One of the more important lessons of what has come to be known as the ?transatlantic rift? is that designing political communication for domestic consumption has become much more difficult and is certainly more likely to have undesirable unintended consequences in an increasingly interconnected world.
Zionist heritage in Cologne.A recent example of these difficulties is US President Bush?s letter of support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon?s plan to relocate Jewish settlers from Gaza in return for an explicit American recognition of Israel?s right to keep some settlements in the West Bank and a ?realistic? scenario for the ?right to return? of Palestinian refugees. What seems like an inevitable move for both politicians ? giving the Prime Minister, weakened by continuous allegations of corruption, the political clout to propose his plan in an increasingly difficult parliamentary environment – is equally inevitably causing resentment ? as much as opportunities for posturing – among the Palestinians and the other negotiating parties, even if less for the substance than for the ?unilateral? style. But the letter is hardly a new ?Balfour Declaration?, as some commentators rather naively stipulated.
I doubt any serious politician eve r believed in an agreement based on more than the idea (?land for peace?) of the UNSC resolutions 242 and 338. In fact, even the famously balanced and incredibly unofficial ?Geneva Accord?grants Israel the right to keep several settlements (or 2,5%) of the territory occupied in 1967. But last week?s letter (and even more so the press conference) was about politics, not facts.
The ?Geneva Accord? dismisses the largely ineffective step-by-step processual approach – used for the Oslo agreements as well as for the ?Roadmap? – of establishing security, trust, and then a ?lasting? agreement in favor of a castle-in-the-sky ?two-states-first? approach that was evidently only possible because there?s no chance of it ever being implemented. Despite undoubtedly honorable intentions, it was largely a photo-op.
Consequently, as Mark Heller correctly writes in Monday?s New York Times, Sharon?s realpolitk – the removal of settlers from Gaza ? is currently the only promising element in Israeli-Palestinian relations. This is probably as indicative of the tragic state of affairs as the recent warming up to ?Jordan is Palestine?, ?eat-or-be-eaten? rhetoric by someone like Benny Morris, Israeli historian and author of “The Birth Of The Palestinian Refugee Problem?. Supporting Sharon?s initiative may have been the only viable option available – yet it is also a testament to the fundamental lack of a long term strategy worthy of that name.
Given the understandable absence of trust between conflicting parties, a shared vision of an inevitably shared future is the most important element in any attempt to regulate an ethnic or national conflict. For all the continuing problems regarding the implementation of the Good Friday agreement of 1998, among the political leaders in Northern Ireland there is a common sense of inevitability of power sharing. Their inability to deliver is, in my opinion, owed largely to the consequences of the specific pressures the Northern Irish Party System places on politicians.
But when looking at the Middle East, the absence of a shared vision is striking and makes discounting the future almost impossible. What seems like a trivial realization from a distance – that the two peoples have to find a way to live together eventually, because, well, they do live together already – certainly isn’t trivial at all for those personally involved: neither party is truly convinced that the commonly favored ?two state solution? be the eventual outcome of the conflict, despite all the rhetoric intended to convey the opposite.
Too many Palestinians in charge as well as a growing number on the streets believe that demographics are on their side. After all, the population of the occupied territories tripled over the last thirty years to more than three million now. Even within Israel, the percentage of the Arab population almost doubled from 10 percent in the 1950s to roughly 20 percent, or a million, today. Israel?s Jewish population grew, too – but largely by immigration. Too many Palestinians live in a violently vicious circle of being poor and fanatic, hopeless and humiliated. They don’t have real political leadership or much of a civil society to speak of beyond the social networks provided by militant and terrorist organizations ? a factor usually overlooked by commentators concentrating on violence. Currently ? even more so after having been significantly weakened by Israel – the Palestinian authority resembles a government to the extent that the West Bank and Gaza resemble a state. But even if it were materially able to seriously fight extremist groups, it would clearly not increase its popularity among the Palestinian people, many of whom still are not so sure about the benefits of a political process, as outlined above.
Could such a government enforce peace after a Palestinian state has been founded? Or if all settlements were removed? Not knowing the answer to this question is a good reason for Israeli politicians to not even contemplate taking on the religious and secular settler movements and their political support – which would very likely lead to at least some civil unrest ? despite an increasingly intense social debate about the character of Zionism today and the nature of a Jewish democracy. Not knowing the answer to this question is apparently sufficient reason to rely on Israel?s ability to handle the conflict military in the medium run ? despite the demographic development and international pressure. Not knowing the answer to this question is even the reason for the indecisiveness of Israeli moderates about how to deal with the ongoing threat of being blown up for boarding a bus or shopping at the wrong store at the wrong time beyond ?tightening security?, in turn strangling the economy and particularly hurting the poverty stricken Palestinian population, adding fuel to the fire.
These days, I am often reminded of a brief a conversation I had in early 1993 with the late President of the German Council of Jews, Ignatz Bubis, with respect to the nascent Oslo agreement. His pessimistic outlook was that any Likud government would ?negotiate? forever while establishing facts, and the Palestinians? alternative to negotiated agreement would always be to revert to the current status quo of conflict management by cradle and stones. I hate to say it, but that?s, with minor variations, what happened in the decade after the handshake between Rabin and Arafat in the White House Rose Garden.
But I?m not entirely without hope. In fact, for the moment abstracting from legitimate moral and political concern, the decapitating of terrorist Palestinian organizations could – in the long run ? indeed serve the interest of both a future moderate Palestinian authority and Israel?s security. But it seems obvious to me that weakening the more extreme forces of Palestinian resistance will strengthen those on the political front only – only – when there is true hope for a political solution, when joining militant and terrorist organizations would no longer be considered a calling ? or the only job prospect – by an ever growing pool of ever younger stone throwers.
No one knows what Mr Sharon?s real intentions are. But for someone with his hawkish political background, an attempt to risk political capital to actually withdraw Jewish settlers (even if only from Gaza) does appear to be an important development. Israel has defeated its enemies with its military power for the last almost 56 years. But the next important conflict – hopefully not too violent ? is an internal one. So far Israel clearly failed to send a ray of hope to the Palestinians. Hope that could lead to a shared vision of a shared future. But then – only Nixon could go to China.
About two years ago, the Israeli historian Fania Oz-Salzberger argued in the International Herald Tribune that real ?European mediation [alongside the US were] probably the best key to opening the Middle Eastern gridlock? but that, despite European assertions to this effect, it was an unrealistic scenario for a plethora of historical and political reasons. I suppose Ms Salzberger was right – but she wrote in 2002.
In 2004, the US has effectively lost the last remnants of credibility on Arab streets. Last week?s letter is only a reminder thereof. That does not make their policy wrong per se, but when there?s a need to negotiate, to work with local power structures, it obviously becomes an impediment. For Europe, this loss of American clout must be considered not just an invitation but an imperative to assume a bolder role, particularly as the Middle East conflict is one of the few foreign policy areas almost everyone agrees on. Moreover, a more significant involvement in this area could also help to deal with the remnants of the Iraq-policy induced division.
Mr Heller, a research assistant at Tel Aviv university, makes an interesting proposal in his article in the New York Times about how Europe could raise its profile in the near future – and do just what Israel’s assassination policy is not achieving: give hope to the Palestinians. The EU has already attempted to do so by funding the Palestinian Authority for the last years, causing concern that some money was diverted to violent activities. Now Mr Heller proposes that Europe buy and operate the soon-to-be abandoned settlements which would otherwise likely be destroyed to avoid ?Hamas flags flying over former Israeli controlled buildings?, however wasteful this may seem to an outsider.
In the long run, moreover, as Fania Oz-Salzberger reminded, a more active European role as a mediator would help Europe and Israel to again look each other in the eye, reminding the other of the common heritage. True dialogue, she said, can only be based on a courageous discussion of history.
And to get from history to hope, Mr Heller?s proposal seems like an important first step.