March 30, 2015 by Antony Lerman
Anthony Isaacs, a founding member of IJV, reports on the conference held at Birkbeck University of London 14-16 March 2015 in collaboration with the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue, Vienna.
In the wake of the collapse of the doomed Kerry peace plan, the devastating 2014 assault on Gaza and the continued settlement expansion on the West Bank, can a new paradigm based on the achievement of full human and civil rights supplant the sterile pursuit of externally imposed or brokered “solutions” to the Israel/Palestine conflict? This was the premise of the 14-16 March 2015 IJV conference on “Equal Rights for All: A New Path for Israel-Palestine?”now available as audiofiles, held at Birkbeck University of London in collaboration with the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue. Around 100 participants and speakers, including academics, politicians, activists and journalists from Palestine, Israel and Europe took part in two days of lively and challenging discussion and debate, which fulfilled the conference aims of opening new opportunities for coalition-building around a rights agenda.
The scene was set by Sam Bahour, a Palestinian-American business consultant living in Ramallah and policy advisor to Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network, in conversation with Avrum Burg, former Speaker of the Knesset and Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, on the topic of “why now is the time for rights”. Sam emphasised that equal rights rather than a state had always been the demand of the Palestinian national movement, which must be seen to include not just the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza, but Palestinian citizens of Israel and more than five million refugees. One or two states was not a given; models included federation, confederation, condominium and parallel sovereignty. The Palestinians had been unreasonably reasonable, to quote Afif Safieh, in trying to establish two states through international law. If the international community cannot deliver this, the next generation of Palestinians might drop the demand for statehood and transform their quest for freedom and self-determination into a struggle for civil rights in a single secular democratic state. Avrum charted the deterioration in the rights discourse in Israel since the 1990s, but concluded that the new generations of Israelis, Palestinians and diaspora Jews were not prepared to accept solutions based on structures frozen in the Cold War and were ready to engage in a different approach to the principle of privileges, separation and discrimination. Only a constitutional framework of human and civil rights, as in Europe and the US, could guarantee the security not just of Jews, but of all people.
Mustafa Barghouthi, Chairman of the Palestine National Initiative and presidential candidate in 2005, addressed the conference via a video-recording. He stressed the imbalance of power between Israel and Palestine as a key obstacle to progress, a theme which resonated throughout the conference. The goal is to change this balance, by making the occupation more costly than the benefits it provides to Israel, through a series of approaches, including non-violent resistance, a Palestinian boycott of Israeli products, the worldwide BDS campaign and mobilisation of democratic and progressive forces in Israel and Jewish communities across the world in support of the Palestinian struggle, for the sake of the future of both peoples. Avi Shlaim, Emeritus Professor of International Relations at Oxford, also emphasised the profound assymetry of power which made a resolution through bilateral negotiations impossible. An external partner was required to counteract the power imbalance, but the US could not fulfil this role because of its special relationship with Israel, which made it a dishonest broker. There was no penalty for the occupation, which abrogates the fundamental rights of the Palestinians. The way forward lies in internationalising the conflict, through measures such as the successful Palestinian application to join the International Criminal Court and the campaign for recognition at the United Nations, with the aim of delegitimising the occupation.
With the ground laid out, the conference went on to consider the key issues in more depth, with contributions varying from personal anecdote to historical exposition, the application of political pressure particularly in a European context, nuanced analysis of the role of international, constitutional and human rights law and inevitably, potential models of governance.
While justice cannot be done in the current blog to the full range and expertise of the speakers or to the arguments deployed, for this observer, a number of questions stood out, in no particular order of importance and by no means exhaustive:
— How are potential fault lines in the development of a common struggle to be recognised and resolved, including the tension between Palestinians who support boycott and the position of progressive Israeli academics?
— While the quest for Palestinian self-determination is one of the last anti-colonial struggles, can it be recognised that the conflict involves two competing nationalisms which are not going to disappear and that Zionism has characteristics of both a settler/colonialist project and an independence movement? If so, could the Zionist movement gain legitimacy by recognising Palestinians’ rights?
— Could the competing interests be accommodated within a binational framework, advocated by Bashir Bashir, research fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute; or could two states based on partnership rather than separation, with shared institutions, open borders and Jerusalem as the joint capital, guarantee full and equal rights, as proposed by Limor Yehuda, research fellow at the Hebrew University and social activist? How feasible is either model and what constitutional frameworks would be implied?
— Can the limitations of international and constitutional law be overcome and is it possible to reconcile the enforcement of both individual and collective rights as a potential mechanism for pressurising Israel with the inevitable compromises of realpolitik?
— How will neoliberalism influence the direction of putative new constitutional structures and how can these address questions of power imbalances under either one or two states?
— Can the European Union’s lack of vision be replaced by a determined EU-wide civil society campaign to apply pressure to Israel, including using Article 2 of the Association Agreement to withhold research funding? Can more be done by Europe to enhance Palestinian governance and encourage unification of the Palestinian leadership?
— If continued pressure on European parliaments succeeds in gaining the additional vote required for a debate on Palestinian recognition in the Security Council and the US eventually drops its veto in the face of Israeli intransigence, will continued occupation of a fellow member state result in expulsion of Israel from the UN and be the game changer that campaigners envisage?
— How can social media be used most effectively to build a rights-based movement?
Personal experiences raised other questions, perhaps the most poignant being Amsterdam-based Gazan journalist Taghreed El-Khodary’s explanation to her three and a half year old daughter of her tears on watching the bombing of her neighbourhood last summer. On being told “Israel is hitting Gaza”, her daughter brought her a telephone and said “Mama, call the police”. The tragedy is that there are no police and unless civic society can itself create a situation where the need for such a force becomes unnecessary, the destruction is likely to be repeated.
The conference of course had its moments of levity, as in Nimer Sultany, Lecturer in Public Law at SOAS, puzzling over the greater belief by non-lawyers in the efficacy of legal mechanisms than lawyers, who were essentially “self-hating jurists” and Avi Shlaim’s claim to be the real Ibrahim Al-Baghdadi, to be greeted ecstatically by Leila Shahid, Palestinian ambassador to the EU, as “our Caliph”! Notable above all was the positive atmosphere, the search for pragmatic rather than utopian solutions and the warm relations between the participants, particularly Israelis and Palestinians who may not have a regular chance to meet for extended discussions. Further, the opportunity was also taken to arrange informal meetings between key participants and UK politicians and diplomats, with the aim of deepening understanding and potentially moving the political process along a more positive track. Given the number of loose ends, it is to be hoped that this conference will represent just the start of a process in further fleshing out an agreed approach to resolution of the conflict through the application of the principles of human rights for all.
During the conference, there had been a glimmer of hope that the Israeli election on the following day might at least provide an opening to the possibility of a change of direction. In the event, the result resembled nothing so much as a rearrangement of deckchairs on the starboard side of the Titanic. However, Binyamin Netanyahu’s unscripted remarks ruling out a Palestinian state under his leadership should at least have given pause for thought to the EU and US policymakers, who have committed themselves to just such an objective. Although his remarks were subsequently withdrawn, this was not before Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon had publicly justified them on the basis that infrastructure and resources in Israel-Palestine were so closely intertwined that full separation would not be viable. If this is indeed a correct characterisation of the policy of the Israeli government, the need to build a powerful international movement to address the fundamental inequalities and lack of rights experienced by the Palestinians becomes even more urgent.