John Whitbeck: The United Nations must impose a peace deal on the Middle East

'It is 10 years since the "peace process" began. It has produced a great deal of "process" and no peace.'
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The Independent Online

As the situation in the Middle East descends in a spiral of violence and counter-violence, we desperately need new thinking, not old cries for the parties to return to the negotiating table. It is time for everyone to accept that the conventional wisdom that Israeli-Palestinian violence should end and negotiations between the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships should resume makes no sense whatsoever – at least for Israelis and Palestinians.

The intractability and critical importance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as the despair of both peoples as they see no glimmer of hope for their futures, cries out for unorthodox yet practical thinking.

Palestinians are now being urged to renounce the internationally recognised right of resistance to an illegal occupation in return for the opportunity to negotiate with Ariel Sharon. If anyone had suggested to the leaders and people of occupied Kuwait that they should renounce resistance and negotiate with Saddam Hussein, such a suggestion would have been branded, correctly, as absurd and immoral. The conventional wisdom of the "international community" that the Palestinians should renounce resistance and negotiate with Ariel Sharon is no less absurd and immoral.

It is now more than 10 years since the current "peace process" began at the post-Gulf War Madrid Conference. It has, sadly, produced a great deal of "process" and no peace. If the conventional wisdom continues to prevail, the world will no doubt be discussing how to revive the "peace process" 10 years from now – indeed, probably 20 and 30 years from now. By definition, so long as there is a "peace process" there is no peace.

It should now be clear that the issues separating Israelis and Palestinians are too difficult and too emotionally charged for any Israeli leadership (let alone Ariel Sharon) and any Palestinian leadership (even Yasser Arafat) to reach a definitive peace agreement through bilateral negotiations. Indeed, on the Israeli side, this realisation has already taken hold, and has led to much discussion of unilateralist "solutions" to be imposed by Israel on Palestine.

If negotiations are recognised to be pointless (except for producing temporary lulls in violence), what are the alternatives? The first alternative is a continuation of the status quo, with each side hoping to inflict so much pain on the other over a sustained period that the other side eventually loses heart and gives them what they failed to achieve through negotiations – an end to the occupation, or acquiescence in the occupation.

It is most unlikely that either side will obtain satisfaction by such means in the foreseeable future. However, such a strategy does make somewhat more sense from a Palestinian perspective than from an Israeli one. While the chances of obtaining an end to the occupation through sustained violence are slim, the chances of obtaining an end to the occupation through bilateral negotiations alone are as non-existent as the chances of the Palestinians ever acquiescing in a permanent occupation, however restructured and relabelled.

The second alternative is for the "international community" to impose peace on the belligerents, leaving their respective leaderships no choice and thereby relieving them of the need to agree to anything (other than minor details of implementation) with the other side. To actually be implemented and to last, any peace must, of course, be perceived to be just and consistent with international law.

A special session of the UN General Assembly could be convened to put practical, up-to-date flesh on General Assembly Resolution 181 of November 1947, which recommended the partition of Palestine into two states. The fundamental parameters would necessarily not be fully acceptable to either side, but would be firmly rooted in international law, and relevant UN resolutions and would not be subject to contestation or negotiation.

If the General Assembly acted wisely, these parameters would be consistent with two fundamental principles of international law. First, the "inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war", an essential principle of the post-Second World War world order emphasised in the first recital to Security Council Resolution 242. This would confirm as the borders of the two states the lines of control prior to the June 1967 war. Second, the sovereign right of every state to determine who has a right of residence in that state. This would mean that only only those Israelis acceptable to Palestine would have a right of residence in Palestine and only those Palestinians acceptable to Israel would have a right of residence in Israel.

These principles are clear and comprehensible. Any variation from them or effort to "compromise" on them would lead away from a durable peace and back to the swamp of a never-ending "process". If all current Israeli settlements on Palestinian land occupied in 1967 were eventually evacuated but left intact and in good condition, then, particularly in light of the proven ability of Palestinians to live more tightly packed than Israelis, there might already be available sufficient (indeed, superior) housing for all Palestinian refugees currently living outside historic Palestine who would prefer return to the state of Palestine to other alternatives for resettlement (which should be made simultaneously and generously available), as well as for many currently living in refugee camps within historic Palestine.

The United States has no veto in the General Assembly, so its ability to water down any resolution there so as to make it unjust and inconsistent with international law (and thus to ensure that it would not produce peace) would be limited. If a constructive and principled General Assembly resolution along the above lines were passed on to the Security Council, the body capable of transforming recommendations into binding international law, for its ratification, the United States would know that a veto would cost it all remaining regional support for its "war against terrorism". This just might motivate the United States, if only for the wrong reason, to do the right thing.

Further Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are a dead end, not a viable option for peace. The only alternatives are continuing violence and a just peace imposed on the parties to the conflict by the United Nations. The latter alternative is much the better one, and it is urgent.

The author is an international lawyer who writes frequently on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict