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The Arab-Israeli Conflict: Moving Forward

Remarks by Gareth Evans, President, International Crisis Group, to Concluding Plenary Session, Madrid +15 Conference, Towards Peace in the Middle East: Addressing Concerns and Expectations, Madrid, 12 January 2007.

How can we now move forward, to capture and build on whatever momentum this conference has generated, following the two days of concentrated, frank and constructive debate we have witnessed between its Israeli, Arab, international, government and non-government participants? What in particular should be the role of the outside players - the major states, major intergovernmental organizations and major civil society actors - who are not immediate parties to the inter-related Israel-Palestine-Syria-Lebanon conflicts but have been generally acknowledged as having an important part to play in settling them?

Nobody can be under any illusion as to how difficult a task we face. On a personal note, I have to say, for what it’s worth, that in all the years I have been working on conflict prevention and resolution, both as Australia’s foreign minister and president of the International Crisis Group – from Cambodia in the 1980s to Darfur today – I have never seen any set of conflict issues on which there is such a huge and depressing gap between, on the one hand, the collective awareness of what needs to be done and, on the other hand, collective impotence when it comes to doing it.

There are reasons for that discrepancy, and all of them have been mentioned over the last two days: inherent flaws in the Madrid I and Oslo processes, with their focus on sequentialism, incrementalism and confidence building at the expense of the endgame; inadequate preparation – and time – when a more comprehensive (or ‘totalist’, as Terje Roed Larsen puts it) approach has been adopted, as by Barak in 2000); dysfunctional Palestinian – and, let’s be frank, Israeli - political systems; U.S. disengagement; European divisions; and insufficient, and inadequately sustained, Arab leadership.

We have learned in turn from that experience some pretty clear lessons, at least among those around this table, as to how any future peace process needs to be conducted. Four in particular have emerged rather clearly, if not in every case unanimously, from the discussion of the last two days:

  • Strong engagement in the peace process by the wider international community is necessary and unavoidable: for reasons including the lack of trust eloquently described by Dalia Rabin, the parties will find great difficulty in reaching any deal alone, without having what Shlomo Ben-Ami nicely called an ‘international escort’.
  • Peacemaking needs to be comprehensive. For most of us around this table, for example, it makes no sense at all to leave Syria aside, at a time when we have heard so clearly from its president, and delegation here, that it wants to resume negotiations without preconditions. Ten years ago, the U.S. and Israel would have dreamt of getting the Syrians so readily to the starting line; today, they are doing everything possible to hold them back.
  • Interim solutions, unless part of a phased implementation with the final as well as intermediate steps agreed, are a dangerous distraction, much more likely to destroy trust than to build it.
  • Action to revitalize the peace process is urgent. The passage of time, and more time, is not healing the problem but compounding the anger, not just in the immediate region but in the wider Arab-Islamic world. If we wait very much longer we risk another major explosion, and the evaporation of what so far has been extraordinarily resilient support for a two-state solution.

In moving things forward, we can distinguish five distinct roles for the outside players - to do no harm; help create optimal conditions for negotiations; assist in preparing the negotiation process; assist in the conduct of the negotiations themselves; and assist in the implementation of whatever is agreed in those negotiations. A few words on each:

I. Do No Harm. Always the first rule in any kind of crisis management, this means here, putting it very simply, that outside parties should do nothing that makes peacemaking more difficult. This may sound self-evident, but as often as not is honored in the breach, as again is the case today. The U.S. is actively hindering the resumption of Israeli-Syrian negotiation. And the U.S., along with many others, is actively hindering achievement of an inter-Palestinian consensus, doing more to incite internal conflict than to prevent it: if Hamas is groping for a way to square the circle on the issue of recognizing Israel (of which we have seen some further evidence with Meshaal’s statement this week – which Osama al-Baz emphasized in his contribution to our debate) then this is surely the time to be searching for common ground, not dismissing that possibility.

II. Help Create Optimal Conditions for Negotiations. That does not mean chasing illusory trust-building or confidence-building measures, of the kind which – as Shlomo again says – can hardly be conceived between occupier and occupied. But it does mean persuading both sides that a credible process can exist. To mention a few examples: the Arab League can better articulate (as Marwan Muasher did so well in our debate) and flesh out its peace initiative to convince the Israeli people that it is real, and meaningful; Israel can be encouraged to publicly endorse a vision of peace based specifically on that Arab initiative; and the Syrians can be encouraged to find ways to reach out to the Israeli public, to make it politically easier for the Israeli government to move.

Creating the optimal conditions for negotiations also means doing everything we can in the wider world of international public opinion to create an environment in support of both the urgency of conflict resolution action, and a wider understanding that successful outcomes are possible if such action is seriously undertaken.

III. Assist in Preparing for Negotiations. The critical need here is to set up a credible negotiating process, and this is an issue to which a lot of detailed attention needs to be devoted over the next few weeks and months. We’ve heard different ideas here, and there’s a wide menu of options from which to choose:

  • Amre Moussa spoke of an international conference under the auspices of the UN role; others have called for a Madrid II; and there are other ideas (on which we are, I understand, to hear more from Gabrielle Rifkind of the Oxford Research Group and Sundeep Waslekar of the Strategic Foresight Group) about creating some semi-permanent conference structure with significant input from non-government experts.
  • Others have spoken of a re-energized Quartet playing the key role in initiating any new negotiating process, with many focusing on the EU playing a more creative and adventurous role in this context. One can be wholeheartedly supportive, as I am, of the Europeans doing just that, but at the same time also sceptical – as I’m afraid I continue to be – that a really united and effective front will ever be achievable within the necessary time frame.
  • Others have emphasized the need for the Quartet to be either formally expanded to include Arab members, or at least – and this may be more realistic – much more actively and visibly committed to consulting with the key Arab players, and creating common positions, for example, with the Arab League Initiative being brought from the wings to centre stage.

For my part, I am in principle attracted to the idea of an inclusive international conference – not just as a way of bringing threads together and getting support commitments at the end of process, but as a way of jumpstarting that process and mobilizing energies (rather in the way that this Madrid + 15 Conference has hopefully begun to do). But there’s one important qualificatgion. We should avoid at all costs a process that will take more time setting up than it is worth. If an international conference would entail months of negotiating its terms of reference and participants, then let’s forget it. We don’t have that luxury.

IV. Assist in the Conduct of the Negotiations. One of the ways that could happen would be for the international community (perhaps though the Quartet) putting on the table at the outset its own ideas, fleshing out the Clinton Parameters, Arab League Initiative, and drawing on the Geneva Accord proposals, so as to concentrate everyone’s mind on the need for both a comprehensive and endgame-first approach. Whatever else they do, the outside players should develop and support a mechanism which avoids indefinite, open-ended negotiations, and stand constantly ready to help work around negotiating roadblocks as they inevitably develop.

V. Assist in Implementing Agreements Once Reached. For outside players, that means above all providing the necessary economic, military, and political support – as the UN and Europeans have done very helpfully so far in Lebanon - to ensure that agreements once reached don’t fall apart.

The most useful thing that can come out of this conference, in my view, would be for us –each in our own capacity, official or non-official - to help achieve these five objectives, in particular, and most urgently, the second and third of them: help create the optimal conditions for negotiations, and assist in preparing the negotiation process.

For our own part, at the International Crisis Group, we have already made a start, by launching last October a Middle East Initiative whose objective has been precisely to create, as best we could, the conditions for rapid, credible and comprehensive peace negotiations. In addition to our normal role of producing a continuing flow of reports and briefing papers, this initiative involves several components:

  • A global advocacy campaign, designed to create a climate of opinion supportive of urgent and ambitious action to achieve a comprehensive Middle East settlement. We began in this respect by persuading 135 eminent personalities – former presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers, many of whom have attended this conference – to sign a statement that was published on 4 October 2006 in several major international newspapers, and received quite a degree of international press attention.
  • A U.S.-directed effort, aimed at trying to get the Bush administration to alter what, up until now, have been extremely damaging policies toward the peace process; to that end, we have been working, so far behind the scenes, with a bipartisan group of prominent Republicans and Democrats. So far this has not borne visible fruit, but we live in hope.
  • An effort that is directed at other Quartet and non-Quartet members, notably the UN, EU, and Arab League (applying an insight that Nabil Shaath and Sam Lewis have offered here – namely that the rest of us cannot afford to wait for the U.S. to wake up). Other parties need to take the lead in the interim: the Arab League can flesh out its proposals; the EU and UN can send a clear message that however the Palestinian choose to resolve their internal problem, they will be prepared to engage with the PA and lift the siege. Of course, we are not naïve enough to believe that anything can be ultimately concluded without U.S. involvement – but we are convinced that other parties can act in ways that will make it both easier for the U.S. to reengage, and harder for it to stay out.
  • Finally, we are preparing a series of substantial visits to the region over the next few months to test and explore and advocate these various ideas, by a group led by our two co-chairs, Chris Patten and Tom Pickering, our Middle East Program Director Rob Malley and me, and involve a shifting additional cast of Crisis Group Board member, some of whom again have been attending this conference.

This Crisis Group initiative was commenced before this conference, but we claim no monopoly of either ideas or energy, and stand absolutely ready to work with others interested in advancing the themes which have come out of this conference.

The most useful follow-on exercise would appear to be for the initiators of this conference to establish, as Sam Lewis as suggested, a small steering group – involving some or all of the sponsoring governments and organizations, together with representatives of the parties to the conflict and the broader region - to explore what kind of process would now be most productive, and to try to set that process in train.

We need to think and act quickly to see whether we can integrate our efforts in this way. This conference has achieved something extremely valuable: it has created a moment. And it’s our collective responsibility not to succumb to our usual dispirited collective impotence, but to seize that moment and take it forward.