Putting peace and independence on the table
The current violence, however terrible, belongs to the surface. The underlying reality of the conflict is decolonisation.
Israelis and Palestinians have conflicting views on the role of international intervention in the conflict. This should not be surprising since, left to their own designs, the relationship of Palestinians and Israelis will always be to the advantage of the more powerful (i.e., Israel), whether that relationship is one of peaceful negotiations or confrontation.
When the international community is involved, is usually comes bearing specific agreed-upon terms of reference that the parties must adhere to, a fact that reduces the influence of the imbalance of power.
Palestinians also prefer international intervention because during the seventies, they made strategic adjustments to their political position, in which they dropped their demand for the reinstatement of their historical rights and decided instead to stick to those legitimate rights that are consistent with international legality.
For that reason Palestinians encourage international intervention, in the hopes that it will be based on international legality and consistent with international law. In other words, Palestinians have always tried to compensate for their weakness by trying to inspire international intervention that will call for international legality and force Israeli compliance.
The problem with this approach has always been that the lone superpower dominating the United Nations and the Security Council always protects Israel from international intervention and from the need to implement or enforce relevant international law.
The US and the Arab world
The recent history of the conflict demonstrates that the United States only interferes or allows international involvement when the conflict extends beyond the Palestinian-Israeli arena and affects either regional or international interests. The most obvious example of this was the Madrid Conference, which was a major historical intervention by the international community led by the United States.
At that point, the Arabs who participated in the attack on Iraq needed that intervention badly, as their publics were increasingly accusing the United States of double standards between Israel and Iraq. The resulting foment was affecting American credibility in the Arab world and consequently weakening United States regional allies.
It now appears that the significance of the last eighteen months of confrontations is that the conflict is now beginning to spill out into the region, strengthening fundamentalists in the Islamic world, embarrassing the Arab regimes and demonstrating the impotence of Arab leaders. The gist of the demonstrations in the Arab streets was directed at the United States and those Arab regimes. The result has been a feeling of international urgency and now calls especially in Washington for an international conference on the Middle East.
There has been a lot of distortion over the nature of the current conflict, a distortion that is preventing intervention. Israel has succeeded, especially in the United States, in creating the false impression that this conflict is about terrorism and the means of countering terrorism. The discussion has turned into one over how to combat terrorism, whether Arafat can do that himself or whether Israel must do it for him. The whole world is now waiting to see the results of this fight: how many have been arrested, how many have been killed, and will it all work?
Thats too bad, because this conflict can only be solved if there is serious international intervention on the basis of international law, backed up by some powerful incentives to influence the parties and force them to adhere to that legality. This conflict is one of de-colonisation, a conflict that will never end no matter how many Palestinians are killed and arrested, and unless there is an end to the Israeli occupation.
The problem does not come from a handful of individuals that might be arrested or killed, but out of the genuine desire of a people to achieve independence and freedom like every other nation in the world.
Internationalising the process
International involvement in the conflict is welcome, but will domestic politics get in the way?
Recent weeks have witnessed a bewildering wave of initiatives to introduce international mechanisms and solutions into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They range from the Arab League-endorsed Saudi initiative, via an international mandate on the West Bank and Gaza (proposed by Martin Indyk, former United States ambassador to Israel), to the initiative ascribed to US President George W. Bush and Saudi Crown Prince Abdallah to divide up the task of pressuring Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Two international initiatives have actually been launched: the dispatch of American-British jailers to Jericho, whose arrival brought about the conclusion of the Israeli siege on Arafats headquarters in Ramallah; and the United Nations abortive Jenin fact-finding commission.
By early May the leading initiative appeared to be that of US Secretary of State Colin Powell to convene an international conference in Turkey in June. This reflected close American coordination with Saudi Arabia and with the other prospective non-regional participants: the European Union, Russia and the UN.
Internationalising or regionalising?
Internationalisation has thus become the dominant theme in Israeli-Arab conflict resolution. It reflects the obvious inability of the belligerent parties to deal with the conflict on their own. Accordingly, this escalation of the search for a solution to the international level must be seen as a welcome development.
But it is also fraught with dangers: the collapse of an international conference is liable to have the same domino effect as the failure of Camp David II in July 2000. Hence the need to examine the Israeli and Palestinian positions, the pitfalls, and the tasks that face the conference organisers in the coming weeks.
The Sharon government can claim to have taken the initiative to convene a regional conference of fairly similar proportions. This appears to have been one of Sharons tactics for rebuffing US and UN pressure during the recent military campaign. Sharon also hopes that the presence of Saudi, Egyptian and Jordanian leaders will enable him to bypass Arafat and discuss the Palestinian issue in terms closer to his own. This perception is based on messages passed on to him in recent weeks from Arab leaders who are highly critical of Arafats leadership.
Risks and choices
The conference idea may also enable Sharon to play for time politically while the Israeli-Palestinian situation stabilises under international and regional pressure, until the anticipated US offensive against Iraq reshuffles the Middle East cards.
On the other hand, if the situation does not stabilise and Palestinian suicide bombings are renewed, Sharon will again have a pretext for freezing peace talks and invoking military measures. But note that Palestinian success in focusing world attention on Israels actions in Jenin will mitigate against any far-reaching new Israel Defense Forces offensive, say, against the refugee camps in Gaza.
One specific issue that the parties will have to address in the coming weeks concerns an invitation to Syria (and, by extension, Lebanon) to join the conference. The Saudi initiative would appear to mandate such an invitation. Would Sharon welcome the prospect of an Israeli negotiating track with Syria at Palestinian expense? Conceivably. But would Arafat? Indeed, are any of the relevant leaders interested in bringing Bashar al-Asad into the process, in view of the Syrian presidents apparently acute failure to grow into his job?
Sharon must also decide whether he wants the conference to be held at the most senior leadership echelon, where he would have to face off with the irrelevant Arafat, or at the level of foreign ministers, where Shimon Peres might take maverick initiatives behind his back. And how will the Israeli prime minister deal with hawkish pressures within his own party, which now threatens to reject the very idea of a two-state solution?
Arafat, for his part, has always sought international legitimisation for the Palestinian cause, and specifically international backing for UN resolutions regarding refugee and territorial issues as he interprets them. Generally speaking he can count on Arab, UN and EU support.
But will he adopt realistic positions that might sway the US? And can he ensure a tranquil atmosphere back home? Indeed, in view of his recent record (e.g., encouraging terrorism precisely when US envoys arrive in the region), is he even interested in doing so?
Given that neither Sharon nor Arafat has embraced realistic peace proposals, one challenge for the conference initiator, the US, is to organise effective pressure on both sides to moderate their positions. A more immediate task is to ensure a stable ceasefire and recruit broad agreement regarding a conference agenda, the identity of the participants and the level of representation without which the conference is a non-starter.
Ostensibly, the US international conference initiative reflects a much-needed undertaking by the Bush administration to deal aggressively with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, it is not yet clear that this is the case. The presidents own commitment is not certain. A clearly enunciated blessing from the Pentagon or from Congress for the new approach has not been heard. Mid-term election considerations may generate constraints on Bushs willingness to back Powell when, in the crunch, it becomes necessary to pressure Sharon.
International process, American process or no process? The coming weeks will tell.
Was published 6 May 2002 ©bitterlemons.org
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