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Unlocking the stalemate

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The struggle of returning to peace negotiations between Israeli and Palestine.


Text Alexandra Senfft, author and publicist

“You’re investigating who might restart the Middle East peace process? It’s going to be a short article!” says Gershon Baskin and laughs. For decades, the 65-year-old has been one of the important grassroots Israeli actors trying to reach an understanding with the Palestinians. In 1988 he founded IPCRI, the Israeli- Palestinian Center for Research and Information. Today, Baskin is co-director of Holy Land Bond, a fund that invests in Palestinian housing projects in East Jerusalem and in integrated Jewish-Palestinian housing projects in Israel. The passionate mediator, who describes himself as a social and political entrepreneur, has mediated several times between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip and remains a tireless advocate of the twostate solution. He makes this clear again and again in his weekly column for the Jerusalem Post.

At the moment, however, Baskin sees no signs that renewed peace negotiations are even being considered, because Benjamin Netanyahu’s government pushed the issue off the political map; Naftali Bennett’s new government attaches no importance to this either. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, with his Yesh Atid party, advocates the twostate solution, but takes no steps. On the contrary, Baskin knows that he has forbidden his party comrades from holding talks with Palestinians. Meanwhile, left-liberal parties and the “Joint List” are fighting more for their own survival. “Israel’s former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin and Gadi Eizenkot, until 2019 chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, have publicly identified conflict resolution as the number one priority,” says Baskin, “and they are right about that. But no one wants to promote that in politics.”

After four parliamentary elections in just two years, the Israelis replaced Netanyahu as prime minister in March 2021. Bennett’s governing coalition, fragile from the start, has wavered significantly since losing its majority in April 2022. In this ongoing crisis, nobody is talking about the two or one-state solution, especially since there is currently little interest on the part of the EU or the USA and only minimal pressure is being exerted. For Baskin, the slogan of “two states for two peoples,” which some Israeli politicians and foreign diplomats continue “to parrot” (Baskin), seems like a mantra no one seriously believes in. For years there has been a status quo: the administration of the occupied Palestinian territories and the blockade of the Gaza Strip. Violence flares up again and again, as it does every year around Passover and Ramadan at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, up to and including war between Israel and Hamas, with devastating consequences, especially for the encircled civilian population in the Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, the living conditions of the Palestinians continue to deteriorate. As early as 2015, the United Nations warned that the Gaza Strip would soon be uninhabitable. In the West Bank, the economic situation is also precarious, and all development is stagnating.

Twenty-nine years ago, Israel and the PLO signed the Oslo Accords, which initially nurtured hopes for peace and a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The Palestinian Authority (PA) was created, which has since administered the zoned West Bank jointly with Israel. By 1999, the remaining outstanding issues such as the Jewish settlements, the future of the Palestinian refugees, the status of Jerusalem, the final borders and water resources would be negotiated. But none of this happened. Instead, Israel created a barrier to the West Bank, now more than 700 kilometers long, and pushed ahead with building settlements on Palestinian land. The creeping annexation of the Palestinian territories unofficially proceeds in this way. Palestinian acts of terrorism, for their part, helped fuel mutual distrust. In 2000, negotiations at Camp David under Clinton’s US administration collapsed and the second intifada broke out. The negotiators did not get any further in Taba in 2001, either. All other plans such as the Arab Peace Initiative, the Road Map or the Geneva Initiative came to nothing. The opposing sides last met across the negotiating table in 2009.

US President Donald Trump finally presented his “Deal of the Century” called “Peace to Prosperity” in 2019, in which the Palestinians were no longer involved at all. Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, had ended ties with the United States in 2017 after Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The US Embassy was relocated from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The US administration also froze funds for the PA and the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees UNRWA. Emboldened by this bias towards Israel, Netanyahu threatened to annex parts of the West Bank in 2020. At the same time, the Abraham Accords came about — agreements between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which aim to normalize relations between Israel and the Arab world.

All of this increasingly weakened the Palestinian position, not to mention the geographic and political separation between the West Bank and Gaza, which is also a consequence of the Oslo Accords. In addition, the Palestinians are politically paralyzed. President Abbas is now old and rules the self- governing authorities despotically. His mandate expired in 2009 and the PA and PLO have continued to lose their democratic legitimacy since 2006. The PLO, once representative of all Palestinians, including those in the diaspora, has become irrelevant. The PA repressed oppositional Palestinian parties, institutions, unions and popular committees, which were also supplanted by the growing number of internationally sponsored NGOs. This led to depoliticization and a representation vacuum.

In 2021, the presidential and parliamentary elections longed for by over 80 percent of all Palestinians were supposed to finally take place. But Abbas again postponed elections indefinitely — critics say he knew he didn’t have the public support and he would have lost. Officially, Hussein el-Sheikh, a senior member of the PA and the PLO Secretary- General since February 2022, is considered a potential successor to Abbas. Majed Faraj, head of the Palestinian secret service, is also an influential actor. However, most Palestinians do not stand behind them, because the PA is now only perceived as Israel’s corrupt subcontractor and has lost its credibility.

“Anyone who doesn’t respect the rights of the population hardly has the legitimacy to negotiate with Israel on our behalf,” says Samer Sinijlawi, head of the Jerusalem Development Fund. The 49-year-old is a member of Fatah’s shadow leadership and is pushing for reforms — towards more transparency and legitimate political representation including younger and more female politicians. The discourse has shifted, says Sinijlawi, a Palestinian state is no longer at the top of the list of priorities, but a change in leadership: “Because the current government is blocking any developments in this direction.” In his view, the PA should not have boycotted the Abraham Accords. Instead, it should have used them to break out of international isolation and make demands on Israel to get the parties back to the negotiating table.

His goal and that of many like-minded people is to revitalize Fatah politically and actively bring politicians like Mohammed Dahlan, Jibril Rajoub, Nasser al-Qudwa, Salam Fayyad and especially Marwan Barghouti back into the political process from which they were expelled/ driven into exile, with the exception of Barghouti, who has been in Israeli custody for 20 years. He is considered the most promising candidate for the presidency and trusted to bring the Palestinians back to a confident and united stance — with Hamas on board — and persuade them to resume peace negotiations.

Dalal Erekat is the daughter of Saeb Erekat, who was the secretary general of the executive committee of the PLO and chief Palestinian negotiator until his death in 2020. She is assistant professor in diplomacy and conflict resolution at the Arab American University in Jenin/Ramallah in the Westbank. Erekat is deeply concerned with the ongoing unchecked violence of settlers against Palestinians. She considers this a serious potential danger to the whole region. “Palestinians resist and are steadfast in the face of such aggression, however, they are extremely frustrated with the situation which could any time explode internally or externally,” she explains.

Erekat suggests a shift in thinking from a micro to a macrolevel: “As a prerequisite for resuming negotiations the borders of Israel should at last be defined; at the same time the occupation should be ended and the State of Palestine recognized.” She relates the fact that the international community helps maintain the status quo to its fear that Hamas could win any future elections — although analysis has shown that this would not be the case if free elections and plurality were guaranteed. ”The continued silence of the international community is contrary to the values that it is advocating and against its legal and ethical obligations. Where it comes to Palestinian rights, double standards and lip service have become the norm.”

This region is particularly threatened by the climate catastrophe, we are all in the same boat and can only survive if we work together.

Gershon Baskin and Samer Sinijlawi, both agree that the EU should not continue to support the PA to the same extent because it is thereby financing the occupation and the status quo. The two-state solution, so they reason, only makes sense if Palestinian elections finally take place and the state of Palestine is recognized internationally, not least by Germany. It must be made clear to the PA that this recognition is linked to free elections. The two men are not the only ones who have visions and proposals for the future and practice coexistence. Despite the fact that many Palestinians avoid contact with Israelis in order not to encourage the normalization of the occupation, there are countless joint projects at grassroots level, many of them carried out by women.

Young Palestinians and Israelis in particular are breaking new ground. They are countering the deadlock at the official level with a flood of extra-parliamentary activities. The focus here is on solidarity, education and demilitarization and, above all, on “unlearning” ideologies and enemy images. The actors take the concerns of the other side seriously and perceive them as equal. “True peace means that you recognize how the other is different from you, not how the other is the same as you are” said Israeli psychologist and mediator Dan Bar-On. Meanwhile, there is little exchange between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary politics. ECOPEACE, a Palestinian-Israeli-Jordanian environmental NGO, still mediates between the two levels and is often criticized for this. In November 2021 Israel and Jordan signed the largest ever cooperation agreement which was first proposed and developed by ECOPEACE under the umbrella of its regional project Green Blue Deal. According to the agreement Jordan will supply electricity generated from solar power to Israel in exchange for water from an Israeli desalination plant to Jordan. The Green Blue Deal entails rehabilitating the shrinking Jordan River shared by all three countries. The NGO is also promoting public awareness and education particularly directed towards Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian youth. One of the main aims is to build regional trust through environmental issues that create mutual interdependencies. Palestinian Director Nada Majdalani is convinced: “Through joint water and energy security projects, we can bring it home to the people in this region which is particularly threatened by the climate catastrophe that we are all in the same boat and can only survive if we work together.”

Alexandra Senfft

after reading Middle Eastern Studies, she worked as an independent Middle East consultant for a parliamentary group in the German Bundestag and later as a UNRWA observer in the West Bank to then become the UNRWA spokes woman in the Gaza Strip. Senfft has been a contributor for international newspapers since 1991. She has worked on the Körber Foundation’s dialogue training program in Israel “Storytelling in Conflict”. Senfft promotes the importance of the biographical approach to conflict resolution. She is the second chair of the Study Group on Intergenerational Consequences of the Holocaust.