After three inconclusive peace initiatives and three devastating wars in Gaza during the past several years, Robert Serry considers that the Israelis, Palestinians and the international community, including the Security Council, need to do some soul searching and come up with a fresh approach to Middle East peace efforts.
“You cannot repeat the same experiment time and again,” Mr. Serry, the outgoing UN Special Coordinator (UNSCO) for the Middle East Peace Process, said, referring to Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity as doing something over and over again and expecting a different result.
“I am not saying that we are insane, but after 20 years of trying to make peace based on the Oslo Accords and failing to reach it, there is time for some introspection by everybody concerned, first and foremost the parties themselves,” he said.
Since 2012, Mr. Serry – who led UNSCO for the past seven years – has cautioned that the peace efforts in the Middle East were no longer heading in the right direction towards a two-State solution with an independent State of Palestine alongside the State of Israel, but towards what he could only describe as a “one-State” reality outcome.
“It’s not that I think that in the coming months they may only be there, in fact we have already been heading into that direction for in effect a dangerous time,” he told Politically Speaking.
“I still remember that as the United Nations, we gave the Palestinian state-building efforts the certificate of having passed the threshold of a functioning state. That happened in May 2011,” continued Mr. Serry. “At the same time, what happened already then was that there was no political convergence. As if we were building a Palestinian house without a roof, without a political roof.”
The framework for the peace effort is set out in Security Council resolution 242 (1967) which was adopted following the Six-Day War and embodies the principle of land for peace, and resolution 338 (1973) calling for a ceasefire in the Yom Kippur War.
The preamble to resolution 242 notes “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war and the need to work for a just and lasting peace in which every State in the area can live in security.”
The conflict in the Middle East, however, has been before the United Nations for far longer. In December 1948, the General Assembly adopted resolution 194, which defined the principles for reaching a final settlement to the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, building on efforts by UN Mediator Folke Bernadotte. At the time it was adopted, the UN General Assembly had 58 Member States; today there are 193 Member States.
Why then is peace in the Middle East so elusive?
In his last briefing to the Security Council on 26 March 2015, Mr. Serry urged the international community to define a new framework for negotiations. He noted that resolution 242 is almost 50 years old. The Council added two resolutions during the first year of his tenure, resolutions 1850 (2008) and 1860 (2009), but he said neither gave him much guidance.
“Peace is first and foremost the responsibility of the parties to the conflict. But that reality cannot absolve international institutions of their responsibilities,” he said, adding that the Quartet “largely failed to live up to expectations.”
“It remains the primary responsibility of this Council to play its role in developing a new peace architecture for resolving the conflict at long last… Hasn’t the time come, Mr. President, for the Council to lead?”
Any new strategy must prioritize Gaza, he has stressed.
“I am a bit devastated that I leave my position with Gaza in even worse situation than before I started in 2008,” Mr. Serry told Politically Speaking.
He boiled down the underlying political issues in Gaza to two main points – the need for a more stable ceasefire and an empowered Government of National Consensus.
Mr. Serry has called for a “reconstruction hudna”: a freeze of all military activities above and below ground over at least a three-to-five-year timeframe. This would allow time and give donors confidence for large-scale, accelerated reconstruction.
“Otherwise you are investing again maybe in a political black hole. And as our Secretary-General [Ban Ki-moon] has been saying during the war emotionally, and I think he captured very well the mood of everybody: Are we going to reconstruct Gaza for the third time for it to be destroyed again?”
The construction and reconstruction effort in the Strip is overseen by the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism, a temporary agreement brokered by the United Nations in September 2014 between the Government of Palestine and the Government of Israel.
As of 23 March, almost 80 per cent of damaged shelters have been processed through this mechanism, with over 61,000 individuals having procured construction materials to carry out home repairs.
In addition, the mechanism is ready to process large-scale reconstruction according to the latest figures. Over 40 international and private sector projects have been approved and five are already underway – including Qatar’s first major housing project to construct 1,000 housing units.
Mr. Serry has spent much of the last months working to have construction materials brought in, but cautioned that the work is “going too slow”.
“If we don’t change the dynamics in Gaza then I am worried, again, pessimistic, that what we have seen happening every time and again that Gaza explodes, that it could happen again,” he said in reference to the latest fighting in July and August 2014. The 51-day conflict saw neighbourhoods flattened, with nearly 2,200 Palestinians and some 70 Israelis killed.
Seven dwellings used by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) to house internally displaced persons were shelled during the conflict.
Impartial, not neutral
As the UN Envoy, Mr. Serry said he tried to be fair and consistent, but said that does not mean that he was neutral. Headquartered in Jerusalem, he could meet on any given day either in Ramallah, talking to Palestinian interlocutors, or in the afternoon in Jerusalem or in Tel Aviv talking with Israeli interlocutors.
“I cannot but conclude that on many issues, when it comes to the settlement issue or to the house demolitions, and other things that are taking place, that the international community has an issue with Israel. And then of course I also have to speak up when necessary,” he said.
“When it comes to the Palestinians, I feel that as much as, in my view, settlements are an impediment, an obstacle to peace it is of course also Palestinian division. It is difficult to work towards peace in a situation where the Gaza Strip and the West Bank have different philosophies about how to reach that peace,” Mr. Serry added, stressing the importance of reconciliation and a Government of National Consensus.
Despite his pessimism about the lack of progress, he suggests that things would have been far worse without the United Nations.
“Gaza has been a top priority for the United Nations and for me. And again, I can’t say that my legacy now is that things have improved in Gaza in terms of the politics but I do feel that the United Nations has been up to the plate, so to say, in trying to help people in Gaza, in brokering ceasefires,” he said.
“Three times the Secretary-General came out also to stop the war. In particular during the second war in 2012 we were able to actually shorten that war, so that is a little bit my, if you want to talk about my legacy, that’s maybe how I look back at it. It’s not for lack of trying that the United Nations actually has been involved,” Mr. Serry added.
Mr. Serry plans to return to the Netherlands where he might write a book about his seven years in the Middle East and spend more time with his family. His position will be taken up by Nickolay Mladenov, who had led the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI).