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Whither Peace in the Middle East? Britain and US as major players have tangible nexus with Israel

An important dimension of the long-standing Palestine-Israeli conflict is the virtual dominance of the two major extra-regional players: Britain and the United States, and their existing nexus with Israel.

Periodic clashes between Palestinian and Israeli forces made headlines time and again. What came as an unprecedented and remarkable development on the Palestine-Israeli conflict is the United Nations (UN) General Assembly’s vote, on 28 November 2012, that provided Palestinian Authority with the status of a ‘non-UN member state’ or ‘Observer’ from its previous ‘entity’ status. The voting followed the fresh round of airstrikes by Israeli forces on Gaza City in mid-November this year. Although it was a much-anticipated move and is considered a landmark development, for it recognized the existence of Palestine, it was strongly rejected by the US and Israel including nine other states.

For more than six decades now, hostility, violence, instability and territorial conflicts characterize politics in the Middle East owing to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Palestine-Israeli conflict forms part of this multifaceted-Arab-Israeli conflict. Armed clashes and violent incidents between Palestinians and Israeli forces have claimed thousands of innocent lives and millions of lives have been battered during the last decades. Besides, the attempts towards reconciliation between and among conflicting parties and peace overtures were also marred by the renewed waves of violence. Resultantly, the efforts towards peace failed to lead to an amicable resolution of the dispute. An important dimension of the long-standing Palestine-Israeli conflict is the virtual dominance of the two major extra-regional players: Britain and the United States, and their existing nexus with Israel. Above all, the roots of the conflict lie in issues of political power, territorial claims, and representation of identities, nationalism and control over natural resources.

With changing international political scene, politics in the Middle East has also undergone unprecedented changes. The Palestine-Israeli conflict, in particular, took influences from shifts and turns in international politics as well as from the regional political developments. Five important aspects signify the changing nature of the Palestine-Israeli conflict and the prospects of an amicable solution to this intractable conflict: the role of extra-regional actors; new dimensions of power struggle among regional players – mainly Israel and Iran – the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO)-Hamas equation, leadership of the warring parties and the impact of socio-political uprisings, the Arab Spring and resultant political developments.

 Armed clashes and violent incidents between Palestinians and Israeli forces have claimed thousands of innocent lives and millions of lives have been battered during the last decades.

 After the declaration of the state of Israel, the first Arab-Israeli war was fought in 1948. The following decades witnessed sporadic violence and more intense wars, including the Suez Crisis 1956, the Six-Day War of 1967, Yom Kippur War of 1973, First Intifada (1987-1993) and Second Intifada (2000-2005). Although the Partition Plan for Palestine and Israel had been proposed by the UN in its Resolution 181, in 1947, the conflict over the territorial claims and the right to self-determination to Palestinian Arabs continued. Following the First Intifada (Palestinian uprising against the occupation of Palestinian territories by Israel), the first breakthrough effort towards peace between Palestine and Israel was made following the end of the Cold War.

The international diplomatic pressure mainly by the US led to the first-ever one-on-one meeting between Israel and the PLO, the leading group in the Intifada I that resulted in the Oslo accords. The accords signed in September 1993 in Washington D.C. were a framework for future course of relations between Israel and the PLO. The accords called for the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from parts of Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Ironically, they failed to yield the anticipated results.

The Oslo accords’ phase from 1993 to 2000 virtually changed the landscape of the battle. Despite the division of Palestinian territories, as set out in the negotiations, Israel exercised control over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip more than ever before. The fragmentation of the Palestinian areas into separate enclaves cut off from each other by walls of barbed wires and Israeli highways, which are patrolled by Israeli troops, the occupation of the land became more, not less effective. The Palestinians were again on the losing end and the Israeli forces were undeterred by any agreement.

Having defied the Oslo accords on many occasions, the continued atrocities by Israeli forces indicated the virtual collapse of the peace accords. Following the failure of the US-brokered trilateral Camp David peace summit between the leaders of Israel, Palestine and the US President, Palestinians began the Second Intifada with the same aims and strategy they had pursued in the First Intifada. In many ways, the experience of the Palestinian struggle is a testimony to the resilience of national liberation movements, as it is to the courage and creativity of ordinary Palestinian people. Moreover, ‘Hamas that grew in the space of less than a decade into an opposition to the PLO had launched successful military attacks against Israeli forces. The more successful Hamas was in its military operations, the more severe was the Israeli response. Yet the underlying reality of the Palestinians’ struggle is the huge inequality between the advanced military of Israel and the Palestinian stone throwers.

With the international community growing concerned over the deteriorating situation in the Middle East during the Second Intifada, the Quartet (UN, US, EU and Russia) proposed a rather comprehensive Roadmap for Peace in the Middle East in 2002. In order to defuse tension and facilitate an amicable solution to the Palestine-Israeli conflict, the peace plan by the Quartet called for two-state solution to the conflict and democratic reforms in the PNA. Israel strongly rejected the Quartet peace plan.

 An important dimension of the long-standing Palestine-Israeli conflict is the virtual dominance of the two major extra-regional players: Britain and the United States, and their existing nexus with Israel.
 Besides extra-regional states, some remarkable efforts were made by regional players as well. Although the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) have been dormant in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, some other states in the region have been found sincerely willing to facilitate peace with Israel. Egypt has been proactive in defusing tension and dissolving differences between Israel and Arab states. An unprecedented effort had been made by Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz when he put forward a peace plan in 2002, which was re-endorsed in 2007. The plan essentially advocated the guidelines of the UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, which also formed the basis of the Oslo accords. The proposal called for Israel’s withdrawal from lands occupied in 1967 and the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Some Arab analysts identified ‘two major motives of proposing this plan: one, the proposal attempted to vitiate the long-standing claim that Arab states have neither worked for peace initiatives nor desired peace with Israel. Second, the plan renewed international scrutiny of Israel’s motives. The plan meant to essentially question Israel that if it truly wanted peace, then why not to resort to the Oslo principles.

Another important effort towards peace between Palestine and Israel was the Geneva accords (2003). ‘Israeli opposition political leaders and Palestinian leaders announced an agreement in principle on conditions for a final settlement. Israel would give up sovereignty in Arab portions of Jerusalem, while the Palestinians would explicitly give up the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel. The agreement got widespread publicity, including support from the then US Secretary of State Colin Powell and a note of appreciation from the then PNA Chairman Yasser Arafat. The Israeli government, however, denounced the agreement and the people involved in it and tried to block advertisements for agreement in the media. Likewise, Palestinian extremists and their allies also denounced the agreement.

 Having defied the Oslo accords on many occasions, the continued atrocities by Israeli forces indicated the virtual collapse of the peace accords.
 The Palestinian struggle faced a setback when the Palestinian leader and the Chairman of the PNA, Yasser Arafat, died in 2004. The world then expected the US to take decisive initiatives to broker peace between Palestine and Israel. Instead, the continued US support to Israel was a testimony to the fact that the resolution of this decades-long conflict is considered a priority neither by Israel nor the US. Despite calls from the international community for peace in the Middle East, intensified clashes began when following the Battle of Gaza (between Hamas and Fatah fighters) Hamas took control of Gaza strip in 2007. Later on, the Egypt-Gaza border at the Rafah border crossing fell into the control of Egypt which helped Israel in blockade of the Gaza border. The blockade had severe economic consequences.

In May 2010, an aid convoy of six ships known as ‘Freedom Flotilla’ aiming at breaking through the Gaza blockade was attacked and seized by the Israeli naval forces. Nine passengers aboard became victim to the Israeli atrocities and lost their lives. Amid the mounting international pressure to ease the Gaza blockade, the Rafah border crossing was reopened partially.

Apart from the conventional elements of the Palestine-Israel conflict, a non-conventional development that has been equally influential in many ways is the Arab Spring. The Middle East has faced with a series of civil uprisings since 2010 which began from Tunisia and spread to a number of major states in the region including Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Jordan, and Morocco, forcing withdrawal of the governments and introducing socio-economic reforms. Since August 2012, Palestinians in the West Bank have staged a series of demonstrations protesting against the economic policies of the PNA and also called for the resignation of Palestinian prime minister. The Arab Spring has not only been a challenge for the governments that were faced with the uprisings but also for the entire world as the uprisings are inspiring the socially and economically underprivileged sections across the globe.

The US apparently has a dual task to deal with in the Middle East now. On the one hand, there are unresolved conflicts which Israel has with almost all the major states in the Middle East and, on the other hand, the superpower is finding it difficult to manage the course of its policies and actions in the wake of the Arab Spring. The US is largely hampered by the question of Iran that poses a direct challenge to the US policy measures in the Middle East, especially with reference to Israel. In view of the Iran-Israel equation growing intense, endorsing or calling for a two state solution for Palestine and Israel is a lesser policy option for the US.

The Arab Spring has strengthened the role of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the country has unequivocally played an influential role in the wake of recent Israeli attacks on Gaza City. Now with the far-reaching consequences of the Arab Spring in the region, for Palestine and Israel, in particular, any intense wave of such uprisings would be devastating and even a threat to their existence. Israel and its allies, particularly the US, are required to review their long-term policies in the region and would also be required to respect the UN rulings. The voting by 138 out of 193 states in favour of the de facto recognition of the Palestinian Authority and its status upgrade at the UN is a testimony that the world wants an end to the Israeli atrocities in the Middle East and an amicable solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict. For those states which voted in favour of Palestine, the move will lead to the resolution of the Palestine-Israeli conflict and would establish a lasting peace in the region. Peace, however, is yet to see the dawn in the Middle East.

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