In the wake of Israel’s decision to break off talks with the Palestinians after a Fatah-Hamas unity deal, and amid a “volatile” situation on the ground with negative trends in the West Bank and a fragile calm in Gaza, a United Nations envoy today challenged the parties to use this “moment of truth” to reflect on the hard choices required to keep peace from slipping further away.
“Inaction could see this turn into a crisis. That is why joint reflection is in order on how the current impasse came about and ways to overcome it,” Robert Serry, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, warned the Security Council in a briefing on the current “political stalemate” that has endangered what many see as perhaps the last chance to achieve the long-sought two-State solution.
He said that nine months since the launch of United States-brokered negotiations on the previously agreed objective of achieving a comprehensive settlement on all core issues by 29 April, “efforts have faltered given the inability of the parties to bridge the gaps on their substantive positions or even accept, with reservations, a US framework that would attempt to do just that.”
Summing up the events of the past two months, Mr. Serry said that on 28 March, Israel postponed its decision to follow through with the release of the fourth and last tranche of 30 pre-Oslo prisoners. On 1 April, interpreting this as a breach of the quiet understanding of a diplomatic truce in return for the release of the prisoners, the Palestinians proceeded with submitting accession instruments to 15 international treaties and conventions.
“The announcement of 708 reissued tenders for settlement units in Gilo on the same day added to the Palestinian conviction that they had no other choice. Nevertheless, President Mahmoud Abbas reiterated his commitment to negotiations, Mr. Serry said, adding that despite these events, the negotiators continued to meet in an effort to find a way out of the impasse.
In a subsequent development, Palestinians reached a unity agreement on 23 April stipulating, among other things, that a National Consensus Government would be formed within five weeks and elections held no later than six months after the formation of this Government. “Israel [then] cancelled a meeting scheduled between the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators and after an emergency cabinet meeting on 24 April, took the decision to suspend the talks,” he said.
The political stalemate poses great risks to the prospects of a two-State solution and “will also not be without impact…on the ground,” he continued, noting that 2013 had seen the highest number of Palestinian fatalities in the West Bank since 2009.
Condemning the “appalling” violence, he noted two particularly disturbing instances: the killing of an Israeli man and the injury of two others, including a child, in an attack near Hebron on 14 April, during Passover; and the shooting by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) of a14-year-old Palestinian boy crossing the Barrier on 19 March, which resulted in his death.
Mr. Serry said the rise in violence in the West Bank was reflected by the following trends, among others: increased clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinians, particularly in and around refugee camps; Palestinian stone and Molotov cocktail throwing resulting in some injuries and material damage; and settler attacks against Palestinians and their property in spite of some Israeli efforts to crack down on so-called “Price Tag” attacks which have also targeted Israeli security forces.
“Settlement activity also continued,” he said, adding that the situation in East Jerusalem remains worrisome as tensions and clashes in the Old City continued, including during the holiday period. “All of this points to the fact that the situation on the ground is serious and likely to further deteriorate if not addressed. And we must not forget Gaza, where practical steps are urgently needed to improve the humanitarian and security situation.”
Against this troubling backdrop, Mr. Serry said: “Difficult choices are now required of the parties. They should realize that not making a choice is the most detrimental choice of all – namely to accept that we are going down the path of a one-State reality on the ground. This is a time for the parties to reflect whether they wish to live up to their stated commitment to the two-State solution, or whether they will by default let it slip further away.”
First and foremost, he urged the parties to refrain from steps which will render futile any efforts to find a way back to negotiations and salvage the two-State solution. “Both sides have to convince each other anew they are partners for peace. If Israel is serious about the two-State solution, it must recognize the negative impact of continued illegal settlement activity. Palestinians in turn should be reflective of their actions in international fora.”
Moreover, he said that the international community and the region should also reassess its role if they remain convinced of the importance of the two-State solution, and ask what the world can do to persuade the parties to make the right choice.
“This can no longer be ‘business as usual.’ Unrealistic and prescriptive timelines may be counterproductive, as can rushing the parties back to the table without having the necessary framework in place,” he said, expressing his belief that the “current moment of reflection” must be devoted to discussion on a substantive basis for an early resumption of talks, building on the US effort of the past nine months and relying on continued US engagement.