Issam M. Fares Lecture at Tufts University about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
The Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy welcomed former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin as the speaker of this year’s Issam M. Fares Lecture on March 6th 2018. Dominique de Villepin spoke on the prompt, “Can we still save the two-state solution?” and advocated for better multilateral cooperation in the Middle-East, both on the regional and global scales.
Lecture is introduced by President Anthony Monaco, Dean James Stavridis and Mr Fares Fares.
Dominique de Villepin had the opportunity to exchange directly with Fletcher students earlier in the day during different workshops.
Can we still save the Two-State Solution?
There is a mystery of the Israeli Palestinian conflict. Both territories combined are roughly the size of Massachusetts, a bit more in population. And the whole world keeps its eyes fixed on it. Why has this conflict taken such disproportionate importance ? Because of its length: 70 years and even more. Because of its symbolic charge linked to the memories of the Holocaust, to the memories of colonization, memories of religious aspirations as well as divisions. Because it’s a symbol of the failure of the international community and the United Nations in particular.
Let’s face the bitter truth : there is no viable solution for immediate peace today. There is no viable two-state solution on the table anymore, because of two reasons.
First, there are no partners for peace. On one side, the crisis of Israeli democracy is pushing Israel towards the extreme positions of the nationalist and religious right, endangering its claim to be the only democracy of the region. It’s an ideological crisis linked to the evolution of demography. Israeli Jews are more and more divided among themselves. The initial domination of the socialist zionist movement by the Ashkenaz has been challenged by the growing number and influence of the Sefarads and the Mizrahim, voting massively for the Likud. The recent rise of the Haredim, leaning towards the religious right, and the nationalist populations of Russian origin complicate even more the ideological landscape. It’s also a political crisis between the elites and the people, with a growing number of corruption scandals at the highest level. Moshe Yaalon, former Defense Minister was quoted saying that corruption was a greater danger for Israel than Hizbullah or Iran. It’s an identity crisis within the diaspora where growing doubts are expressed concerning Israeli politics for example through movements like J-Street, after the radicalization in Israel starting in 2006. It’s an institutional crisis within the army as military strategy seems to be more and more disconnected from any political goal. Harsh criticisms emerge from within Tsahal and the security community. On the other side, there is no credible partner for peace today in Palestine either. Because of the divisions among the Palestinian movement, with Fatah ruling the West Bank and Hamas the Gaza stripe, since 2006. No presidential or parliamentary election could be organized since then. Because of the lack of leadership within Fatah and its incapacity to deliver any concrete progress on the creation of the Palestinian State, allowing younger personalities like Mohamed Dahlan to challenge the ageing leadership, Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad. Because of the weakness of the Palestinian movement, which is dependent, for the Fatah, on international subsidies from United Nations’ organization for refugees and the European Union as well as on Israel because of the security agreements and cooperations. And dependent, for the Hamas, on the Hizbullah for its weapons, on the Muslim Brotherhood for financing and on Egypt, for the land access to Gaza, in Rafah.
Second reason is there are no partners, and no credible brokers for peace either. The USA, who were until recently the main interlocutor for the region, have lost credibility as mediators. First during the Obama administration when Benyamin Netanyahu could play the US Congress against the President. Then with the Trump administration and its unilateral decision of transferring the US Embassy to Jerusalem before may 2018, breaking with twenty years of postponing, on pretexts of security reasons, the execution of the Jerusalem Embassy Act, passed by the US Congress in 1995. The European Union, on its part, has unfortunately little credibility with its internal divisions and its old habit of checkbook diplomacy. Russia and China are on the reserve even if China is more and more involved in the region and published an Arab Policy White Paper in 2016, and even of Russia, with its close ties to Iran, could become a useful counterweight to the United States in a general peace deal linking the Palestinian question to other regional security issues. Let’s not even speak of the United Nations or other formats that have totally failed like the Quartet for the Middle East, despite Tony Blair’s efforts
Unfortunately, if the Two State solution doesn’t work, there is no viable one state solution either, as shown by the different possible scenarios.
The integration of Occupied territories with equal rights for all is unrealistic. Because of demographic risk. This would mean the Jewish population could become a minority within the coming years. The Arab population with around 4.5 million in the Occupied Territories and for 1.8 million in Israel, represents a total of 6.3 million. The Jewish population in Israel represents around 6.5 million people. But the growth rate in the Territories is still above the growth rate in Israel, which means populations will catch up in the next years. For decades, Israel could count on the alya of foreign jews migrating to Israel. Now the flow is reduced to less than 20,000 persons a year, at a historical low point. It’s unrealistic also because of social risk. Even if this integration were to be accepted, this would transform an opposition of nationalisms into a social class conflict. Because of today’s income gap, the Palestinians would remain a socially dominated population, poor, underqualified and largely rural, with a GDP around 12 billion dollars. That is 25 times lower than Israel’s GDP, boosted by the qualified, urban Jewish population, who would own most of the corporate capital, patents, land rights and networks.
The second option, a confederative state with one Israeli part and one Palestinian part would be an utopia. It would raise many questions. On security. Who will be in charge? What about the future of the Separation Wall? On citizenship. Where would the Arab-Israeli, 20% of Israeli population, stand. Would the choice be made on residency or on ethnicity? Would they have the right to change residency? On settlements? Today I remind you there are 400,000 settlers in the West Bank and an estimated 200,000 in East Jerusalem. What would be their status? Would they continue and keep growing?
The third option would be the annexation of the Gaza stripe by Egypt and of the West Bank by Jordan. This would mean going back to the situation of 1947 and acknowledging the failure of the creation of a Palestinian State. I don’t think it is a realistic option to be considered by anyone.
Concerning the last option, the annexation and segregation of populations with unequal rights, it is the most credible option today, it’s even beginning to become reality and let me say that it is the most frightening risk of our time. The risk is now real. Out of the desire of absolute security, many Israelis are today ready to accept it. The new Basic Law under discussion by the Knesset would define Israel as the “Nation-State of the Jewish people”, putting its Jewish element above its democratic values. The minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked has said in this regard : « There is place to maintain a Jewish majority even at the price of violation of rights. » This solution is not acceptable. History teaches us that there is no lasting way to impose apartheid. It was the case in South Africa. It was the case in the United States, which still pay the price of it today. It was the case also, in a way, in French Algeria.
As we can see, there are no good scenarios on the table, but the solution might come from outside.
In fact the transformation of the region is a game-changer. It is opening a completely new page, for which local actors as well as the international community are not prepared. The period is characterized by big transformations. Since 2003, the political transformation of the region has created a new hierarchy of forces. Three nations have aspirations to regional influence or hegemony. Turkey as former imperial power in the region before the breakup of the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920. Thirty years ago, it was surrounded by three major states: the Soviet Union, Iraq and Syria. These have all fallen apart. There are today several major strategic issues for Erdogan’s Turkey. The Kurdish question. The support to the Muslim Brotherhood and the political influence in the Arab world. The balance act between NATO and Russia.
Second regional power, Saudi Arabia, builds its power on major assets : oil, the US alliance with the renewal of the Quincy agreement and its status as Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. But it is driven today mainly by its fears. Fear of Iran because of its Shia minority. Saudi Arabia sees with anxiety the clock ticking in favor of Iran, because of population, education and resources. The JCPOA, between the 5+1 and Iran, has triggered even more these fears leading Riyad to consider preemptive action. Fear also of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has become a major contender after 2011. Fear of the jihadist competition. Because ISIS, very influential among young Saudis, is casting doubts on the dynastic principle. And Saudi Arabia is under pressure to achieve its economic, social and political transformation while keeping the basis of an authoritarian regime. The daring bet of the Crown Prince Mohamed Ben Salman to achieve modernization through militarism, nationalism, authoritarianism, has never succeeded in the past and always led either to large-scale wars, like Frederick the Great in Prussia, in the middle of the 18th century, or to revolutions, like Nicolas the Second in Russia in 1917.
Third regional power, Iran is reaching its maximum influence in the region since the safavid Empire, between the 16th and the 18th century, but it comes at high costs. In 2003 the US operation in Iraq achieved what 10 years of Iran-Iraq war and a million deaths had not : the de facto break up of Iraq and the empowerment of the Shia majority. In 2011 the Arab Spring led to civil wars in countries with strong Shia minorities, requiring the Iranian support, directly through the Al Qods Force or indirectly through Hizbullah or subsidies : in Syria as main sponsor of Bashar al Asad, in Bahrain, in Yemen in favor of the Houthi minority. Today the strategic issue is to know if Iran is able to create a continuous logistical belt between Tehran and Beirut.
One nation, Israel, needs the three regional powers to keep competing to ensure its own security. Today everything points to an anti-Iranian alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia But the situation is not frozen and could evolve rapidly. Tomorrow Iran could become an ally of Israel. It has been the case in the times of the Shah, against Arab hegemony. There is in fact only limited direct cause of confrontation between the two powers. And links between the two have never totally disappeared. You could even imagine scenarios where an aggressive policy of Turkey, favored by its authoritarian turn, would lead to a greater proximity between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
There is an international transformation weighing even more on the regional balances. As the United States are weakened by the unpredictability of Donald Trump, an implicit agreement of sharing zones of influence in Syria with Russia, could announce a new regional approach. The Russian come-back in the region is impressive. It has now developed a military shield of anti-access/ area denial capabilities, with its naval base of Tartus. It has installed in Iran S-300 missiles developing Iran’s capacity to counter Israeli strikes. It has breached the NATO monopoly in Turkey by selling S-400 missiles, creating major problems of security and compatibility for NATO operating systems. As a consequence, two alliances are fostering rigid frontlines and wars in this extremely competitive environment. On one side, Russia, Iran and Syria. On another side the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Of course in this confrontation, the choice of Turkey will be decisive.
Beyond these political transformations, there is also an important economic transformation underway in the region. It’s undergoing a process of metropolization and innovation, which will in fact create growing domination of the Palestinians by the Israelis. Israel is integrating a network of innovative and growing metropolises, based on city-states with high education and technological infrastructures. Lebanon, the UAE and Israel are becoming regional hubs for industry and services. Israel is also at the center of a tech hub : 40% of Israel’s GDP is linked to technology. By contrast, Palestine appears more and more as a dominated economic territory, with poor qualifications, poor access to seas, energy, infrastructure, poor density of settlements and lack of major cities.
The second process going on is the diversification of trade routes, under the pressure of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. It is favoring the ties between Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. The Red Med project for example creates economic interdependency between Saudi Arabia and Israel for transshipments and train transport from Djiddah to Eilat. The Middle East is undergoing a third process of change in the energy map, which may favor Israel, Lebanon and Egypt, with East Mediterranean natural gas fields creating new opportunities of self-sufficiency and even export capacities.
This major change opens a new page of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There have already been two distinct phases. Each had its own vital challenge. The first phase was the Arab-Israeli war for Israel’s existence, from 1948 to 1979, with three major stakes.
It was about building up the military strategy and capabilities of the country. It included the strategy of nuclear deterrence with the risk of encouraging regional proliferation, the development of a domestic high-level weapons industry and, the fighting spirit of Tsahal. It was about being part of the alliance of the Western World with a special relationship to the US. It was true in the different wars, in Suez, in 1956, in 1967 during the Six Days War, in 1973 during the Kippur War. It was true in the United Nations after 1967, when facing growing criticisms, for example with resolution 242. The support of the US, ever since, with over thirty uses of their veto right on the Israeli Palestinian question, has been the key of the strategy. It was about gaining weight through demographic and economic growth. An active immigration policy towards Jewish people allowed the arrival of over 2,5 million people within the Alya after 1948. Active investments allowed also to achieve the highest industrial growth in the region.
Second phase : the Israeli-Palestinian war for Palestine’s existence, from 1979 until today. The vital challenge was the creation of the Palestinian State. With the diminishing support of the Arab states, the Palestinian movement has been weakened by its hesitations. There has been an oscillation on ideology, going from socialism to islamism. There has been an oscillation on strategy, between organized violence with PLO, spontaneous violence from the Palestinian people, during the two intifadas of 1987 and 2000, as well as commitment towards non-violence after the Oslo process. There also has been an oscillation in the choice of sponsors of the Palestinian cause, between Iran and the Hizbullah on one side, the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey and Qatar on another side. At the same time, the Palestinians were losing ground they were gaining credibility and legitimacy as victims, raising the key question of justice. The Oslo process in 1993 was based on the principle of exchanging peace for territories and concentrated on three issues, the status of Jerusalem as capital of Israel and Palestine, the continuity and viability of the Palestinian territory, the right to return of the 5 M refugees in neighboring countries, under UN protection, among which 1.5 M still living in refugee camps.
A third phase is just beginning. The big change is that it is now driven from outside of Israel and Palestine. The two main actors have lost initiative and control. The first force is fragmentation of the political entities with the crisis of the Nation State in Iraq, Syria or Libya. This makes the threats for Israel even more asymmetrical and uncontrollable, on the example of Lebanon, unleashing violent groups and multiplying terrorism. This makes radicalism and community-based politics more and more important throughout the region. The second force is polarization of the front lines, after six years of Civil War in Syria. The regional and global alliances create today a spiral of military expenses, a risk of nuclear proliferation and escalation.
In this context, the main objective for Israel is to prevent a continuous Shia corridor between Lebanon and Tehran, which might create the temptation of military strikes in Iran. Palestine is becoming a secondary battleground of a much larger confrontation.
The third force at work in the region could be more positive, it is modernization. Beyond the strategies of the States there is still an aspiration for modernity, stability and development within the people, as it was expressed during the Arab Spring in 2011. There is fatigue of ideologies in the Middle East. Beyond military postures, countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia are in such need of economic modernization to fulfill the expectations of their people, that it creates an incentive for economic cooperation. But, as a whole, the danger in the region is getting greater.
Today the choice is more than ever between war and peace. Let’s face the truth, war has become today, in the region the most probable scenario, in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be a side issue.
Starting on the rivalry of the two alliances, based on the antagonism between Saudi Arabia and Iran, there could be several ignition points in the region. The volatility of the situation is even greater since Al Qaida and ISIS have been largely reduced. First a preemptive strike of Saudi Arabia, Israel or the US, against Iran because of the nuclear program. Secondly, a situation getting out of hands in Iraq or Syria, as we see in Deir Ezzor, where US military and Russian military are in almost direct confrontation. Thirdly a provocation in Lebanon or in Jordan, as shown by the tensions after Saudi Arabia’s decision to oust or at least pressure Prime Minister Hariri. Moreover, a surge of the conflict in the region could be a consequence of a war starting from other points of the world, making it a secondary battlefield. Because the alliances are interlinked with a global ideological division between liberal democracies and authoritarian regimes. Because there are today many tension zones where war is a real possibility, as in North Korea or in Eastern Europe.
But the new confrontation of alliances creates also –even if it seems paradoxical- an opportunity of building up a « peaceful coexistence » between Israel and Palestine. In a Cold War scenario, the Palestinians could count on Russia to become a major support and sponsor of their cause, in opposition to US-backed Israel. This would push for greater control of the proxy movements. This would push for greater independence and stability within Palestine. This would make the separation wall, ironically, the anticipation of the new Iron Curtain. In this context, the sponsorship of the Palestinian cause could allow Russia, Iran and Turkey to resume their role as a leader of the oppressed people. This would be a major source of legitimacy in the global public opinion. I believe our duty today is to avoid war at all costs. We must avoid some diplomatic temptations. The temptation of the blame game, for example. It definitely exists with the Kushner / Greenblatt plan. What rumours tell us about it today is. It is a two-step plan. First recognition of a micro-state of Palestine with sovereignty over 38% of the Palestinian territory with its capital in the suburbs of Jerusalem, in Abu Dis. Then an open ended negotiation over the final borders. It is a dangerous plan. There is a danger of crystalizing the humiliation felt by the Palestinians. There is a danger of antagonizing the last remaining elements of legitimacy in the Palestinian leadership. We must avoid the temptation of the status quo. That’s the risk, I believe, of the French initiative in January 2017. It seemed its main purpose was to say we can go on as before with the Oslo process.
We need tools also. There is need of a structured and integrated process of dialogue in which Israel/Palestine would only be one part. We must choose an efficient and inclusive format 5+1 with Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and all the neighbors (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt). We must organize the dialogue in chapters, among which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We must choose a force of initiative. I am convinced it could be today France and Europe, with Russia. It could also very well be Turkey which has the greatest interest in solving the Israeli Palestinian conflict, in order to assess its regional influence and in order to keep its position as arbitrator in the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia. We need instruments of balance between the two regional blocks, in order to prepare the future. These could be coherent and inclusive infrastructure projects. It could be also an experiment of an oil and gas union sharing issues or resources, exploration and transport (including Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia), as seed of future regional cooperation, taking the lessons of the European Community of Coal and Steel in 1951.
In a nutshell, for me as a European today, the narrow path is to avoid confrontation of blocks when possible and to make the best of this new Cold War when necessary.