- Foreign Secretary William Hague’s recent speech to a Chatham House conference on Britain-Israel relations, whilst clearly intending to reassure Israel about Britain’s Middle East policies, revealed certain gaps in perspective between Britain and Israel on the peace process.
- Hague maintained his pressure on the US to lay out terms of reference for a two-state solution through the Quartet, whilst giving a cool response to the idea of an interim proposal.
- Possibly trying to anticipate Israeli concerns, Hague revised his version of the terms of reference, by stating that a solution to the refugee issue should be ‘realistic’, and by emphasising that peace should be based on ‘two states for two peoples.’
- The Israeli Prime Minister’s office continues to consider an interim proposal. Should this proposal find favour in the US, European policy makers will have to assess whether supporting such a proposal will help move the parties towards the realisation of a two-state solution.
On Wednesday 30 March, Foreign Secretary William Hague addressed a special conference convened by Chatham House to mark 60 years of formal diplomatic relations between Britain and Israel. His speech was clearly intended to reassure Israelis about British commitment to Israel’s security and the bilateral relationship. At the same time it was an attempt by Hague to make a case to an Israeli audience, as to why the dramatic changes in the region make progress on the peace process increasingly urgent. In so doing, however, he revealed certain gaps in perspective between Britain and Israel, and possibly between Britain and the US, over how best to advance the peace process in the coming months.
UK pressing for Quartet terms of reference
A key theme of William Hague’s speech last week was Britain’s view that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is an urgent priority, and that the changes in the region only add to its importance. The Foreign Secretary noted that change in the region ‘combines the immense potential for greater democracy and human development with the risk of violence and threat to human life that we see so represented to an extreme degree in Libya.’ The Foreign Office appears to believe that the growing uncertainty in the region will push a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians even further out of reach.
Britain, along with France and Germany, is openly pressing the US to lay out terms of reference which will define the parameters for a two-state solution through the Quartet. In a policy speech in December Hillary Clinton stressed the importance of negotiations, and said that the US would not attempt to impose a solution. In February the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, appeared to explicitly reject the option of Quartet terms of reference. But with the next Quartet meeting due this month, it is now unclear where the US stands. In the absence of direct talks, the pressure for Quartet proposed terms of reference is growing. Given the failure of the Obama administration to bring about meaningful negotiations, and fatigue within the US government over the issue, the US might see laying down international parameters as an opportunity to create at least the perception of progress.
What will transpire in the Quartet may be affected by ongoing discussions between the US and Israel over a possible Israeli diplomatic initiative. The details of the initiative being considered by Israel are still not pinned down, and mixed messages from the Israeli government have frustrated some in the international community. But officials in the Prime Minister’s office indicate that a package of interim measures is being considered that would increase Palestinian control over the West Bank, whilst continuing the search for a permanent status agreement. Netanyahu is also believed to be considering a statement clarifying his position on borders.
Whether Israel decides to present a plan will depend to a considerable degree on whether the US supports it. Until now the US has been sceptical about interim measures. Their support is likely to depend on how far reaching the Israeli proposals are, and whether the administration believes they will be sufficient to bring momentum back to bilateral negotiations. If US support can be secured, the Israeli proposals could be unveiled at a forthcoming visit by Prime Minister Netanyahu to Washington in May.
The Palestinians have rejected interim measures. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad recently told the Wall Street Journal, ‘Unless we have an adequate definition of the terms of a final settlement, it’s not going to fly.’ They continue to campaign for the international community to recognise Palestinian statehood based on the 1967 borders.
In his speech on 30 March, William Hague made clear he did not believe interim measures would be sufficient, and pressed the US to back the European proposal for international terms of reference. So far Israel has resisted internationally imposed terms of reference. They have argued that the final status issues should be agreed in bilateral talks between the sides and not prejudged by the international community. They have also argued that the Palestinians will have no reason to return to talks if they think they can get the international community to impose their terms on Israel. Israeli officials also point out that whilst there is international enthusiasm to lay out terms of reference on borders, the issue where Israel is expected to concede, there is no parallel enthusiasm to set down international terms on refugees, where the Palestinians will have to concede.
Britain’s terms of reference – a shift on refugees?
Britain’s terms of reference, as set out by Hague in his Chatham House speech, were subtly different to previous versions, possibly reflecting a desire to make Israel more comfortable with them. In his Chatham House speech Hague said:
The UK, France and Germany have set out our views on what those principles should be two states for two peoples based on: 1967 borders with equivalent land swaps, security arrangements that protect Israel whilst respecting Palestinian sovereignty by ending the Occupation; a fair realistic and agreed solution for refugees and Jerusalem as the capital of both states.
In particular it was noticeable that Hague inserted the word ‘realistic’ into the language on refugees. In recent statements Hague used the phrase, ‘just, fair and agreed solution’ to the issue of refugees. Adding the term ‘realistic’ could be interpreted as a shift to recognise Israeli concerns over the refugee issue. Israel opposes the Palestinian right of return, which would undermine Israel’s viability as a Jewish and democratic state. It is widely accepted that this demand is incompatible with a final status agreement.
Hague made another comment which appeared to lean towards Israel’s position on this issue. He explicitly characterised the two-state solution as being aimed at establishing ‘two states for two peoples’. This implies acceptance of the Israeli position that a future agreement should secure Israel’s future as the nation state of the Jewish people, and Palestine should be the state of the Palestinians, and the solution for Palestinian refugees. As BICOM Senior Visiting Fellow, and former Israeli negotiator, Dr. Tal Becker recently set out in a paper written for the Washington Institute, this does not mean an exclusively Jewish state. Rather it implies that Israel would express the Jewish people’s right of self-determination in their own state, whilst still protecting the equal rights of non-Jewish minorities, and Palestine would give expression to the Palestinian right of self-determination.
Palestinian leaders have recently objected to the ‘two states for two peoples’ formulation precisely because it appears to prejudice the issue of the right of return. There was a sharp disagreement over the issue between Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad at a UN meeting in 2009, when Ayalon insisted the phrase ‘two states for two peoples’ be included in a join communiqué.
However, Hague stopped short of endorsing Prime Minister Netanyahu’s position that as part of final status deal, the Palestinians should recognise Israel’s status as a Jewish state. Whilst President Obama explicitly spoke about Israel as a Jewish state in a speech to the UN in 2010, Britain has conspicuously avoided doing so in the past couple of years. This is despite the fact that as Prime Minister, Gordon Brown spoke without reservation about Israel’s character as a Jewish state. Instead Hague fell back on wording which echoed the 1917 Balfour Declaration, by expressing his support for Israel as, ‘a homeland for the Jewish people.’ This ambiguous wording, in itself, falls well short of the Israeli position.
The gap between British and Israeli views of the process
Britain continues to call for the two sides to return to bilateral talks as soon as possible. In theory, this is in line with Israel’s position, which is also in favour of an immediate return to talks without preconditions. Britain is not backing the Palestinian position that Israel must first resume its settlement freeze before talks begin. The UK has also explicitly rejected unilateral measures by either side.
But Israeli officials argue that in practice, Britain is undermining the return to talks by pushing for internationally endorsed terms of reference, and by granting unilateral diplomatic gestures for the Palestinians such as the recent upgrade of their mission in London. Such measures, Israelis argue, encourage Palestinian intransigence. The Palestinians are building up to securing some form of international endorsement of statehood based on 1967 borders at the UN in September. Any encouragement for this strategy, Israelis argue, reduces the pressure on the Palestinians to return to direct talks.
It is notable in this context that the UK has, in the past few weeks, downgraded its expectations for what can be achieved by September. In mid-February the Foreign Secretary’s stated goal was, ‘an agreement on all final status issues and the welcoming of Palestine as a full member by September 2011.’ In his Chatham House speech on 30 March, the ambition was more modest, calling more vaguely for ‘progress’ by September.
But whilst the Foreign Secretary has scaled back his ambitions for September, he is not embracing the apparent Israeli move to propose an interim measure. He said in his speech, ‘There has been talk about whether interim solutions will suffice. Let me be clear that I do not believe they will. Final status issues have to be resolved.’
In Israel, whilst there is a sense that a diplomatic initiative would help improve Israel’s international standing, there is widespread scepticism that the current regional environment is conducive to reaching a final status agreement. The instability of countries surrounding Israel has created new security concerns that will weigh on the minds of Israeli policy makers when it comes to the issue of territorial concessions.
The Palestinians are also affected by the regional change. The Palestinian Authority faces heightened concern for its own domestic legitimacy, making it more wary of the difficult concessions involved in the peace process. Whilst there is renewed talk of Palestinian unity, senior Fatah officials in Ramallah assess that Hamas is unlikely to compromise on Fatah’s demands for new elections as it waits to see if a new and more friendly government emerges in Egypt.
In this context, it is not clear how a Quartet statement proposing terms of reference, as suggested by Britain, Germany and France, will help get the sides back into a meaningful negotiation process. If internationally proposed terms of reference will help reassure the Palestinians about the final destination of the peace process, and give them the confidence to return to talks, then this might be a reason to put them on the table. As yet, however, the Palestinians have given no clear indication that they are ready to enter direct talks with Netanyahu, even if the Quartet provides the terms of reference.
It is clear that the UK would prefer to see a final status agreement over an interim step forward. But circumstances in the region seem to militate against a final status agreement in the near future. Quartet endorsed terms of reference, and resolutions at the UN, may define the parameters of a Palestinian state on paper, but it is not clear how they will bring progress on the ground. Many observers believe the Palestinians will not enter direct talks with Netanyahu in the current context, regardless of what the international community does to encourage them. Therefore, if Israel gains support from the US for an interim proposal, European policy makers will have to assess whether it is better to get behind it, in the hope that it will ultimately move the parties towards the realisation of a two-state solution.