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The Roadmap to Peace

The 2003 Roadmap to Peace was drafted by ‘the Quartet’ (the US, the UN, Russia and the EU). Similar to the Oslo process it envisaged transitional arrangements and negotiations leading to a permanent-status agreement by a set date. It also required certain steps to be taken by both sides. Its ultimate objective was a two-state solution.

A Chatham House report notes that the structure and content of the Roadmap mattered much less than the way it was handled by the US administration. In 2003, President Bush was preoccupied by Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Roadmap was not a high priority. Thus he, and the other Quartet members allowed the Roadmap to be “stripped of its substance” by the then Prime Minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon. Combined with continued violence in the region this rendered the Roadmap a dead letter.

Since then, there have been a number of attempts to create a new roadmap or path to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. These are set out below in brief: it is not intended to be an exhaustive history of initiatives for peace. 

December 2003: Unofficial Geneva Accord

On 1 December the unofficial Geneva Accord, which sets out a detailed draft framework for a comprehensive peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, was agreed. It was negotiated by Israeli politicians and intellectuals from the left of the political spectrum and by members of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, the PLO.  The accord received a lukewarm reception from the Palestinian leadership, and was rejected by the Israeli Government.

April 2004: Disengagement plan for Gaza and parts of the West Bank

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon presented the detail of his Disengagement Plan, which called for the withdrawal of all 7,500 Jewish settlers and Israeli military installations from Gaza.  This withdrawal was completed in September 2005.

November 2007: Annapolis Conference

At Annapolis in Maryland, USA, Israel and the Palestinians agreed to resume negotiations on the basis of obligations agreed in the “performance-based road map”. As agreed at the conference, twice-weekly negotiations proceeded from the Annapolis conference, until, in the light of increasing rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel, Gaza was “sealed off” from the outside world on 17 January 2008.  As the Gaza crisis escalated, progress on the substance of the negotiations stalled, and on 2 March 2008 negotiations were completely suspended by Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority, in protest at Israeli actions in Gaza.

It was not until 5 March that Abbas, under heavy pressure from the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice after her visits to Egypt the West Bank and Israel, agreed to the resumption of talks.

The Palestinian group Hamas, which had won parliamentary elections and taken control of the Gaza Strip, was not represented. It declared it would not be bound by anything decided.

The talks came to an abrupt halt with Israel’s military offensive in Gaza in December 2008.

September 2010: Washington

President Obama restarted the peace process in 2010 with a 10-month partial freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said it was “the first meaningful step towards peace“. However, President Abbas said it did not cover East Jerusalem and that he wanted a guarantee of a Palestinian state based on 1967 lines.

After months of hard diplomacy, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas had agreed to “re-launch direct negotiations to resolve all final status issues” and that they believed the talks could “be completed within one year”.

The talks were also attended by President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan. Expectations were low and deadlock was reached within weeks.

Once the freeze on settlements expired, the talks were suspended.

July 2013: Direct talks

In 2013 Direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians began following an attempt by United States Secretary of State John Kerry to restart the peace process. The talks were mired by the disagreement and subsequent reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. Israel refused to continue with the talks after the formation of the Palestinian Unity Government in June 2014.

Abbas’ 2014 peace plan

On 3 September 2014, Abbas presented a new proposal for the peace process to John Kerry. The plan called for nine months of direct talks followed by a three-year plan for Israel to fully withdraw to the 1967 lines, leaving East Jerusalem as Palestine’s capital. The resumption of talks was contingent on an Israeli freeze on construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Some say the plan was Abbas attempting to seize the initiative at a time when polls showed Hamas in the ascendency with Palestinian opinion from the Gaza war. The US rejected the proposal.

2020 Trump’s peace plan

In January 2020 President Trump launched his long-awaited plan for peace in the Middle East.  The House of Lords Library has published a detailed analysis of that plan.

While supporting the idea of a two-state solution, the borders of those states would be significantly changed. The plan proposed that Israel would acquire sovereignty over approximately 30 percent of the West Bank, that Jerusalem would become the capital of Israel with the city “remaining Israel’s undivided capital” and that in exchange the Palestinians would be given land in the desert near Gaza. More detail is provided in Library Briefing Paper, Annexation of the West Bank.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) rejected the US peace plan before it was published. Similarly, Hamas officials in Gaza opposed the plan. Regional responses have been mixed, with a few offering qualified support and others opposing the plan outright.

The UN called on Israel to abandon the threat of annexation and for the Palestinian leadership to re-engage with the Middle East Quartet.

Abraham Accords

Close on the heels of Trump’s Plan for Peace, came the Abraham Accords—agreements to normalise relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain. At the time, the accords were portrayed as a barter to prevent the planned annexation of the West Bank in exchange for normalisation of ties with the UAE. The agreements were the first peace deals any Arab country signed with Israel in 26 years. 

The Trump administration viewed them as a model for outsourcing regional security that would allow the US to prioritise its interests beyond the Middle East. However, only Morocco and Sudan have so far followed suit and signed normalisation agreements with Israel.

Writing for Chatham House, Yossi Mekelberg said:

Normalizing relations between these countries and Israel was the logical conclusion of regional developments in recent years, however, they will find it hard to fully flourish without a just and fair solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

15 September 2021 marked the first anniversary of the Abraham Accords.

Developments: May 2021 fighting

In May 2021, a new round of fighting broke out in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem.

The fighting took place from 10 May, to a ceasefire overnight on 20 to 21 May. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for the Occupied Palestinian Territory reported that the escalation in hostilities killed 256 Palestinians (at least 129 of those civilians), including 66 children, and 10 Israelis (plus 3 foreign nationals), including 2 children. The fighting also caused 1,948 injuries in Palestinian territory, and 710 injuries in Israel.  At the peak of the hostilities, up to 113,000 people were displaced before the ceasefire.

After eleven days, both sides agreed to a ceasefire and declared victory.

Background to the fighting

There had been a series of confrontations with police since the start of Ramadan in mid-April. These were especially intense near the Al-Aqsa Mosque — the third holiest mosque in Islam—on a hilltop which is also revered by Jews for whom it is known as the Temple Mount.

East Jerusalem has long been a flashpoint, with an uneasy coexistence there between Jews and Arabs. Israel effectively annexed East Jerusalem in 1980 and considers the entire city its capital. Palestinians claim the eastern half of Jerusalem as the capital of a hoped-for state of their own.

Most other countries do not recognise Israel’s claim. Although former President Trump moved the United States embassy to Jerusalem in 2018, almost all other countries have kept their embassies in Tel Aviv.

In May it became the scene of nationalist and religious tensions with Palestinians clashing with ultra-nationalists and Israeli police forces trying to keep them apart. Arabs living in Israel joined the protests in support of the Palestinians.

The escalation of conflict was arguably “connected to a broader landscape of destabilising factors whose cumulative weight led to the current crisis after months of incubation,” as noted by Professor Carlo Aldrovandi.

Eviction of Palestinian families

Near to East Jerusalem is the predominantly Arab district of Sheikh Jarrah. Here several Palestinian families faced eviction by the Israeli courts in a dispute about who can claim or reclaim property in East Jerusalem. The dispute was the latest episode of longer-term efforts by Israeli settler groups, often supported by recent Israeli governments to make Jerusalem “more Jewish.”

A court ruling, due on 10 May was postponed. Israelis used that day to celebrate ‘Jerusalem Day’, marking the occupation of East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war. This led to further violence.

Concerned about the escalation, the UN Security Council discussed issuing a statement calling on Israel to cease evictions and for “restraint” and respect for “the historic status quo at the holy sites”

Palestinian in-fighting

On 10 May, Hamas issued an ultimatum, that all Israeli security forces should be removed from the Temple Mount and the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood by 6 pm or Hamas would attack Israel.

The firing of rockets by Hamas from Gaza in retaliation for the injuring of Palestinians in Jerusalem could be interpreted as a sign of solidarity across the territories, and between Hamas and President Abbas’ Fatah Party.  However, it is a commonly-held view that Hamas is attempting to increase influence among Palestinians outside of Gaza in the run up to elections in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs).

Parliamentary elections were scheduled for 22 May and presidential elections for 31 July. Both were postponed on 30 April because of disputes over voting rights in East Jerusalem and divisions in the Fatah Party.

Many Palestinians regarded the dispute on voting in East Jerusalem as an excuse to avoid elections that Fatah might well lose to Hamas, as it did in the last parliamentary ballot in 2006.

There are also reports of rivalry within Fatah. Younger challengers to President Abbas have weakened his grip on power.

However, there are reports that the conflict has contributed to a new unified sense of identity and purpose between Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza:

while the war resulted in a quick military victory for Israel, it also offered a victory of sorts to Palestinians, putting issues like Sheikh Jarrah, which had simmered in the background for years, at the center of a new Palestinian sense of purpose.

International Crisis Group analyst Mairav Zonszein also supports this view:

Conceptually, Hamas put the Palestinians back on the radar and Jerusalem at the center of their issues,” she said. “The [Israeli] government has realized that Palestinians are uniting; that the fragmentation isn’t as effective as they would like it to be; that they empathize with each other’s struggles, regardless of whether they are in the West Bank, Jerusalem or Gaza.

The dispute over Sheikh Jarrah continues: a recent offer from the Israeli Government has been rejected by the Palestinian families, reportedly on the advice of the Palestinian Authority. The settlers have also rejected the offer.

Developments in Israeli politics

The Government elected in June is a broad coalition of eight parties. It is said that they are united by the desire to keep Netanyahu, who led the country for 15 years, out. However, Naftali Bennet’s Government has a razor-thin margin of 61 seats in the 120-member assembly.

In November, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz named six Palestinian NGOs as terrorist organisations. The Defence Ministry said the organisations were under the control of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and served as a front to secure finances for the group which is designated a terrorist organisation.

The NGOs are: Addameer, Al-Haq, the Bisan Center, Defense for Children International Palestine, the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees and the Union of Agricultural Work Committees.

A joint statement by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch called the decision “appalling and unjust.” They said the move constitutes “an attack by the Israeli government on the international human rights movement.”

16 UK NGOs also condemned the decision.

Meretz, one of the political parties which forms part of the governing coalition said: “We are very unhappy with the designation of human rights organizations as terrorist organizations. So far, it has done more damage to Israel”.

The UK Government has not commented on the designation. In response to a Parliamentary Question on the matter the Government said:

We are aware of the decision by the Israeli authorities and will be seeking additional information to understand the basis for the designations. Human rights and civil society organisations have a vital role to play in the development of thriving, open societies.

Palestinian politics – whither Fatah, whither Hamas?

Some say that the established Palestinian leadership suffered a grave blow to its standing among Palestinians after the May 2021 fighting with most of the response coming from Hamas in Gaza. 

In addition, elections due to be held in May were cancelled in April – due in part to Israeli restrictions on voting in East Jerusalem. However, the bigger picture may include fears within Fatah and regional neighbours, that Hamas might win an election.

While Abbas is said to be hanging on to power with his party divided and increasingly irrelevant in the context of a renewed sense of Palestinian solidarity across Gaza, the West Bank and Israel, Hamas too, is finding its support waning as its “military achievement has not delivered the expected increase in internal and external political legitimacy”.

The US position: from Trump to Biden

Former President Trump shook up the Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts by recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moving the US Embassy there in 2018. He also withdrew funding from the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) which supports Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. His Plan for Peace, which was never accepted by the Palestinians, remained largely a paper exercise.  The threat of annexation of parts of the West Bank was staved off by the Abraham Accords, which have remained in place and bolstered Israel’s standing among some of its neighbours.

The Biden administration has adopted a different rhetoric. It has repeatedly said that Israelis and Palestinians “deserve equal measures of security, freedom, opportunity and dignity“.

While supportive of the accords, Biden views them as a Trump legacy and has focused on the bilateral rather than trilateral nature of the agreements, making their broader regional impact harder to assess. He has been criticised for failing to fully embrace or take forward the Accords.

Biden has agreed to recommence funding to UNRWA.

The UK Government position

Speaking to the UN Security Council in May this year, the UK Permanent Representative Barbara Woodward urged both sides to cease fighting. The Government reasserted its position that:

  • The firing of rockets at civilians was unacceptable.
  • Israel has a legitimate right to self-defence but this “must be proportionate and in line with International Humanitarian Law”.
  • The right to freedom of worship must be upheld and “the historic Status Quo in Jerusalem is important at all times”.
  • Settlements are illegal under international law and an obstacle to peace.
  • Israel should work towards the establishment of a Palestinian state along 1967 lines, with its capital in East Jerusalem.
  • “The UK remains committed to the two-state solution as the best way to permanently end the occupation and bring peace and stability to the region”.

Some commentators have expressed disappointment at the UK Government response to the fighting in May 2021 arguing that they expected more from the new “Global Britain”.

Funding cuts

While the UK has continued to support UNRWA, and was the third largest overall donor in 2020, the UK has so far pledged US$ 39.1 million for 2021, down from $64.1 million in 2020 and $76.2 million in 2019.

The Commissioner General of UNRWA argued this was a “direct impact” of the Government’s decision to reduce the UK aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of GNI.

The Commissioner General has said the agency was in an existential budget crisis due to an estimated $100-$120 million shortfall this year, and because the current method of long-term funding was unsustainable. Other countries, such as the Gulf States, have also made reduced commitments to the agency this year.

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