Cyprus has experienced a protracted, unresolved conflict for roughly five decades. Like Israel-Palestine, the conflict has ethno-nationalist and territorial dimensions, tension between a sovereign state and a sub-state entity, and a hostile military presence, as well as decades of failed negotiations, with both sides showing ambiguous commitment to the intended political framework for resolution, despite the intense involvement of the international community. Dr. Dahlia Scheindlin mapped points of comparison related to conflict resolution efforts in both cases when she spoke to a Fathom Forum in London on 1 December 2016.
Mitvim: the Institute for Regional Foreign Policies is looking into other territorial conflicts to figure what they do and do not have in common with the Israel-Palestinian conflict. No two conflicts are exactly alike, but we can learn a lot from the differences as well as from the similarities. Even if a conflict is not 100 per cent comparable, often there are elements or dynamics that we can learn from.
In Cyprus there has been a long and intense negotiation process going on for about a year and a half. The leaders on each side of the divided island were considered pro-peace leaders – imagine a left-wing leader on the Israeli side and a moderate Fatah leader on the Palestinian side. Both were openly and rhetorically committed to reaching an agreement. And there was a lot of optimism (for the first time in a long time) about to solving this conflict. The last time there were any serious negotiations was back in 2004 when the Annan Plan was reached under the auspices of the UN. But the plan was not well received by either side. It went to a referendum, needing to pass on both sides, but failed on the Greek side by a large margin. (Though the plan was supported by 65 per cent of Turkish Cypriots.) Since then everything has been stagnant.
About the latest negotiation process in Cyprus we heard what we often hear about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: ‘If the leadership want it to happen, it will happen’. Well, it turns out leadership is important, but not necessarily the only important factor. There was a lot of expectation surrounding the final bilateral round of negotiations in November in Switzerland, but when the two leaders came out they said they were unable to reach an agreement because of division still over some of the core issues, issues which overlap in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: territory, refugees, property restoration and reparation etc.
There is sadness over this latest failure. Is the process over? We don’t know but, I will point out that this morning Colombia’s Congress approved a revised agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), following the defeat in the referendum only a few months ago. So maybe these processes don’t die, even if they sometimes don’t always work.
The paper I wrote for Mitvim, Lessons from Cyprus for Israel-Palestine: Can Negotiations Still Work? examined a range of comparisons. A few are particularly important in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The illusion of ‘conflict management’
The first is that Israeli policy-makers, and specifically the current Israeli leadership, have often pointed to Cyprus as justification for why conflict management can work and why Israel does not need to resolve the conflict any time soon. The growing importance of that perspective, certainly in Israeli society, cannot be overstated. You hear it among the Israeli leadership, but more and more you can hear it among the Israeli people. And this is coming from a genuine place; people feel peace is not possible, they’ve witnessed many cycles of failed negotiations, so why bother, and people say, ‘maybe the conflict just isn’t meant to be solved; look as Cyprus, things aren’t so bad’.
I argue in the paper that this perspective is an illusion. The concept of a ‘frozen conflict’ where things do not change is misleading because the ground is always changing, either physically or in the political dynamics. In the Cyprus conflict it is the political dynamics that change whereas in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict it is more the physical contours – i.e. settlement expansion. I should also point that the majority of Cypriots from both sides do not feel they are living in a sustainable conflict-management environment, because they are continuingly trying to negotiate its settlement. The fact that Israelis look at Cyprus and say ‘everything is fine there,’ isn’t how Cypriots feel about the situation.
The Cyprus conflict is dynamic and not frozen. The dynamic is not necessarily favouring the stronger, Greek-Cypriot side. Cyprus is an asymmetrical conflict – the Greek-Cypriot side is the recognised sovereign state with political legitimacy. They are the stronger side relative to the Turkish-Cypriot side, which is unrecognised. The Greek-Cypriot side does not really have to rush to make compromises in negotiations because they have political power. But the fact is this: decades of stagnation and failed negotiation processes have not favoured the Greek-Cypriot demands.
So again, when both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict say, ‘Time is on our side; we’ll wait it out’ – for Israelis this entails taking more territory and then by the time they have to compromise they will compromise on much less, whilst for the Palestinians they wait it out in order to become more integrated and larger demographically – the Israeli perspective is rooted in the notion that they’re the stronger side.
Where do the conflicts diverge? The mainstream perspective in the Cyprus conflict is the idea to reunify the Island to one state, whereas the mainstream perspective in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is two states. However, over the years, the separation in both conflicts has done its own work and taken on a life of its own. The Turkish-Cypriot side is somewhat autonomous and really has a separate life; up to 2003 it was very difficult to cross the border for Turkish-Cypriots and the increasing autonomy led to an entrenchment of the division – and the negotiating terms have essentially reflected that growing division over the years. So at this point, even a solution based on the bi-zonal bi-communal federation (the Cypriot version of the two-state solution) is increasingly reflecting the incremental division and the Greek-Cypriot side is getting less of what it wants in terms of an open, unified Island.
Another example is the small town or Morphou, a Greek inhabited town which is now on the side controlled by the Turkish-Cypriots. For many years it was assumed that Morphou was clearly going to return under Greek-Cypriot control. But during the most recent round of negotiations Turkey said that Morphou will never be ‘on the table.’ So suddenly this issue doesn’t look so clear. Now, imagine the parallel in the Israel-Palestinian conflict of Ariel, a settlement deep inside the West Bank, and just as Morphou is not attached contiguously to Greek-Cypriot held territory, and if every Israeli assumes that Ariel would have to be part of Israel in an agreed settlement with the Palestinians, what if the political contours, demographic, politics and infrastructure change and suddenly Israel say, ‘Well, we’re not going to be able to forge a deal if we insist on Ariel being part of Israel’. It’s not a perfect parallel, but the point is that waiting out these so-called ‘frozen conflicts’ does not always favour the stronger side.
Many policy experts now think that the division is going to become more entrenched and that the unrecognised Turkish-Cypriot state will become recognised. Why? Because the international community will be unable to justify the isolation and economic sanctions that they’ve been under. There is even talk of Turkey being so bold as to annex northern Cyprus, which would be a nightmare scenario for the Greek-Cypriot government. I personally think that’s still a bit far-fetched as it would be a provocative act from Turkey’s side. But again, the point is that ‘waiting it out’ doesn’t seem to favour the stronger Greek side.
The myth of double standards
Some people ask why, as Cyprus has been occupied now for over 40 years, the world isn’t as outraged with Turkey as they are with Israel? I think it’s important to point out some differences.
There is a Turkish military presence on the northern part of the Island, but what you have is Turkish-Cypriots living with the Turkish military; it’s not so much of a foreign occupation for them. The other difference is that Turkish-Cypriots are not living under Turkish military law, they’re living under Turkish civil law and a civil government. Although albeit one that is in a problematic and dependent relationship with Turkey. It is still a civil government that was elected in a remarkable way considering it is an unrecognised, isolated state. So it’s not the same as the situation of people living under hostile occupation.
The other reason why Israelis like to look to Cyprus as a model for conflict management is that it’s much less violent. So when people think the international community is not as critical of the situation in Cyprus as they are of the situation in Israel, well, in part that is because there has hardly been any conflict-related deaths – the last one that I know of was in 1996. This is not a conflict where people are dying every day or is erupting into wars every two years killing sometimes thousands of people at a time. I think these are the reasons that the two conflicts are, and should be seen differently.
Looking at confederalism
In Cyprus, the mainstream approach to resolving the conflict is a federation – a single, unitary state but with territorial divisions and a number of shared powers, but a much closer relationship than two states in a ‘confederal’ relationship.
I feel the idea of ‘separate but together’ or ‘together but separate’ is something which needs to be brought into the Israeli-Palestinian resolution efforts. I have been very involved in looking at the confederal approach to solving the Israel-Palestine conflict: i.e. separate and independent states who agree to share some of their powers. We can look to Cyprus for the idea of ‘residency without citizenship,’ whereby people on one side of the conflict live on one ‘side,’ so to speak, but they have citizenship in, and so vote in, the ‘other idea’. There have been lots of different policy ideas developed in the Cyprus conflict along these lines – the idea is that there would be freedom of movement, so people are not trapped into hermetically closed societies in a tiny piece of land.
When there is a land conflict you can either ask ‘how are we going to separate ourselves to live on tiny portions of tiny lands?’ or you can ask ‘how can we provide more space, more land and more opportunity for more of the people?’
We worked with the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) to put together a security analysis and a proposal for how confederalism would work. The separation between the two states comes in terms of law-making firstly, international identity secondly, and finally the territorial dimension – the idea being that there would be open borders but each side would know which is their home country.
In terms of security, I think it is a purely pragmatic question, not be influenced by politics. The idea of security cooperation is the first principle. The second principle is that the Israeli army would control external security as it does today. Internal security would involve policing and local security forces – which is also evident today. The real difference is that people won’t be living under military law.
Currently, the reality is that there is one state, ruling from the river to the sea. It is now a question of what kind of state it becomes; confederalism is an attempt to face that reality and make of it a better future. The current direction many of us find unacceptable from a legal, moral and political standpoint.
There are also big questions over what the economic prospects are for a confederal system. Is it feasible? Can the two populations achieve a measure of integration despite living such disparate realities? A lot more work needs to be done. We need economists to do rigorous analysis.
Mind you, we also need an objective economic analysis of the two-state solution. People have not taken into account what rigid separation would really mean. If you look at a Palestinian state according to the original two-state plan, there are specific areas with very limited movement – there is not a lot of flexibility. I can’t imagine their economy would be sustainable. I think it may actually be a formula for further economic decline for the Palestinians. And that decline would also not be conducive to the de-escalation of violence.
We know that Israel used to be very dependent on Palestinian labour before foreign workers were substituted. These two economies tend to reap mutual benefits when they are more open. Between 1967 and 1987 there was no permit system at all. The default was that people could go wherever they wanted and Palestinians were more able to work.
I am not minimising the challenges and dangers, but as we consider the dangers we should also take a realistic look at the economic difficulties of a hard two-state solution.
Confederalism is not intuitive. People find it difficult to understand it because they cannot place it as either a ‘left-wing plot’ or a ‘right-wing agenda’. Yes, occasionally people find it other-worldly. But very often, people find it intriguing, because it resolves a lot of the problems that might not be able to be resolved in the framework of a two-state solution. It doesn’t look very other-worldly from Israel-Palestine. Rather, it reflects the realities of Israel-Palestine, and flips that reality into the vision of a more acceptable society.
On the Israeli side, confederalism interests religious Jews and settlers because it does not involve evacuation and resettlement. Many settlers could stay in their homes – although the hilltop and other provocative settlements would probably have to go.
On the Palestinian side, they are attracted to the idea of movement. Palestinians are asking if they should forget about everything else and focus on basic rights. They simply can’t live with the suffocation anymore. Their cynicism is rooted in this daily experience. It is not that Palestinians have changed ideologically; it is that they are utterly fed up of applying for permits and with the grinding struggle of their day-to-day experience.
Because they want rights above all else, regardless of the political framework, the more expansive rights and movement offered by confederalism is appealing. This acts as a springboard and makes them want to talk. This also goes back to how much we think the Palestinians are committed to their own state – an ideal which I think might be eroding.