INTERVIEW: Robert Serry on the ‘Endless Quest’ for Middle East peace, reflections from no man’s land

10 January 2017

The United Nation’s former point person for Middle East negotiations has said that Israelis and Palestinians need at least the prospects of a two-state solution, and urged the international community to create conditions for more effective discussions in the future.

In his new book, Robert Serry offers an insider’s perspective on conflict management and peace efforts during the three most recent peace initiatives and three wars in Gaza. He shares his reflections on walking the tight rope of diplomacy between Israel and Palestine, his analysis of what has gone wrong and why a “one-state reality” may be around the corner.

Mr. Serry was the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process from 2007 to 2015. Speaking to UN News about his book, Mr. Serry, who was also the UN Secretary-General’s Personal Representative to the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority, admits that he has been struggling with questions about what his message should be given the length of time he spent with the UN.  

“Parties should learn the lessons from what has happened during the past 20 years of field negotiations. If you simply repeat the experiment again, by putting the parties together at one table, and expecting a different result, well, according to Einstein, that is a definition of madness,” he said.

What then is the answer for achieving peace? His new book is The Endless Quest for Israeli-Palestinian Peace: A Reflection from No Man’s Land. He discussed it at a recent meet-the-author event at the UN Bookshop in New York.

We have seen three peace initiatives. The first one started at Annapolis, and the last one was the one of Secretary John Kerry, and I am afraid, not coincidentally, all peace initiatives were followed by wars in Gaza.

The interview has been edited for clarity.

UN News: What inspired you to write this book?

Robert Serry: I think it was my long stay – I didn’t expect to stay for seven years – and also what I have been experiencing during these long seven years in Jerusalem, working on behalf of Ban Ki-moon, then Secretary-General, in the efforts of the international community to bring peace to Israel and to Palestinians.

While I was doing the job, I started to reflect on what was happening, because I feel that I have been there in what could have become a very decisive period in the history of this conflict. After all, we have seen three peace initiatives. The first one started at Annapolis (Maryland, USA, in 2007), and the last one was the one of Secretary [of State] John Kerry. I am afraid, not coincidentally, all peace initiatives were followed by wars in Gaza.

The UN was in the midst of it, particularly in Gaza, where we have a major humanitarian responsibility to the people of Gaza, including the majority being refugees in Gaza. So the idea of writing a book grew while I was doing my work. I started to take some notes, and then I got this opportunity after I finally completed my assignment in 2015. I was offered the Sérgio Vieira de Mello Academic Chair’s position in the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seaton Hall University, not far from New York. There’s a unique cooperation, by the way, between the UN and this university, because it allows a former envoy like me, to take a step back and reflect on what you have done, what you have experienced. That actually gave me the opportunity and inspiration to do what I have always done in mind during my work there, which is write a book.

Writing is a little bit in my blood, I believe, because I have been writing another book about my stay for the Dutch government as the first Dutch Ambassador in Ukraine.

UN News: The subtitle – A Reflection From No Man’s Land – how fitting is that, in your view?

Robert Serry: You always look for a title that will intrigue people. Why in no man’s land? It becomes clear in the preface of the book; I was working as the UN envoy in no man’s land. In Jerusalem, you have the government house, which was the previous residence of the last British governor. Before the British left, and after the first Arab-Israeli war, that was designated in the first conflict between Israel and the Arab countries as the no man’s land, and the UN bought it at that time already for the first ever UN peacekeeping operation, which is UNTSO (UN Truce Supervision Organization), and of course now after many years of unresolved conflict. But nowadays, the Special Coordinator, as the representative of the Secretary-General, the highest UN official, also resides in that building. It sits on top of a hill, and historically in a holy city. So I felt myself in a no man’s land, between Israel and Palestinians. That is also why I put that in the subtitle of the book.

Of course, there is also something else here. So much more land is still not allocated. If we think about the border of Israelis, and what the boarder of the future Palestine are going to be. It’s an illusion to that unfortunate situation.

UN News: How different is the most recent peace initiative from the previous two?

Robert Serry: I don’t think we can talk about the new initiative yet. The last one was Secretary Kerry’s Initiative, and I have been writing a chapter about it in the book. There are, of course, ongoing efforts, particularly with French participation at this point, to renew negotiations. I have been trying to take a step back, rather than thinking about a new process and rushing back to negotiations.

Somewhere in my book, I am also saying that parties should learn the lessons from what has happened during the past 20 years of field negotiations. If you simply repeat the experiment again, by putting the parties together at one table, and expecting a different result, well, according to Einstein, that is a definition of madness. I feel like, for that reason also, it is important for the international community to look at its own involvement in the conflict, and why is it so that Security Council Resolution 242 (1967) next year will be fifty years old. The Security Council has never been able to update that important resolution.

In my book, one of my main conclusions is that we need end-game parameters for the parties and for more effective future negotiations. It’s only one of the conclusions of my book; there are a lot of conclusions to be drawn as well. But from the point of view of the international community, I think that is what has been lacking, and I hope that in the nearest future, there may be something like that. I don’t believe so much in just starting negotiations, under the present circumstances, and then expecting a different result.

UN News: The way things have been unfolding, what in your view has gone wrong? Why is the peace process not moving forward?

These are things I have just been proposing because of my great concern that the classical two-state solution, based on total separation, is now dead.

Robert Serry: Well, you cannot say that one thing has gone wrong. There are a number of factors that I discuss in my book, and in the conclusion, I come to seven main lessons learned. But in terms of the things that have gone wrong and which have deepened the so-called one-state reality that I talk about, that parties were going towards the dangers of a one-state reality… in terms of why is this happening, it’s very clear that on the Israeli side if they continue to build settlements – settlements, then, in a state, in a prospective other country – that will not work. That is an obstacle as the international community has been saying time and again. That’s a very clear reason why this one-state reality will only deepen if that continues.

But I should also add on the Palestinian side, that an aggravating factor, which also can deepen the one-state reality is their continued division. I’ve been very much involved in the UN also in trying to help the Palestinians in trying to achieve reconciliation based on the paramount principle of non-violence, a government that actually has authority over both the West Bank and Gaza and make sure that that paramount condition on their side is respected – non-violence as a basic condition for trying again negotiations. I just mentioned some of the reasons. There are other reasons discussed in the book.

UN News: Based on those factors, would you say that a two-state solution is still feasible given what is happening?

Robert Serry: In the book, I also have a chapter called: “If not two-states, what else?” Why am I actually having a chapter like that? I must tell you that I have also been struggling with what my main message should be in the present dire circumstances. Is it still possible to have a two-state solution, or are the many pundits now, growing number of pundits also in literature, declaring the two-state solution an illusion, declaring it dead. What should my position be now, having been involved in such a long time with the United Nations? In the end, I came to the conclusion not to declare the two-state solution dead. Because, dear friends, where then is the other solution? Where is the other horse to jump on? Is that the one-state solution? Is that really possible? A binational, democratic state comprised of Palestinians and Israelis? I think you probably need decades to get there in terms of the amount of distrust that exists now and which is need for such binational solutions. That’s why I think you do the people – both the Israelis and the Palestinians – an even bigger disservice by declaring the two-state solution now dead. But they have to realize it is 5 to midnight, or even too late.

I’m also talking about a more inclusive state solution – maybe in the Palestinian state, there remains an Israeli minority. These are things I have just been proposing because of my great concern that the classical two-state solution based on total separation is now dead.

UN News: I was going to ask about your suggestion that a one-state reality rather than a two-state solution is around the corner.

Robert Serry: Well, it is around the corner, and it’s there. I have been among the first warning the parties that this is what is happening right now. Since I left my office in Jerusalem, it has only deepened. But we have to think about the consequences of what we are saying. Does it mean that we then have to give up a two-state solution, also as an international community?

UN News: That’s the question one would ask. Maybe a two state solution makes sense, but the reality speaks to something different?

I should also add that on the Palestinian side, an aggravating factor – which can also deepen the one-state reality – is their continued division.

Robert Serry: Present day realities are clearly heading in a different direction. But I’ve been also thinking about what that direction in the end can bring us. I think it is an unsustainable direction. It is bound to lead to renewed conflict. I repeat myself now: we are doing both Israelis and Palestinians a disservice by starting to discard that option altogether.

UN News: Some people think the Kerry initiative was the closest this came to being a success. Wasn’t it?

Robert Serry: My chapter in the book is called “The Kerry Initiative: a last rolling of the dice?” So it was a crucial attempt where he also tried to define for the parties the so-called end- game parameters. Today I regret that Kerry wasn’t actually able to bring it to an end. Because that is what the parties need: to at least preserve the prospects for a two-state outcome in the future. I am personally not very optimistic about any negotiations in the future, given the state of affairs among Palestinians and among Israelis. [I am not optimistic] that it will lead to a different result.


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