Interest from All: Foreign States in Israel-Palestine Negotiations


Video and Edited Transcript 
Michele Dunne Muhammad Jenab Tutunji
Transcript No. 411 (30 July 2014) 



30 July 2014
The Palestine Center
Washington, DC

Rebecca Watson: I’d like to welcome everyone here to the Palestine Center today, both those of you sitting here and everyone tuning in to the live stream. The interns here at the Palestine Center; Molly, Paul, and myself, Rebecca, are proud to continue to present to you our summer lecture series, entitled “Palestine Abroad: The Role of the International Community in the Palestine Issue.” Today’s lecture is the second in the series and is entitled “Interest from All: Foreign States in Israel-Palestine Negotiations,” with Michele Dunne and Muhammad Jenab Tutunji presenting. On the 5th of August we will conclude the lecture series with our final panel, entitled “International Organizations: A New Forum For Discussion,” featuring Phyllis Bennis and Nidal Sliman.

Our event today, “Interest from All: Foreign States in Israel-Palestine Negotiations,” seems an appropriate topic when discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict. Though it is crucial that we as global citizens understand the realities on the ground in the region it is also necessary that we understand how outside states, particularly, interact with the region and influence events there. We must examine the role of foreign states each time that Israelis and Palestinians come to the negotiating table, from the United States to countries such as Turkey, Qatar, Egypt, and others. Michele Dunne and Muhammad Jenab Tutunji are here to shed some light on these interactions both past and present.

Michele Dunne is a senior associate in the Middle East Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where her research focuses on political and economic change in Arab countries, particularly Egypt, as well as U.S. policy in the Middle East. She was the founding director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council from 2011 to 2013, and was a senior associate and editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace from 2006 to 2011.

Muhammad Jenab Tutunji is an academic and former journalist. He has taught at George Washington University since 1995 on Middle East subjects and comparative politics and political economy. He also taught courses at Georgetown and American Universities. He is currently a political-economic analyst at the United Arab Emirates Embassy in Washington. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from George Washington University and an M.A. in philosophy from the American University of Beirut.

Without further ado, I’d like to present Muhammad Jenab Tutunji as our first speaker.

Muhammad Jenab Tutunji: First, in the interest of modesty, I should point out I’m a professorial lecturer; not a professor. And as far as my work in the UAE embassy, please understand that nothing that I say represents the government or embassy of the UAE.

We’re supposed to talk about mediators and the peace efforts, and I didn’t want to bore you rehashing old material. Michele Dunne will be talking about the contemporary situation in Gaza and I will be talking about the background; about conditions any mediator has to cope with if he’s trying to broken some kind of deal some kind of peace between the Palestinians and Israel and Arabs. There is a problem in Israel that has to do with a number of factors, primarily the militarization of society; the outside role of the military in decision making in foreign policy and particularly in crucial points. The military prefers a solution in which its control the situation instead of relying on a peace or the good intentions of the other party. This is normal for a military. The other consideration is there have been changes in Israel since the 1967 war. When the war ended, the Israelis found themselves in control of all the area of Palestine, particularly the area of West bank, Judea and Samaria. Many took this as a sign from God. That God favored them; that God is smiling upon them. This is something they should hold on to, not something they should give up or relinquish in some peace deal. There are other factors and obviously what I just said led to a shift to the right, an increase in religiosity, an increase in nationalism and decrease in desire for to make a solution that involves trading territory for peace. And what you get with the right wing coming more and more in to control with a series of Likud governments is a new approach where you get peace for peace, not peace for territory. That’s the deal.
In addition there is the structure of the Israeli political system, the electoral system itself, which is proportional representation. [Proportional representation] tends to lead to a large number of parties entering parliament. In the proportional representative you get as many seats in parliament in the proportion of the popular vote that you won. Normally, for instance, in the United States and in Great Britain you have a winner takes all, which magnifies majorities. So as a result, Israeli governments from the beginning have been coalition governments. There hasn’t been a single party that was strong enough to form a government on its own, even in the heyday of Labor.

So you have a curious situation where minor coalition partners have to be taken in to consideration. So the settler movement, for instance, and its representatives have an outside say in the government. And you may or may not have noticed that during the negotiations of the past year that Kerry started, Netanyahu was in an embarrassing position because he had members of his own coalition threatening to pull out if he actually reached a peace deal. In fact, the only way he could carry through would be to drop coalition partners and form a coalition with the Labor Party in order to have sufficient majority to do anything, and that he was not keen on. At the same time, other parties were restless and threatening to leave if something was not achieved. So this gives you an idea of the complexity of the situation.

I could elaborate on this, but I don’t want to take the time now. If you want to ask me questions, I’d be happy to talk later.

If we want to look at examples of the dominance of the military in Israeli politics, for instance in the 1967 war, this is a long topic for debate, but neither Israel nor Egypt actually wanted a war. However, the Israeli cabinet had made plans for what to do as a result of the war. Whether they wanted territory; whether they wanted the West Bank or the Golan Heights. These were not decisions made by the cabinet. What happened is the military sort of forced Moshe Dayan on Levi Eshkol, forced him to make Dayan Minister of Defense and then Dayan took the decisions ad hoc. But the main purpose of the war, for the military, was to cut the Egyptian army down to size. To neutralize an emerging threat to Israel and to do it, regardless of what the politicians thought. In the 1982 war in Lebanon, Sharon was the Minister of Defense and made all the decisions and didn’t bother to inform the cabinet, except for Begin, who he informed after the fact. So the military has a lot of clout.

In addition to the militarization of society, an Israeli who is born in Israel finds himself in a situation rather different than one most finds in other countries. There is what has been called a “religion of security.” Just as a child is born in to a certain village, an Israeli is born into a very different geopolitical world with its attendant dilemmas. Just as a child accepts unquestionably the religion he is born in to and some basic answers he receives, so to the Israeli child absorbs at a very early age the basics of the core beliefs of national security.

Now these are difficult terms to work with if you’re trying to push to a peace deal where there have been cases in the past where mediation was successful. Notable examples are after the 1973 war when the United States stepped in and saw an opportunity; Kissinger saw an opportunity, to push the Soviets out and to become the protector and the friend of both Egypt and Israel.  And he concluded a series of agreements; Sinai I, Sinai II and the Golan Agreement which led to later the peace deal between Egypt and Israel eventually passing through Camp David.

Why did that work? Well, to begin with what Sadat was trying to do, he was not trying to defeat the Israeli army. He was trying to shake things up. And to do that he amassed a considerable force that could make an impact on the Israeli army and put in to question the vaulted superiority and might of the IDF. And that did shake them up. If you compare that with what Hamas is doing now, there’s no chance, there’s no comparison. Some people have suggested that Hamas is trying to shake things up by firing rockets in to Israel, this is not shaking the military, this is reinforcing the sense of superiority the military has, unfortunately. The other thing is that Sadat understood that there was a psychological barrier and he opted to break that barrier by going to Jerusalem and by addressing the Knesset.  So both from the military aspect shaking things up and from the, you might say, human aspect – public relations aspect, things worked just right. What did the Palestinians get out of this? Well, basically the notion that emerged, put forward by Begin, was autonomy: autonomy for the Palestinians. This worked its way into the Camp David agreements, and worked its way into subsequent Israeli thinking. But the Palestinians did not get a real deal out of that.

The other notable example was the Oslo Agreement. Now, the mediation there was not perhaps such an arduous effort, it received little publicity but nobody was involved, it wasn’t the United States. The United States adopted it and embraced it after Oslo got off the ground and President Clinton hosted signing ceremonies at the White House and things of that sort.

But again, why did Oslo work? Oslo worked because both parties had an interest in seeing it work. The PLO was ready for a change; the PLO was ready for a mini state. The Palestinian National Congress decided that in 1988. The PLO had been kicked out of Lebanon; they had been living in exile in Tunisia, meanwhile local leadership for the intifada had emerged so the PLO had to do something.  Rabin had his hands full putting down the first intifada, which was a peaceful intifada. [The Israelis] were getting also some bad press for the way they were handling the situation, so Rabin invited Arafat over, as some skeptics put it, to become his police chief in Gaza. In other word: they put Palestinians in charge of security in Palestinian areas, that was the idea. The PLO had hopes I think, not unreasonable hopes, that this may lead to some kind of Palestinian state in the end. But that didn’t work. It didn’t work because there was opposition to it and the Likud rejected it from the very beginning and Netanyahu campaigned against it so indiscriminately that Rabin’s wife suggests that he was responsible for the assassination of her husband. Hamas worked against it through suicide bombings, which were in retaliation for the targeted assassinations of its members and leaders, but nevertheless it worked against it.

So those are examples of successful mediation efforts, which well indicates Oslo; it was successful in the beginning but it failed later. And you could say that part of the reason why it failed was Israeli demands were front-loaded, they were satisfied in the beginning. Whereas Palestinian demands were back-loaded, to be satisfied sometime in the future.

So where do we go from here? As you can see from the fate of the Kerry peace effort I think it’s too late for two-state solution.  I mean, many experts were saying that if it had been done ten years ago it may have stood a chance, but now it’s too late because of all the things that have happened; the settlements, the demographics changes in Israel, the rise of nationalism, the rise of religiosity, they’re simply not willing to give up the West Bank.  What they have done is separated the West Bank from Gaza. Gazans were told they could not leave Gaza or go to the West Bank or leave anywhere basically in 1991. And this was before the round of suicide bombings from Hamas.  What’s the reason? Amira Hass, a well-known journalist who writes in Haaretz, says basically this is an attempt to divide Palestinians, to separate Gaza from the West Bank. What’s the interest? Well, if you’re going to end up with a one state for both Palestinians and Israelis, it’s good to have half the Palestinians out. That gives Israel a demographic advantage. So what we have is by default a de facto annexation of the west bank. It’s not de jure, it’s not legal and it’s not official but it is there in fact. And as for Hamas; Israel’s policy is mow the lawn every once and a while. Every time Hamas gets strong enough, you go in there and you teach them a lesson, and that lasts a few years.

Where do we go if there’s no two-state solution possible? It has to be a one-state solution. How does one-state solution work? Well, Palestinians are there. Either Israel kicks them out or lets them stay there. It’s not keen to give them citizenship so there’ll be, again Begins idea, some kind of autonomy. He suggested they could be like alien residents, they won’t have political rights. So what can the Palestinians do about that? They can try to change their position, struggle for political rights, for civil rights, for human rights. It won’t be pretty and it’ll be a brutal struggle. But eventually, given the situation, I think they will prevail. So the outcome that they could work for, should work for, is a binational state and binational state is not just one state for Jews and Palestinians, it’s a state in which each community, both Israelis and Palestinians, will have political rights as a community, not just as individuals. We want the individuals to have rights but what we’re talking about here is that there will be a recognized positon for Palestinian culture, Palestinians traditions and certain rights of the Palestinian community that will be protected by the constitution that cannot be transgressed. And the same thing for the Israelis, but the Israelis already have that. The thing is for the Palestinians to acquire a niche inside Israel, and I don’t mean localized. They should be able to go and come where they please, live where they please and they will have rights within a community in a binational state. I can elaborate on that in case people are interested, thank you.

Michelle Dunne:
Thank you Jenab, and thank you to The Palestine Center for inviting me to be with you today. I’m happy to be with you, although it’s not a happy day because of what’s going on in Gaza. You know, when the Palestine Center first approached me a few weeks ago and asked me to speak about international mediation, it was a much less interesting and immediate topic than it is right now, because of the terrible conflict in Gaza. I want to start out by saying that I’m going to be speaking about the diplomacy and the goals in the mediation and so forth, but there is a danger of talking about this as though it’s chess pieces on a board and it’s not, of course; it’s human lives. I just feel I wanted to say that I am very cognizant of the huge tragic toll in human lives in Gaza and that’s something that I think we always need to keep in mind as I will speak about the diplomacy and the actions of the international players.

I want to make a couple of remarks about how the current conflict in Gaza is similar to the ones that have come before. As we know this is not the first war between Israel and Hamas, there have been several of them. There have been a couple of ground wars and other air wars. There are ways in which this conflict is similar but there are some new developments that make this one different. In some ways it feels as though this is a bad movie that we have seen before. The gradual escalation in rockets and exchange in attacks, Israeli operations against Hamas leaders, rockets from Gaza whether from Hamas or Islamic jihad or other groups in to Israel and so forth. Then followed by a ground incursion, this terrible escalation in the cost in human lives and then eventually a search for a ceasefire in which both parties Israel and Hamas try to deny the other a clear victory at least and with the Palestinian Authority kind of standing by more or less hopeless.

It seems like we’ve seen this play out several times and there are ways in which what’s going on now is unfortunately going to play out I think in similar ways in the sense that I wish I could say that what’s going on now, this current wave of violence, and the diplomacy that follows it, might result in a fresh look at resolving the overall Palestine issue. But I’m not very hopeful that it will. The previous conflicts have always ended up in tactical resolutions, and I’m afraid this conflict is like that. There are a couple of things thought that make this conflict different, one of them, and this is just a small observation, is technology. After the last ground war in 2009 and even the last sort of air war in 2012 between Hamas and Israel, the two parties have armed themselves very, very substantially. This is one of the sad recurring features in this fight that takes place; Israel does what Jenab just referred to as “mowing the grass,” in other words: the armed capabilities of Hamas are degraded. But then as soon as it’s over the two parties just start arming themselves for the next one, and arming themselves much more heavily. Of course the major technological development in this war has been Iron Dome and how it has made Israel largely impervious to civilian casualties despite the hundreds and hundreds of missiles that have come over from Gaza. But Hamas too has some different technology and the two developments there I would say is one of them is that Hamas is now manufacturing their own rockets more than importing them. They used to have to import them whole, and they still have imported some of them whole, but we heard that Hamas had something like 10,000 rockets when this whole thing began and from what I understand is that most of them were manufacture inside of Gaza. And that’s a different situation. It’s a different situation for anyone talking about demilitarization or something like that because as we know, for example, with nonproliferation with weapons of mass destruction, when countries have their own capability, when they have the technical know-how to manufacture these things and all they need is the components, it becomes much more difficult to prevent or control that by any outside power. So it’s different situation here.

And of course the tunneling. We knew about all these tunnels between Egypt and Gaza and now were finding out about a significant number of tunnels from Gaza into Israel, at least 30 of them or so. And now that has become the focus of Israel’s tactical goals in this conflict: to close down [the tunnels]. They’re now saying that they’ve destroyed or disabled about half of those tunnels as of now, and I think the Israeli forces are unlikely to agree to any ceasefire or withdraw until they are able to say they’ve accomplished something. And I think that will be saying that we closed down all or almost all those tunnels, because they have to. Netanyahu is going to have to justify politically within Israel the cost of this war, in terms of the lives of Israeli soldiers.

Denying Hamas that advantage of these tunnels that go from Gaza in to Israel seems to be the main focus for Israel. That I think is one of the reasons why the ceasefire efforts so far have been unsuccessful

Technology is one thing that has changed. The other thing that’s changed that is really complicating the diplomacy is the change in regional power alignments. Now, because of the number of factors; the Arab uprisings in 2011 and their aftermath, the Saudi-Iranian cold war and I would say also to some extend because of the US withdrawal in the region, what we are seeing is this kind of an Arab cold war, or a regional cold war because it’s not only Arabs. There are some specific things that have taken place, whether it’s the uprising in Syria or it’s the coup in Egypt last summer. That has really given this a sharp point.

So you’ve got Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and it would appear Israel in one camp and in another camp you have Qatar, Turkey, to some extend Iran, although Iran now as we know is not playing as much of a role in the Gaza conflict because Hamas and Iran had a falling out over Syria. And Iran has not had the relationship of support with Hamas in recent years that it once had.

The fact is that you have these two different camps and at the same time there are specific goals for all the parties related to the Gaza conflict. And related to the struggle between Israel and Hamas, the two camps are very, very determined to deny each other any kind of perceived diplomatic victory or advantage which has really left any outside party and particularly Secretary of State John Kerry a very, very difficult position. Not only do the two warring parties, Israel and Hamas, not talk to each other; they don’t even talk to the same outside parties either. And Egypt used to play the bridging role or the mediating role between various Palestinian parties and Israel one hand, and even between the different Palestinian parties such as Hamas and Fatah and so forth.

Anyway, Egypt is no longer able to do that. They used to do it in the past, not only under Morsi; everyone’s talking about when they had the Muslim Brotherhood president. But lets forget that and talk about under Mubarak. Egypt was perceived by the Palestinian parties as reasonably evenhanded, let’s say evenhanded enough. Everybody knew it was always the case that the Egyptian government favored the secular Palestinian leadership over Hamas and tried, to a limited ability, with all the agreements it brokered and so forth to promote interests of the PLO leadership over Hamas. But still, Hamas viewed Egypt as even handed enough to serve as a broker.
Now Egypt still plays a very critical role, they control that border from Gaza in to Israel at Rafah. They have something that Hamas wants very much, which is access to the outside world. Hamas certainly doesn’t want to be, and I’d say even beyond Hamas, Gazans do not want to be dependent on Israel for their only access to the outside world. They’d like to have a back door out which is Egypt. So Egypt still plays an important roll. I do not mean to say here that Egypt is irrelevant, it is still very relevant. However, I would say Egypt is more of a party to this conflict than it is a real mediator.

At the same time the Egyptian government has been determined to prevent anyone else form being the mediator, like Qatar or Turkey, and that’s part of the trap that John Kerry found himself in last week. The other part of the trap is what I referred to earlier, that is Israel simply wasn’t ready for a ceasefire. I was thinking that when you look at a piece of real estate, the value of any given piece of real estate is determined by three factors: location, location and location. Well, I would say the same thing about a ceasefire, that the value of a ceasefire proposal is determined by timing, timing and timing. And the very same ceasefire proposal that is now being treated as completely objectionable and even outrageous and so forth by the Israelis might be acceptable in three days or two weeks, when Israel decides it has to get out because it has achieved tactical aims that it thinks justifies the whole operation. These are very unpredictable type of events, these conflicts, they spin out of control and some very bad things could happen. At some point, the Israelis will want to end this operation in Gaza.

So we will see. Egypt is trying to take up once again its mediating role. The first Egyptian ceasefire proposal I thought was a very curious episode. Very, very unusual, in which Egypt basically announced a ceasefire that was coordinated with [Israel] and not coordinated with Hamas. Yet, it was put out publically and Hamas immediately said, “Well this hasn’t been presented to us, we don’t agree with this, we haven’t even seen it.” And then Prime Minister Netanyahu in Israel immediately said, “Ah! Well Hamas has rejected the ceasefire which now provides Israel with international legitimacy to expand its operation in Gaza!” Very curious, I think, for an Arab state like Egypt to play that kind of a roll and not the traditional role that Egypt would have played. So we see these power games playing out.

It has made international mediation very difficult and it led to this very ugly episode. I think Secretary of State Kerry tried once to go to the region when he was on his way home from talks with Iran in Vienna and he was basically waved off, told, “Don’t come, we don’t need you.” Then after Israel went in on the ground and the causalities started escalating in Gaza he basically insisted, “I’m coming,” and he did. He tried to broker something and because the Egyptians weren’t speaking directly to Hamas, he started speaking directly to Qatar and Turkey who were in direct communication with Hamas. Then he was partially criticized by the Israelis and the Egyptians for doing that. I think, as I said partly, because of this regional power game and partly because the parties simply did not welcome a ceasefire because they weren’t ready for it yet.

I will stop there. It’s unfortunate; the conflict in Gaza is bad enough without having these other power games being played out at the same time. On the part of Egypt, it’s President Sisi’s struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliate Hamas, and he’s trying to further his aims in that struggle through whatever he does regarding Gaza. And by the way, I think another Egyptian interest here is they don’t want to end up holding the hot potato. We know, unfortunately, Gaza is a hot potato and nobody wants to be the one responsible for it. The Israelis have tried a number of times to sort of and push it in the direction of Egypt. When you were saying a one-state solution, Jenab, I’m not sure what you thought about Gaza. What would become the fate of Gaza? But I think in the eyes of some it would be good for Egypt to take over Gaza again but I think the Egyptians are determined not to do that. They have their own national security interests; they have an insurgency in the Sinai and the last thing they want is to take on responsibility for Gaza to have a lot of people and weapons and things flowing back and forth from Gaza in to the Sinai. They also don’t want to become responsible for preventing attacks on Israel from Gaza, as we’ve all seen that’s extremely difficult to do, and they’re not going to be responsible for it.

Let me say one last thing. We hear in the kind of international discourse about what’s going on in Gaza and what the outcome might be. There are these terms that people throw around, like “demilitarization,” “ousting Hamas from Gaza,” “reasserting Palestinian Authority control over Gaza,” and we saw even for example the Washington Post editorial today criticizes Secretary Kerry for not promoting these kinds of aims in his diplomacy. I have to say I think that Secretary Kerry was quite correct in viewing this whole conflict as very tactical, and that, unfortunately, its resolution will also be tactical. Those kind of broader goals like demilitarization or change of authority from Hamas to the Palestinian Authority, as desirable as they might be, first of all I think they’re almost impossible to achieve for military and other reasons. Second, I don’t think that’s even what Israel wants. I don’t think that those accord with Israel’s aims here and I don’t think that they’ll be welcome on the part of the Israelis event though you might hear people saying these things, but they’re really talking points. Once you listen to Israeli military officials talking about what’s going on here, those are not the kind of outcomes they truly have in mind. I think that’s something that any international mediator will have to keep in mind.


Michele Dunne is a senior associate in the Middle East Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where her research focuses on political and economic change in Arab countries, particularly Egypt, as well as U.S. policy in the Middle East. She was the founding director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council from 2011 to 2013, and was a senior associate and editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace from 2006 to 2011.


Muhammad Jenab Tutunji is an academic and former journalist. He has taught at George Washington University since 1995 on Middle East subjects and comparative politics and political economy. He also taught courses at Georgetown and American Universities. He is currently a political-economic analyst at the  United Arab Emirates Embassy in Washington. He was deputy Managing Editor then Managing Editor, Jordan Times, Amman, Jordan  1976-80, and Assistant Editor, Journal of Palestine Studies, Beirut, Lebanon 1975-76. Dr. Tutunji holds a Ph.D. in political science from George Washington University and an M.A. in philosophy from the American University of Beirut. His publications include “A Binational State in Palestine: the Rational Choice for Palestinians and the Moral Choice for Israelis,” (with Kamal Khaldi), International Affairs (London), vol. 73, no. 1 (January 1997), and “Sources and Consequences of Human Rights violations in Iraq”, in S. Horowitz and A. Schnabel (eds), Human Rights and Societies in Transition (Tokyo, New York, Paris: United Nations University, 2004).

This transcript may be used without permission but with proper attribution to The Palestine Center. The speaker’s views do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jerusalem Fund.