Yet another deadline passed late last month in the Israeli-Palestinian "peace process," this time over the initial exchange of proposals on border and security issues. Palestinian negotiators were (and remain) under pressure on a number of fronts. The Quartet still holds to a resumption of talks under the current guise and a recent visit from Ban Ki-Moon called for "a gesture of goodwill by both sides" in order to create a positive atmosphere for continuing negotiations.
Instead, many Palestinians are urging the PLO to end negotiations altogether until Israel halts all settlement expansion in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Palestinian frustration with the international community and the hollow negotiation process was embodied by the slippers and sticks that showered the Secretary-General’s convoy upon entry to the Gaza Strip two weeks ago.
It is true that the international community has begun to use stronger language in recent weeks, condemning Israel’s settlement expansion as "deliberate vandalism" of peace negotiations. But in an atmosphere where talk of ongoing negotiations and deadlines continues still, a number of critical points are being overlooked. In particular, the demand for mutual land swaps and the call for proposals on "borders and security first" are extremely problematic from both a political and a legal point of view.
It has been assumed for several years that in any final agreement, Israel would retain the major settlement areas in the West Bank, including those in East Jerusalem, in exchange for unpopulated land adjacent to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, predominantly territory in the Negev Desert.
However, as a direct consequence of the state of occupation, the two parties involved are far from being on an equal footing. This is further evidenced by Israel’s obstinate refusal to discuss Jerusalem and its insistence on retaining most of the settlement blocs and their associated infrastructure. This asymmetry is envisaged by the Fourth Geneva Convention, which protects the interests of the occupied population. It does so by expressly prohibiting agreements in which the imbalance of power created by a military occupation would coerce the occupied authorities to conclude agreements that undermine the rights of the occupied population.
Rather than facilitate the exercise of self-determination and Palestinian sovereignty over their natural resources, land swap agreements concluded under occupation constitute a deliberate violation of international law in favor of a purely political solution. Such agreements would also reward Israel’s illegal policy of dispossession and land appropriation for the purposes of settlement construction and expansion.
Instead of fulfilling their obligations under international law to discourage the continuation of the ongoing breaches of international law in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the international community — in the guise of the Quartet — has now reduced itself to advocating for the formalization of such violations in the name of political expediency. Furthermore, it is condoning an existing illegal situation by calling for an agreement based on the unlawful exchange of territory while the occupation is still ongoing. While international rhetoric may have developed a harsher tone, it has nonetheless allowed the occupying power to frame and fragment the negotiations as it sees fit. The practice of overlooking international law for political reasons is particularly damning when viewed in light of the raison d’être of the U.N., which advocates for the maintenance of international peace and security in conformity with the principles of justice and international law.
That there is so much discussion surrounding the issue of land swaps is part of the problem. The current negotiations are in response to a request from the Quartet for proposals on borders and security arrangements in a future two-state solution. However, this seems to ignore the fact that the conflict is not simply one of borders, but revolves around a multitude of interrelated issues, including Jerusalem, the rights of refugees, water, and prisoners, which need to be addressed in an equitable manner to bring about a just and durable solution to the conflict. By resolving the issues that Israel wants negotiated first, Palestinian representatives will be stripped of any leverage they have to negotiate other important questions, resulting in a stalled peace process and continued occupation.
Israel has repeatedly demanded that Palestinian representatives come to the negotiating table without preconditions. It should be clear to all involved that international law cannot be dismissed as a simple precondition. Rather, it is the foundation upon which constructive and well-balanced negotiations must be based and as such it must be upheld and respected by all parties involved.
The Quartet’s greatest strength lies in the power of a unified, authoritative voice. At the same time, it is handicapped by the divergence of its members, who have had genuine disagreements in the ten years since its inception. For this reason, that single voice is more often than not weakened by the need to reflect the lowest common denominator — which has typically embodied the U.S. position. In reality, then, participation in the Quartet serves only to dilute the power of both the U.N and the EU in comparison to the Quartet, especially when the aim first and foremost seems to be consensus. While its unity should have played a powerful role in the peace process, this harmony was often illusory and, in papering over the cracks, turned out to be a serious defect in the make-up of the mechanism. Indeed, it has been suggested that disunity might just lead to legitimate debate and generate new opportunities instead of allowing for the continuation of the status quo.
The Quartet mission, as currently conceived, represents the latest embodiment of the existing political mechanism that has perpetuated the conflict and granted extended license to Israel’s violations. While it did succeed in securing U.S. involvement in the peace process, this involvement developed to the point that theirs was the single most definitive voice, draining legitimacy from the other participants. At present, therefore, there is precious little to be gained from Palestinian engagement with the Quartet. Similarly, any argument for continued participation in the latest bout of negotiations is quickly fading given Israel’s insistence on settlement expansion and the creation of more facts on the ground. As Khaled Elgindy has noted, the Quartet, much like the peace process itself, is obsolete, aimless, and without any viable strategic purpose — and it has been reduced to calling for gestures of goodwill.
Regrettably, it has been suggested in certain circles that a return to the provisions of the Geneva Accord might provide some direction to the flailing process. However, the Geneva Accord, in its conception, ignored many of the lessons that should have been drawn from previous peace initiatives. Like the current negotiations, that accord blatantly disregards international law as a framework for resolving the conflict. A return to such a mechanism would constitute a very large step backwards and would offer little by way of difference from the current negotiations.
Unless the Quartet changes its modus operandi then it will surely be disbanded on account of its failure. Any new initiative must be truly multilateral, rather than offering a pretense of such, and could take the form of an international peace conference under the stewardship of the U.N. Crucially, it must also recognize the importance of accountability, justice, and the rule of law. If it fails to do so, then it too will disappear into the night and no amount of positive "gestures" can save it.
Shawan Jabarin is General Director of Al-Haq, an independent Palestinian non-governmental human rights organization based in Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank. Established in 1979, the organization has special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council.