s up to the parties to recognize an opportunity when they see one. It is hard, because the confidence between them is very low and the political constraints they face are real. But this is pre-eminently a time for leadership.”
With the Palestinians remaining deeply concerned about on-going illegal Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the Israelis opposing any move by the Palestinians to create a government supported by Hamas, the political dynamic has become even more complicated, says Mr. Serry’s political adviser, Robert Dann: “Getting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations going will be very hard, despite President Obama’s important speech. Pushing ahead with Palestinian reconciliation is immensely difficult. The interaction between these two tracks only adds to the complexity.” With the target date of September approaching, the coming months could present UNSCO with the highest stakes it has encountered for some time.