Can a P5+1 arrangement work for the Israelis and the Palestinians?

The P5+1 refers to the UN Security Council’s five permanent members, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China, plus Germany.
Sunday 28/01/2018

If US President Donald Trump wanted to wash his hands clean of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, his Jerusalem decision seems to have done the trick.

The Palestinian Central Council, the second-highest decision-making body in the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), declared that the US administration “has lost its eligibility to function as a mediator and sponsor of the peace process.” The council called on the PLO Executive Committee, the body with the power to implement policy decisions, to “work to reverse” the Trump administration’s declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and find “other international pathways” to sponsor the Palestinian cause.

While the Executive Committee is unlikely to act on the Central Council’s more ambitious recommendations, such as the wholesale suspension of the Oslo Accords, it does seem to be considering other avenues for mediation.

In a speech before the Central Council, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas explained that the Palestinians “would be open to a similar negotiations format to the P5+1 and Iran nuclear negotiations.”

Could a P5+1 arrangement work for the Israeli-Palestinian impasse?

The P5+1 refers to the UN Security Council’s five permanent members — the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China — plus Germany. In 2015, those six powers struck an agreement with Iran in which Tehran would dismantle much of its nuclear programme and grant international inspectors access to sensitive sites in exchange for the lifting of US, EU and UN sanctions.

Multiparty mediation can find success in certain contexts, as it did with Iran. The P5+1 countries shared an interest in rolling back Iran’s nuclear programme and were willing to exert significant leverage to do so.

The United States, hoping to seize a perceived opening with Iranian President Hassan Rohani, proved willing to ease foreign policy priorities in Syria and Ukraine to ensure Russia’s cooperation.

Russia saw preventing the emergence of a nuclear power near its borders as a vital security interest. China, the United Kingdom, Germany and France found the appeal of a new trade and energy partner hard to resist. Iran, under pressure from economic sanctions, felt compelled to participate to avoid a domestic political crisis and re-engage in the global economy.

Shared interests, coupled with the tailored application of leverage, drove cooperation.

Such a confluence of interests does not exist regarding Israel and the Palestinian territories. To begin, it is unlikely the Trump administration would allow the multi-lateralisation of a process it promised would lead to the “deal of the century.” Rather, it would view overtures from the likes of France and Russia as attempts to sideline the United States in matters of international peace and security.

Nor is there evidence the other P5+1 countries would agree to participate in a multiparty mediation process on Israel and the Palestine territories. The parties simply do not share enough interest to resolve an issue that falls towards the bottom of their foreign policy priorities.

The wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen, the migration crisis and counterterrorism in Africa’s Sahel region pose far greater challenges to the P5+1 with deeper implications for Middle East security.

Against this backdrop, the Israeli-Palestinian status quo might be seen as a source of relative regional stability.

Of course, the Palestinians cannot be blamed for seeking alternatives to what they perceive to be unjust mediation. The US-backed process has wrought decades of tangible pressure on the Palestinians, forcing their hand on key issues such as settlement construction and water rights. The Trump administration’s decision to cut funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees until the Palestinians return to the negotiating table was perhaps the icing on the cake.

Israel, on the other hand, has experienced little pressure throughout recent years of the US-backed process. The status quo serves its interests quite well. Aside from occasional pontification by US presidents, Israel has proceeded with its settlement programme, maintained its strategic depth through a permanent military presence in the West Bank, appeased domestic right-wing groups that demand absolute Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and continued the process of regional normalisation.

Absent tangible pressure, Israel is unlikely to change its behaviour and allow Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem.

Would a change in the mediation arrangement lead to more tangible pressure on Israel? The P5+1 countries are unlikely to exert leverage on an issue that falls towards the bottom of their regional priorities and on which they share little strategic interest.

It follows, then, that the mediation arrangement doesn’t really matter. The Palestinian leadership, rather than forum shopping, should focus on building new sources of leverage. These sources are political, not technical. Tangible progress comes from strategic shifts, not methodological troubleshooting.

Expanding the political playing field would be a good start. Bringing new, young and gender-diverse leadership into the mix will help rebuild trust with domestic constituencies and inspire new hope in the Palestinian cause. The Palestinian people remain the PLO’s most significant asset — and potential source of leverage.