Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks Must Be Inclusive

Samantha Constant and
Samantha Constant Associate Director, Middle East Youth Initiative
Edward Sayre
Edward Sayre Former Brookings Expert, Assistant Professor of Political Science, International Development and International Affairs - University of Southern Mississippi

September 29, 2010

Editor’s note: this article originally appeared in The Guardian on September 29, 2010.

The future of a viable Palestinian state will ultimately lie in the choices that President Abbas makes in the coming days. His overtures to the Arab League to garner support on next steps is a positive move.

Whether or not the peace talks will proceed in the long run is unclear. But if negotiations are to continue – and be successful – now is the time for Abbas to re-examine how they can truly become more inclusive and representative of the realities at play in the West Bank and Gaza.

With Gaza under the control of Hamas, decision-making regarding the future of its population’s welfare and statehood will end up without the buy-in of Hamas. Saudi Arabia, a major player in past peace negotiations, is currently sidelined while it could serve as a stabiliser of relations between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. The exclusion of affected players around the table makes neither political nor economic sense.

Finding a way to bring Gaza representatives into the discussions is critical, not only for the legitimacy of the negotiations but because in order to have a viable and sustainable two-state solution, the West Bank and Gaza need to be integrated economically.

Currently, the government of Israel has in place more than 500 barriers to movement in the West Bank. In 2008, a World Bank study found that these barriers increase costs to Palestinian businesses by increasing the distance of internal routes from one West Bank town to another by as much as 40%. Additionally, with the completion of the security wall, the government of Israel plans on implementing a “back-to-back” transportation system for all goods from the West Bank moving into Israel. In Gaza, the back-to-back system caused delays of more than 24 hours at the Karni crossing as well as increased costs and damaged goods because of excessive handling and spoilage during the loading and unloading process.

Even without this system, it takes almost two hours for Palestinian goods from the West Bank to cross into Israel. Since Israel is the destination for over 85% of Palestinian exports, representing 45% of total West Bank GDP, further delays will make Palestinian exports uncompetitive with those coming from Asia and Latin America.

For the West Bank to have a viable economic future, it needs Gaza. It needs the potential of a Gaza port and airport to serve as a connection to the outside world as Israel plans to continue the regime of imposing increasingly high costs on Palestinian imports and separation from the West Bank economically. Today, outside a few areas of growth, the Palestinian economies of both territories continue to suffer. Unemployment in 2009 was nearly 40% for men in Gaza and nearly 20% in the West Bank. This does not even take into account youth unemployment, which is as high as 65% in Gaza with young people having to wait an average of two years after graduation to find a job.

Because their economic future depends on each other, the current diplomatic efforts need someone at the table who can speak for the interest of Gaza. Given Hamas’s militant position, this does not have to be Ismail Haniyeh or any other official Hamas representative. In fact, absence of direct talks with Hamas does not mean that indirect representation is impossible.

This could be achieved in two ways. First, a set of high-ranking bureaucrats or expatriate Palestinians who are sympathetic to Hamas could sit at side tables to the main talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel to ensure that Hamas’s voice is heard. Second, another Arab head of state could stand to represent and be a liaison to Hamas.

The second approach is more likely to be successful than the first. The reason is simple. Excluding Hamas from the talks is only one example of the many other representatives that are missing. Palestinians from outside the West Bank, including refugees in surrounding Arab states, do not have a voice for their interests. But because the issue of refugees is on the table, they too must be represented.

Saudi Arabia has emerged as the country that is best suited to give voice and represent the various political factions in a reconciliatory manner – especially when looking at how to tackle Palestinian-to-Palestinian politics. The Arab Peace Initiative, spearheaded by King Abdullah, showcases the country’s inclination toward addressing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict through regional Arab diplomacy and co-operation.

In a recent letter to the Saudis on their national day, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, acknowledged the contribution of the king’s regional vision via the bilateral peace talks. This now must translate into practical action: along with speaking to Syria about its role this week, the US – alongside Egypt and Jordan – needs to proactively seek other countries in the region to engage.

Securing peace is certainly a formidable challenge, but finding ways to sustain peace and prosperity can only be done through total inclusion and unbiased representation. Ultimately, the real test of success will be President’s Abbas’s ability to secure a deal that can bridge the growing political divide between the two territories and meet the economic needs of all Palestinians.