Alexandria meeting on Palestine, Israel and the Middle East Peace Process

On 26-29 April, 2001, Pugwash Meeting no. 262 was held in Alexandria, Egypt.

7th Pugwash Workshop on the Middle East
Palestine, Israel and the Middle East Peace Process

By John Whitbeck

he 7th Pugwash workshop on the Middle East, entitled Palestine, Israel and the Middle East Peace Process, was held in Alexandria, Egypt, from 26-29 April, 2001. Hosted by the Swedish Institute in Alexandria in coordination with the Swedish Pugwash Group, the workshop brought together 21 participants from ten countries, including six Israelis and three Palestinians. Other Palestinians who had planned to attend were unable to do so due to a total blockade imposed on the occupied Palestinian territories in connection with Israel’s independence celebrations. The discussions were conducted in a straightforward, business-like atmosphere notwithstanding the extremely tense and grim situation on the ground in Israel and Palestine as the Al-Aqsa intifada entered its eighth month.

Discussions during the workshop focused on the successes and failures of the Oslo process, refugees, Jerusalem, areas for potential security, economic and scientific cooperation and how best to keep hopes for peace alive even if progress toward peace is unlikely in the near term.
The Oslo Process

While some participants cited certain successes attributable to the Oslo process and asserted that its failure was not inevitable, the emphasis of the discussion was on the flaws and foreseeable failure of the process.

One participant argued that the collapse of the Oslo process was virtually inevitable from the start and should surprise no one, that no amount of mutual concessions would have changed the results, that the official positions of both sides are irreconcilable and that psychological developments on both sides in recent months have made the obstacles to peace insurmountable.

Another participant cited as a principal flaw the procedural goal of relying on a gradual confidence-building process, with the parties moving from easy questions to more difficult ones. The possibility was raised that the chances of success might have been higher had the parties addressed the difficult questions first and attempted a global “one fell swoop” solution. Other “landmines” cited included: (1) the critical role given in the Declaration of Principles to UN Security Council Resolution 242 as the goal of the process, when each side knew well that the other had a radically different view as to what Resolution 242 means; (2) the great emphasis placed by the Declaration of Principles on joint economic development schemes (none of which were carried out); and (3) the failure of both sides to deal firmly with their own extremists. Continuing settlement building and expansion was also cited as an exacerbating element having a major confidence-destroying effect on Palestinian opinion.

Another participant, while sharing the general view that blame should properly be shared by both sides, felt that it was difficult to equate the occupier and the occupied. According to this view, when the Barak “offer” of July 2000, characterized as the most “generous” Israel would ever make, failed to constitute a true end to the occupation and a genuinely independent state in the 22 percent of historical Palestine conquered in 1967, despair set in and then exploded. There comes a time when people simply get fed up, and it should not be forgotten that the seven-year “peace process” followed a six-year intifada. The expectation of the Palestinian people was that occupation would be replaced by emancipation, but this did not happen. So-called “terrorism” has been the response to occupation throughout history in all kinds of colonial situations. So long as Israel chooses to continue the occupation, according to this view, it will be met with resistance, and the resistance will be suspended only when there is an agreed mechanism providing real hope for an end to the occupation.

Another participant saw the fundamental flaw in the Oslo process as the failure to make the understandings and expectations of both sides clear at the start. While the Palestinians assumed that the object of the process was to end the occupation, this participant felt that most Israelis assumed that the object of the process was to obtain Palestinian acquiescence in, and acceptance of, the occupation in a restructured form, as well as personal security for Israelis from the start of the process, even before the Palestinians could be sure where the process was leading.

Other participants suggested that it may be unfair to say that the Oslo process failed, because, like communism, it was never really tried, being overwhelmed by negligence, foot-dragging and sheer bad faith on both sides. Perhaps the process failed because, at various crossroads, the wrong decisions were consistently made, with both sides choosing to violate agreements and thereby creating distrust rather than trust.

One participant expressed the view that it will be much more difficult to relaunch the Oslo process than it was to start it in the first place, as perceptions of the “other” on both sides are now even worse than pre-Oslo and the enhanced expectations of peace, so dramatically disappointed, have produced a sense of betrayal and extreme distrust on both sides.

More encouragingly, a paper was presented which convincingly argued that viable alternatives for dealing with the refugee issue and the Palestinian right of return on a mutually satisfactory basis do exist.

This view contends that the widespread Israeli reaction to Palestinian insistence that Israel formally acknowledge the Palestinian right of return (i.e., that this insistence is proof that the Palestinians still seek Israel’s destruction and are not interested in peace), is both illogical and dangerous in its consequences. A distinction must be drawn, it was argued, between the Palestinian right of return (which exists as a matter of international law and does not depend on whether people were expelled or not, or on whether Israel formally acknowledges it) and the actual return of Palestinians to Israel. It was suggested that, while the Palestinian leadership seeks formal recognition of Palestinian rights, it does not seek the return of huge numbers of Palestinians to Israel.

The challenge presented was one of finding a way to accommodate the Palestinian right of return to Israel while avoiding any actual return in numbers so significant as to threaten Israel’s character as a Jewish state (a character implicitly accepted by Palestine through its explicit acceptance of UN General Assembly Resolution 181 in Palestine’s 1988 Declaration of Independence). Thus, the negotiating gap between the two sides was perceived as being more about conceptualization (absolute right vs. humanitarian generosity) than about actual outcomes.

It was suggested that, from a Palestinian standpoint, the option to have meaningful choices concerning whether or not to actually return to Israel is the central issue. Palestinian leaders need to be able to say to their people, “Yes, you have an opportunity to return to Israel, but you also have a variety of other options. Some of them are quite attractive. You choose.” Israeli and Palestinian negotiators should put aside the issue of the basis on which the options are grounded and concentrate on structuring an attractive “menu” of options from which each individual refugee could make his or her own personal choice. As a practical matter, if refugees are given an attractive set of resettlement options, the great majority would, it was argued, almost certainly not choose to resettle in Israel.

The paper emphasized the desirability of establishing an agreed “rate of return” to Israel rather than any total cap or time limit on return. The existence of a regulated rate of return would mean that if more Palestinians seek to return to Israel than this rate permits in the near term, candidates would have to wait in a queue. The greater the number who seek to return to Israel, the longer the queue and thus the longer the wait. This in turn would mean that opting to return to Israel would become less and less attractive compared to earlier resettlement elsewhere, accompanied by immediate access to a major financial package of assistance and compensation.

It was noted that, from an Israeli point of view, the return of some refugees is more threatening than the return of others, the least threatening being actual 1948 refugees, of whom the number still living is quite limited. The return of all actual 1948 refugees, accompanied by their minor children in the rare cases where minor children exist, should be possible. Such refugees would have no long-term impact on Israeli demographics and would pose no security threat. In the context of refugee resettlement, the possibilities of land swaps and bi-national zones were also evoked.

In response, one participant, while conceding that such ideas were intellectually sound, viewed gaining acceptance of them from any level of Israeli society as highly problematic. Another participant stated that any Israeli acknowledgement of the Palestinian right of return was out of the question since it would constitute an acknowledgement that Israel was “born in sin” and would thereby be totally contrary to Israel’s national narrative. Another argued that there was no reason to believe that any people given the right to immigrate to a rich state from a poor state would not avail themselves of that right. From another perspective, it was suggested that it is illogical to deny a right of return to people actually born in a particular place while granting such a right to others based on some possible ancestors 3000 years ago.

Further long-term encouragement for the peace process was provided by a paper on Jerusalem suggesting that, in the aftermath of the Camp David negotiations, which shattered Israel’s taboo against any discussion of “sharing” or “dividing” Jerusalem, several viable options for a solution to the status of Jerusalem acceptable to both sides now exist.

The legal argument was developed (seemingly not disputed by any participants) that Israel currently possesses sovereignty (defined here as the state-level equivalent of legal title or ownership) over no part of Jerusalem (East or West) and that the only way that Israel will ever acquire sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem is by agreeing with Palestine on a fair basis for either sharing or dividing sovereignty over the city (or doing a bit of both) which is recognized as fair and accepted by the international community. Moreover, if Israelis perceived sharing or dividing sovereignty over Jerusalem as a way to acquire or achieve sovereignty over Jerusalem, rather than as a giving up or relinquishing of sovereignty over Jerusalem, then a mutually acceptable resolution of the status of Jerusalem (and hence peace) would be vastly easier to achieve.

It was emphasized that, in seeking a solution to the status of Jerusalem, it is essential to distinguish between sovereignty, which is an intensely emotional issue, and municipal administration, which is not, and that negotiators should focus first on agreeing upon administrative structures for an open, physically undivided and fully demilitarized city. It was further suggested that, while most Israelis and most Palestinians view sovereignty over Jerusalem as an objective of great importance to be secured, the more rational approach is to view it as an obstacle to peace to be overcome and to seek mechanisms and procedures to demystify and banalize the issue of sovereignty.

Three viable sovereignty alternatives with the potential to be acceptable both to most Israelis and to most Palestinians were cited: (1) a pure “condominium” solution, under which sovereignty over an undivided Jerusalem would be shared, making the city the one, indivisible and inspirational capital of two sovereign states; (2) a pure division solution, under which each state would have exclusive sovereignty with respect to those Jerusalem districts in which its people live; and (3) a mixed divide-and-share solution, under which the “condominium” principle of joint undivided sovereignty would apply only to the contested core of the city while sovereignty in the rest of the city would be divided as in the second alternative. It was proposed that the Palestinians might wisely propose all three alternatives simultaneously to Israel and undertake to accept whichever one Israel prefers.

It was noted that, during the Camp David negotiations, at the opposite extreme from the approach of finessing the sovereignty issue through joint undivided sovereignty over the whole city, minds were focused like a laser beam on the issue of exclusive sovereignty over the most sensitive square meters of the city for both sides, the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. Without any credible reason to believe that doing so would prove constructive, this approach was almost certainly not constructive. Adopting it risked converting a clash of nationalisms into a clash of religions, which is potentially much more dangerous and difficult to resolve.

Several participants agreed that it was most unfortunate that religious sites had become a focus of attention at Camp David and that it was most important that the religious aspect of the conflict not move to the forefront, since this could place the emphasis on absolute and abstract issues which are impossible to reconcile. One participant observed that putting religious people on any negotiating team is the best way to ensure that the problems at issue will not be resolved.

It was noted that there is a clear contradiction between the general consensus of Israelis and Palestinians that Jerusalem must be an open and undivided city and the current strong preference of both peoples for clear, “hard” borders between the states and peoples. Any peace requires a mutually satisfactory solution to the status of Jerusalem. Such a solution can only be found in the context of a “warm and open” peace with “soft” borders, but neither Israelis nor Palestinians are thinking any longer in terms of a “warm and open” peace.

Palestinian-Israeli cooperation

Discussion on security cooperation issues focused on the desirability (and implausibility) of including Israel within a Middle East Nuclear-Free Zone. While one participant argued that security issues cannot be delayed until after the “peace process” is completed and that the creation of such a zone and the enhancement of security for all in the region should be pursued in parallel with the “peace process”, another stated that Israel would only be interested in such a zone once a “comprehensive” peace has been achieved and Israel is convinced that it will last.

It was suggested that effective regional security (and not just Israeli-Palestinian security) is necessary and that, in the absence of ongoing multilateral security talks pursuant to the Madrid process, Pugwash might consider picking up this responsibility and challenge. There was vigorous disagreement as to the reasonableness of Arab fears over the threats posed by Israel’s weapons of mass destruction and missile capabilities and, in particular, by statements in April from Israeli Minister for National Infrastructure Avigdor Lieberman amounting to public threats to bomb the Aswan Dam.

Security problems at a personal level were also evoked with respect to the recent explosive growth in the availability of small arms in the occupied Palestinian territories, both among Palestinians and among Israeli settlers, resulting in a higher level of lethal violence during the current intifada than in the original one. Among the responses possible, it was proposed that the introduction of international peacekeeping forces, closer compliance with the Oslo-process limitations on arms, strengthening Palestinian civil society as an alternative to gun rule, and unilaterally removing some of the most provocative and violent settlements (particularly in the Gaza Strip) should be considered.

Visions of future economic cooperation, particularly with respect to water resources, agriculture, and environmental protection, were also presented. The potential for developing desalination plants based on natural gas deposits recently found off the Gaza coast was mentioned, and one participant urged the development of the Ashdod/Gaza/El Arish area as a cooperative tripartite “megaport”. More generally, it was suggested that economic growth in a Palestinian state should be viewed as an essential Israeli security imperative.

The future

Little optimism was expressed about progress toward peace while Ariel Sharon is Israel’s prime minister. There was a consensus that, in light of the current dangerous cycle in which each side disbelieves in the sincerity of the other side and sees no hope for peace, the immediate need is for short-term crisis management to prevent the situation from spiraling completely and irremediably out of control.

Various suggestions were made for constructive steps which could, nevertheless, be taken in the near term. These suggestions included: (1) replacing the Palestinian Authority with an internationally recognized Palestinian state; (2) ensuring a total freeze on all settlement building; and (3) preventing inflammatory unilateral actions by either side. It was also suggested that the Palestinian leadership needs to put forward publicly a clear and detailed description of the peace that Palestine seeks, in order to generate more support for peace among Israelis.

Several participants noted that both sides seem to be hoping that if they inflict enough pain on the other, over a long enough period of time, then the other side will lose heart and give them what they failed to achieve through negotiations – an end to the occupation or acquiescence in the occupation. However, no participant expected that such violence would result in a satisfactory solution for either side in the foreseeable future.

The Pugwash Conferences would like to thank the Swedish International Development Agency for providing partial support for the workshop.

List of Papers

Working Papers

Joseph Alpher (Israel): The Oslo Process: Failures, Lessons, Alternatives

Carin Atterling Wedar (Sweden): Is There a Choosen People?

Jeffrey Boutwell (USA): Light Weapons and Israeli-Palestinian Peace

Herbert Marcovich (France): Palestine, Israel and the Middle East Peace Process

George Mirsky (Russia): Arab-Israeli Relations: The Way Forward

Mohammed Kadry Said (Egypt): Crisis of Idealism in the Middle East. The Nuclear Dilemma

Maher El-Kurd (Palestine): Israeli-Palestinian Relations: An Appraisal

Background Papers/Documents

Gabriel Baramki (Palestine): “The Necessary Ingredients for a Comprehensive and Lasting Peace in the Middle East from a Palestinian Perspective”, paper presented at the ISODARCO Winter Course, Andalo (Trento), Italy, 21-28 January 2001

Ove Bring (Sweden): “The Condominium Solution as a Gradual Process: Thoughts of an International Lawyer after the Conference”, Afterword in Negotiating the Future: Vision and Realpolitik in the Quest for a Jerusalem of Peace, ed. by Chaia Beckerman (1996)

David Makovsky (USA): “Middle East Peace Through Partition”, in Foreign Affairs, March-April 2001, pp. 28-45.

Jerome Segal (USA): Right of return confusions

John V. Whitbeck (USA/Ireland): “The Status of Jerusalem under International Law,” an address given at the Conference of the United Arab Emirates Jurists Association on “Human Rights under Israeli Occupation” in Sharjah on April 11, 2001

John V. Whitbeck (USA/Ireland): “Time for a New Language of Peace,” International, March 2001, pp. 22-23



Participant List

Mr. Joseph Alpher
Independent Writer/Consultant and Director, The Political Security Domain [formerly: Director, Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv University]

Ms. Carin Atterling Wedar
Lecturer in History of Religion and Ethics; Secretary-General, Swedish Initiative for Peace, Security and International Relations (SIPSIR), Stockholm, Sweden; Board Member, Swedish Pugwash Group

Prof. Amatzia Baram
Lecturer, Department of Middle East History, and Director, The Jewish-Arab Center and the Middle East Institute, University of Haifa, Mount Carmel, Haifa, Israel

Prof. Gabriel Baramki
Consultant to the Palestinian Ministry of Higher Education, Jerusalem; President, Palestinian Council for Justice and Peace ; Member, Pugwash Council [formerly: Acting President, Birzeit University; Secretary-General, Palestinian Council for Higher Education]

Ms. Hania Bitar
Director General, Editor-in-chief, Palestinian Youth Association for Leadership and Rights Activation (PYALARA), East Jerusalem

Dr. Jeffrey Boutwell
Executive Director, Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, Cambridge, MA, USA [formerly: Associate Executive Officer, American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS), Cambridge; Staff Aide, National Security Council, Washington, DC]

Gen. (ret.) Shlomo Brom
Senior Research Associate, The Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv, Israel [formerly: Deputy for Security Policy of the National Security Advisor (in the National Security Council; Director of Strategic Planning in the Planning Branch of the IDF GHQ]

Prof. Francesco Calogero
Professor of Theoretical Physics, University of Rome “La Sapienza”, Rome, Italy; Chairman, Pugwash Council [formerly: Secretary-General (1989-97), Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs; Member (1982-92), Governing Board, SIPRI]

Dr. Maher El-Kurd
Economic Advisor to the President of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA); Secretary General of The Higher Commission for Investment and Finance; Deputy Minister for Economy & Trade

Amb. Omran El-Shafei
Adviser, National Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Cairo, Egypt; Retired Ambassador [formerly: Permanent Representative of Egypt to the European Office of the UN, Geneva; Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs; Assistant Foreign Minister]

Amb. Ahmed Haggag
Advisor for African Affairs to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Egypt, Cairo [formerly: Ambassador of Egypt to Kenya (1982-86); Director of African Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1986); Assistant Secretary General, Organization of African Unity (1987-1999)]

Dr. Fawzy H. Hammad
F ormer President, Atomic Energy Authority (AEA) of Egypt, Cairo; Professor Emeritus, AEA [formerly: Professor of Material Science, AEA; Presidence, National Center of Nuclear Safety]

Gen. (ret.) Dr. Mohamed Kadry Said
Head of Military Studies Unit and Technology Advisor, Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, Al-Ahram Foundation, Cairo, Egypt; Professor of Missile Mechanics of Flight, Military Technical College (MTC), Cairo [formerly: Deputy Director, Center of Defence Studies, Cairo]

Prof. Herbert Marcovich
Retired Professor of the Institut Pasteur, Paris, France, and former Member of the Pugwash Continuing Committee in 1962, and one of the five members of the Pugwash Executive Committee at its creation in 1963

Ms. Merri Minuskin
Director, Middle East Desk, International Institute for Solidarity and Development, Israel; Pedagogical Advisor, Arab Teachers Training College; Teacher of Psychology and Sociology [formerly: Director, International Affairs and Arab Relations, Beit Berl Institute]

Prof. Gueorgui Mirski
Chief Research Fellow, Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO), Moscow, Russia [formerly: Professor, Moscow State Institute of International Relations (1970-90); Chief of Section, Head of Department, IMEMO (1959-82); Visiting Professor, Princeton University (1995-97); Visiting Fellow, US Institute of Peace, Washington, DC (1991-92), London School of Economics & Political Sciences (1993)]

Dr. Jerome Segal
Director, The Jerusalem Project, Center for International and Security Studies, University of Maryland, College Park, MD, USA; President, The Jewish Peace Lobby [formerly: Senior Advisor for Agency Planning, US Agency for International Development]

Prof. Emmanuel Sivan
Vice-President, Israel Science Foundation, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel; Professor, Hebrew University [formerly : Advisor, Prime Minister’s Office (1984-86)]

Mrs. Charlotta Sparre
First Secretary, Embassy of Sweden, Cairo, Egypt [formerly: Desk Officer, Middle East Peace Process, Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Stockholm

Mr. John Whitbeck (USA/Ireland)
Lawyer, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Dr. Aharon Zohar
Consultant, Regional and Environmental Planning, Carmei-Yosef, Israel [formerly : Director, Ashdod Regional Association for Environmental Protection]


Claudia Vaughn
Pugwash Conferences