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Israel and Palestine: Buying a Ticket for Peace

Address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC to the Australian Friends of Palestine Association (AFOPA) Annual Dinner, Adelaide, 1 November 2012

All the signs are that within the next few weeks the Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, will go back to the United Nations General Assembly seeking support for a resolution recognizing Palestinian statehood. The ultimate objective is of course full UN membership, but – facing inevitable veto of that option by the United States in the Security Council – there is a willingness to accept, as a fall-back, a majority vote by the General Assembly recognizing Palestine as a non-member “observer state”, the status now enjoyed by the Vatican.

When the resolution is put the only uncertainty about the outcome will be the size of the affirmative majority. Despite intense lobbying by the U.S. against the resolution, aimed particularly at European countries, on the latest estimates I have seen of how the 193 member states will vote, expectations are that there will be around 115 Yes votes, just over 20 No votes, and between 50 and 60 abstentions.

When the prospect of a UN resolution was first raised by the Palestinians in September last year I argued publicly that to resist the tide of international sentiment now in favour of recognizing Palestinian statehood is to be on the wrong side of history.  And that argument is no less strong today. 

But so far as Australia’s vote is concerned, all the signs at the moment are, unhappily, that we will be on just that wrong side of history – firmly lining up in the ‘No’ camp, and not even being willing to abstain, as close friends and allies like the UK and New Zealand are likely to do. This would follow the position we took when a similar resolution came before UNESCO in November last year. The issue has been hotly debated within the government over the last year, but it is one on which the Prime Minister has very strong views, and her views have so far prevailed.

The explanation offered last November was that ''We voted against the resolution because it is premature for a subsidiary body of the United Nations (such as UNESCO) to consider this matter while it is still being considered by the United Nations Security Council''. That helped us get through our campaign for a seat on the Security Council, and avoid the backlash that might otherwise have been expected in the Arab and Islamic world. But that fig-leaf is no longer available now.

There are many reasons based simply on natural justice and natural human decency as to why the Palestinians’ desire for independent statehood should be recognized – not least that the righting of the monstrous wrong done to the Jewish people in the Holocaust, which was at least partly accomplished by the creation of Israel in 1948, should never be seen as justifying a grievous wrong being done to the Palestinian people who themselves bore no responsibility whatever for the Nazi crimes. This was, as I recall it, the theme at the heart of Maxime Rodinson’s pathbreaking book Israel and the Arabs – a Penguin Special widely read in the late 1960s – which moved me, and a lot of my generation, to become more understanding and supportive of the Palestinian position than we had previously been.

But what I want to emphasise, as I have tried to do in every forum on which I have ever spoken on the Arab-Israeli issue, is that I strongly believe that a just resolution of the Palestinian issue is wholly in Israel’s own interests. In continuing to drag its heels on everything that would advance such a resolution, including the current proposed resolution, Israel and those who support it is not only standing against the tide of history, but acting against its own founding ideals, and creating a mass of problems for its own longer term security and well-being.


The intention of the UN in 1947, which was defensible in the circumstances of the time but never likely to win easy Arab support, was to accommodate both Jewish and Palestinian  nationalist aspirations by creating Jewish and Arab states side by side, with new sovereign boundaries but no one physically dispossessed and full citizenship rights for the minorities that would be left in each new state. That fell apart with the terrible war of 1948 and the conflict which continued through the intervening years to erupt again in 1967.

But after the 1967 war a solid foundation for a new start, on the basis of land for peace, was laid down in UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338, calling for Israel to withdraw from the territories it had occupied, and for both sides to recognise each other’s “right to live in peace within secure and recognised boundaries free from threats or acts of force”.  The tragedy of all the years since 1967 is that it has proved simply impossible to deliver on that deal.

I moved from being a concerned but distant spectator of these events to having something of a ringside seat, first as Foreign Minister from 1988 to 1996, and then after I left government and parliament to head the International Crisis Group from 2000 to 2009, where I was very closely involved in a number of non-governmental efforts to break the impasse.

The most substantial contribution of Crisis Group was the work we did, in our published reports and behind the scenes, to help craft the Palestinian and Israeli civil society-negotiated Geneva Accord of 2003, which as Kofi Annan has written in his just-published memoir, Interventions, is “a document which proves beyond all shadow of a doubt, that an agreement is eminently achievable between sensible people of goodwill on both sides”. The Accord shows, as he put it, that:

Jerusalem can be shared, sensibly, as a capital of two cities. It is entirely possible to draw a border that allows most of the Israeli settlers to stay and gives the Palestinians a contiguous and viable state that has the same territory as that occupied in 1967. Security arrangements can be found acceptable to both, dealing with threats old and new. Even the highly sensitive refugee question can be solved in a way that acknowledges their rights and suffering – including their right of return – but ensures implementation in a way that does not undermine the two-state idea itself. The conflict can be ended and two states for two peoples can exist side by side in peace.

As Foreign Minister, the most memorable single meeting I had was with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Tel Aviv, shortly before assassination by a right wing Jewish extremist in November 1995. I was arguing the case for rapid implementation – all the way through to negotiated acceptance of Palestinian statehood – of the Oslo peace accords which had been signed with great fanfare two years earlier and which were then seen (for all the faults that subsequently became apparent)  as a highly constructive way forward.   I concluded my pitch by saying, with perhaps a little more cheek than was appropriate for the occasion, “But of course I’m preaching to the converted.”   Rabin’s response is etched in my memory. He paused for a moment, then said with a little half-smile: “To the committed, not the converted.”

The point was that for all his deep emotional attachment to the idea of an Israel embracing all of historical Judea and Samaria, from which he would never be converted, Rabin knew that the only way he could achieve a democratic Jewish state secure behind viable borders was by being committed to accepting a Palestinian state alongside it, feeling equally secure and viable, sharing Jerusalem as a capital, and with a mutually acceptable solution being found for the enormously sensitive issue, for both sides, of Palestinian refugee return.

Had Rabin stayed alive, I believe the promise of the Geneva Accord would have quite soon become a reality. His murder was a catastrophe from which the peace process has never recovered. No Israeli leader since Rabin has shown anything like his far-sighted vision, commitment and capacity to deliver a negotiated two state solution.  Ehud Barak at Camp David in 2000 and Ehud Olmert in 2008 came close to recognizing and delivering on what needed to be done, but not close enough. And since then Bibi Netanyahu has lived down to every expectation of his statesmanship. Over and again the story has been, as Tom Friedman described it in the brilliant book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, that made his namein the mid 1990s: When we are weak, how can we compromise? When we are strong, why should we compromise?

I am not saying that the Palestinian political leadership bears no responsibility for the failures that have occurred. There were a number of indefensible resorts to terrorist violence, and some terrible errors of judgment along the way. Kofi Annan is unsparing in his book in his description of them, but as he also says of Yasser Arafat: “ he was the leader who had brought his people to accept the idea of a two-state solution, relinquishing their claim to 78 per cent of mandate Palestine, and had signed the Oslo Accords, which recognised Israel”. And he rightly does not attribute the collapse of the Camp David talks to Arafat alone: as Crisis Group’s Rob Malley, who had sat alongside Clinton at Camp David, thas shown in his detailed account of the negotiations in the New York Review of Books, there was ample blame to share round, with Barak, Arafat and Clinton all being cloth-eared on particular issues. The truth is that the Camp David talks, and Taba talks shortly afterward, came as close as the process has ever come to delivering a result, and would probably have succeeded if Clinton could have stayed in office three or months longer.

Without trying to track over every twist and turn of the peace process – or purported peace process – of the last twenty years, there are from my observations at least three big lessons which should by now should be supremely obvious to policymakers, but which most of them still don't seem to have learned.

The first is to never lose sight of the main objectives: to think not just tactically, but strategically.When policymakers think and talk about the objectives they are pursuing, it invariably seems to come down to having this or that language in a Quartet communiqué or UN Security Council resolution; ensuring this or that mandate for this or that envoy; having this or that individual or group as a negotiating partner; or achieving this or that confidence building measure, or step on some roadmap or other.

It’s all too easy in all of this to forget what is the real point of the whole enterprise. The only objective that should matter is a comprehensive solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict – which has at its heart a two-state solution in which Israelis can live in safety behind secure and recognized borders, at peace with Palestinians and all their neighbours, and in which Palestinians have a recognized, viable state of their own, with its capital in East Jerusalem, borders based on those of 1967 and a just resolution of the refugee issue.

Looking back, it is extraordinarily depressing to recall how the tactics of the moment have led the key players to miss the main game, for example:

  • the failure to recognize the huge historic significance of the Saudi Arabian-sponsored Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, which reversed the Arab League’s previous “three No’s” (to peace deals, recognitions and diplomatic negotiations) and promised full normalization of relations  in exchange for a return of the 1967 territories and a “just and agreed solution” for the refugees on the basis of the UNGA Resolution 194 of 1948. Palestine’s Arab neighbours have been far from consistent, constructive and sympathetic supporters of the Palestinian cause over the years, but there is no question that this Initiative was, and remains, of huge significance;
  • the failure to support Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) in 2005, after he had won in a landslide, was the uncontested leader of all Palestinians, and in a position to sell difficult compromises; and
  • the recurring failure to learn the key lesson of Oslo, that incremental and sequential solutions will never work, condemning everyone to be prisoners of the last extremist on either side: that there simply has to be an endgame-first approach, working back from first-agreed parameters.

The second lesson is not to apply double standards: to be consistent.I think most policymakers would, if pressed, accept that there has been a regular pattern in the West of setting the bar higher for the Palestinians than the Israelis. There have always been justifications of one kind or another for this: lots of unwise, dangerous or counterproductive language has been uttered, or behaviour engaged in, over the years by those on the Palestinian/Arab/Islamic side of this debate. But we should stop and give some serious thought to some of the things which, for better or worse, have unquestionably played into the hands of extremists over the years. For example:

  • the complete unthinkability of nuclear weapons being in the hands of anyone in the region – except Israel;
  • the extended tolerance of the West for Israeli settlement building, in manifest breach not only of international law but of multiple agreements or agreed strategies, including those built on parallel rather than sequential steps;
  • the demands made on Palestinian administrators for self-restraint in the face of perceived provocation, self-discipline in the maintenance of ceasefires and the enforcement of security standards, as compared with those made upon Israelis;
  • the tolerance for Palestinian civilian casualties - as inevitable ‘collateral damage’ - when security breaks down, at much higher levels than on the other side, as for example in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008; and
  • most egregiously of all,  the disavowal of Hamas after its free and fair win in Gaza in 2006 of an  election that the West had enthusiastically supported on the assumption that it would lose.  A Crisis Group report shortly after that election argued strongly that the international community needed to recognise the reality of Hamas, focus on engaging with it and encouraging it to govern responsibly, not to force it out of government or make the government unworkable by imposing conditions that nobody believed could be immediately met. We summarised the Hamas response as we found it to be ‘let us govern or watch us fight’. Events since then have done nothing but reinforce the accuracy of that assessment.  

The third lesson is that those with leverage should use it.With the U.S., for domestic political reasons, consistently failing on this front – with only the Bush Senior/James Baker administration a partial exception – the pressure has been on other members of the Quartet group to deliver. But it is not for nothing that this is widely referred to in the Arab world as the Quartet sans trois – the Quartet minus three. The UN has never had much clout, despite the enormous personal efforts of Kofi Annan in particular; nor has, perhaps more surprisingly, Russia.  But one of the most consistently depressing features of the whole peace process over the last decade and more has been the failure of the EU to punch at its weight, given the leverage its aid programs and political presence should have had. Despite the high hopes held out for Tony Blair as special envoy in recent years, his contributions can reasonably be described as having been about as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike.


So we are now where we are. With negotiations at an impasse, settlement building continuing unabated, no end in sight to the never-ending humiliation of occupation, and all other forms of leverage evidently exhausted, the Palestinians are going to the UN to seek recognition in some form of their statehood.

Abu Mazen and his colleagues know perfectly well that UN recognition by itself will not deliver an end to occupation and the full realization of their statehood dream. Only negotiated agreement on all the critical outstanding issues – boundary definition, Jerusalem, security guarantees for Israel, and refugees – can do that. But they have pursued and persisted with this course in the face of a fierce campaign to dissuade them – including threats of sanctions by Israel and cut-off of financial support to the Palestinian Authority by the US Congress – because of a wholly understandable lack of confidence that anything will move without some new circuit breaker.

It is not obvious that there are any real downsides to this from Israel’s point of view, despite the strenuous claims to that effect that continue to be made in Tel Aviv in Washington. Two main arguments have been made. The first is that recognition of Palestine as a state, even in the limited form proposed, will give it the standing it probably lacks at the moment to seek prosecutions in the International Criminal Court for alleged violations of international law. But even if this is right, it is difficult to see why that should be accepted by Israel and its friends as a knockout argument. The ICC is not a kangaroo court, and allegations without substance can be expected to be treated accordingly.

The second is the claim that it this will put more wind in Hamas’s sails. Recognition as a state will not in itself change the situation with respect to Hamas, which has already well entrenched itself in Gaza and whose position has been reinforced in recent days by major new financial support from Qatar. Of course its present comprehensive ideological hostility is a complicating factor, although having spoken to its leader Khaled Meshaal, as I have for many hours on a visit to Damascus as Crisis Group President, I am not at all persuaded that it is impossible to imagine it ever accepting in practice a two-state solution. I believe that Israel and the West would be compounding the grievous mistake made in not recognizing the legitimacy of its election win in Gaza if it refused to accept any Palestinian state in whose governance Hamas played some part, and did not keep the door open to dialogue with it.

The more positive argument – as Yitzakh Rabin would certainly have understood – is simply that it is overwhelmingly in Israel’s own interests to defuse the Palestinian statehood issue, to accept that this is an indispensable requirement of Israel’s own long term peace and security, to acknowledge that need has become more urgent than ever with the new power realities in its neighbourhood following the Arab Spring, and to treat the UN vote as an opportunity for a new start to negotiations rather than excuse for renewed confrontation.

If friends of Palestine really want to be helpful in finally realising the dream of a genuinely independent and viable Palestinian state, I think it is very important to cast the arguments in a way which recognises and accepts that Israel, for all the unacceptability of so much of its behaviour, does have legitimate interests which it is entitled to defend; that it does also have psychological needs, born of the terrible history of the Jewish people, which must be understood and somehow recognised if progress is to be made; and also that Israelis are presently feeling a little more insecure now than they have for a long time in the context of the Arab Spring, with Islamists of one kind or another having a bigger role in government in a number or key regional countries, and the steady progress of Iran toward nuclear weapon capability, if not necessarily actual weapon manufacture).

Israel also has innumerable supporters in high political places near and far around the world, whose knowledge of the issues on the ground might be superficial in the extreme, but who are only ever going to be persuaded to help seriously advance a peace process if they are persuaded that it this will not prejudice any vital Israeli interest.
For all the frustration generated by inaction for so long, and for all that some friends of Palestine will find this unpalatable, I strongly believe and urge you to accept that just as physical violence has proved both totally unproductive, and indeed counterproductive, so too is head on political assault of the kind involved in the Zionism as Racism resolution in the UN, and the current sporadic campaign to boycott Israeli-connected businesses. I don't for a moment suggest that the routine characterization of any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic is in any way defensible – only that directly confrontational strategies, as distinct from peaceful, reasoned argument, just won’t work in this context, and never will.

Of course you may say that peaceful reasoned argument has not so far itself proved to be very successful. But, after watching the early days of the Arab Spring, and coming as I just have from a week in Eastern Europe, celebrating the life and work of Vaclav Havel and the peaceful revolutions in Czechoslovakia, Hungary and East Germany that worked fundamental and unexpectedly sudden transformations from dictatorship to democracy in late 1989, I have new respect for and confidence in what Havel famously called “the power of the powerless.” Sometimes people have just had enough, the voices of those who have hitherto made no impact on the political system are suddenly heard, and the tide of history turns in an instant. It’s worth remembering that through all the ups and downs of the last two decades opinion polls among ordinary Palestinians and Israelis have consistently shown between half and two-thirds support on both sides of the border for a two-state solution and comprehensive peace process to bring it about.

I think Bob Hawke as Prime Minister was absolutely on the money when, as a lifelong and very emotionally committed supporter of Israel, he made absolutely clear his support for a peace process that produced long-denied justice for the Palestinian, but pitched his arguments totally in terms that met the Israelis on their home ground.  He (and I working with him as Foreign Minister) regularly referred to the argument of Israel’s founding father and first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, that Israel could be a Jewish state, it could be a democratic state, and it could be a state occupying the whole of what was considered to the historical land of Israel, but it could not be all three. Clinching the argument was the demonstration of a demographic time-bomb: whatever their majority now, if Israel retains control of the Occupied Territories, it is only a matter of time before Jews become a minority in their own country.

Peace is never going to happen until people on all sides make some of the compromises and take some of the risks that make rewards possible. And treating the Palestinian statehood resolution – which has already involved some risk-taking on the Palestinian side – as an opportunity for, rather than an obstacle to, peace might be a very good place to start afresh.

There’s a story told by Tom Friedman which maybe sums things up as well as anything could. It’s about a very religious Jew called Goldberg who wanted to win the lottery. Every Sabbath, week after week, month after month, year after year, he would go to synagogue and pray: “God, I have been such a pious Jew all of my life. What would be so bad if I won the lottery?” But the draws would come out, and he would never win.  Eventually, after years of this, Goldberg couldn't take it any more. One Sabbath, he wailed to the heavens: “God I have been such a good Jew all my life, what do I have to do to win the lottery?” And the heavens parted, and the voice of God boomed out, “Goldberg, give me a chance. Buy a ticket.”

I think there’s a message there for Bibi Netanyahu. And while he’s about it, it might not be a bad idea for the incoming U.S. President, and our own Prime Minister, to buy a ticket too.


This speech has been published online at The Global Mail: http://www.theglobalmail.org/feature/buying-a-ticket-for-peace/456/