The unbearable gravity of waiting

By Vassilis Ntousas

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The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has spanned decades but is any progress being made towards the much sought after two-state solution? Vassilis Ntousas gives his take on where things stand in 2017, a year of multiple anniversaries related to the conflict.


Well? Shall we go?


Yes, let’s go.

(They do not move.)

Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett

2017 is a year awash with significant anniversaries in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A 100 years since the Balfour declaration, 70 years since the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 181, recommending the partition of Palestine at the end of the British Mandate, a half-century since the beginning of the Six Day War, three decades since the first Palestinian intifada and a decade of Israel’s blockade on Gaza.

In this political morass that has bedevilled international diplomacy for so long, all these potent reminders come with a simple question: are we progressing towards the long-sought two-state solution of the conflict?

Answering this question in 1987, 1993, 2000 or in 2010 would probably yield somewhat different answers, but an answer in 2017 cannot but be an emphatic no.

Stalling peace process

We are now at a point when the two-state solution appears to be the most remote it has been in decades. The peace process is stalling, if not moribund. Repeated warnings that we are hurtling towards a catastrophic final reckoning and that time is running out are falling, by and large, on deaf ears. And there is a deep-seated sense of intransigence and complacency permeating the decision-making of both Israelis and Palestinians.

There have been different structural, political and leadership reasons for this for each side: the egregious political situation on the one side and the internal divisions on the other paint only part of a complex picture.

The alarm bells are ringing

Yet the fact remains that, if ever there was a time for genuine alarm about the need to save the two-state solution, it is now.

With the perspective that the Oslo accords opened up quickly fading away, the reality on the ground concerning the most permanent status issues, including Jerusalem, the settlements, borders, statehood, refugees and security, seems on the verge of being irrevocably altered. This is a truly deceptive status quo: characterised not simply by a complete lack of progress but by a curtailment of the little progress that has been achieved over the last decades.

If paralysis is problematic, regression paves the way for some even more worrisome possibilities. The horrors of constant violence and open-ended occupation; the danger that the pot of religious animosity that is currently being stirred will erupt, effectively drawing both sides into a conflict that will not be ethnic but religious; the legitimate fear that the issue will remain on the international diplomatic back burner, making it an unintended victim of the region’s volatility; and the very real risk that the time for the two-state solution will indeed expire if both parties prefer to maintain the impasse.

For Europe, which has consistently proclaimed its strong belief in the two-state solution as the only viable solution to the conflict, in both strategic and moral terms, the rhetoric of opposition to anything but this option must be consistent and coupled with action. Given the brash brand of the new White House chief, and the erratic, quid pro quo logic of his administration, stoically waiting for any renewed efforts for American diplomacy to swing behind has minimum strategic validity and moral integrity. Instead, engaging in the type of creative, determined and sustained leadership that Brussels has shown during and following the Iran nuclear deal negotiations can and should be replicated.

EU needs to resuscitate the peace process

The EU must work tirelessly not to impose a peace process but to resuscitate it. In an effort to positively disrupt the status quo, the European Union’s High Representative Federica Mogherini was right to announce “a review of all the modalities of [the EU’s] engagement on the ground” during the September Gymnich meeting. This review should include a recalibration or repurposing of the EU’s financial and aid engagement so that it serves the stated goal of the two-state solution more efficiently. Securitising the absence of process to solve the problem at hand must also be met with renewed commitment; not through empty warnings that time is running out, but through careful use of (dis)incentives of (in)action for both sides.

Of course, little can deter the forces of complacency from not changing course. But it is hard to imagine an irony more profound than that caused by the stubbornness of the facts on the ground: waiting to find a solution becomes the enemy of the solution itself. Doing nothing or doing very little just to preserve the status quo will prove functionally meaningless, much like arranging the chairs on the Titanic before the ship sank. The gravity of the situation cannot be overstated: we are now dangerously approaching a point in time where any ‘solution’ will be caused not by design but by disaster.