The Nov. 29 138-9 vote making Palestine an observer state of the United Nations has done nothing to untangle the Gordian knot concerning the future of a two state solution between Israel and Palestine.
During a Global Atlanta interview with Hrair Balian on Dec. 7, the director of the conflict resolution program at the Carter Center, made it clear that he thinks that Israel seeks to enforce a “one state solution,” and that its activities make envisioning a “two state solution” more difficult than ever.
He states plainly that in his view should a one state solution ever be adopted, Israel eventually would be overwhelmed by the growing Palestine population. He also thinks that with the events of the “Arab Spring,” the role of public opinion in other Middle Eastern countries will be increasingly important and that the “Arab street” favors the two state solution.
Mr. Balian met with Global Atlanta publisher Phil Bolton and Patricia Estrada, a senior at Georgia State University’s J. Mack Robinson School of Business, who has been studying under the supervision of Dr. Ihsen Ketata at the university’s Center for International Business Education and Research (CIBER) concerning business-related issues in the Middle East and North Africa.
Global Atlanta: The United Nations recently granted Palestine observer state status, what are the Carter Center’s thoughts on this?
Mr.Balian: We have been encouraging this vote. I think it’s a very important milestone.
The first reason it’s a milestone is because the negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians have been unproductive for the past 19 years, since Oslo in 2003.
Oslo was supposed to build a Palestinian state within five years. The goal was to bring about a sovereign independent Palestinian state in the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem. It has not.
The negotiations have been stuck primarily because of Israelis intransigence and new demands, new conditions repeatedly. The latest being the need for Palestinians to acknowledge that Israel is a Jewish state.
Why should the Palestinians have to acknowledge that? If Israel wishes to declare itself a Jewish state, that should not depend on the Palestinians acknowledging it.
So the negotiations have been stuck and the mediation conducted by the U.S. has been ineffective, notwithstanding a few exceptions. And I must say that President Obama has led the least effective negotiations despite the promise with which he came to the White House.
In the meantime the illegal settlements project in the West Bank and East Jerusalem continue to grow. Twenty years ago when Oslo was signed there were 250,000 settlers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank; today there are more than 600,000 settlers, all of whom are there in breach of international law I must add.
When you travel there, you see on every hill top settlement after settlement and surrounding fenced in land, and there are roads connecting these settlements, roads that cannot be used by Palestinians.
It’s increasingly hard to imagine the two-state solution, we are moving towards a one-state outcome and that one state is obviously only Israel. The second state is dwindling, disappearing very quickly.
In my view, the vote on Nov. 29 gives a chance for these negotiations to return to where they belong, in multi-lateral settings. Not necessarily in the United Nations General Assembly, but with the U.N. assuming a key role in the negotiations process.
Right now the U.N.’s role in these negotiations is subservient to the U.S. even though the U.N., Russia and the European Union are supposed to have a role in the context of the Quartet. But it’s really the U.S. that is in the driver’s seat. The others have little say in this.
Global Atlanta: When you say Palestine is dwindling, could you elaborate on that? Is that just because of the presence of more West Bank settlers?
Mr. Balian: Yes, the presence of Israeli settlers is making the possibility of creating a state in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem just about impossible. You really have to be on the ground to see what is going on.
For the past four or five years the Israeli government has been paying lip service to the two-state solution because the entire international community calls for it. In reality they are sabotaging the possibility of creating those two states. They don’t believe in the two states, and in my view, they have no intention of making two states possible.
Global Atlanta: What has the Carter Center been doing during this period?
Mr.Balian: We’ve been involved in a number of initiatives. We’ve been working on Palestinian reconciliation — no matter what strategy the Palestinians choose, negotiations, resistance, whatever, they need unity on some of the fundamental issues.
Global Atlanta: How do you do that?
Mr.Balian: We have to keep discussing reconciliation with the international community. We work on back channel discussions, especially at the leadership level.
At the grassroots level, we create opportunities for the people affected by the disunity between these two organizations.
The reality is that people have suffered in the villages, in the neighborhoods. People have been thrown in jail, lost jobs, lost loved ones, and they have been injured and maimed.
There is work to be done with the leadership. Its one thing to promote reconciliation among leaders; its another thing for the people at the grassroots level to agree.
We’ve also been encouraging the Palestinians to launch alternative initiatives, such as going to the U.N. in pursuit of the two state solution, and not settle, as some Palestinians wish to do now, on a one state outcome.
The problem with a one state outcome between the Jordan Valley and the Mediterranean is that there is just about an equal number of Palestinians and Israeli Jews, and pretty soon the Palestinians will be overwhelming the Israelis by their numbers.
The Israeli government will never let that happen so what would they do? They would create an apartheid system denying the Palestinians full rights in the one state outcome, and that would be a source of conflict for decades to come.
Ms. Estrada: What do you think the U.S. should be doing in the face of the crisis in Gaza?
Mr. Balian: The U.S. should be doing what Mr. Obama promised when he came into office, and that is act as an honest broker, and not as Israel’s lawyer. It should act as an honest broker; it has not done that in a very long time.
Global Atlanta: Do you think that now that the U.S. election is over that might change?
Mr. Balian: No, I am very skeptical that that will happen.
Global Atlanta: What would be some of the first initiatives that an honest broker would take?
Mr. Balian: An honest broker should say “OK, we’ve been at these negotiations for the last 20 years, we know what the outcome should look like.”
If we all had the political will, the outcome would be similar to what was produced by the Geneva Initiative. Israeli and Palestinian civil society, former government officials, civil society members have produced maps and ways in which the two states can be created, respecting Israel’s security concerns and doing justice to the Palestinian side.
The models are there, so why can’t an honest broker come in and say, “Here are the parameters with which we need to work.”
The 1967 borders should be more or less the new Palestinian state’s borders, give or take a few settlements that Israel would be allowed to keep for which certain other lands would be given to the Palestinians.
Some number of refugees should be returned, even to Israel, a small number as a symbol of respect for the memory of the suffering that the refugees have undergone the last 60 years.
East Jerusalem must be the capital of the new Palestinian state where now there are Israeli settlements. The details should be left for the two parties to negotiate between themselves under an honest broker’s mediation.
Global Atlanta: Meanwhile, violence has been at a new height. How does this interfere with your initiatives?
Mr. Balian: I think that the recent violence in and around Gaza should serve as a wake up call for the international community to press for what I was just describing. An honest mediation would create the level field for the two parties to agree on some of the details. And lets move on, because things have changed in the Arab world in the last two years.
We don’t have conditions in which Arab rulers, as they’ve done in the past, could ignore their own streets.
The streets want justice for the Palestinians; the streets in Cairo want justice for the Palestinians; the streets in Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, even Syria want justice for the Palestinians, and if Israel continues, and the injustice against Palestinians continues, Arab streets will not stay silent any more. They will start demanding that their leaders do something about Palestinians’ rights.
Ms.Estrada: Egypt has been an important player in this conflict. Now with President Morsi having granted himself sweeping powers prompting new uprisings, what are your thoughts on the violence in Egypt? Can one hope for this to be resolved soon?
Mr.Balian: Well, revolutions are very messy. It took the U.S. from 1776 to 1789 to produce a constitution once it became independent, and we still had to go through a civil war before we could really get things going.
So let’s not expect Egypt’s revolution to sort things out so quickly.
That doesn’t mean that we should not be critical of developments in Egypt. There are a lot of risks. I think the new leadership has done a lot of things right, but it also has, in haste, impatience, maybe even impressed with their own power, done some things the wrong way.
For example, the reason for which President Morsi issued the decree in November that we should also be concerned about. The way in which he did it was not right.
He should have handled it more sensitively, building consensus with various forces, rather than move unilaterally. By and large, I think Egypt is moving in the right direction. There have been hiccups before and there will be more.
The Carter Center has been following developments in Egypt very closely since January 2011. We’ve had a mission there since June 2011. We have been watching, observing, and monitoring this entire process of democratic transition — parliamentary elections, constitution drafting, soon hopefully, new parliamentary elections. We were observers of the presidential elections of May and June of this year.
Global Atlanta: Who receives your observations? Do they go to the U.S. State Department.
Mr.Balian: We are an independent organization; we are a non-governmental organization albeit headed by a former U.S. president. We do our work independently from the State Department. We may receive funding from it, but they are not the only source. We also receive funding from European governments, among others. And we also receive money from individuals, as well as foundations and businesses.
Global Atlanta: Do you publish your reactions to what’s going on?
Mr. Balian: The main recipients of our reports when we observe and monitor these activities are the governments and civil society where we are monitoring these events, elections, referendums, constitution drafting etc. We make recommendations and quite often these recommendations are taken very seriously.
They are our main “clients,” but the international community also. For example, the U.S. is very interested in what’s going on in Egypt and they are a recipient of our reports as well as the media.
Global Atlanta: How involved are you in Tunisia and Morocco?
Mr.Balian: We have not been involved in Morocco because things went quite smoothly there. The King responded constructively to the initial protest, and he brought in the then-opposition Muslim Brotherhood, which is now part of the government. The reforms that he enacted calmed the situation down.
We’ve been observing and monitoring the developments very closely in Tunisia. We have a mission there as well.
We were also involved and continue to be involved in Libya and we had a very small involvement in Algeria’s elections.
Global Atlanta: Despite all this turbulence in the region, all these people in the street, Israel continues to grow and remain strong.
Mr.Balian: Israel went through its own turbulence in the last year. Since the summer of 2011 there have been social and economic protests, sit-ins, in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Israel has been experiencing social-economic problems.
But obviously, Israel was affected much less by the turbulence than some of the Arab countries. You, however, are right to be concerned about the economies of Arab countries because at the end of the day what happens to the economies of these countries will determine what direction their revolutions will take.
Every country that has gone through sustained protests and transitions has suffered economically. Their foreign currency reserves have been depleted because tourists have been staying away and they are the main contributors of foreign currency reserves.
Foreign direct investment also has decreased. Egypt’s President Morsi has been trying hard to convince the international community to provide assistance and loans and to eventually start encouraging direct investments again.
Ms.Estrada: Last year you mentioned that the youth played a huge role in all this. Do you see any change in their circumstances and prospects for the future now, a year later?
Mr.Balian: Youth unemployment remains a significant problem in every single one of the countries undergoing awakenings.
Their economies have not changed; their educational systems have not changed to start paying dividends for the young people.
In other words they are still unemployed and they’re still out there frustrated. And it’s important that the leadership in every single one of these countries take this problem seriously.
Global Atlanta: What’s been your greatest success since we last saw you, given these difficult times.
Mr.Balian: [sigh] It’s been a very difficult year. We can’t claim responsibility for a given success, but our incremental contribution has played a small role in every one of these situations.
Ms.Estrada: In recent times there has been a huge online presence with Israel being very present on all platforms of social networking, making it a sort of media/cyber war.
Has the Carter Center begun using social media to spread its message of hope to these countries?
Mr.Balian: We use social media quite extensively to spread our message. You can find us on Twitter and Facebook with people who follow and like us and share our page to continue to help us gain momentum.
Global Atlanta: And how about in the streets, do you find that the new media plays an even more dramatic role?
Mr.Balian: As you know, in every single one of these revolutions, traditional political parties and movements were not the ones spearheading the movements. It was the young people, not organized, not affiliated with any political parties that mobilized the population through social media.
So yes, it played a very important role, but not the only one, of course.
Global Atlanta: Did you have any suspicions a year ago that there would be this outbreak of violence in Gaza and Israel?
Mr.Balian: As long as Gaza is under siege by Israel, and as long as the Palestinians remain divided, Gaza will be a source of a problem for everyone concerned.
Global Atlanta: Do you think that the U.N. vote has helped reinforce Fatah to some extent?
Mr.Balian: I think that the U.N. vote should help to refocus the international community’s attention to the overall Palestinian issue of the two states, and the need for negotiations, the need for internal Palestinian reconciliations so that the more moderate Fatah can return to Gaza and have a say in Gaza.
Global Atlanta: You talked about this general support for Palestine throughout all the streets of the Middle East. How real is that? How close is a Tunisian youth, an Algerian youth to the Palestinian movement? Is it something kind of abstract — they’re oppressed, we’re oppressed, and everybody’s unhappy we ought to join forces, or is it more than that?
Mr.Balian: No, it’s more than that. It’s solidarity.
Global Atlanta: And this is fairly new, isn’t it? Under the former governments it would have been squelched.
Mr.Balian: They could not because if they had gone out on the streets and demanded solidarity with the Palestinians, the government would have ignored them. But now, the new leadership cannot ignore them, because public opinion and elections matter now.
Global Atlanta: Do they support them in terms of financial assistance?
Mr.Balian: Egypt and Tunisia are not in a position to do so right now, but the Gulf countries are and they do. Perhaps not enough, but they do.
Global Atlanta: Do you see more incidents like with the Turkish ship trying to come in with goods.
Mr.Balian: No we don’t see much of that, there was another ship that tried to come in but was blocked.
What you do see is the prime minister of Qatar coming to Gaza a few months ago who brought $400 million with him for the rebuilding of Gaza. He came in through Egypt.
During the recent bombardment of Gaza, we saw about 12 or 15 Arab foreign ministers going there to show their solidarity because now they have to pay attention to public opinion.
Ms.Estrada: The U.S. and Israel see Hamas as a terrorist organization, but Turkey and Egypt, among others do not. Do you think that they could ever play a role in talks of conflict resolution?
Mr.Balian: Yes, I do. That is one thing we are working for with Hamas, but if they don’t get results for their moderation, the radicals among them, and this is true for any organization, the radicals among them will take the upper hand, as we’ve seen with Hamas as of late. But there has to be change.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot wait much longer for a solution, it is poisoning relations between Arabs, even Muslims and the West, in particular the US. Moreover, the longer the current state continues, the more difficult if not impossible a solution becomes.
The broader turmoil in the Arab world requires careful, subtle, probing from the West to stay the course of democratic transition and requires significant economic assistance.
For a Global Atlanta interview with Mr. Balian published in April 2012, click here.
Mr. Balian joined the Carter Center in 2008. Previously, he served as director for the office of the U.N. Secretary-General’s High Representatives for the Elections in Cote d’Ivoire, where he focused on facilitating and certifying democratic elections. He also led field activities in Bosnia for the International Crisis Group between 1996-98, specifically focusing on early warning of conflict resumption and promotion of sustainable stability.