I write this in the aftermath of Sari Nusseibeh's interview with Haaretz correspondent Akiva Eldar1. Dr. Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University, esteemed Palestinian intellectual and cosignatory with Israeli Minister Ami Ayalon of the "The People's Choice" peace plan, states in the interview that, while he still favors it, "time is running out on the two-state solution." Indeed, despite declared good intentions, there remains little hope now that the current round of talks between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) will yield tangible results.

For different reasons, their respective political clocks are ticking. Even before announcing his resignation from office, many deemed that Olmert's alleged corruption would taint any agreement that bears his signature as illegitimate. In the Israeli peace camp, there are also those who argue that an agreement sealed at the last minute before his leaving office could have more damaging than beneficial effects on the support for future peace prospects within Israeli public opinion. Others contend that an agreement between Olmert and Abbas could still provide a basis for future negotiations. Be that as it may, and even if present efforts to conclude some kind of limited shelf agreement on principles does bear fruit, the total lack of political capital at the disposal of the present "lame duck" decision-makers on both sides, or of their successors in the foreseeable future, is likely to render its implementation all but impossible. An unimplemented shelf agreement against a simmering reality of disastrous humanitarian conditions in the occupied territories, let alone failure to reach such an agreement, gravely endangers the validity of the "two states for two peoples" vision and the vital support provided by the Arab Peace Initiative. The result would be yet another cycle of violence and bloodshed, with the very legitimacy of Israel as a democratic Jewish state being called into question, given the quasi-apartheid conditions in the occupied territories.

With this grim scenario in mind, and with little positive energy left locally among Israelis and Palestinians alike, a more proactive international involvement may turn out to be the only option left to save the region from tragic deterioration and from the potentially profound implications of such deterioration on its political and economic stability. The upcoming changing of the guard in the U.S. and a growing sense of urgency in Europe, possibly intensified by the darkening international horizon following the war in Georgia, provide an opportune moment to call for such an involvement. Admittedly, some past attempts in that direction in other regions have been less than encouraging. The performance of peacekeeping forces in other conflict zones, for instance, Cyprus, Bosnia and Kosovo, has been mixed.They showed that even an enormous international effort does not guarantee an immediate and swift solution to conflicts between national movements when the conflicts involve disputes of legitimacy and territory, as well as a clash of historical narratives, occupation, terrorism and the future of refugees, sometimes intensified by religious extremism.2

Given these and other examples, potential international participants are not likely to agree to an open-ended commitment and will not be prepared to get involved if it looks like the situation could become another Cyprus. On the other hand, the international experience in East Timor stands out as a model that did prove relatively successful. Although geographically distant and certainly far from being completely analogous, the application of some lessons of the East Timor example to the Middle East should be seriously considered.

From UNTAMET and INTERFET through UNTAET to Independence

East Timor was administered by Portugal for centuries. In 1974, as part of the de-colonization process, Portugal sought to establish a provisional government and a popular assembly that would determine the status of East Timor. Civil war broke out between those who favored independence and those who advocated integration with neighboring Indonesia. Unable to control the situation, Portugal withdrew. Indonesia intervened militarily in 1976 and annexed East Timor as its 27th province. Indonesian civilian settlers followed. The United Nations never recognized this integration, and both the Security Council and the General Assembly called for Indonesia's withdrawal.

Beginning in 1982, at the request of the General Assembly, successive secretary-generals held regular talks with Indonesia aimed at resolving East Timor's status amidst increasing violence in the territory Under growing international pressure, in June 1998, Indonesia proposed a limited autonomy for East Timor within Indonesia. The UN secretary-general was entrusted with organizing and conducting a "Popular Consultation" in order to ascertain whether the East Timorese people accepted or rejected a special autonomy for East Timor within the unitary Republic of Indonesia. To carry out the consultation, on June 11, 19993 the Security Council authorized the establishment of the UN Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) in accordance with Resolution 1246 (1999).

The resolution stipulated that UNAMET would oversee a transition period after the vote. Despite an extremely tight timetable, a high level of tension and the territory's mountainous terrain, poor roads and difficult communications, some 98% of registered voters went to the polls on voting day, August 30, 1999. They decided to reject the proposed autonomy in favor of transition to full independence by a margin of 21.5 % to 78.5 %.

Following the announcement of the results, pro-integration militias consisting partly of Indonesian settlers, and sometimes with the support of elements of the occupying Indonesian security forces, launched a campaign of violence, looting and arson throughout the entire territory. Many thousands of East Timorese were killed, and as many as 500,000 were displaced from their homes, with about half leaving the territory, mostly to West Timor, in some cases by force.

The Security Council and then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan undertook strenuous diplomatic efforts to halt the violence, pressing Indonesia to meet its commitments. A Security Council mission visited Jakarta and East Timor's capital, Dili, to rally support for a multinational force authorized by the Security Council to bring the situation under control. As the mission concluded its visit to Jakarta, the Indonesian government acceded to the offer of assistance from the international community. The Security Council mandated the multinational International Force for East Timor (INTERFET) under a unified command, initially led by an Australian and later by a Thai force. The INTERFET's mission was to restore peace and security in East Timor, to protect and support UNAMET in carrying out its tasks, to facilitate assistance operations and to fill the vacuum created by the eventual departure of the Indonesian military and police forces. The authorized maximum strength of INTERFET, later reorganized into a UN peacekeeping force, consisted of 9,150 military personnel.4

On October 25, 1999, the Security Council passed Resolution 1272, establishing the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) as an integrated operation fully responsible for the administration of East Timor during its transition to independence.5 Resolution 1272 mandated UNTAET to provide security and maintain law and order throughout the territory; to monitor the withdrawal of Indonesian forces and the departure of the Indonesian civil authorities; to establish an effective administration for the development of civil and social services; to support capacity-building for self-government; and to assist in the establishment of conditions for sustainable economic development. UNTAET consisted of a governance and public administration component, a civilian police component of up to 1,640 civilian police commanded by a Canadian chief superintendent, and an armed UN peacekeeping force into which the INTERFET force was integrated. In a donors' meeting in Tokyo in December 1999, the necessary funds were pledged for the financing of INTERFET's activities.

Soon after, INTERFET's administrator, Sergio Vieira de Mello from Brazil, in consultation with the East Timorese political leadership, established the National Consultative Council (NCC), a political body consisting of 11 Timorese and four UNTAET members. The NCC's major assignment was to oversee the decision-making process during the transition period leading to independence. This included setting up a legal system, re-establishing the judiciary, creating an official currency, setting up border controls, taxation and creating the first consolidated budget for East Timor.

The process of transformation and institution- building would later lead to the formation in August 2000 of a transitional cabinet consisting of eight portfolios. The cabinet approved the creation of an East Timor defense force composed of troops drawn primarily from the ranks of the former East Timor pro-independence guerillas.

In October 2000, a National Council (NC) was formed to replace and expand on the former NCC, and prepare the election of the Constituent Assembly. It comprised 36 members from East Timor's civil society - businesses, political parties, NGOs and the territory's 13 districts. On August 30, 2001, following the civil registration of all residents and two years after the Popular Consultation, more than 91% of East Timor's eligible voters went to the polls again; this time to elect an 88-member Constituent Assembly tasked with writing and adopting a new constitution, and establishing the framework for future elections and a transition to full independence. Shortly thereafter, 24 members of the new all-East Timorese Council of Ministers of the Second Transitional Government were sworn into office.

On March 22, 2002, East Timor's Constituent Assembly signed into force the territory's constitution, and following the presidential elections on April 14, José Alexandre Gusmão was appointed president-elect of East Timor. With both these preconditions for a hand-over of power met, the Constituent Assembly transformed itself into the country's parliament on May 20, 2002. Just after midnight on the same day, Annan formally handed over power to Gusmão. East Timor was proclaimed the first newly independent country of the 21st century.

UNTAP Along the Lines of UNTAET

There can be no argument with those who claim that there is no one-to-one resemblance between East Timor and the Israel-Palestine conflict. Indeed, the latter is far more complex. Unlike East Timor, it involves not only disputes over tangibles such as territory, settlements, sovereignty and borders, refugees, occupation and security, but also much more difficult to resolve intangibles such as issues of legitimacy and zero-sum-game clashes between historical and religious narratives. In contrast to East Timor at the time that UNTAET was established, in Palestine there is already in place a nominal and arguably functioning Palestinian Authority (PA), headed by an elected president. However, it is largely the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) that are preventing Hamas from mounting a military challenge to Abbas' control and stopping the West Bank from going the way of Gaza. Yet the more Abbas depends on the IDF, the more he is discredited in the eyes of the Palestinians. One of their most immediate and just demands is the removal of IDF roadblocks in the West Bank - which are rapidly turning the situation into a humanitarian disaster - to be followed by the gradual dismantling of Jewish settlements and, ultimately, an end to the Israeli occupation. But this will not happen until there is a dependable security force capable of filling the vacuum and taking effective control - something the PA cannot credibly assure. Palestinians need to rebuild their destroyed security capacity, but the Israelis require guarantees that their withdrawal, needed to provide the "space" necessary for such rebuilding, will not result in yet another Gaza-like terrorist state on their eastern border. While there has been increasing convergence in recent years on the parameters of a peace agreement between Palestinians and Israelis, the remaining gaps between the parties are extremely difficult to bridge, especially with the overshadowing total lack of trust between people on both sides.

It is against this background, and given the fundamental weakness of both the Israeli leadership and the Palestinian governing institutions, that reputable observers of the Middle East scene are renewing their call for trusteeship-like solutions.6 Accordingly, the West Bank to begin with, and at a later stage Gaza, is to be held in trust for the Palestinians for a pre-determined transitional period, while the trustees work with responsible Palestinian partners to create the institutions of a viable, independent state. As in East Timor, a UN Security Council-endorsed international force will replace the Israeli army in the occupied territories. The force will be responsible for maintaining order, preventing terror attacks against Israeli targets and rebuilding Palestinian security forces. According to expert projections7 it will have to consist of at least 10,000 troops, led by special forces and supplemented by civil police contingents (CivPol). U.S. or NATO leadership of the force is usually seen as a requirement for its success. European participation may provide a much-needed perception of impartiality to the effort. Arab and Muslim participation in the force would provide legitimacy, particularly if units from countries with open channels to both Israelis and Palestinians are included, such as Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Morocco and the Gulf States, under a consensual Arab League umbrella. Arab participation in the multinational force is of the utmost importance, in order to prevent its being construed as yet another neo-colonialist exercise in the region.

The security component of the trusteeship, as assertive as it may be, is of limited use on its own. Again, as in East Timor, albeit on a much larger scale, it must be linked to a wide-ranging humanitarian, economic and state-building effort on the part of the international community. The objective of that effort will be to develop the social, economic and institutional infrastructure for a viable Palestinian state. As has been pointed out before jointly by Israeli, Palestinian and international experts,8 what is urgently required is a comprehensive model of involvement, with clearly defined benchmarks, that rationalizes the present myriad agencies, aid programs and projects already on the ground. The need is for a coherent transitional civil structure under a single and strong political leadership, working hand-in-hand with the PA to build a stable governance capacity toward full sovereignty.

The planning considerations, underlying assumptions, mandate guidelines and the conditions that will have to be met for a massive and effective international intervention in the occupied territories have been spelled out in great detail before and need not be repeated here.9 However, two essentials should be re-emphasized: First, for any international intervention in the form of the proposed UN Transitional Administration in Palestine (UNTAP) or otherwise to have any prospect of success, it cannot be imposed, either on the Palestinians or on the Israelis. It needs to be credible and acceptable to both sides and to be supported by the majorities of their respective publics. Given the weakness of the political leaderships of both parties, civil societies and peace NGOs in Israel and Palestine, working together as they already do, could have a critical role in mobilizing such support.

Finally, UNTAP's role should not be confined to the need to facilitate an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, nor should it be viewed as a substitute for an ongoing political process. It should serve as a catalyst for bringing about a fundamental change in the overall conflict environment, by preparing the ground for the establishment of a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel, within the framework of the two-state solution.


1. Haaretz. com. August 15, 2008.
2. Shlomo Avineri, "What Cyprus, Bosnia and Kosovo Can Teach Us,", July 4, 2008.
6. See, for instance, Martin Indyk, "Is Trusteeship for Palestine the Answer?", June 27, 2007.
7. Uri Sagi and Gilad Sher, "Political Position Paper" (Hebrew), The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, August, 2002.
8. Amjad Atallah, Jarat Chopra, Yasser Dajani, Orit Gal, Jim McCallum and Joel Peters, "Planning Considerations for International Involvement in the Israel-Palestinian Conflict - Parts I and II." U.S. Army War College, Carlisle, PA.
9. Amjad Attalah, et al, op. cit. See also Joel Peters and Orit Gal, "International Intervention for Conflict Management and Resolution," Mark A. Heller and Rosemary Hollis (Eds.), Israel and the Palestinians (London: Chatham House, 2005), pp. 73-99.