Ambassador Lecture Ambassador Lecture Philip Driessen

Roadblocks to peace

Written by  Hans van Vinkeveen Tuesday, 07 June 2016 13:52

Is peace possible in Israel and Palestine? There is a roadmap to a peaceful solution, the ‘destination’ being two viable states – but negotiations are at a standstill. The ambassadors of the two countries to the Netherlands recently debated the issues in Maastricht. According to Haim Divon, the Israeli ambassador, “Our leaders need to talk to each other”. “But while they’ve been talking,” says Nabil Abuznaid, head of the Palestinian Mission, “six times more settlements have been established.”

 

It would be almost comical if it wasn’t so sad: how inevitably an interview with Haim Divon and Nabil Abuznaid descends into a verbal duel, from petty squabbling to serious recriminations and back again. The ambassadors disagree on just about everything, be it respectfully, diplomatically. The interview precedes the debate with students as part of the Ambassador Lectures later that evening. The two men are surrounded by their advisers, ringed in turn by uniformed security guards.

Both are gloomy about the present situation. Yes, there is a ‘Roadmap to Peace’, which sketches out the route leading to a peaceful solution. And yes, the objectives are clear: no more violence, no more settlements, and recognition of Israel’s right to exist and the establishment of a viable Palestinian state: the two-state solution. But Divon is disappointed. “We all want peace, but there’s no process; we’re at a standstill.” Abuznaid: “I can assure you: there is a process, but there is no peace.” Divon: “No, we’re stuck. Nothing’s happening, and that’s frustrating.”

Viable state
So which obstacle has to be removed first? The question immediately throws fuel on the fire. Our leaders need to talk to one another without making demands in advance, says Divon, something his Prime Minister Netanyahu has often proposed. “As difficult and painful as it is, you have to return to the negotiation table. Talk to one another, or yell if necessary – that’s what I’d suggest to Prime Minister Abbas. Ramallah is only 20 minutes away. There’s no other option. Why is that not happening?”Abuznaid makes no secret of it: the Israeli settlements. “There’s simply not enough room left over for Palestine.” How can you say you want two states, he asks, agitated, and at the same time chip away at the West Bank until there’s almost nothing left? “The settlement policy is an obstacle to peace. Israel first has to put a stop to this form of expansion, as a gesture of goodwill.”

Settlements
The settlement policy is, in Divon’s view, one of the issues that need talking about. “You first have to build trust. Only then can a dynamic arise with ideas and points for negotiation.” Israel, too, he suggests, could come up with all sorts of preconditions. “We could say, Palestinian Authority, stop the terrorist attacks. And sort out your relationship with Hamas, otherwise there can be no agreement with half of the Palestinian population. But we don’t say that. Everything is on the table. Sometimes I get the impression the settlements are just a convenient excuse."

So far talking has achieved little, retorts Abuznaid. “Talks have been going on since the Oslo Accords in 1993. But in the meantime, six times more settlements have been established. Hamas has a point here when they ask us, are you insane? Look how many checkpoints have been set up since then, how much land has been lost! People are losing faith in the possibility of a viable state.” It is also not true, he says, that talking is in short supply. “The international community, including Israel’s friends, keep on asking them to stop the expansion, but they don’t listen. If you want to talk, put the expansion on hold for 60 days. It’s not an excuse but a genuine obstacle to peace.”

Missiles
“It’s catchy these days to carry on about the settlements”, Divon responds. “Let’s look at the Gaza Strip, where all Israeli settlements have been removed. What do we get in return? A barrage of missiles from Hamas, instead of them building in the area. The settlements are not the obstacle.” Divon continues to hammer on this point. “Putting each other under pressure doesn’t work. You’ve got to talk to one another, without preconditions. Let’s call a spade a spade.”

And so the discussion goes back and forth like a boxing match. On the allegation that Palestinian officials and their media incite violence (terrorist attacks, suicide bombers). On Europe’s decision to label products from the occupied West Bank. Divon: “That’s pure discrimination and will lead to a boycott of all Israeli products.” On the Netherlands’ support for Israel. Abuznaid: “True friends don’t let their friends get behind the wheel after they’ve been drinking.” Divon: “Not a single friend of ours, including the Netherlands, sees us as a drunk driver.”

Good leaders
It’s the million-dollar question: how to overcome the mutual hatred? Leadership is the answer, according to Abuznaid. “Not stupid leaders, who lead their countries into war. We need good leaders like your former Prime Minister Rabin.” Divon: “It’s also about the people. There’s not enough cooperation. When you get to know one another, friendship arises of its own accord.” He remains optimistic. “Think about Europe 70 years ago. Who would have thought Germany would end up as one of our greatest friends?” Abuznaid: “This conflict was created by people and has to be solved by people. It can’t go on forever.”

Despite their verbal duels, the ambassadors get along well and are keen to set an example. “When I go to receptions, the ambassadors of most Arab countries ignore me”, says Divon. “Then they see me talking with Nabil.” Abuznaid: “We were both born in the middle of the conflict and talk about it on a personal level. It’s our responsibility to help solve it.”

Nabil Abuznaid (1954) has been head of the Palestinian representation in the Netherlands since 2009. He was adviser to the leader and later president of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Yasser Arafat, and was a member of the Palestinian delegation for peace talks. Abuznaid trained as a political scientist and wrote his PhD dissertation, ‘From confrontation to negotiations’, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Haim Divon (1950) has been Israeli ambassador to the Netherlands since 2011. He previously served as ambassador in Canada, Ethiopia and elsewhere. In Ethiopia in the early 1990s he coordinated Operation Solomon, when almost 15,000 Jews were brought to Israel via air bridges. He also led post-tsunami operations in Thailand, India and Sri Lanka. Divon was trained as a lawyer.

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