In this week’s podcast Selwyn Manning and I work through some of the under-examined aspects of the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the stakes involved in Samoa’s disputed political transition. You can find it here.
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.” Â 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.
His latest statement, an offer to provide mediation to resolve the Libyan situation, similarly demonstrates that he’s beyond reason. Suggestions of independent mediation often have merit, and ‘talking cures’ can be useful in low-level disputes. The sentiments expressed — “a peaceful solution”; “the south finding solutions for the south” — are certainly noble. But while they have their place, mediation efforts like this are often more useful as face-saving devices permitting overcommitted leaders to engage in mutual de-escalation than to resolving a deep and genuine conflict such as exists in Libya. They are certainly of little use in situations where time is short and lives are being lost, and have rightly been condemned as wasteful procrastination in other cases, most notably in Palestine.
Moreover, if a ‘talking cure’ was the ticket, there exists an internationalist framework more robust, better-funded and for all its many flaws more independent than ChÃ¡vez’ hastily-invented “international peace commission” — the United Nations, whose security council recently voted unanimously to impose sanctions on the Gaddafi regime, and to refer its leaders, including Gaddafi himself, to the International Criminal Court for prosecution. ChÃ¡vez, for all his misgivings about the UN, and all his delusions about American imperialism, is no fool and no stranger to the norms of international democracy; he knows that his alternate commission has no chance of being taken seriously. This is an empty symbolic gesture of renewed solidarity with a dictator who has become the most — and perhaps the most justifiably — loathed leader in the world today.
Gaddafi, nevertheless, has accepted the offer, and ChÃ¡vez, for his part, has admitted that given his prior support for the Libyan dictator, it would be “hypocritical of him to join the chorus of international condemnation of Gaddafi now”. ChÃ¡vez has had an opportunity to clarify his earlier position of support, to repudiate it, or to use his relationship with Gaddafi to call for him to cease murdering his people. So far from doing so, he has doubled down, tying his international reputation and credibility to that of Muammar Gaddafi.
There will undoubtedly remain a few people who will defend him, or who will try to compartmentalise his good works from his bad, and make excuses for him, but to my mind Hugo ChÃ¡vez is lost to the democratic left. He has showed that he values Gaddafi’s power, and its maintenance, higher than the lives and freedom of the ordinary citizens of Libya. In the most charitable analysis, he has shown that he considers mass civilian slaughter an acceptable price to pay to prevent Western imperialism — which we might know by its other name of ‘humanitarian intervention’. I see no reason to suppose that, push coming to shove, he would not take a similar view of his own citizens as cannon fodder in an ideological conflict.
In Libya, an unlikely hero of a youth-led revolution
BENGHAZI, LIBYA – Mehdi Mohammed Zeyo was the most unlikely of revolutionary heroes. The bespectacled 49-year-old worked in the supplies department of the state-owned oil company. He was a diabetic with two teenage daughters.
But something snapped inside him as a youth-led uprising in Libya against the government of Moammar Gaddafi quickly turned bloody.
On the morning of Feb. 20, he walked down the stairs of his apartment building with a gas canister hoisted on his shoulder, witnesses said. He put two canisters inside his trunk of his car, along with a tin can full of gunpowder. Driving toward the base, he flashed the victory sign to the young men protesting outside and hit the gas pedal.
Gaddafi’s security forces sprayed his black car with bullets, setting off a powerful explosion, witnesses said. The blast tore a hole in the base’s front gate, allowing scores of young protesters and soldiers who had defected to stream inside. That night, the opposition won the battle for the base, and for Benghazi, as Gaddafi’s forces retreated.
Zeyo had left a will listing the debts he owed so that they could be paid, but Hafidh said the community and the company where Zeyo worked would take care of his family. On Zeyo’s desk Monday was a printed piece of paper pasted to the computer screen.
“We are from God and we return to God,” it said.
At home, his wife put her head down.
“We had no sons to carry on his name. But this is how God works, and now his name is written in history,” she said.
That was published in the Washington Post, and syndicated to the front page of the international news section of today’s Dominion Post. Read the whole thing, it’s worth your time.
Then try to re-imagine this story if the protagonist was an uneducated working-class youth from the Palestinian Occupied Territories, rural Afghanistan or the Iran-Iraq borderlands.
Last week I was standing in a cafe queue in front of some mums talking about their children, one said “I told him ‘I don’t care who started it, you don’t throw a cup at your brother!'”
With that rather heavy-handed allegory I start another post about Gaza:Â I don’t care who started it; it’s not ok to bomb civilians, fire missiles into towns, or invade and start killing innocents.
Every time someone criticises Israel’s actions they get slammed for being anti-Semitic, pro-Palestinian and/or for standing up for terrorists. When someone criticises Hamas’ actions they get attacked for being blindly pro-Israel, a lapdog of the US and/or for standing up for terrorists.
I don’t know whose fault the current situation is, I don’t know the ins and outs of all the wars, the politics, the negotiations, the ceasefires and truces and the breaches, the overt ties, the covert ties and the financial ties.
But I know that I don’t care who started it and that it’s not ok to use the lives of innocents as leverage in a political power game.
P.S. Maia has and interesting post about why innocence should not be required for us to care.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs has finally come around and called for a ceasefire in Gaza. One wonders why he did not do so at the outbreak of hostilities three weeks ago. After all, a principled position against armed conflict would have advised for an early rather than late demand for a cessation of both the Hamas rocket attacks and the Israeli air campaign in response. Be that as it may, the belated call for a ceasefire puts NZ in line with the UN position as well as that of the Labour Party (which called for a ceasefire over a week ago), and was driven by the targeting by IDF armour of UN facilities where Hamas fighters sought shelter. Since the NZ is a vocal supporter of UN humanitarian missions, such attacks were bound to cause alarm within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, especially since the IDF has a track record of targeting UN sites when they are occupied by enemy combatants (remember the IDF bombing of the UN observer post in Southern Lebanon in 2006, which resulted in the deaths of foreign peacekeepers). In addition, local opposition to the incursion into Gaza made the issue politically problematic for National so long as it held to its neutral stance (and silence) on the conflict. Since most of the fire is directed by the IDF against Hamas, a call for a ceasefire on both sides is effectively a call for Israel to halt (at least) its ground operations. That brings National belatedly in line with Labour on the issue.
All of this indicates that there might have been a struggle between the career foreign affairs bureaucracy and their new political masters on how to respond, something only resolved when UN facilities came under fire (which made it diplomatically untenable for National to continue with its “neutral” stance). Sometimes fence-sitting on sharp matters of diplomatic policy can turn into a painful political lesson at home and abroad, so the call for a ceasefire by Minister McCully is as much about the National government saving face in both arenas as it is about its real view of the conflict. Looks like the learning curve is going to be steep…
If the NZ government wanted to do something about Israel’s actions what could we, a tin pot little country on the other side of the world, do?
It’s hard to know what we could do, it’s easy to understand why the government’s response is vagueÂ wafflings (although a statement that we think its wrong wouldn’t go amiss), and I’ve struggled to come up with any options, but here are my thoughts
- A public statement that Israel’s action is disproportionate, unacceptable and should stop. That seems like the easy one, but I’m sure someone with a foreign affairs background might explain it’s not without cost.
- We could go to the UNHCR and offer to take Palestinian refugees in addition to our existing quota. It’s not a public high profile measure, but it would make a real difference to some real lives.Â
- Working for a UN statement. We might never get one, but it would keep up the international pressure
- A travel ban on government and military officials and families? I was scraping the barrel to come up with this one, it seems like something we could actually do and, again, it’s a sign to the international community.