The nomination of Antonio Guterres, former prime minister of Portugal, as the next secretary-general of the United Nations did not come as a surprise for those acquainted with his international activity. Guterres, a great believer in multilateralism, served for a decade as the high commissioner for refugees of the UN (2005-2015) in charge of the most burning issue on the international agenda. His efforts to alleviate the suffering of Iraqi and Syrian refugees were possibly without precedent worldwide.
Guterres is very much a champion of collective diplomacy to bring peace to the Middle East. He is well-known to some Israeli Labor Party leaders, as he served as the secretary-general of Socialist International from 1999 to 2005, and he was a close friend of late President Shimon Peres.
Guterres will undoubtedly bring to the office of the UN secretary-general some innovative approaches, both on the international refugee crisis and in the field of conflict resolution, especially regarding Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
Indeed, he has strong views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He is a friend of Israel, historically inspired by Israel’s dramatic nation-building since its establishment. He is fully opposed to the occupation of the West Bank and to Israeli settlement policies. He believes Israel’s security can only be assured by a fair two-state solution guaranteed by the international community.
Terje Roed-Larsen, the president of the International Peace Institute, was one of the initiators of the Oslo peace talks in the early 1990s while serving as a Norwegian diplomat and was later appointed UN undersecretary-general on the situations in Lebanon and Palestine. He told Al-Monitor that Guterres will bring to the table “out of the box” thinking on conflict resolution and will most probably be a very proactive secretary-general, not giving in to the traditional US pressure on the UN to stay out of international conflict resolution.
His nomination still fresh, Guterres has already started consulting international think tanks on different conflict-resolution perspectives. A diplomatic source told Al-Monitor that such an initiative was recently proposed to Guterres by UN policy planners and New York-based international think tanks. The idea is to enhance the role of the UN in an Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution process, expanding the UN role on the issue beyond serving as a platform for international resolutions at the General Assembly and Security Council.
This proposal, which is currently being studied by Guterres’ aides, seeks to advance Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution by proposing to create a UN support mission on Palestine to foster the establishment of a Palestinian state, structured somewhat like the UN special mission on Libya, which deals with institution building, human rights and the rule of law, the security sector and international aid. Its purpose would be to work with the Palestinian Authority (PA) on the establishment of a state, leaving the negotiation on permanent status to the parties and the Quartet (of which the UN is a member).
According to a UN policy planner who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, such a plan can be conducive to a two-state solution with the international community working with the Palestinian leadership and officials on different aspects of statehood, without changing the existing status quo on the ground. The mission would be conducted by experts in governance, economics and security from various UN member states to be decided by the Quartet.
According to the plan explored by these UN policy planners and international New York-based brain trusts, the special mission for Palestine would deal with four issues.
The first would be democratic transition to statehood — the development of modern democratic Palestinian state institutions based on the existing governmental, parliamentary and judicial structures of the PA. The second would be rule of law and human rights, according to the UN charter. This would include formulating a Palestinian Constitution in complete respect of the Palestinian sovereign right to make its own decisions. Another issue would be that of security. The UN — under US leadership — would train PA security personnel in anti-terror policies. The fourth issue handled by the mission would be international assistance for Palestinian state building, coordinated by the European Union. The EU partners would reach out to the international donor community to financially assist the state institution-building process.
The UN policy planners told Al-Monitor that such a plan would demand extensive deliberations and could be decided upon by the UN General Assembly. The next US administration would have to give its greenlight. Such a mission, monitored by the Quartet, could only take place in parallel to permanent status negotiations between the parties.
Asked about these propositions, a Palestinian senior official told Al-Monitor that the Palestinian leadership would accept such a proposal only if coupled with clear terms of reference and a timeline for permanent status.
On the Israeli side, the reaction is negative and condescending. A senior Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs official told Al-Monitor that the UN could have no role in Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution because of the UN anti-Israel bias.
In any case, there is little doubt that the next UN secretary-general will be a diplomatic activist when it comes to the Middle East, and he will make a genuine effort to convince the international community to engage in a multilateral two-state solution process.