Middle East peace needs UN resolution – Philip Stephens/FT.com

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Nearly half a century has passed since the UN Security Council set parameters for peace in the Middle East with the adoption of Resolution 242. The principles have weathered well, but the text is now in need of updating. With a fair wind and careful diplomacy, a revised statement could be tabled later this year. Alternatively, we could all give up on the idea of peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

The founding text on ending the Arab-Israeli conflict followed the Six-day war of 1967. It affirmed the right of states to live within secure and recognised boundaries, and called upon Israel to withdraw from the territories it had occupied during the war. There were one or two linguistic ambiguities, there always are in such documents, but the organising idea was plain enough. Maps cannot any longer be redrawn by force.

It took some time for the terms to win broad acceptance in the region. Six years after its adoption, the Arabs and Israelis fought the Yom Kippur war. It required another resolution — 338 — to secure a ceasefire. And it was many more years before the Arab world and Palestinians accepted Israel’s right to exist. The Security Council has adopted other statements since. Yet Resolution 242 remains the lodestar of what used to be called the peace process.

Three things now argue for revision. The international community has long coalesced around a two-state solution to the conflict (there was no mention of the Palestinians in 242); Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s headlong expansion of settlements in the occupied West Bank threatens to snuff out the fast-diminishing possibility of such an accord. And the US has shown itself unable to persuade Israel to bend.

For most of the time since 1967 the assumption has been that, as Israel’s closest ally and guarantor, only the US could broker peace. Others did their best to play a supporting role. Europe has spent decades writing cheques to the Palestinians. But multiple, failed, initiatives by the administrations of George W Bush and President Barack Obama, the latest beginning in the summer of 2013, have tested this approach to destruction.

Blame can be apportioned to both sides, but the running sore has been Israel’s refusal to end, or even slow, settlements expansion. This has extinguished trust in Israel’s intent and robbed US mediation of credibility. The Israelis and Americans have fallen out before, but no previous Israeli leader has shown the contempt Mr Netanyahu has displayed towards Mr Obama. The US remains the essential player in any negotiation, but Washington can no longer carry the process alone.

Breaking the deadlock now requires the application of pressure — on the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas as well as on the Israeli government — from the wider international community. The best route is through a Security Council resolution, which has 242 as its starting point but then lays out explicitly the ingredients of a final status agreement: 1967 borders adjusted for land swaps between Israel and the Palestinians; robust security guarantees for Israel; a shared capital of Jerusalem; and agreement on the future of Palestinian refugees. There is nothing new or secret in any of these propositions. At one point or another all sides have more or less signed up to them. But codifying them in a UN Security Council resolution would given them renewed force.

Until quite recently, any such effort would have foundered on the opposition of the US. But the mood in the White House has changed. The president’s frustrations with Mr Netanyahu, which span the proposed great power deal to limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions, have seen him begin to say publicly what officials have previously only hinted at. An Israeli government set on derailing a two-state peace accord cannot indefinitely rely on the protection of the US veto in the Security Council.

Nothing much can happen during the next couple of months. Mr Obama has his focus fixed on striking the nuclear deal with Iran. He does not want to widen the inevitable collision this will bring with Mr Netanyahu and with Republicans in the US Congress to include the Palestinian issue.

The president’s recent remarks may also be part of a tactical game to hold the Israeli government in check as he attempts to strike the deal with Tehran. Washington has shown itself distinctly cool towards a draft resolution proposed by the French government that would set a time limit on renewed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The clever thing for France to do would be to adjust the resolution to take account of US concerns, then to table it at the UN in the autumn.

Such a statement would not change anything overnight. Even discounting Mr Netanyahu’s wrecking tactics, the violent chaos that at present defines its neighbourhood is not going to see Israel rush into an agreement that could leave it exposed on the West Bank. For their part, the Palestinians cannot indefinitely hide behind Mr Netanyahu to avoid confronting the hard compromises they have to make.

The goal, though, must be to restore the two-states framework by bestowing it with the full authority of the Security Council. Many years passed before the protagonists in the 1967 war talked seriously about Resolution 242. But the principles endured. So must the idea of two states living side by side in peace and security.

philip.stephens@ft.com

Middle East peace needs UN resolution – FT.com.