Recent events, including the turmoil in East Jerusalem and the 11-day war in Gaza, have forced the Israeli-Palestinian conflict back to the forefront of international attention. USIP’s Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen and Ambassador Hesham Youssef discuss big-picture trends they have been following, including shifting support for a two-state solution, the future of the Oslo framework, the role of the United States and the international community, and what might move the needle for peace.
Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: I'm Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, director of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict program at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Hesham Youssef: And I am Hesham Youssef, senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace. I am a retired Egyptian diplomat, and I worked for many years at the Arab League and organization of Islamic Corporation.
Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: Today, we're going to be talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where recent events, including the turmoil in Jerusalem and the 11-day war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza has really forced the issue back to international attention.
Hesham Youssef: We've covered many aspects of this conflict in several articles on the USIP website. But in this video, we wanted to reflect on some of the big picture issues and trends that we have been following.
Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: Hesham, you and I have spent a lot of time talking about the way different assumptions have shifted over the years in relation to this conflict and the way it's going to be resolved. One of those of course is what was the perceived inevitability of the two-state solution. Is that paradigm still viable?
Hesham Youssef: I think that this paradigm is still enduring. It has weakened among both Israelis and Palestinians as you know, but I think this happened out of despair that the likelihood of achieving this objective is becoming more and more elusive. And people working on resolving this conflict have been searching for other solutions for years, but none has achieved the level of support of the two-state solution.
I think more recently, the war on Gaza also resulted in reconfirming aspects that we already knew like that the status quo cannot be maintained. But some assumptions no longer hold, like that you can continue to separate Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem; or that Israeli Arabs will remain sidelined, or that Israeli policies can continue against Jerusalemites without them revolting. I think that these changes have to be taken into consideration. But Lucy, what do you think are the assumptions that are shifting from your perspective?
Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: There's a couple of interesting points you raised there, Hesham. I think if I can just go back first, though, to one of the points that you raised about support or lack thereof the two-state solution: I agree with you that this is born out of despair. When you look at the numbers, the polling of Israelis and Palestinians, support for a two-state solution has definitely gone down. When you poll Israelis and Palestinians about the alternatives to two states, one state of some kind of description, or there was sort of many conceptions of what that could be, a Confederation model is another one that people have increasingly started talking about.
When you look at all those alternatives, still the one that gets the plurality of support from both sides is two states. I think that's because you see each side coming to the realization that it's possibly the only way that really addresses the different demands and concerns of both sides. It's just that neither thinks they can get there. Each side really blames the other in the mirror image sort of way that we don't have a partner to peace on the other side, so what are we supposed to do?
Hesham Youssef: In light of what you said, do you think that the Oslo framework is still relevant or is it dead?
Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: That question, I think, gets asked a lot, you know, “Is Oslo dead?” I often see that as really, the proxy question, I think what people are asking there is, “Is the two-state solution dead?” I think that's how people think of that. It's understandable for the reasons we just discussed why that question's coming up. I think the challenge is that Oslo is very much alive in the sense that the agreements it put into place, all the agreements that stemmed from Oslo which governed really how Israelis and Palestinians interact with each other in economic affairs, civil affairs, security affairs, those are still very much governing the way those interactions happen. And so to deconstruct those is a significant challenge.
When Oslo was signed, the idea was that this would be a five-year interim agreement that would eventually lead to a final status agreement. So these agreements that were put in place, were really seen as temporary. And now here we are over two decades later and they're still operating in this way. So to the question of “Is Oslo dead?” For good or ill, it's not. There's a lot of disentangling to do if we're to throw that model aside.
Hesham, I mentioned in discussing this, the role of the international community, what they can play. Is the international community still relevant? Are they still important to making some constructive progress on this conflict?
Hesham Youssef: As you know, Lucy, the Israelis and the Palestinians would find it very difficult to even talk to each other without support from third parties. This has been the case for decades. I don't think that there has been any change in relation to that dynamic. The role of the United States has always been instrumental, not only in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict--it was instrumental to the achievement of peace between Israel and Egypt. It was instrumental in the achievement of peace between Israel and Jordan. I think it will continue to be instrumental in addressing any aspects pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well.
But the U.S. is not alone. There is a role to be played by the international Quartet, or the Middle East Quartet, that consists of the United States, Russia, the EU and the United Nations. There are other groups. There is the ad hoc liaison committee that deals with the economic development of Gaza. There is the Arab quartet that consists of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. There is also the new established group, which is the Munich group, which is consisting of Germany, France, Egypt, and Jordan. So all these mechanisms and instruments can be extremely helpful in trying to address some of the challenges, particularly in light of the fact that the United States indicated that it will not be focusing at a leadership level in resolving the conflict.
So, absolutely, I think it is very important to have a role played by the international community in order to see how we can advance this whole process towards achievement of peace.
Let me ask you Lucy, the most critical question facing the conflict today. What is needed to move the needle on this conflict to advance the prospects of peace?
Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: That's the ultimate question, right? What will move the needle? It seems like it's been stuck for so long. I think that it's interesting to look at the fact that in Israel we've just had after four rounds of elections, we've just seen a new coalition formed. You may start to see some opportunity open up with this new coalition. It's an interesting coalition. It spans an ideological and political spectrum. The new prime minister there is not someone who is supportive of two states, he's been very firm and clear that that's not where he sees this conflict heading, but at the same time, it's a coalition that includes parties that very much are supportive of that angle. So it will be interesting to see where that changes, or at least some openings at the top-down level.
On the Palestinian side, where it looked like there may be some political movement, that still remains to be seen. There were supposed to be elections held, parliamentary elections in May, and President Mahmoud Abbas cancelled those at the last minute. And so, as of right now, we don't see movement forward in Palestinian politics, except for the fact that in the process of preparing for elections, there was a fair amount of dynamism. There were different factions that broke off some Fatah, the ruling party in the West Bank, and really a lot more political dynamism in the sense that the enthusiasm when elections were slated to happen, the percentage of people who registered to vote, was incredibly high. So I think that that does show us that there are some openings there and possibilities where we might begin to see some change going forward.
But beyond that, that's still focused on the top-down. This is the bottom-up. I talked about the enthusiasm of the Palestinians for voting. The publics here really need to be engaged because you've had such a stuck situation at the leadership level for so long, this will not move forward without some push, some momentum from the bottom up. So with that, are you optimistic?
Hesham Youssef: We've been used to all kinds of predictions in our part of the world, and I've been dealing with this issue for a number of decades. Whenever I was pessimistic, I turned out mostly to be more right than wrong. Whenever I was optimistic, I turned out to be more wrong than right. But with all what we have discussed, it is not that easy to be optimistic, but in our line of business, dealing with conflict, we can't but be hopeful. We can't but continue to see how we can ameliorate the situations that we are facing and see how we can advance the prospects of peace. How about you, Lucy?
Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: Well, that's the difficult question as you say, Hesham. There are several factors that we have discussed that mitigate against there being any quick or near-term sustainable solution to this conflict. But I think as you also noted, the parties owe it to themselves, and those of us who invest time working on this conflict, have an obligation to keep forging a path forward and finding, not just plowing ahead doing the same thing over and over again, but looking for the opportunities that exist, the changing dynamics, many of which we have spoken to today, that offer opportunities to try something new to bring this conflict to an end in a way that serves both peoples and, frankly, the international community as well.
Hesham Youssef: There will always be a lot to discuss on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Thank you very much, Lucy.
Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: That's for sure, Hesham. Thank you. Check out our website.