Hilary Benn shows the way: the party must support the peacemakers in Israel and Palestine

Where does the peace process stand 20 years after Oslo II, and what must be done to keep it alive?


This week marks the 20 year anniversary of the Oslo II Agreement between Israeli and the Palestinian Authority (PA).

What was meant to be an interim agreement on the route towards a final status deal became the last major diplomatic breakthrough between the Israelis and the Palestinians. 20 years on, an end to the conflict remains elusive and the cycle of violence and occupation is ongoing.

Spoilers on both sides are now thriving; they share a maximalist and uncompromising narrative. On the Israeli side, there are those (including some in the current Israeli government) who wish to deny Palestinian statehood and Palestinian history at all costs – believing in their biblical or god-given right to the Land of Israel.

On the Palestinian side, incitement against Israelis and Jews thrives – Israel is compared to ISIS and Palestinian President Abbas recently spoke of Jews ‘defiling’ the Al-Aqsa Mosque ‘with their filthy feet’. A similar ideological maximalism portrays Israelis as settler-colonialists with no right or any legitimate claims – and thinks 1948 and the establishment of the State of Israel were historic mistakes that can and should be reversed.

In this difficult moment for the two-state solution, it is vital that the Labour Party keeps its head and continues to empower the moderates and the peacemakers on both sides. In his speech to conference, Hilary Benn did just that:

“It is now time for the Palestinian people to have their own state so that they and the people of Israel can live in peace.”

To mark the 20 year anniversary of Oslo II, the online journal Fathom: for a deeper understanding of Israel and the region  – where I am assistant editor – has released Two States for Two Peoples – an eBook collecting 25 essays and interviews drawn from our pages.

The basic ingredients of the conflict remain the same now as they were 20 years ago: two entirely distinct national groups, both with legitimate claims to national self-determination in the same piece of land. The question we must ask ourselves now is, “Where does the peace process stand 20 years after Oslo II, and what must be done to keep it alive?”

The essays in Two States for Two Peoples offer thinking about the conflict orientated to understanding its complexity and how it can be resolved within a framework of recognition of rights on both sides. They reflect the following principles.

  1. Fair thinking: how can we target the drivers of conflict and encourage forces for peace and coexistence on both sides? On the Israeli side that may mean targeting settlement construction. On the Palestinian side it may mean targeting extremism, incitement, and antisemitism. On both sides it should be mean embracing and supporting those groups working within their own societies to promote peace as being in their nation’s own interests.
  2. Practical thinking: How can we improve the present reality, and ensure things don’t get worse? If a bilateral political agreement is currently beyond reach, are their unilateral or incremental steps that would improve the situation and the chances for a future agreement, reversing the current negative cycle?
  3. Creative thinking: If the conventional two state model envisioned by the Clinton Parameters has proven inadequate, are there new creative ideas that can solve old problems? There is no one-state alternative, but might there be unconventional ways in which the core demand of both sides – for distinct national sovereignty – be realised in overlapping spaces?

Many now believe that the Palestinian statehood will only be achieved through isolating, sanctioning and boycotting Israel. Nothing could be further from the truth. Such actions will only empower the anti-peace, anti-compromise isolationists in the Israeli right and weaken the compromise-seeking moderates.

Israel’s Opposition and Labour Party Leader Isaac Herzog, who has criticised Israel’s PM Netanyahu for not doing enough on the peace process, described the campaign to boycott Israel as ‘an error Europe should not make if it wants to bring about a real change in the Middle East.’

Palestinian statehood will only be achieved through a negotiated two-state solution The compromises required to make the deal will be painful – for they involve giving up either territory or deeply held ideological and religious attachments. Hilary Benn rightly said that ‘Britain’s voice, Britain’s influence, can and should help’ achieve a Palestinian State alongside the state of Israel.

The movement should translate Hilary’s words into supporting those groups in Israel and the Palestinian territories that advance reconciliation and coexistence, such as One Voice.

Although the situation between the Israelis and the Palestinians now seems bleak, veteran Israeli peace campaigner Amos Oz recently reminded us that  it is not irreversible:

‘Anyone who remembers the birth of the State of Israel three years after the Holocaust, who saw Egyptian President Anwar Sadat getting off the plane at Ben-Gurion Airport, and Menachem Begin welcoming him and then returning all of the Sinai for peace, who witnessed the absorption of a million immigrants in a very short span of time, who saw Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres shaking hands with Yasser Arafat, who saw Ariel Sharon’s bulldozers uprooting Sharon’s settlements in Gaza and the northern West Bank, who saw Mikhail Gorbachev dismantle the Communist world, should be careful about using the term “irreversible.”’

Lorin Bell-Cross is a researcher at BICOM and assistant editor of Fathom Journal. He is writing in a personal capacity. Follow him on Twitter.

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