Hard Questions, Tough Answers (9.5.17) - The UN and the Israel-Arab conflict


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres's statement during his visit to Ramallah that there is “no plan B to the two-state solution"; examples of "plan B's"; Guterres's statement that the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip is one of the most dramatic he has seen, and that the punitive siege should be removed; whether the new language in UNIFIL's renewed mandate will make a difference as the clock ticks on conflict between Israel and Iran/Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and Syria.  

Q. United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres visited the region last week and stated in Ramallah that there is “no plan B to the two-state solution”. Do you agree?

A. Sadly, with the chances of a two-state solution increasingly dim, there are plenty of “plan B’s”. If Guterres meant that the two-state solution is still the best outcome, I absolutely agree. But his statement, made in Ramallah on the occasion of a meeting with a powerless and aging PLO and Palestinian Authority leadership that cannot speak for the Gaza Strip, sounds like the kind of ritual pledge of adherence to the two-state solution that we still hear from European and American leaders who have lost touch with the dramatic and depressing drift of events in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere.


Q. Examples of “plan B’s”?

A. They originate primarily on the dominant right wing of Israeli politics. None of these proposals deals with the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, for which no one in Israel seems to have even a Plan A.

Thus, President Reuven Rivlin advocates a one-state solution embracing Israel and the West Bank. His model is ostensibly bi-national and egalitarian. Despite the demographic implications, he somehow expects the state to remain Zionist and a state of the Jewish people, apparently by downgrading the status of Arabs within the framework of some sort of condominium.

Education Minister Naftali Bennet of the Jewish Home party advocates what is essentially permanent apartheid status for the 39 percent of the West Bank included in the Palestinian Autonomy. He seems to believe that economic investment will persuade Palestinians to abandon their demand for a state (“economic peace”, a favorite slogan of the right). A variety of additional right wingers offer refinements such as West Bank Palestinian voting rights in Jordan and citizenship there--ideas that are anathema to the Hashemite regime in Amman and would, by “Palestinizing” a friendly Jordan, be extremely dangerous for Israel.

Other right-wingers would offer financial incentives for Arabs to depart the West Bank, or would offer limited varieties of Israeli residency or citizenship based on “loyalty oaths” and the like. In my view, all of these ideas are anti-democratic and thoroughly anachronistic. But they represent important features in the thinking of what has become the Israeli political mainstream. Hence they cannot be ignored.

Moving to the Israeli political center and left, a number of politicians and think-tank strategists and academicians advocate a unilateral move to dismantle West Bank settlements located beyond the settlement blocs and the security fence. Drawing lessons from the problematic Gaza Strip withdrawal of 2005, they propose leaving the IDF in place even after the settlements are removed, thereby hopefully ensuring that hostile elements like Hamas won’t fill the void.

Here it is important to note that recently deposed Labor leader Isaac Herzog and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid have adapted their views to the inclinations of a right-voting public and essentially abandoned demands for an immediate two-state solution. They suggest that in the best case such a solution has to be postponed for 10-15 years. Their objective in advocating steps like unilateral withdrawal is essentially to keep the process alive.

In other words, with the exception of Meretz, and leaving aside PM Netanyahu’s occasional ritual pledges of allegiance to a two-state solution he is doing everything to undermine, few in the Israeli Zionist political mainstream today believe that a two-state-solution is currently attainable. Here and there we also encounter references to a three-state solution under which the Gaza Strip becomes a separate political entity.

Secretary General Guterres, take note.


Q. Guterres also visited the Gaza Strip, stated that the humanitarian situation there was one of the most dramatic he had seen, and called for removing the punitive siege of the Strip. Any hope this will have some positive influence?

A. The UN contribution in Gaza is primarily through agencies like UNRWA, which runs schools and clinics for the Strip’s majority refugee population. If it wishes to improve matters, the UN can try to recruit members’ support to increase these agencies’ budgets. It can also pressure Israel and Egypt to open their borders with Gaza to a greater extent.

But the UN has no solutions to offer for the repeated aggression by Hamas and more extreme Islamists that is directed from Gaza against these two neighbors--the sole reason why border traffic is monitored so closely. Indeed, it has few levers for persuading Hamas to cease diverting aid monies intended for humanitarian purposes to its military buildup against Israel. Guterres visited the Gaza periphery kibbutzim and saw first-hand the threat of Hamas tunnels and rocket and mortar fire.

Whereas the UN is one of four members of the “Quartet” (along with the US, the EU and Russia) that has on occasion presented two-state solution ideas to Israel and the West Bank-based PLO leadership, it has no similar involvement in Gaza (neither the US nor the EU talks with Hamas). It seems that it can do little more than bemoan the truly awful humanitarian situation there.


Q. Finally, last week the UN Security Council extended the mandate of UNIFIL, the peacekeeping operation in southern Lebanon, for another year. Language was added to toughen UNIFIL’s response to Hezbollah. Will this make a difference as the clock ticks on renewed conflict between Israel and Iran/Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and Syria?

A. The tougher language reflects successful Trump administration pressures, informed by reports from Israel that UNIFIL was ignoring the Iran/Hezbollah arms buildup in South Lebanon. Particularly embarrassing for the UN was the contention of UNIFIL commander Michael Beary, an Irish major-general, that he had encountered no evidence of Hezbollah violations.

Israel, then, has been critical of UNIFIL’s performance. Yet no one in Israel disparages the overall UNIFIL contribution to maintaining quiet on the Israel-Lebanon border and resolving local border disputes. The bigger question is whether and to what extent UNIFIL, or the UN in general, can prevent broader escalation between Israel and Iranian-led forces, including Hezbollah, in the greater Syria-Lebanon arena.

Here the prospects of a UN conflict-prevention role are minimal. The Trump administration, too, has seemingly opted out of an influential role in southwest Syria near the Golan border.

Russia’s Putin holds most of the cards. Moscow refused to even mention Hezbollah specifically in recent Security Council discussions regarding renewal of UNIFIL’s mandate, presumably because Hezbollah is Russia’s ally in supporting the Assad regime in Syria.


Q. Summing up, where is the United Nations really relevant with regard to the Israel-Arab conflict, and where is it irrelevant?

A. Guterres has thus far proven friendly to Israel. If he wishes to be more involved in the Middle East arena, he could conceivably carry messages back and forth and even offer to mediate some aspect of the conflict. At a time of crisis between Israel and one or more neighbors such as Hamas in Gaza, his empathy and good offices could be important. And of course if all-out war breaks out, the UN Security Council will become the vital forum for ultimately ending the fighting.

Where the UN currently seems largely irrelevant, however, particularly in view of Guterres’s Ramallah statement, concerns the two-state solution. It would have been more helpful had the UN secretary general offered to assist, for example, with an Israeli withdrawal on the West Bank, unilateral or, preferably, negotiated. Guterres, who was the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees between 2005 and 2015, can be helpful in the Gaza Strip, particularly with regard to humanitarian issues or at a time of renewed crisis.

Finally, beefing up UNIFIL is an important step, albeit in the limited arena of southern Lebanon. And it would be nice to see a friendly secretary general like Guterres take Iran to task for calls by many of its leaders to destroy Israel, a fellow UN member, even if such a gesture is little more than that--a gesture.

Here it is important to recall the historical perspective. Israel was created by the United Nations. The UN has since 1948 been intimately involved in issues of Arab-Israel war and peace, beginning with Ralph Bunch’s successful brokering of the 1949 armistice agreements with Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. UN peacekeeping forces have over the years patrolled Israel’s borders with belligerent Arab neighbors--currently Syria (UNDOF) and Lebanon/Hezbollah (UNIFIL). UNTSO, the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization, is still based at the old British mandatory headquarters in Jerusalem.

Among negative UN contributions was UN Secretary General U Thant’s willingness to bow to the demands of Egyptian leader Gamal Abd al-Nasser in May 1967 and evacuate the Sinai peacekeeping force. This constituted a major negative contribution to the outbreak of the Six-Day War.

Israel has voiced endless complaints over the years regarding UN bias and UN mistakes. It has yet to occupy a seat at the Security Council. But it recognizes that it needs the UN and owes it much. Despite the UN’s obvious limitations and the constraints on its Middle East activities, Guterres’s friendship and counsel should be understood for what they are: valuable.

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