Interview: Robert Serry on the ‘Endless Quest’ for Middle East peace and reflections from No Man’s Land
10 January 2017 – The United Nation’s former point person for Middle East negotiations has said that Israelis and Palestinians need at least the prospects of a two-state solution, and urged the international community to create conditions for more effective discussions in the future.
In his new book, Robert Serry offers an insider’s perspective on conflict management and peace efforts during the three most recent peace initiatives and three wars in Gaza. He shares his reflections on walking the tight rope of diplomacy between Israel and Palestine, his analysis of what has gone wrong and why a “one-state reality” may be around the corner.
Mr. Serry was the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process from 2007 to 2015. Speaking to UN News about his book, Mr. Serry, who was also the UN Secretary-General’s Personal Representative to the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority, admits that he has been struggling with questions about what his message should be given the length of time he spent with the UN.
“Parties should learn the lessons from what has happened during the past 20 years of field negotiations. If you simply repeat the experiment again, by putting the parties together at one table, and expecting a different result, well, according to Einstein, that is a definition of madness,” he said.
What then is the answer for achieving peace? His new book is The Endless Quest for Israeli-Palestinian Peace: A Reflection from No Man’s Land. He discussed it at a recent meet-the-author event at the UN Bookshop in New York.
The interview has been edited for clarity.
UN News: What inspired you to write this book?
Robert Serry: I think it was my long stay – I didn’t expect to stay for seven years – and also what I have been experiencing during these long seven years in Jerusalem, working on behalf of Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General, in the efforts of the international community to bring peace to Israel and to Palestinians. I never intended to stay that long, but every year my contract was extended. While I was doing the job, I started to think about reflecting on what was happening, because I feel that I have been there in what could have become a very decisive period in the history of this conflict. After all, we have seen three peace initiatives. The first one started at Annapolis, and the last one was the one of Secretary John Kerry, and I am afraid, not coincidentally, all peace initiatives were followed by wars in Gaza. The UN was in the midst of it, particularly in Gaza, where we have a major humanitarian responsibility to the people of Gaza, including the majority being refugees in Gaza. So the idea of writing a book grew while I was doing my work. I started to take some notes, and then I got this opportunity after I finally completed my assignment in 2015. I was offered the Sérgio Vieira de Mello Academic Chair’s position in the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University, not far from New York. There’s a unique cooperation, by the way, between the UN and this university, because it allows a former envoy like me, to take a step back and reflect on what you have done, what you have experienced. That actually gave me the opportunity, and inspiration to do what I have always done in mind during my work there, which is write a book. Writing is a little bit in my blood, I believe, because I have been writing another book about my stay for the Dutch government as the first Dutch Ambassador in Ukraine.
UN News: The subtitle – a reflection from no man’s land – how fitting is that, in your view?
Robert Serry: You always look for a title that will intrigue people. Why in no man’s land? It becomes clear in the preface of the book; I was working as the UN envoy, in no man’s land. In Jerusalem, you have the Government house, which was the previous residence of the last British Governor, before the British left. After the first Arab-Israeli war, that was designated in the first armistice between Israel and Arab countries as the no man’s land, and the UN bought it at that time for the first ever UN peacekeeping operation, which is UNSO…?), and of course now after many years of unresolved conflict, nowadays, the Special Coordinator or the Representative of Ban Ki-moon – the Highest Official – is also residing in that building. It sits on top of a hill, and historically in a Holy city. So I felt myself in a no man’s land, between Israel and the Palestinians. That is also why I put that in the subtitle of the book. Of course, there is also something else here: so much more land is still not allocated. If we think about what the border of Israel is, and what the future border of Palestine is going to be, it’s an illusion to that unfortunate situation.
UN News: How different is the most recent peace initiative from the previous two?
Robert Serry: I don’t think we can talk about a new initiative yet. The last one was the Kerry initiative, and I have been writing a chapter about it in the book. There are, of course, ongoing efforts, particularly with French participation at this point, to renew negotiations. I have been trying to take a step back, rather than thinking about a new process and rushing back to negotiations. Somewhere in my book, I am also saying that parties should learn the lessons from what has happened during the past 20 years of field negotiations. If you simply repeat the experiment again, by putting the parties together at one table, and expecting a different result, well, according to Einstein, that is a definition of madness. I feel like, for that reason also, it is very important for the international community to look at its own involvement in the conflict. And why is it that Resolution 242 will be fifty years old next year, yet the Security Council has never been able to update that important resolution. In my book, one of my main conclusions is that we need end-game parameters for the parties and for more effective future negotiations. It’s only one of the conclusions of my book; there are a lot of conclusions to be drawn as well. But from the point of view of the international community, I think that is what has been lacking, and I hope that in the nearest future, there may be something like that. I don’t believe so much in just starting negotiations, under the present circumstances, and then expecting a different result.
UN News: The way things have been unfolding … what, in your view, has gone wrong? Why is the peace process not moving forward?
Robert Serry: Well, you cannot say that one thing has gone wrong. There are a number of factors that I discuss in my book, and in the conclusion I come to seven main lessons learned. But in terms of the things that have gone wrong and which have deepened the so-called one-state reality that I talk about – and I am also, I think, one of the first, as a Special Envoy for the United Nations back in 2011, to term it this way – that rather than going towards a two-state solution, parties were actually retreating towards a dangerous one-state reality. Now you see many others also talking about that. In terms of why this is happening, it’s very clear that on the Israeli side if they continue to build settlements – settlements in the state of a prospective other country – that will not work; that is an obstacle as the international community has been saying time and again. That’s a very clear reason why this one-state reality will only deepen if that continues.
But I should also add that on the Palestinian side, an aggravating factor – which can also deepen the one-state reality – is their continued division. I’ve been very much involved, for the UN also, in trying to help the Palestinians in trying to achieve reconciliation based on the paramount principle of non-violence; a government that actually has authority over both the West Bank and Gaza, and make sure that that paramount condition on their side is respected – non-violence as a basic condition for trying again negotiations. I just mentioned some of the reasons. There are other things discussed in the book.
UN News: Based on those factors, would you say that a two-state solution is still feasible, given what is happening?
Robert Serry: In the book, I also have a chapter called, “If not two states, what else?” Why am I actually having a chapter like that? I must tell you that I have also been struggling with what my main message should be in the present, dire circumstances. Is it still possible to have a two-state solution, or are the many pundits now (a growing number of pundits in literature as well) declaring the two-state solution an illusion – declaring it dead? What should my position be now, having been involved in such a long time with the United Nations? In the end, I came to the conclusion not to declare the two-state solution dead because, dear friends, where then is the other solution? Where is the other horse to jump on? Is it the one-state solution? Is that really possible? A binational, democratic state comprising Palestinians and Israelis? I think you probably need decades to get there in terms of the amount of distrust that exists now and yet trust is needed for such binational solutions. That’s why I think you do the people – both the Israelis and the Palestinians – an even bigger disservice by declaring the two-state solution now dead. But they have to realize it is five to midnight, or even too late. I’m also talking about a more inclusive state solution – maybe in the Palestinian state, there remains an Israeli minority. These are things I have just been proposing because of my great concern that the classical two-state solution, based on total separation, is now dead.
UN News: I was going to ask about your suggestion that a one state reality rather than a two state solution is around the corner…
Robert Serry: Well it is around the corner, and it’s there. I have been among the first to warn the parties that this is what is happening right now. Since I left my office in Jerusalem, it has only deepened. But we have to think about the consequences of what we are saying. Does it mean that we then have to give up a two-state solution, also as an international community?
UN News: That’s the question one would ask. Maybe a two state solution makes sense, but the reality speaks to something different?
Robert Serry: Well present day realities are clearly heading in a different direction. But I’ve been also thinking about what that direction in the end can bring us. I think it is an unsustainable direction. It is bound to lead to renewed conflict. I repeat myself now: we are doing both Israelis and Palestinians a disservice by starting to discard that option altogether.
UN News: Some people think the Kerry initiative was the closest this came to being a success. Wasn’t it?
Robert Serry: My chapter in the book is called “The Kerry Initiative: a last rolling of the dice?” So it was a crucial attempt where he also tried to define for the parties the so-called end- game parameters. Today I regret that Kerry wasn’t actually able to bring it to an end. Because that is what the parties need: to at least preserve the prospects for a two-state outcome in the future. I am personally not very optimistic about any negotiations in the future, given the state of affairs among Palestinians and among Israelis. [I am not optimistic] that it will lead to a different result.
UN News: Maybe it’s something you don’t want to pronounce yourself on but given the change in the administration in the US, do you think that things might play out differently in this process?
Robert Serry: Well, at least in every situation where you have uncertainty, there is always an opportunity, but of course, also, new dangers. With President-elect Trump, we know that he is keen – at least he has been saying it – that he would like to resolve it. But then I would advise him to take a step back and look at what previous presidents have been trying, and to not to repeat the same experiment. A fresh approach is needed. I don’t believe that it will be a good start for the president to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, if that is what would happen in the beginning of a new American involvement in the conflict. I hope he will take a step back, reflect, and come with a fresh approach. There is a need for a fresh approach, and let’s hope. I don’t want to prejudge what Trump is going to do.