The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is one in which the international community has played, plays and will continue to play a determining role. It is a conflict where the conventional wisdom - perhaps more than experience shows - is that the parties left on their own to negotiate will not bring about an end to conflict. The main reason for this is the lopsided balance of power between the two parties. For as long as the stronger party, Israel, is not willing to compromise on its own accord, third parties are needed to even out the negotiations.
This article seeks to provide an overview of the status of international involvement as it stands today and as it should develop in the future to help bring about peace. But if one presumes international involvement is essential to bringing about an end to conflict, one must take into account the level of international involvement there has been in the past and understand what role it has played in bringing about the catastrophic situation that Palestinians live in today.
The question then becomes, what went wrong? What did the international community do, or not do, that saw this situation arise? How can it be remedied? Will it be remedied?

International Impotence
The clearest signal that we are moving away from, rather than toward, a solution is Israel's continued settlement activity and its recent variant, the separation wall. That activity represents one of the international community's biggest failures and is almost a case study in international impotence.
Israel's settlement policy dates back to immediately after the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967. It was the single most obvious signal of intent as to Israeli plans for the future of the Occupied Territories. It is also one of the most blatantly illegal acts according to international law. The policy, it is worth bearing in mind, has been pursued by all Israeli governments since the occupation without fail, including the 1992 government of Yitzhak Rabin. Indeed, the greatest portent of Oslo's failure was the doubling in the number of settlements that took place in the immediate aftermath of the signing of the Declaration of Principles on the White House lawn in 1993.
All signatories to the Geneva Conventions, including Israel, are bound by these strictures in their conduct as nation-states, and the Geneva Conventions are as unequivocal about the illegality of the acquisition of territory in war as they are about the illegality of an occupying power acting to "deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies."
Despite this, and despite the consistent condemnation by the international community of the settlement policy, settlement building has only accelerated over the years and now finds a new form in the separation wall. Beyond the impact the wall has on local populations, it is routed in such away that can only mean a land grab.

Attrition and Ineffectiveness
What, then, is one to make of the international community's efforts in the regard?
That the settlement issue is recognized as crucial by the international community is evident from the fact that in all formulas for ending the conflict - from UN resolutions to the Oslo Accords, from the Mitchell Report to the Quartet's Road Map - there has been a call, in one way or another, for a halt or freeze to all settlement activities. Yet, Israel has continued apace and the international community has not been successful in applying pressure on the Israeli government to stop. In fact, over time, the international community's position on settlements has even suffered from attrition, something especially true in the case of the United States, the most important international player.
The initial position of the U.S. was that settlements are illegal, in line with international law, and an obstacle to peace. But during the Madrid negotiations and later evident in the Oslo Accords, that position changed somewhat to one of settlements being an issue for final status negotiations and thus something to be bargained over. Finally, and recently, during Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's fateful visit to Washington in April, 2004, the settlement issue was once again reassessed as part of the "reality" that must be taken into account during final status negotiations, and U.S. President George Bush even took to describing them as "population centers."
While the European position has been more consistent, one must measure things by their outcome. The EU is Israel's biggest trading partner. If the EU was serious in its position on illegal Israeli settlements in occupied territory, one would have thought that it would have used this most potent weapon to apply pressure on Israel, much as pressure was applied on the South African regime during the Apartheid era. But nothing has happened. Even a relatively simple issue, such as an academic boycott on Israeli universities, after the Israeli government started closing down Palestinian universities, never transpired, beyond a few universities here and there.

Unacceptable Unilateralism
Such international reluctance to enforce its own principled stance regarding settlements and to apply real pressure on Israel has led directly to where we are today. The only thing on the table, in terms of negotiations, is the Quartet-sponsored Road Map of April 2003 and its accompanying UN Security Council Resolution 1397. The Road Map, Israel's 14 reservations notwithstanding, was accepted by all, but enforced by none. As a result, we are now left with Sharon's unilateral plan for Gaza.
Whatever the details of Sharon's plan, unilateralism is simply not an answer, unless it involves the reversal, fully and finally, of the occupation of Palestinian territory. Any attempt by one party to impose a solution contrary to UN resolutions or to preempt the implementation of these resolutions can only backfire.
As it stands, the plan's contours will not amount to a real withdrawal. While Gaza settlements, allegedly, are slated for evacuation, nothing real can come of it if the Gaza Strip remains a large prison, i.e., if Israel maintains control over its air and water space, as well as the border with Egypt, and reserves for itself the right to enter the Strip militarily, at will.
In addition, it has long been recognized by various international bodies, including the EU, the UN and the World Bank, that no end to conflict can be achieved with the economic pressure that Palestinians live under in the current situation. It is also recognized that donations and handouts alone simply will not correct such a situation, that for a Palestinian economy to establish itself and grow, simple things are a prerequisite, including the free flow of goods and people within the Palestinian territory and over its borders, as well as freedom from incursions and bombardments. As long as the Israeli occupation continues, no Palestinian economy can grow, no infrastructure can develop, and no horizon can be created for building peaceful relations between the two peoples. This applies to the Gaza Strip right now in the context of Sharon's plan, and the West Bank and any future Palestinian state equally.
Furthermore, while talk has been focused on what may or may not happen in the Gaza Strip, the construction of the separation wall continues apace in the West Bank - the most recent Israeli effort to preclude any settlement based on 1967 borders. And it was in this context that Sharon's April meeting with Bush was so fateful. With his Gaza withdrawal plan warmly received by the U.S. administration, Sharon at the same time garnered the necessary guarantees to shore up the illegal settlements in the West Bank, and preclude a right of return of Palestinian refugees, the two most important issues for an end to conflict. All of this was done without any consultation with the Palestinian side, and constitutes the most blatant attempt by Israel to impose a solution in overt collusion with the U.S. administration.
Again, one must chance every opportunity. As long as the international community is unwilling to enforce the Road Map, the Gaza withdrawal plan offers the only prospect of change on the table. It is in this context, I believe, that we should see the current Egyptian involvement, an involvement I can only assume is aimed at placing Sharon's plan in the context of the Road Map and ensuring that any withdrawal from Gaza is a real withdrawal.
If the Gaza withdrawal plan can be placed within the context of the Road Map - and this can only be done if at the same time the construction of the separation wall is stopped; there is a withdrawal of Israeli forces to pre-September 2000 position; a meaningful withdrawal from Area C; and a real end to the occupation of the Gaza Strip - then a horizon may be provided to people that real progress is in the cards.

Prospect for Meaningful Engagement
The Road Map does represent progress of sorts. While in the past, we were pressed to go into negotiations without any clear outline of an outcome, the Road Map recognizes certain parameters for a solution; that is, a Palestinian state along the1967 borders. Having defined an outcome, the question of negotiations becomes how to get there. But the lack of enforcement of the Road Map has unfortunately not allowed any such negotiations to take place.
Whereas UN General Assembly Resolution 181 provides the only legally defined borders of Israel, UN Security Council Resolution 242, stressing the principle of the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory in war and implying a Palestinian state along the 1949 armistice lines, has been accepted by the Palestinian side as a meaningful framework for a solution. Under no circumstances can, or will any elected Palestinian leadership accept changes to these lines that are not mutually agreed upon and without a land swap on a one-to-one basis, meaning as much, and as good quality, land if any deviation is to be accepted. The fact that the Palestinian leadership is willing to negotiate minor changes to the 1967 armistice lines, however, should in no way be construed as an acceptance, implicit or otherwise, of the illegal settlements. Any such land swap can only be done in the context of two sovereign entities trying to work out border issues to the benefit and in the interests of both parties.
Indeed, the Palestinian stance on all major issues, from refugees to settlements to borders, has been consistent ever since the PLO adopted the two-state solution. That position lies squarely within the parameters of international law and is neither particularly controversial nor particularly impractical. Yet this very pragmatic stance has time and again been ignored by the Israeli side, unfettered by the international community, and unshackled by any balance of power vis-à-vis the Palestinian side. Thus, a debilitating status quo has been created, whereby the powerful is unwilling to negotiate on any reasonable premises, and the weak is steadfast in standing for its inalienable rights.
It is, therefore, the international community's responsibility to live up to its obligations and enforce international law. The high contracting parties, signatories of the Fourth Geneva Convention, must not only respect the articles of the convention, but must also ensure respect thereof. What does not seem to be well understood by the international community is that, on the Palestinian side, the peace camp is the PLO/PNA. It is in Israel that the peace camp is marginalized. This is disastrous for both peoples. As long as only Palestinians are asked to make compromises, no solution will be reached. Considering the compromises already made on the Palestinian side, it is Israel that needs to make "compromises," i.e., live up to its obligations under international law. If, as is the present case, with the Israeli peace camp marginalized, Israel is not willing to do so on its own accord, it is up to the international community to compel Israel to do so.
It is unfortunate in this context, therefore, that the U.S. appears to be moving in exactly the opposite direction. It is equally unfortunate that the EU appears unwilling to stand up to the U.S. It is inarguable that this willful international torpor will serve only to prolong the conflict. It would be foolishly optimistic for any Palestinian to believe that, given all that has taken place in the past, with the same international reluctance to confront Israel, this should change any time soon.
Times do change, however. The world is rapidly becoming an unsafe place. There is terrorism from Bali to Spain. Those who wish to bury their heads in the sand, to not see a connection between the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and that violence, are welcome to seek explanations from biology and wheel out 19th century European racist ideas in defense of their ignorance. For others not so willfully blind, the time has come to ask the question: How long will the international community allow its own laws and strictures to be flouted blatantly and in abandon by Israel, creating the lack of confidence in the international order that we see today? It is exactly that lack of confidence that enables those who wish to take advantage of the disempowered to do so in the most extreme of manners. <