The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is in dire straits but observers differ on whether the framework of negotiations towards a two-state solution is in poor health, comatose or dead.
The arrival of Donald Trump in the White House, along with an Israeli government and opposition that are either explicitly opposed to Palestinian statehood, ambivalent or believe it is not the right time, are all further evidence of an era of uncertainty and danger. But there is also an opportunity for a rethink by the international community about how they relate to Israel and Palestinians. And it is vital that any new approach must end the subordination of Palestinian rights.
Let’s consider three examples of how this has worked to date. First, there are the settlements. An article of faith among western diplomats and experts is that a large number of settlers can be incorporated into Israel in a final status agreement through a land swap. This reflects the fact that most of Israel’s major colonies inside the occupied Palestinian territory lie relatively close to the Green Line. But talk of so-called settlement blocks and land swaps are problematic as it effectively constitutes a reward for a grave violation of international law. It is a seal of approval for colonisation.
The concept of so-called consensus settlements – illegal colonies that will be part of Israel in a final peace deal – is a perfect example of how Israel’s violations of international law are seen as something to be accommodated rather than opposed.
In other words, Israel’s efforts to create “facts on the ground” trump Palestinian land rights and access to natural resources, community cohesion, environmental concerns, cultural and historical heritage and more.
Then there’s Palestinian sovereignty – or more specifically, how Israel’s security needs are deemed to override the Palestinian right to independence. A future Palestinian state, it is demanded, will be demilitarised, and will not even have control over its own airspace. The Israeli army will maintain the right to invade if necessary. As if all that wasn’t enough, even Israel’s centrists support a long-term presence of the Israeli military in the Jordan Valley.
All such conditions are justified as managing Israel’s security concerns, as if the Palestinians had no such concerns, and as if any sovereign state would accept such terms.
Finally, a third way in which Israel’s interests trump Palestinian rights, and perhaps one of the most fundamental manifestations of this, is the question of the Palestinian refugees.
We saw it in John Kerry’s speech on the peace process, when the former US secretary of state said: “There is a general recognition that the solution [to the Palestinian refugee issue] must be consistent with two states for two peoples, and cannot affect the fundamental character of Israel.”
That is to say, the Israeli demand to have its Jewish majority of citizens preserved is assumed to be of a higher priority than the obligation to ensure that Palestinian refugees are allowed to return, as per their right under international law.
In fact, one of the things that the three examples above have in common is that it is not only Palestinian rights being subordinated to Israeli interests but also international law and norms, and human rights. Settlements are illegal? No problem, they can be annexed by Israel. Refugees have the right to return? Sorry, Israel must protect its Jewish character.
That the official peace process is so heavily weighted to prioritise Israeli interests is made clear by the rhetoric of its proponents and guardians.
Speaking to CNN last month, Mr Kerry defended the Obama administration’s abstention at the UN Security Council on the basis that “all we’re trying to do is speak as a good, good, solid, best friend of Israel”.
Or take the ill-fated Paris conference last month. French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, writing in Israeli newspaper Haaretz on the gathering, shared his “very strong conviction” that “only a two-state solution will, in time, bring stability to the region and enable Israel to live in security”.
Over and over, western diplomats have urged Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to take certain steps for the sake of Israel; the two-state solution is in Israel’s interests, a Palestinian state is for Israel’s benefit, and so on.
Now of course, someone might reply that the art of diplomacy includes appealing to the best interests of one party in order to be more persuasive. But in the case of Israel and the Palestinians this betrays a fundamental conceptual flaw; that you are dealing with two, more or less equal sides, who just need to make some of their own respective compromises in order to seal the deal.
This reflects neither the history nor the vastly asymmetrical status quo of an occupier and occupied. Experience shows that the Israeli government pursues its own understanding of its own interests regardless of external appeals.
Rather than indulging Israeli interests that fly in the face of the Palestinian people’s rights to self-determination and decolonisation, the international community must instead insist on respect for such rights – and follow through on serious consequences if Israel continues to refuse.
Ben White is a journalist and the author of Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide