Palestinian Sovereignty and Peace in Israel

Recent events involving the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers have escalated existing tension between Israel and Hamas-controlled Gaza and sparked a wave of protests across Israel. As a result, Israel has mobilized roughly 20,000 troops for a possible invasion of Gaza in an attempt to neutralize militant targets. Israel’s mobilization of troops and aerial strikes against Gazan targets, as well as Hamas’ continuing rocket fire have significantly reduced the possibility of a lasting peace in the region. Coupled with the broader geopolitical situation in which Israel and Palestine find themselves, a meaningful and lasting peace does not seem likely in the near future. Yet, there have been several important developments relating to the peace process in the Middle East that provide some hope for a better future.

According to a recent report from Bloomberg, Israel has attacked over 650 targets in Gaza over the last several days, killing some 80 Gazans. Unfortunately, these developments have not received a great deal of attention in Canadian media or at least, less than they should. Earlier this year, the United Nations accepted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ request to join 13 international conventions. This includes the Geneva Convention governing warfare, treatment of prisoners of war, and the treatment of sick and wounded prisoners. Among other treaties, the Palestinian Authority has pursued the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations, the convention against torture, and an anti-corruption agreement.

These developments have the potential for being monumental in the broader peace process between Israel and Palestine. UN approval of Palestine’s request came just after Israel refused to release some 26 prisoners in an alleged effort to extend peace talks past their 26 April expiration date. Riyad Mansour, the Palestine’s Ambassador to the UN, has argued Palestine will pursue more international treaties, conventions, and work alongside the UN to further formalize their statehood. For Palestine to secure recognition of their national sovereignty will only help pave the way to peace between Israel and Palestine.

National sovereignty has been an important concept in the development of international relations. The Treaty of Westphalia ended Europe's Thirty Years War in 1648. The great powers of Europe acknowledged that they would respect the territorial integrity of their neighbours, effectively recognizing that states controlled areas exclusively from one another. While on the one hand, Westphalian sovereignty gives the state incredible powers within their own borders (which can be easily abused, often at the expense of those living with them) it also means that nations must acknowledge some basic standards of behaviour. Otherwise, we would not have international relations, but international anarchy. The definition of that sovereignty and acceptable behaviour changes according to consensus. National sovereignty meant something different at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in Vienna than the sovereignty discussed in the Treaty of Berlin that decided the makeup of the Balkans in 1878. Likewise, at the end of the Second World War, the diplomats who helped form the United Nations in 1945 had clear goals in mind after considering the consequences of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles that ended the first one. Other international treaties, like the Geneva Conventions, reflect (in theory) mutually agreed upon limitations on national sovereignty.

Today, as the Palestinian case demonstrates, it is invaluable for a new nation-state to achieve recognition as a sovereign one. Recent examples like that of South Sudan or Kosovo underline the importance of international acceptance in joining the “community of nations.” With that recognition comes expectations and regulation. So while in some ways the apparently irreconcilable perspectives on settlements and Palestinian statehood have hindered the peace process, the new treaty status of the Palestinian Authority might in other ways help it. When and where applicable, Israel can now exercise its Realpolitik on the grounds that segments of the Palestinian population have breached the Geneva Convention or another agreement. Palestinian statehood could strengthen Israel’s claims to react in a way not unlike how it reacts anyway—but justify its mobilization and movement to suppress Hamas. Many Israeli commentators have complained about how westerners unfairly criticize Israel—movements, for example, like the boycotts, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) have been called anti-Semitic. The treaties to which Abbas had agreed may create an even playing field, if only the perception of one. Importantly, they might also provide leverage to Israel under the auspices of bilateralism, as opposed to Israel’s traditional unilateral action taken against Palestine.

Given this context, some reactions to these developments in Israel and elsewhere were surprising. In the British daily, The Guardian, Yoaz Hendel perceptively wrote that, while the peace process at the moment is dead, there is a solution. At the crux of his argument is that sticking to previous peace plans, such as the Oslo Accords in the 1990s, is an outdated method of striving for peace. These plans require substantial revision to reflect the changes in both Palestinian stature on the international stage and the Israeli political complexion. On 12 April 2014, The Economist published a detailed account of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempts to broker a deal between the two belligerents, and some of the challenges that threaten peace. These include the obstinate problem of Jewish settlers given de facto rights to build homes in the West Bank, as well as the barrage of rockets from Gaza into parts of southern Israel in March and, most recently, July.

Ultimately, we hope that recent developments will be beneficial to both Israel and Palestine. The biggest problem, however, is the failure to recognize and appreciate that a two-state solution would only work between the West Bank and Israel. As recent events reveal, Hamas’ control of Gaza makes talks about peace extremely challenging and equally frustrating. In this way, and as Hendel and others have argued, peace in this region requires “three states for two people.” In the context of the most recent mobilization against Hamas-ruled Gaza, it might be more apt to see Gaza and the West Bank as two entirely different entities, the latter of which may be perceived as governable while the former remains under firm control of Hamas.

A meaningful peace must take into consideration the changing nature of politics within and without Israel, as well as between the PA and Israel. The Oslo Accords, as many have pointed out, are antiquated and do not reflect the changes to Palestine’s role in the international conventions of which they are now a part. Additionally, we might also ask to what degree is it possible to create a Palestinian state without Gaza? Is it more realistic to exclude Gaza from Palestine? On the one hand, a sovereign Palestine would offer Israel more leverage and justify its actions against incursion and violence, while, on the other, a Palestinian State also implies a mutual respect for East Jerusalem and control over its Jewish settlers. In the end, peace in Israel-Palestine will require an even playing field and a mutual obligation to uphold the principles to which each belligerent agrees. The inherently uneven status quo will not promote a lasting, meaningful peace in the region.