OPINION: Could the Good Friday agreement be a model for Israeli-Palestinian peace?

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OPINION: Could the Good Friday agreement be a model for Israeli-Palestinian peace?

Ahead of 'much needed change and new thinking' in Israel, Labour Friends of Israel today sets out a new framework for the long road ahead

Labour Friends of Israel delegation; July 2023-
Labour Friends of Israel delegation; July 2023-

The catastrophic Israel-Hamas war is an irreversible turning point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The diplomatic priority for the international community in the short term is the massive humanitarian needs of Gazans and the effort to return hostages to Israel.

But beyond those challenges, we need to focus on ensuring these horrifying events can be used to create a new and more hopeful future for all.

In the end there is the same challenge: two groups with strong national claims in the same small land. A Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, alongside Israel, remains the best way to reconcile these goals in the long term.

But renewed final status negotiations are not realistic any time soon. There is no political leader on either side with the will or ability to compromise on the most sensitive issues.

So how can the changed reality be the basis for a new framework for peace? In a new policy paper LFI is publishing today, A Post-war Diplomatic Agenda for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, I set out some initial thoughts.

The starting point is to recognise that this war will bring seismic political changes that may unlock new opportunities. If Israel succeeds in defeating Hamas militarily this will strike a blow to the Iran-led axis’s violent means, religious ideology and absolutist goals.

Meanwhile a political earthquake is coming in Israel. Support for Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition is collapsing. Centrist and pragmatic Benny Gantz is now Israel’s most popular political leader. A new government, including our friends in the Israeli Labor party and its leader, Merav Michaeli, can help bring about much-needed change and new thinking in place of the discredited Netanyahu project.

Michael Rubin, Labour Friends of Israel.

With an eye on these changes, we should be focused on building an agenda that moderate Israelis and Palestinians could agree on: advancing legitimate Palestinian rights whilst permanently marginalising Hamas and Islamic Jihad and rolling back the influence of Iran. There are four steps that if pursued in parallel by a coalition of western and Arab states – working with Israel and the PA – can advance that agenda.

First, all these actors should reaffirm the two-state vision, whilst agreeing practical steps to restore the credibility of the PA that do not require Israel to compromise on security. These would include new investment and aid packages; gradually expanding PA territory in the West Bank; freezing construction in isolated settlements; and upgrading international recognition of Palestinian sovereignty in coordination with Israel. These must be accompanied by a programme of radical PA reform, reduced corruption, and restored faith for Palestinians in a political process.

A majority of Israelis might be ready to accept these if presented as part of strategy to permanently exclude Hamas, and if they come in parallel with a second step: normalisation with Saudi Arabia. This move has transformational potential for Israel’s economy, security, and regional integration. It must also be packaged with clear benefits for Palestinians, so that they have reason to see Arab-Israeli normalisation as an opportunity rather than a threat.

The third element is a plan for the Gaza Strip, which needs its own Marshall Plan. Ultimately, only Palestinian leaders can secure legitimacy from the local population to govern Gaza and lead reconstruction. But the PA is unpopular, and its leaders unwilling to “return to Gaza on an Israeli tank.” Establishing a post-Hamas administration is therefore a complex challenge to be solved between Israel, the PA, Egypt, and Arab and western supporters. It may involve a PA-backed but autonomous Palestinian technocratic leadership, reinforced by an Arab-led international mission.

A fourth element, tied to the other three, is investing in a culture of peace. Incitement within the Palestinian Authority must now be addressed with seriousness and urgency, with no more payments to terrorists. The Israeli far right must also be marginalised and violence by extremist settlers stopped.

In place of a culture of hate, it is time to invest in an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, modelled on the International Fund for Ireland, which laid the ground for the Good Friday Agreement. While this may seem distant now, we should not lose sight of positive examples and remember that the International Fund for Ireland was itself established during the darkest days of The Troubles in the mid-1980s. The Abraham Accords have themselves showed how a language of kinship between Jews and Arabs could reinforce new political ties.

It has been said countless times that the status quo was not sustainable. Now it has collapsed and something new must be born. While hard to conceive now, this conflict may open new vistas for peace.

However, it will be impossible for Israelis and Palestinians, even those with the will and vision, to act without intensive international diplomacy and support. The UK, with US, European, and Arab allies, must bring a realistic yet ambitious vision for a post-war diplomatic agenda to the table.

  • Michael Rubin, director, Labour Friends of Israel
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