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Wild Cards in Conflict Resolution?
The road is tortuous, but the future is bright! - Mao Tse Tung

6 July   |   2001   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

There is no doubt that the past few weeks have witnessed another flurry of high-octane efforts by the United States, the United Nations and the European Union to shore up the truce that was recently concluded between Israel and the Palestinians. This diplomatic cease-fire was reached on 13 June 2001 by George Tenet, CIA Director, given that the new US Administration had become increasingly concerned with the ascending number of Israeli and Palestinian fatalities. After all, in the nine-month period between September 2000 and July 2001, the spectre of death has claimed no less than 472 Palestinian Arabs, 122 Israeli Jews and 13 Israeli Arabs.

I was reminded yet again of the human crisis engulfing Israelis and Palestinians alike when I came across a recent article by Dr Ron Pundak, one of the architects of the now [allegedly dead] Oslo accord. In his comprehensive analysis, Pundak points out to the mistakes that occurred under Oslo and the lack of good faith in the implementation of many of its provisions. Though mild-mannered and academic in his style, Pundak does not pull his punches! He accuses former Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu of a lack of good will and lays a large portion of the blame for the failure of Oslo at his doorstep! He also attributes haughty arrogance to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, adding that Barak was intent on reaching an agreement with the Palestinians but did not manage to carry his own people with him - let alone inspire confidence in the Palestinian camp. He also opines that the Palestinian leadership did not know how to respond to the Israeli expectations, and alienated the Israeli ‘street’ with their incitement, double-speak and corruption.

True, the diplomatic efforts being deployed to consolidate the ‘peace’ between Israel and the Palestinians are laudable. Ron Pundak’s article - a defence of Oslo in some shape or form - is also a welcome contribution toward regurgitating a modicum of reason between two warring peace partners. But what both lack is a vision, a focus, an afterward! The comings and goings of so many politicians like Colin Powell, Kofi Annan or Javier Solana to Jerusalem and Ramallah are meant to cool the cinders of another confrontation that might unleash more violence. But peace is becoming perilously synonymous with appeasement, and Oslo is being promoted in some quarters as a re-marketed option. Where is the irenic focus of the whole process? How does one transcend short-termism and aim instead for a long-term accord?

Every time I write on issues of conflict resolution, I recall one of my law lecturers at the London School of Economics. Professor Simon Roberts and I were discussing my LL.M thesis on the conflict over the enclave of Nagorny-Karabagh [between Armenia and Azerbaidjan] when he expounded the conceptual difference between the ‘settlement of a dispute’ and the ‘resolution of a conflict’. He told me that the former required merely papering over the cracks whilst the latter meant filling those cracks first before papering over them. Otherwise put, one dealt with ephemeral and collapsible answers, whereas the other offered radical solutions that tackled the core issues themselves. What worries me today with all those political manoeuvres and academic dissertations is that this distinction is wanting. Peace cannot be attained simply by papering over the cracks! Peace will only be achieved once the cracks are filled - and only then covered with wall paper!

Reason would therefore dictate that both parties aim for a crack-filling process rather than a wall-papering one! But that sort of bold conclusion also needs to address serious issues of historical justice, collective memories, religious values and moral ethics as well as strategic or security needs. Pretending that six decades of history did not exist is a non-starter! Discussing maps that do not reflect the existential reality on the ground is self-defeating. Claiming that religion is not one factor in the equation of the ‘holy land’ is facile! Alleging that security will come solely as a by-product of peace is an aphorism! Altering the facts on the ground, or establishing new ones, do not foster mutual trust. It is time that the parties are compelled to look beyond their noses! It is time they swallow the bullet and make some hard and gut-wrenching decisions!

But where does one start? How does one address the issues in ways that are both credible and workable?

Be careful who you choose for an enemy because that is who you become most like! - (F W Nietzsche, Philosopher)

The answer - both easy and difficult - depends on the perspective one adopts of the overall conflict. As I elicited in an earlier article, Israel and the Palestinians view the conflict from fundamentally different premises. Indeed, one major obstacle toward any real progress is that the perspectives and premises are often mutually exclusive - particularly given the atmosphere of malignant distrust existent between the two sides today.

In their own [different] ways and as a function of their own [different] interpretations, most Israelis and Palestinians are traumatised by the failure of the Oslo process, as much as the Camp David and Taba talks, after seven years of so-called diplomacy and negotiations. Israelis feel harried and in a state of siege. Palestinians are battered and in a state of siege. Any confidence that might have existed between both sides has evaporated or been severely compromised since September 2000. The leadership of Israel and Palestine needed the support of both their streets for the possible implementation of all the painful decisions inherent in peace. Now, the hardening of both streets is being matched by a re-hardening of positions by the leaders themselves. But invectives and accusations cannot work, and flexing muscles in order to bludgeon a people into submission is counter-productive to any solution. An honest re-assessment is quintessential - perhaps by taking Oslo as a framework of collective ideas, and then interpreting the reasons for its failure to deliver peace.

So how can such a mammoth task be achieved at this stage? I would like to start with a brief review of the up-ward spiral in violence, and then to seek out the bodies that are best suited to help nudge the process forward.

Since I have already analysed [in previous articles that are available on this web-site] the reasons for this latest bout of confrontations, I will only remind the readers of three immediate measures that need to be undertaken simultaneously by both parties. These are the cessation mutatis mutandis of all violent confrontations (which includes inter alia personal vilification as much as extra-judicial killings / active self-defence and public incitement), the cessation of any new or expanded Israeli Jewish settlements on all Palestinian land and the lifting of the blockades imposed by Israel on a large number of Palestinian cities and villages. These three sine qua non provisions are rooted in the Mitchell Commission Report, and they establish the rudimentary steps necessary to move forward again. Martin Indyk, outgoing US ambassador in Israel, highlighted two of those in an interview on 3 July 2001 in Jerusalem. He blamed both sides anto tanto for not freezing settlement-building (the number of settlers has doubled to 200,000 since the DOP in 1993) and for not forswearing violence.

But let me stress that those three pre-requisites must go hand in hand together. I listened recently to an interview on Radio France Inter with MK Colette Avital, member of the Labour Party in Israel. Whilst endorsing the recommendations of the Mitchell Commission Report, she likened its provisions to a train. She said that each one of those provisions constitutes a station. The first stop is the violence station, the second one is the period dealing with confidence-building measures, the third one is new settlements. Her train also stopped at a fourth station for international observers who would provide a buffer zone between the two sides. I was much more encouraged by the way she dealt with some of the issues than with their sequence.

It is a legitimate right for Israel to seek a reassuring period of quiet. By the same token, though, Israel cannot turn around and deny the Palestinians their own right for reassurances too. After all the deaths and casualties, the Palestinian leadership simply cannot stop their decolonisation movement whilst Israel continues with its settlements and blockades. When involved with political negotiations of this sort, neither party can subscribe to the American pedestrian dictum of ‘My way or the highway’! A quid pro quo has to be established, or else the whole process will either not crank up or simply falter once again!

Apart from those three preliminary pre-requisites that precede a tackling of the core issues themselves, there is also a need to focus for a few moments on the facilitators or arbiters who are involved with this process. Until now, the USA has taken upon itself the task of fulfilling this role. But its efforts have flopped, and will flop again in future. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the European Union must now gird up its political loins and play a more active and enhanced role in the conflict. Such an involvement is neither inconceivable nor impossible. And it certainly is not inadmissible either - for four basic reasons.

If we expect the truth from others, we have to live in truth ourselves first! (Jerzy Popieluszko, Priest )

  • Israel and the Palestinians cannot go it alone. The asymmetry in the bargaining positions and power bases between both sides is so sharp, and the distrust so profound, that the outcome cannot work on the ground.
  • The Arab countries are far too absorbed by their own national, regional or economic concerns to bring any further substantive input into the process. Besides, Egypt and Jordan are the only two credible states which can now open official channels of communication with Israel by virtue of their peace treaties.
  • The USA itself cannot unilaterally act as an honest broker. Its vested interests tilt heavily toward Israel, and there are no effective counter-weights to lobby against such a position. And I do not see why anyone would expect the US present policies to be altered given that its geo-strategic interests are aligned with Israel.
  • The United Nations - despite the valiant efforts of its secretary-general Kofi Annan - is perceived as an anti-Israel organisation. It cannot serve as mediator despite the fact that the kernel of the whole solution lies within the principle of international legality as embodied in the UN Security Council resolutions.

In my opinion, this reality provides a platform for the European Union to assume a more proactive role. But can they? What are the pros and cons of their involvement? Can the EU fill the cracks, or does it not even possess the wall-paper? Let me first skim briefly over the strengths and weaknesses of this club.

To start with, one must always remember that the EU consists of fifteen member states. It is not a monolith power base, nor does it reflect monochromatic positions on various issues - including foreign policy. One hopes that the EU Laeken summit in December 2001 will initiate a document of crucial reforms to include a directly elected Commission president, enhanced powers for the European Parliament, a Constitution for Europe and new ways of funding its institutions. These are vital for the forthcoming wave of accessions. But what is cardinal for the future - if the EU is to function properly and fulfil some of its goals - is a reduction of national vetoes in decision-making processes. This will place EU foreign policy on a consensus-driven platform.

The dynamics of the EU should also not be held up against it! It is possible that Israel would feel happier with a unilateral American intervention, whilst the Palestinians will be encouraged by a more proactive UN involvement. But neither side is entirely justified - in their concerns or expectations. If France and Greece are assumed to be pro-Palestinian, then Holland and Denmark are assumed to be pro-Israeli! The middle ground - ranging from the UK to Italy - is assumed to be porous. So a joint EU policy - drafted by the Commission and adopted by the Council of Ministers - can provide a diplomatic egress to the present stalemate.

The strongest card the EU can play today is the economic one. It is the largest financial contributor to the Palestinian Authority, but it also enjoys a large trade movement with Israel. Given that a large portion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - in terms of peace or war - is played on the economic field, the EU can exercise enough weight through its financial grants as much as trade agreements to offer a supportive role to peace-making. I remember years ago some political commentators writing that the next Middle Eastern war will be over water rather than over oil. But I tend to widen this projection. I think it will be fought out much more on the economic plane. After all, economics (boycotted products, trade relations, cheap manpower versus high-tech industry) encouraged the processes of Madrid and Oslo. It should do the same again today.

Just examine the facts! Israeli credit ratings have surged during times of regional stability and resulted in a host of new trade agreements. Such a flow of foreign investment turned the high-tech sector into an engine of growth. As Aluf Benn, diplomatic correspondent of the Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz, wrote in his editorial on 29 June 2001, ‘By reaching out to the Palestinians, Israel went from a pariah state to an integrated member of the global economy. As long as there was a peace process and no final settlement, Israel could have the best of both worlds: economic benefits without territorial concessions.’ But Benn went on by warning that ‘Sharon wants a return to the status quo of the last decade: a never-ending peace process that is more profitable than war, but that side-steps the bold concessions necessary for peace.’

Peace will be the fruit of Justice and my people will dwell in the beauty of Peace - Is 32:18, Prophet

This is where the role of the EU kicks in. Its efforts will be based on the UNSC resolutions - namely 242 and 338. These resolutions are recognised by the EU and are predicated upon the principle of land for peace. Indeed, if a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is ever meant to work - so that the cracks can be filled before papering over them - it has to be based on this principle of land for peace. Whichever way one looks - from international resolutions to the Mitchell Commission Report - what emerges as a steady underlying option to all efforts at conciliation is this bipolar principle. Israel acquires its security at the same time that Palestinians acquire their sovereign state on their land. The EU-managed trade-off - and it is a trade-off akin to many other trade-offs in other geographical conflict situations across the world - is quite clear.

Within this framework, the religious institutions and organisations also have a role to play in buttressing up the struggle toward peace. Where the EU is a political force, the Churches - and I speak here as a Christian - are a moral force. Where nations deal in terms of vested interests, religious institutions and organisations deal in terms of morality. Churches and church-related organisations are the vane that gauges the pressures on their society. From an alarming emigrant trend to financial burdens on their parishes, schools, hospitals, dispensaries, orphanages and hostels, they help reflect - and at times deflect - the concerns of their indigenous parishioners.

But how do the religious institutions work hand-in-hand together? How do they address the political spheres of power? The answer is two-fold, and blends the role of those local Churches and church-related organisations in the Holy Land with their counterparts abroad. It is defined with one broad but complex word - partnership.

On the local level, the Churches and their affiliated organisations must galvanise the EU into action through a multi-pronged approach. The Assembly of the Heads of Churches of Jerusalem - a college of thirteen patriarchs, archbishops, bishops and priests - can appeal to the EU Heads of States for a more proactive role in the conflict. Between them, those religious hierarchs address in equal measure the Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches world-wide. They can also form a committee of clergy and laity in order to liaise with the international church-related organisations and to streamline their efforts toward an advocacy role that undergirds the principles for peace and justice that are anchored firmly within the Christian tradition.

The international church-related organisations can play a dual role too. On the one hand, they can sensitise their own political institutions and constituencies - namely the EU, Churches and parishioners in the context of this article - of the dire realities in the Holy Land. On the other, they can also use their first-hand contacts within the EU to trigger measures of solidarity and support with the local communities in the Holy Land.

This is far from easy! Over and above the deleterious physical manifestations of the conflict, there is today also an impenetrable psychological barrier separating Israelis and Palestinians. Most Israelis do not trust the Palestinians, and their willingness to resume any real dialogue is made conditional upon the halting of the Intifada. Israel is asking the Palestinians to prove their good will first! Conversely, and taking the past seven years as ample proof, most Palestinians do not trust the Israelis either. They believe that once they stop the Intifada, Israel will simply drag its feet and refuse to undo the occupation. The Palestinians are in turn asking Israel to prove its good faith! Both sides have dug their heels in, but this costly stand-off can be unpicked if the three preliminary measures lead to negotiations on the solid basis of the principles of international legality.

My ideas mirror perhaps the fabled vision of a bumble-bee! They cannot alter many facts on the ground. Yet, it is a vision that dares to dream. It is what distinguishes the living from the living dead! I pray that it might help create an environment healthy enough to reset the organic nexus between those political and moral forces.

Can the cracks be filled, or will the wall-papering continue? Will a just ‘afterward’ be discovered?

There is room for everyone at the rendez-vous with victory! - Aime Cesaire, Poet

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2001   |   6 July


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