On Israel-Palestine, Obama between a rock and a hard place.

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.

21 thoughts on “On Israel-Palestine, Obama between a rock and a hard place.

  1. The Palestinians are going to the UN and seeking General Assembly recognition, so I suppose they accept that it’s only via international deligitimisation of American support for Israel that they can make real progress.

    When the UN was set up in 1945, it was supposed to usher in an era of collective security for peoples and nations. There was acceptance in 1949 that the ability of nations to seize territory by facts on the ground created by military conflict was a potential way for this to be undermine this UN polity. So they made the acquisitioon of territory by conquest illegal.

    However since 1967 Israel has annexed East Jerusalem and settled occupied territory. Asking Palestinians to negotiate land swaps/their new border to help provide Israel with more security – trade areas settled during the occupation in return for some areas without people Israel or a few Israeli Arab settlements is to legitimise the breach of the intent of the 1949 decision. Palestinians are being expected to accept this (denial of their right to collective security)
    in return for their state on the conditions set by their occupier and its principle backer and enabler.

    This is not the way to a just peace. It’s not meant to be. It can only result in Palestinian rejection and attempt to marginalise the American support for this approach. Of course they will say the Palestinians are rejecting a chance for peace and Israelis will occupy more and more West Bank land while this continues.

    Ultimately the only chance for epace is strong advocacy for 67 borders and a security fence relocated there. That means people on either side of that historic line are in one state or the other by residence (Jewish settlers should be able to remain in the WB in return for their back-rent etc if that is what they want). That should be the position of the UN.

    The only exception to that is a united Jerusalem that is capital of two states – that will probably mean a security perimeter to that city. As for refugees, well … an economic union allows for workers to travel to work and maybe even live as migrant workers who are not local citizens, as occurs within Europe or for locals here in Oz etc. Thus a right to refugee return to Palestine but also a right to work and live in Israel.

  2. Thanks SPC, for the overview and analysis. I find it hard to disagree. It reminds me of what Chris Trotter said about the Treaty–it was meant to be broken. Just remember that under international law, territory acquired as part of the defense against preemptive aggression is considered valid conquest. That is why the post-67 as opposed to pre-67 borders are what matter, Netenyahu’s remonstrations notwithstanding. The post-67 borders are defensible, but it will take an Israeli withdrawal for that to occur (and it can).

    I was just thinking of the initial quid pro quo, but your comment illustrates the complexity of the specifics involved. Thanks for that.

  3. Interesting comments both. The Haaretz article illustrates the problem Israel faces this year

    The really interesting outcome of Netanyahu insulting Obama in public, again, is whether it will lead to US diplomatic soft pedaling on the recognition of Palestinian statehood.

    Israel faces the very real possibility that Europe will unanimously back that statehood. Obama just needs to refrain from using a veto. I cannot see any reason why Obama would back Israeli intransigence under the current circumstances.

    It is fairly obvious that Britain and France are stepping up to the mark in Libya. That will end with Qaddafi leaving power in the near future. Particularly with the stepping up of helicopter and special forces attacks.

    Backing Palestine now would be strategic genius. It would support the intent of the Arab Spring and take the sting out of so much Jihadist anti Western propaganda.

    The tone of British foreign policy pronouncements are very much more balanced in favour of Palestine compared to past public discussion. The reality now is that it is strongly in the European national interest to promote the Arab spring, stability and democracy in North Africa. The reality of instability is politically unacceptable increased illegal immigration.

    So under the guise of promoting Western values Palestine will achieve statehood with the backing of Europe. Obama cannot tack back on his many statements promoting the emergence of Europe alongside American power.

    So the question becomes what will be the impact of Palestinian statehood on Obama re-election prospects in 2012. To me the arguments against Palestine statehood are too subtle to resonate with voters. That leaves only Jewish money. Does Obama calculate he can do without that money?

    The resignation of Marshall who was in favour of restarting the peace process and the pre-eminence of pro Israeli Dennis Ross does not seem to suggest that Obama has a clear internal strategy regarding the issue.

  4. Pablo, I was under the impression that any territory taken by military force was unable to be annexed and this applied to both parties whether aggressor or otherwise. And that this applied to pre-emptive response to any threat also.

  5. The position taken by Obama is a quite traditional one.

    Secretary of State Dean Rusk commented on the most significant area of disagreement regarding the resolution (242):

    There was much bickering over whether that resolution should say from “the” territories or from “all” territories. In the French version, which is equally authentic, it says withdrawal de territory, with de meaning “the.” We wanted that to be left a little vague and subject to future negotiation because we thought the Israeli border along the West Bank could be “rationalized”; certain anomalies could easily be straightened out with some exchanges of territory, making a more sensible border for all parties. We also wanted to leave open demilitarization measures in the Sinai and the Golan Heights and take a fresh look at the old city of Jerusalem. But we never contemplated any significant grant of territory to Israel as a result of the June 1967 war. On that point we and the Israelis to this day remain sharply divided. This situation could lead to real trouble in the future. Although every President since Harry Truman has committed the United States to the security and independence of Israel, I’m not aware of any commitment the United States has made to assist Israel in retaining territories seized in the Six-Day War.[9]

  6. Pablo – I just heard a very interesting profile of the Turkish Gulan or Himset movement on BBC radio by Edward Sturton. Described as Islam Inc. I would be interested in your views.

    I found the whole thing tremendously optimistic. People with strong family and conservative values who believe in education, giving back to their community and espouse the separation of politics and religion. In that respect very similar to large chunks of America and Europe.

  7. Thanks Phil, I’ll look it up. It may take a while because I am in the process of moving between countries.

  8. Serum: Thanks for that. A friend of mine in Istanbul says that the creeping Islamisation of the public space is alarming.

    Phil: You have to rub it in, don’t ya? But yeah, given electoral dynamics in the US it was inevitable that Obama would drift rightwards on foreign policy.

  9. Attaching hope and faith in the so called Arab Spring as a catalyst to resolve the M.E. problems and ultimately the Palestinian “question” is possibly misplaced optimism for a movement that is currently running out of effectiveness in the political arena, as it is in Egypt the largest populated and most important Arab country.

    The “children” or more appropriately described as moderates initially driving this revolution in Egypt show no sign of organizing serious political parties to contest the up and coming elections to be held in September of this year. Instead of getting into gear they are procrastinating and complaining, while alongside this, four radical, anti-American, passionately anti-Israel political forces are active and organizing, namely: Radical nationalists, Left-wing neo-Marxist parties, Radical Islamist parties (Salafists) and the Muslim Brotherhood (M.B. should get 1/3rd or more of the seats and is contesting half of them). There will probably be a number of independents who will be courted and won over by one of these groups. As a guide to Egypt’s political parties so far, here is an excellent guide noting that there isn’t a single serious moderate party. Obamas’s favourite, Muhammad ElBaradei, isn’t doing anything but complaining.

    This all points to an election where Egypt will vote in a radical, anti-American, hate-Israel parliament which will then sit down and write the country’s new constitution marking a turning point in M.E. history at odds with Obama’s assurance where nothing can go wrong that everything is great with the “Arab Spring”, an expression of a yearning for prosperity and freedom.
    With the high probability of this scenario becoming a reality, Egypt although not immediately, eventually will morph into an Islamist state governed by Shari’a (Islamic Law) as the Muslim Brotherhood inevitably gains more influence and more votes in future elections. The peace treaty between Egypt and Israel will be torn up and thrown into the dustbin of history and the effect of this on furthering a resolution of the Palestine/Israel conflict will be disastrous as Hamas, the offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, gains support from its senior partner to devour Fatah and extend its hegemony into the West Bank making it more likely to launch terrorist attacks into Israel.

    A good background (a fairly long article) to what the Muslim Brotherhood is all about see:

  10. The internet address in my posting above for the guide to Egypt’s political parties contained in the following sentence – As a guide to Egypt’s political parties so far, here is an “excellent guide” noting that there isn’t a single serious moderate party – did not appear. Here is the reference:


    Hugh – Your counter argument has a certain succinctness if nothing else.

    Amr Moussa, who would have detailed knowledge of the local political scene, is standing for the next president of Egypt and predicts that the Muslim Brotherhood will have, along with its allies, a majority voted into power in the up and coming election.

  11. Serum – Thanks for the links. The MB primer seemed like a conspiracy theorist rant. The idiots guide describes an entirely different democratic political position.
    “The MB has affirmed that it does not object to the election of women or Copts to the government, although it deems that both are “unsuitable” for the presidency. The group supports free-market capitalism, but without manipulation or monopoly. The party’s political programme would include promoting tourism as a main source of national income. The Freedom and Justice Party says it will base itself on Islamic law, “but will be acceptable to a wide segment of the population,” according to leading MB member Essam El-Erian.”

    To me it seems entirely reasonable that Muslims might wished to be governed democratically in accordance with the tenets of Islam. In the same way as America demands religious following of its politicians and the Christian democrats play a leading role in Germany.

    The political situation in Egypt is undoubtedly chaotic after 30 years of dictatorship. But that democratic chaos is a wonderful thing. Stability will take time.

    As with Gulen I find it difficult to criticise organisations that engage non violently with modern western society whatever their long term goals may be. The christian churches would like the world to believe but they have failed. I see no reason that Islam will be different.

    Having said that attempts to force change from tolerant liberal society like the Netherlands and much of the UK should be resisted. In much the same way as the conservative christian opposition to swearing and liberal attitudes has been overcome.

    Turkey is well on the way to a stable democratic nation guided by its dominant faith and the conservatism of its people. Who are we to judge people who freely believe in their faith?

    As I have said previously on this blog I can see Egypt following the same path as Turkey. The military offering a guiding hand as democracy develops. The military power in Turkey seems to have been sufficiently constrained now by their relatively prosperous stable democracy. A resurgent Turkey will certainly have a moderating effect on Islam over the longer term.

    The jury is still out on the MB in Egypt but perhaps we should be patient and judge their actions rather than condemn them on the basis of individuals that obviously became radicalised.

    Pablo – Sorry mate I could not resist the headline as Obama has just been here in the UK.

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  13. Phil – Thanks for the input and your thoughts on the situation developing in Egypt. Of course you are correct in that we will have to be patient, for a while yet, to see which way the political pendulum swings. However, your opinion that the M.B. primer is a conspiracy theorist rant appears to be at odds with Tarek Heggy an Egyptian liberal political thinker who thinks otherwise, refer: http://www.muslimsdebate.com/faces/sn.php?nid=1558=

    With reference to Turkey and your scenario regarding “the military offering a guiding hand as democracy develops”, it does appear that ongoing events that have taken hold in Turkey over the last few years have not been considered in your thoughts.

    It is several years now since the Islamist AKP party took power and are well on their way to destroying the foundations of Turkey’s Western style secular democracy and transforming the governing system into a hybrid of Putinist autocracy and Iranian theocracy. In September 2010, the AKP won a national referendum on constitutional amendments that removed any remaining obstacles and consolidated its achievements by expanding its powers.

    Since taking office, the Prime Minister Erogan and his party have intimated, repressed and silenced all significant bodies of secularist opposition such as the media, civil service, police and the business community which have been co-opted into submission in their ongoing Islamic revolution.

    According to the Kemalist constitution (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kemalist_ideology), the military was the constitutional protector of secular Turkey. It was constitutionally bound to combat all threats to Turkey’s secular regime – including threats posed by political parties and political leaders. Over the past several years, the AKP has done everything it could to demoralize and criminalize the military’s leadership and gut the military’s constitutional powers and organizational independence. Most recently, President Abdullah Gul has begun to intervene in promotions of generals to block all non-Islamists from acquiring command positions.

    With the constitutional amendments having been passed, further emasculation of the military, by being placed under the jurisdiction of AKP-controlled civilian courts, made the military commanders vulnerable to criminal prosecution for any action that would in any way threaten the ruling party. The message to any general with any thought of removing Erdogan and his colleagues would have been crystal clear.

    Aside from the chastened military, the only remaining outpost of secular power in Turkey has been the judiciary. In the past, the judiciary has overturned many of the government’s actions that it ruled were unconstitutional and illegal. The new constitutional amendments will work to end judicial independence by giving the government control over judicial appointments. The AKP’s justice minister will also have increased power to open investigations against judges and prosecutors.

    Hence it follows that with his constitutional amendments in hand, the only thing separating Erdogan from absolute power are this year’s elections. If he and his party win, with their new constitutional powers, Turkey will be a state with no effective domestic checks on the power of its rulers enabling them to do what they wish at home and abroad with no obstacles to remain in power.

    One can understand why the friend of Pablo’s in Istanbul has made such a comment.

    Now I suspect that all this is not what you were anticipating for Egypt by following down the same path that Turkey has carved out for itself!

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