Richard Falk, the United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, spoke Monday at Stanford Law School on the “fundamental” flaws in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In the talk, titled “Imagining Israeli-Palestinian Peace: Why International Law Matters,” Falk expressed his pessimism at the possibility of peace emerging from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in its current form.
The peace process refers to a Quartet-mediated and U.S.-led negotiation process between Israel and Palestine that has taken a number of forms since its birth in 1991. Falk called for an Israeli-Palestinian solution that goes “beyond” the Quartet and the peace process.
Falk began the talk by reflecting on a speech he gave in 2009, in which he said he could not “imagine peace” out of the current process, highlighting “structural and substantial flaws.”
“The flaw in its structure was that a negotiated process of conflict resolution in which the unconditional ally of the strongest party in the conflict also purports to play a mediating neutral party role is just unacceptable as a form of conflict resolution,” he said, referring to the United State’s role as a conflict mediator in the negotiations.
The other “flaw” Falk mentioned was the excision of international law from the diplomatic process. He argued that Israel has used its diplomatic leverage, “to exclude any consideration of the international law bearing on such issues as refugees, borders, Jerusalem, water and settlements.”
“What in fact was the political foundation of the negotiations was the so-called ‘facts on the ground,’ which is a euphemism for converting unlawful developments into a political premise on which negotiations are supposed to proceed,” Falk said.
He deemed this process, “a ratification of illegality in the name of realism.”
Moving to explain his pessimism at the possible results of the peace process, Falk said the kind of peace process he imagines as having the potential to produce, “a sustainable and somewhat just” peace was “never given any opportunity to develop.”
Falk did, however, emphasize the importance of finding a resolution to the conflict.
“So long as this conflict continues, it produces a cycle of intense tension… it produces war-generating situations as now seem to be the case in relation to Iran…it keeps the whole region in a perpetual pre-war condition,” he said.
“One would’ve supposed that something more imaginative than this futile process would have emerged at this stage, and yet what does one find from our leaders?” he asked. “A unified plea to the parties to resume these fruitless negotiations.”
Falk attributed this continued return to the conventional diplomatic framework to the “delusion that a peace process exists through this negotiating charade.”
“There is this sense that something constructive can possibly emerge, and it removes any pressure to do something else,” he said. “It creates this closure of the imagination and… takes our attention away from the ordeal of suffering that has been imposed on the Palestinian people.”
After painting a bleak picture of the peace process, Falk called for thinking outside the “conventional box.”
“I can’t envision how [the situation] will be transformed in a constructive way without moving from the domain of reason and analysis to the domain of the imagination,” he said.
Falk stressed that multiple alternatives are possible, but focused on a region-wide solution incorporating Israel and Palestine, coupled with the establishment of a nuclear free zone in the Middle East.
“It does seem to be the one kind of orientation that could really change the negative expectations on all sides and produce, with a little give on the part of several of the actors, a genuine win-win outcome for all the participants in the region,” he said, mentioning the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 as an example.
Falk made remarks on the contextual changes that have affected the peace process more recently. He highlighted the Arab Spring, developments within the Palestinian movement and changing public opinion.
He described the Arab Spring as “encouragement for increased democratization in the region, which inevitably works in favor of the Palestinian struggle.” He also praised the “great potential” he saw in nonviolent militancy in the Palestinian resistance movement.
“Perhaps the most important development within the Palestinian movement itself is a strong shift in tactical emphasis from armed resistance to popular resistance and a reliance on a global solidarity movement of the sort that was so effective in opposing apartheid South Africa,” he said. “The Palestinians have increasingly been waging what I call a ‘legitimacy war’ to occupy the high moral and legal ground in relation to the conflict.”
Following the talk, John Felstiner, English professor emeritus, commented that Falk’s talk presented “half the truth, historically.”
“I provided an interpretation based on my understanding of how to see the essential issue,” Falk replied. “I would stand behind my view that the essential character of the conflict represents this denial… of Palestinian rights, the expansion of Israel [and] the unconditional way in which the U.S. has handled the conflict.”
“Regardless of where you stand on the conflict… hearing someone with such high academic standing and rank in the international world… spend most of the time not imagining peace but shooting down peace at an event called ‘Imagining Israeli-Palestinian Peace’ was quite frustrating,” audience member Daniel Bardenstein ’13 said.
Other members of the audience posed questions on population transfer issues, grassroots social movements, Hamas’ charter and its viability as a partner for peace and the inevitability of a one state solution.
The event was co-sponsored by The International Law Society, Students for Palestinian Equal Rights, the Stanford International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic, the Advanced Degree Students Association and the Stanford Association for Law in the Middle East.