Ahead of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s current trip to Egypt, Israel, and the West Bank, the Regional Organization for Peace, Economics & Security (ROPES) hosted a webinar last week featuring three veteran US, Israeli, and Palestinian peace negotiators.
Participants in the webinar included Ambassador Dennis Ross, the Middle East envoy to four US presidents; Gilead Sher, former senior peace negotiator and chief of staff to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak; and Dr. Samih al-Abed, former peace negotiator, public works and housing minister, and deputy minister of planning for the Palestinian Authority.
Former journalist and former Israeli parliamentarian Ksenia Sveltova, newly appointed executive director of ROPES, moderated the webinar, which was introduced by ROPES founder and president Ben Birnbaum.
ROPES is a new nonprofit organization that seeks to promote a regional Arab-Israeli peace agreement through people-to-people programs. It has been working to leverage the Abraham Accords to introduce trilateral Israeli-Palestinian-regional partnerships in areas such as education and the environment and rebuild long-term momentum toward an agreement to end the Middle East’s longest and seemingly most intractable conflict.
Every Palestinian would notice the difference if there were no water challenges
Ambassador Ross discussed his hope that Blinken’s meetings this week with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would signal the return of a strong US involvement in the region. He said that the situation on the ground had no precedent and that politics on both sides limited the possibility of returning to the negotiation table.
Given the far-right government in Israel and a complete split on the Palestinian side between the PA-ruled West Bank and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, Ross said, “the ability to produce a kind of political consensus on either side to engage in a serious negotiation where there could be some kind of adjustment of behavior, some kind of compromise, some kind of concessions,” is different from what we’ve seen in the past.
However, he noted that despite the complicated context, there was one new development worth considering: the Abraham Accords. “This is the one new element in the situation, and it is something to work with,” he said.
Ross believes the Palestinians’ negative attitude toward the Abraham Accords is a mistake.
“I would like to see the Palestinians repair their relations with countries like the UAE,” he said adding that efforts to create trilateral cooperation between Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Arab countries that have normalized relations with Israel, could be a positive step toward a solution.
“I would like to see more of an effort made on the part of the US administration to do more brokering in this regard,” he said.
Ross said that the Arab states that signed onto the Abraham Accords had become a source of influence on Israel in relation to the Palestinian conflict. He cited the case of the UAE, which fully normalized its ties to Israel on condition that the Jewish state not annex West Bank lands, as Netanyahu had threatened to do before the accords were finalized. Earlier this month, after Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir visited the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in a move that many Muslims saw as provocative, it was the UAE that called for a UN Security Council meeting on the matter.
Netanyahu sees the Abraham Accords as his personal achievement, Ross said, and so is expected to do everything he can to make sure they are not undermined.
As a possibility for trilateral Israeli-Palestinian-regional cooperation, Ross proposes major Emirati investment in the West Bank’s water infrastructure, which would require close coordination among the parties. “Every Palestinian would notice the difference if there were no water challenges,’ he added.
Two states for two peoples is still the best solution for the Israeli-Palestinian future
Sher stressed the need to “initiate hope” despite the current difficulties on both sides, because “the problems and core contentious issues will not disappear, just like that, if we do not deal with them.”
He condemned what he called “the Netanyahu government’s offensive against the fundamental values of Israel,” comparing it to Pearl Harbor in the American context. This, he said, included an “orchestrated delegitimization” of members of Israel’s peace camp, civil society groups, human rights organizations, politicians, and public figures who support a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And he said that a “mirror image” process had taken place on the Palestinian side, which has also shifted rightward, against peace-building.
Despite this, Sher said, he maintains that “two states for two peoples is still the best solution for the Israeli-Palestinian future. And currently, it is extremely difficult to see it happen given the situation.”
“There are 15 million people from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea whose future looks rather gloomy,” he continued, noting that this was due to the leaderships on both sides. On one side, he said, was a dysfunctional Palestinian leadership, and on the other side, an ultra-right Israeli leadership that seemed to be heading toward the annexation of parts of the West Bank, which, he argued, “would lead to the loss of the identity of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state.”
He said what needs to be done “is to promote a gradual, responsible, and continuous separation between Israelis and Palestinians, ensuring the future of Israel as a Jewish, democratic, secure, and egalitarian state, all while respecting the Palestinian right to self-determination,” he said, adding that it all requires a political and societal willingness, which is currently completely absent.
But he insisted that an agreement might be obtainable through a series of transitional phases, interim agreements, and perhaps constructive independent steps while conducting regional and multilateral dialogues and negotiations.
Sher agrees with Ross that “the US must be first and foremost hands-on,” adding, “There are no bypasses and no shortcuts to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution.”
“I believe that two states for two peoples is still the best solution for the Israeli-Palestinian future. And currently, it is extremely difficult to see it happen given the situation,” he said.
There is opposition to armed struggle. There is opposition to boycotts. There is opposition to any kind of sanctions on Israel. There is opposition to recognition of the State of Palestine. There is opposition to recognition of our membership in the United Nations. There is opposition to seeking the opinion of the International Court of Justice over anything. So what is it that the United States and other Western powers are willing to support for Palestinian freedom and to end the Israeli occupation of our land?
Abed, however, argued that “we are living in a situation on the ground where the Oslo Accords are no longer a reference for the actions taken. Palestinians question why they are the only party respecting the agreement and the only party still working for a two-state solution,” he continued.
Abed described Palestinian frustration with what they view as a lack of support for their basic rights and aspirations. “What are the Palestinians supposed to do to achieve freedom?” he asked. “There is opposition to armed struggle. There is opposition to boycotts. There is opposition to any kind of sanctions on Israel. There is opposition to recognition of the State of Palestine. There is opposition to recognition of our membership in the United Nations. There is opposition to seeking the opinion of the International Court of Justice over anything. So what is it that the United States and other Western powers are willing to support for Palestinian freedom and to end the Israeli occupation of our land?”
He said that unlike Ross, he did not believe that the Abraham Accords would open the doors for Israeli-Palestinian negotiation. They only signify the acceptance of Israel by Arab governments, not by the Arab people, he said, citing the experience of Israeli fans and journalists during the World Cup in Qatar.
The Media Line asked Abed, in light of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ expected announcement of an end to security cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government, whether he believed there was any chance to turn the tide and bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
The position of the United States is not helping us at all, neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis
Abed told The Media Line that the Palestinian Authority had long been asking for Israel to stop its daily incursions into Palestinian cities. “The Authority tried their best to tell the Israelis to stop doing this and come to the [negotiating] table to start to talk about how to solve the problem.” But instead of solving the conflict, people started talking about managing the conflict. And to some Palestinians, “managing the conflict, with the support of the head of the security apparatus in Palestine, means that the Israelis are not willing to give us anything.”
Abed thought it was still possible to get back to the negotiating table if the United States and other countries were to interfere to preserve the two-state solution. But current US policy, he said, was insufficient. “The position of the United States is not helping us at all, neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis,” Abed asserted.