During the final year of the Obama administration, there was much speculation that the White House would take one last bold initiative to reboot the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians; a process that had become moribund after a long but failed bid by United States Secretary of State John Kerry in 2014.
This initiative did come in the final days of 2016. On 23 December, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) adopted the far-reaching Resolution 2334, which, among other things, condemns Israeli settlement activity as a violation of international law. On previous occasions, the US vetoed such resolutions, arguing that they were ‘one-sided’ or ‘impeded’ ongoing peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Not this time. The US abstained, making it possible for the resolution to be adopted. From now on it will be an important point of reference in any peace settlement between the two states.
In one of the most striking passages, the UNSC ‘underlines that it will not recognize any changes to the 4 June 1967 lines, including with regard to Jerusalem’, repeating a formulation that the UNSC first used in a 1980 resolution. As many observers noted, this passage ripped away the veil of quasi-normality and accomplished facts that Israel has laid over the Palestinian territories, creating facts on the ground by building more settlements. In short: Resolution 2334 clarifies the international consensus on the outcome of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The UNSC openly expresses its desire that two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, be established, living side by side within secure and recognized borders.
But the resolution itself does not provide any mechanism to reach this desired political outcome. In fact, every day the Israeli occupation is further entrenching itself. The Israeli political parties that are allied with the settler movement are part of the current Israeli government and are effectively blocking any attempt to stop the building of settlements. Emboldened by a more sympathetic Trump administration, these parties have been pressing for the annexation of Ma’ale Adumim, one of the closest settlements to Jerusalem in the occupied West Bank and home to around 50,000 Israeli settlers. This may seem like a technical matter and yet another of the many settlement-related activities carried out by Israel. But this particular annexation, which would be the first formal annexation of a settlement, would be a body blow to any prospects of a Palestinian state.
Anata, a Palestinian suburb of Jerusalem in the north-eastern corner of the city, is part of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and was occupied by Israel in 1967. To the south is a magnificent panorama. To the north is the last row of houses, many of them slated to be demolished by the Israeli army on the grounds that they were built illegally. To the right is the Mount of Olives and the tower of the Augusta Victoria hospital. In the valley below, the ten-metre-high wall separating Jerusalem from the surrounding Palestinian West Bank and the high road that connects Jerusalem to the Jordan Valley are visible. On a hill straight ahead is an interrogation and detention centre run by the Israeli secret service. To the left is Ma’ale Adumim and beyond it the Jordan Valley, which forms the natural border between the West Bank and Jordan. All the land between Jerusalem and the settlement is, according to Israel, part of the settlement, covering a 12-kilometre-wide stretch known as E1. Since the Israeli government started circulating plans in 2009 to build additional houses in E1, these plans have encountered strong opposition from both the US and Europe. For good reason. Were Israel to start building in E1, the Palestinians would lose their only land corridor, linking the northern part of the West Bank with the southern part and with Jerusalem. Annexing E1 would effectively split the West Bank into a northern and a southern part, separated by a heavily guarded and fortified stretch of land that had become official Israeli territory, to be used only by Israeli settlers.
The outlines of the diplomatic solution that the international community wants are clear. They have been accepted by the Palestinian Authority (PA). However, the PA’s political power is seriously undermined by internal divisions between the Islamist Hamas movement, which governs the Gaza Strip, and the Fatah-dominated PA under Mahmoud Abbas, which governs the West Bank.
The present situation is unsustainable, as noted by the UNSC, and few on either side, with the exception perhaps of the Israeli settlers, would disagree. The two-state solution is being eroded by continuing and even accelerated Israeli settlement activity. The one-state solution is actually favoured by many Palestinians who see the two-state solution as second-best. Yet a one-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians, on the basis of equal rights and a one-person, one-vote democracy, is totally unacceptable to most Israelis, including those fiercely opposed to the ongoing occupation. One state would be a state in which Palestinians would hold a numerical majority, if not now then within a few decades. And this, most Israelis feel, would be the end of Israel’s Jewish character. The alternative – one state in which Palestinians having fewer rights than Israelis – would be an apartheid state.
The most realistic option in the short to medium term, although not one that has been widely discussed until now, may lie in forming an international protection force; a force that could be made up of troops provided by NATO, the UN or any other credible international body; a force that could take over the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza and help create the conditions needed to realize peace based on the principles of Resolution 2334. In fact, the PA and several Palestinian grassroots organizations have asked repeatedly for such a protection force. The Australian government also suggested it to the Israeli government during a visit by its foreign minister in February 2017. Even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had his own variant of an international force, which he proposed for Gaza. Although Hamas flatly rejected the proposal, it is becoming increasingly clear that minds on all sides are slowly turning towards the idea of an international protection force as a way forward.