On Israel-Palestine, Obama between a rock and a hard place.
Posted on 14:24, May 24th, 2011 by Pablo
One axiom of mediation is that the parties sincerely want to settle their dispute and realise that mutual concessions will have to be made in order to do so. Another is that the mediator has to be procedurally and substantively neutral–s/he has no interest in the specific terms of the result and is bound to procedurally enforce the rules on negotiations as well as externally enforce the settlement (which in effect makes the latter a contract between the disputants).
This is why Barack Obama’s latest attempt at mediating the Israel-Palestinian conflict is doomed.
In order to establish a semblance of neutrality, he proposed that Hamas recognise Israel’s right to exist in exchange for Israeli acceptance of the (post-conflict) 1967 borders as the basis for negotiations on a two-state solution. He said that mutually agreed upon land swaps would form the basis for the contract. Neither Hamas or the Israeli government accepted the offer and instead rejected it outright. Although it is possible that Obama’s initiative is just the opening gambit in a more delicate elaboration, it is also quite possible that this was his best offer, which is now dead in the water.
The problems with the proposed deal are many. With regards to the US, it is clearly not an impartial mediator. Whether the administration of the moment wants to or not, the power of the pro-Israel lobby and Israel’s strategic connections (intelligence sharing, weapons acquisitions and covert political maneuvering) ensure that the US will support it as the default option. To that can be added the fact that the US has designated Hamas as a terrorist organisation and openly supports Fatah as the legitimate representative of Palestinian interests even though the latter lost its electoral mandate to Hamas some years ago. By any measure the US is not impartial, neutral or objective, so its role as a mediator is reduced to pressuring Israel to engage limited concessions in the hope that Hamas will take the bait and offer significant concessions of its own. That will not happen. And yet no other country has offered to step into the breach, and it is doubtful that any other country (the UK? Germany? France?) would be acceptable to both parties.
As for the principles, they have no real interest in cutting a deal that binds them over the long-term. Politics in Gaza and Israel are dominated by fundamentalist discourses that see the conflict as a zero-sum struggle where the “other” is seen as sub-human and inherently evil. Both governments are divided and weak, the Palestinians visibly so but the Israelis no less so in spite of their veneer of unity. Corruption has become a major problem on both sides, which delegitimates their standing as honest interlocutors and representatives of their respective constituencies.
Moreover, both Israel and the Palestinians have foreign partners who overtly or covertly work to prolong the impasse and low intensity warfare because it is seen as serving their geopolitical objectives (Iran and Saudi Arabia come to mind). Then there are the weapons merchants and others who see profit in fighting and who do not wish to see the source of that profit end. One might argue that there even are NGOs and humanitarian agencies that have a vested organisational interest in an unresolved armed standoff that provides them with the opportunity to “do good.” In other words, the constellation of interests that favour the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict outweigh those that sincerely seek a durable peace.
Which is why Obama’s initiative will not prosper. But there is a factor now at play that may make the US role irrelevant and actually force a hole in the diplomatic logjam obstructing resolution of the Palestinian “question:” the Arab Spring. Although it has yet to result in democracy anywhere in the Arab world, the groundswell of popular protest against authoritarianism has been a game-changer (of sorts). The change is in the acceptance of non-violent mass resistance as the preferred method of voice and redress. Not only does this strategy explicitly turn its back on jihadism. It also forces regimes to either up the ante and engage in mass repression (such as in Syria), or attempt to reform-monger in a way that maintains elite interests while offering more avenues of representation and service to the populations in question. Most importantly, though, it forces the Arab world to reappraise the regional status quo, specifically with regard to the status of Palestine, in such a way that it will make it increasingly less tenable for Israel to continue its policy of illegal settlements and armed force. With popular demands for a harder line on Israel emerging in places like Egypt, the pressure is on for the “reformist” leaders to reconsider the options with regard to Palestine. In addition, the use of (mostly) non-violent passive resistance against Israel such as the Nakbar protests on the Israeli-Syrian border forces it to show its authoritarian stripes (as it did in killing a half dozen of the cross-border protesters) or live up to its supposedly democratic principles when confronting unarmed protest.
Given Israel’s current political climate, it may well ignore all democratic pretense and fire away at will against peaceful demonstrators. But that is a short-term solution. The longer-term impact of the Arab Spring will be to force increased accountability on Arab regimes, which in turn will require them to adjust their approaches to Israel and Palestinians in ways that will not uphold the status quo ante. Should that happen, then it will be Israel that will be forced to make the first significant move with or without US backing, and it will do so not out of a sense of idealism but because it has pragmatic self-interest in doing so. After all, Israel is the stronger actor in this conflict. It has less to lose and much to gain when offering a genuine unilateral concession, in the beginning of what game-theorists call a “tit-for-tat” strategy (that is, it opens with a cooperative move then mirrors the adversaries’ response). It may take a few iterations and more concessions to elicit a cooperative response from Hamas, and the outcome could still result in failure, but that is how the game will have to be played if there is any hope of reaching a negotiated compromise.
Hardline Zionist talk notwithstanding, the best guarantee of Israel’s long term security given the changes underway in the Arab world is not superior counter-force as a deterrent. Instead, the solution that guarantees Israel long-term security is diplomatic, and that involves over-riding hardline interests in pursuit of diplomatic flexibility. There will be domestic consequences when it does make the first move, which will have to involve the unilateral eviction and withdrawal of newer settlements on occupied Palestinian land (think of the precedent of violent resistance by illegal settlers to the limited evictions undertaken by the Israeli government to date), and Hamas and Fatah will have to agree on a commensurate response if negotiations are to advance to the point of establishing a blueprint for dual statehood (which is the only realistic option and where recognition of Israel’s right to exist comes in). None of this will be voluntarily generated by the elites currently in office, not will it be the US that breaks the impasse and brokers the deal. Instead it will be the extension of the Arab Spring into Gaza and Israel that may offer the best hope for a diplomatic opening in pursuit of a durable peace, and should that opening come, it will be endogenous rather than exogenous in nature.
Although it is hard for the Obama administration to do given the imperial hubris that infects US domestic politics and foreign policy, the best thing it can offer is to quietly encourage the Arab Spring, openly condemn repression, seek broader international consensus and let events take their course. Or, as a senior Israeli intelligence official told me a few years ago (and I roughly paraphrase from memory here), “although conditions are not favorable to negotiations at the moment, there will come a time when both sides realise that theirs is an unhappy marriage, but it is for the children’s sake that they stay in it and make it work.” That moment may shortly be upon us, and it will be the “children” who force the issue.