"Make or break" year for Middle East peace
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has bedeviled international peacemakers for decades. In just five years as the UN's envoy tasked with supporting mediation efforts, Robert Serry has seen a number of false dawns.
It was in 2008, at the start of the US-hosted Annapolis peace process, that Serry, a former Dutch diplomat, took up his post as "Special Coordinator" for the Middle East Peace Process, heading a UN political mission with offices in Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza strip.
Peace hopes were dashed within a year, however, by the first of two bloody conflicts over Gaza. Several attempts since have stalled out quickly.
In a recent interview with DPA E-News Serry said it was time for a new push for peace, calling 2013 a potential "make or break" year for the long held vision of a negotiated two-state solution to the conflict. If that sounded like a dire prediction it was understandable following years of drift and recent months of tension in which peace prospects seemed to dim with each new development.
In November, renewed fighting between Israel and the de facto Hamas authorities in the Gaza Strip shattered a tenuous calm that had been in effect since 2009. More than a hundred people were killed before an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire took hold. The situation was serious enough that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon shuttled urgently into the area, working with UNSCO's support, and alongside the US Secretary of State and other leaders to encourage a stop to the violence.
A Palestinian drive for enhanced status at the United Nations, culminating in a November vote in the UN General Assembly, upped diplomatic tensions and prompted warnings of retaliation.
Following the vote, under which the Palestinians were granted the status of "non-member observer state", Israel announced new settlement construction in areas considered by the United Nations to be potentially fatal to the viability of a future state.
Meanwhile, a year's end peace deadline established by the Quartet for Middle East Peace passed without result, as Arab countries raised questions about the relevance of this grouping of key international players in the peace process: the United Nations, European Union, the United States and Russia.
The first months of 2013, moreover, saw renewed tensions over the situation of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli detention.
Despite these serious difficulties, Serry sees some glimmers of hope.
UNSCO is involved in the efforts to reinforce the November ceasefire through its presence on the ground and contacts with parties concerned. Serry notes that the ‘understanding’ offers at long last the chance to address some of the root causes of the unsustainable situation in Gaza as captured in Security Council Resolution 1860. It opens opportunities to lift the Israeli closure of Gaza, while at the same time addressing Israel's security concerns by stopping arms smuggling.
While the conflicts in Gaza have caused suffering and destruction, they have also led to openings for the United Nations to expand its humanitarian work.
Though UNSCO's main focus is to support political negotiations to end the conflict, it also coordinates and provides political backing to the UN's extensive humanitarian and development assistance to the Palestinians.
UNSCO has helped to broker agreements, for example, to allow more construction materials into Gaza, boosting UN projects. "We are building schools, we are building whole neighborhoods in Gaza with the work of UN agencies in a situation where I don't have to tell you how much that is needed," Serry notes.
And while peace talks have not prospered, Serry sees a major achievement in recent years in the building of the institutions of a future Palestinian state in the West Bank. He credits this to the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and the support from international donors to their efforts. A 2011 report by UNSCO confirmed the readiness of these institutions to assume the responsibilities of a state.
Yet in the absence of a negotiated settlement with Israel, this is "a state without a political future", says Serry. The achievements in the building of institutions on the ground will remain fragile and possibly fleeting.
That the political track has not kept pace explains the impatience and "frustration" he sees as the main factors behind the Palestinian drive for recognition at the United Nations and the strong support garnered from many member states.
So why is peace still proving so elusive?
Serry says the key elements of a solution are well known. There must be agreements on core issues such as territory, security, Jerusalem, refugees, settlements and borders, fulfilling the key United Nations resolutions on the conflict. This can only be achieved through resumed meaningful negotiations.
But past disappointments have bred cynicism on both sides.
"Every time peace fails it becomes harder," he explains. "There is a lot of malaise and a feeling among both Palestinians and Israelis that even if they wish a two-state solution they don't feel it can happen anymore or that there is a partner on the other side with whom to seriously negotiate."
For starters, Serry is advocating a package of "meaningful confidence-building measure" to start restoring trust between the two sides. He says each side can also help by abstaining from the kinds of actions and statements that too often undermine that trust.
But an incremental approach to the peace process will not suffice any longer. Strong American engagement and a revitalized Quartet that links its efforts more closely to key Arab countries are also keys to any renewed peace effort, adds Serry.
Coming after recent elections in Israel, a visit to the region by US President Barack Obama in late March was expected to test the waters for a renewed push at negotiations – or at least steps in that direction.
Serry says the United Nations and all who can contribute to peace must do whatever they can to support progress.
"It is not easy. There are a lot of ways it can go wrong, but we cannot simply continue to fail."
Want to know more?
See our website for more information about the Middle East Peace Process and consult the homepage of the Office of the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process .