This is the first part of a two part interview. To read more see part 2 of this interview.
The grounds are cooled in the dying winds of winter as they sweep over the hills surrounding Jerusalem. I wait at the front gate, checking my notes a final time before being led into a late British colonial complex, the former houses of the British Governor in Palestine and the current lodgings for the United Nations Treaty Supervision Office (UNTSO). The organization was established in 1949 and has remained in the region since. Its mandate is to “monitor ceasefires, supervise armistice agreements, prevent isolated incidents from escalating, and assist other United Nations peacekeeping operations in the region.”
The Office of United Nations Special Coordinator was established after the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords to strengthen interagency cooperation and boost UN development assistance in support of the peace process. It makes up one part of what is known as the Middle East Quartet composed of the UN, EU, US and Russian Federation. Its function since then has been to act as overseer of the peace process operations for various UN departments; efforts that it has seen frustrated through numerous start-and-stop attempts at an agreement, a Second Intifada, the Hamas takeover of Gaza, and three subsequent wars between Israel and Hamas.
The building is bustling with staffers, as it is a week of transition. The Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Robert Serry, has recently ended his tenure. It’s a wonder that Deputy Coordinator James W. Rawley, who has been acting Coordinator during the transition period, has time to see me at all. Mr. Rawley, who has since left his post, has served alongside Mr. Serry for the better part of seven years. He has seen three wars in the region as well as yet another failed attempt at an agreement, this time by the Obama administration last spring. As the organization transitions to new oversight, reconstruction in Gaza has proceeded in a peace-meal fashion. The UN speaks of providing its own peace framework, while the Palestinian Authority is seeking to try Israeli soldiers at the International Criminal Court.
In Serry’s Statement at the UN, he said, “I don’t know whether it is already too late for a two state solution as a viable option.” Is it?
Well, I think I would say the same thing as my boss said. I think that many of us that have been here for some time think that time has been running out. If you had a chance to read that statement you’d see a rather staggering figure. There are no less than 551,000 settlers. Something that began a few decades ago with a few thousand has grown to over half a million. And it’s not just the number of the settlers; it’s where they’re located. And while we’re concerned about the expansion of settlements anywhere, we’re particularly concerned about the expansion of settlements that are between Jerusalem and Jericho. The reason being, that if that expansion continues, we might bifurcate the West Bank in two. That would not only, from just a logical point of view, undermine a viable West Bank portion of a Palestinian state, but it torpedoes the concept of ‘contiguous’. It can’t just be any old Palestinian state, but a viable Palestinian state that includes a contiguous Palestinian state. Bifurcating the West Bank, although we can imagine the ingenious engineering in the way of tunnels and such, really puts a torpedo in the side of a two state solution. I think accompanying the expansion of settlements, and the settler violence associated with that, is the fact that, with each new settlement, the hope that Palestinians have for a two state solution is further reduced. So time is definitely not on our side.
And I believe that in the last few of years, the number of settlers has gone up by about 16%.
Right. This far exceeds natural growth rate by the way. It’s important. So what that underscores is that the Israeli policies continue to encourage people to move to settlements, because the economics of it are good for many Israelis. They’re not all religious ideologues.
Does that represent a failure of the international community to put adequate pressure?
Well, at the end of the day, a peace agreement is primarily the responsibility of the parties, the Israelis and the Palestinians. However, I would say it’s a rather asymmetric relationship. The international community is very interested in a two state solution for two primary reasons. One: justice, the sense that the Palestinians have suffered an injustice by not having a state up until this point. In fact Mr. Serry has said in his statement that this is the longest ongoing occupation in modern history, which is something that at this particular time in history is an affront to the international community.
The second reason is that we continue to believe that a settlement of this conflict will have beneficial consequences for the region. That does not mean that settling this conflict will result in peace breaking out, or the dissolution of ISIS, al Qaeda, etc. but it will certainly undercut the appeal of these militant groups. A settlement of this conflict can only have positive benefits for the region at large.
If the two sides can’t reach a framework, will the UN push through a framework of its own? Given Israeli attitudes and apprehension about the UN itself, how could pushing through such a measure have any positive effect if one side or both feel that it’s being dictated to them?
Well, I think it’s important to say that the ones who craft a new Security Council resolution would be the member states, not the UN itself. Having said that, a new security resolution in and of itself cannot bring the two parties together and result in an agreement, but it can contribute to defining the parameters that the international community believes are very important to guide the negotiations so that the negotiations are more fruitful then they have been. I think the international community has accepted the idea, for example, of the borders based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps. So, by imbedding this in a resolution of the Security Council, the hope is that this would give impetus for the parties to go back to the negotiating table and have a more structured framework for conducting those negotiations.
It would be based on previous Security Council resolutions, very much based on the Arab Peace Initiative (API), which is very important. By basing it on the API, we would be bringing in Arab and other Muslim countries that are party to the API. And I think that perhaps now there is a feeling that the time has come to expand the universe a bit more and bring in key actors and the API itself. As you know the API offers Israel the opportunity to normalize relations not only with the Arab states, but also with the Muslim world in general. So, it’s a fantastic opportunity and to avoid the opposite of that, further isolation in the international community.