On Mideast Peace

AARON DAVID MILLER – The problem with Mideast peace is that the conditions for it simply do not exist yet.

The current Israeli government seems unwilling to make any concessions to the Palestinian leadership, prompting the latter to seek false allies in Hamas and the UN. In this highly polarized climate, the Obama Administration pushes for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Should the international community expect such a resolution to succeed?

 The circumstances for a conflict-ending agreement are certainly not in place right now. The Obama Administration is not pushing for anything at the moment; they are looking for a way by which they can prevent an explosion of violence. The issue is not only that the Israeli government is unwilling to negotiate, but also that a deal on Jerusalem, border security, refugees, and recognition of Israel as a nation-state of the Jewish people are issues that cannot be resolved between the current Israeli and Palestinian leadership.

Part of the reason the Palestinians are seeking immunity at the United Nations is not just as part of a peace process. Sporadic regimes that do not deliver results — the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are two examples — get overthrown. Unity in the Arab world is a very popular concept. By unifying, or at least showing an official effort to unify — there is not going to be any meaningful unification as a result of the bid at the UN — the Palestinians hope to deflect popular pressure from their own incompetency.

The United States has been criticized as unable to play an impartial role in negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, since the US provides a lopsided amount of aid to the Israelis. Yet you argue in Slate that a peace resolution should be “brokered by an American mediator prepared to be fair, reassuring and tough when necessary.” How should — and could — an American play the role you described? 

 No American can play this role these days for reasons enumerated above. When Americans did play that role — as did Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter, and James Baker — they succeeded. When they did not — when there were few opportunities for progress — there was no success, as happened with George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The United States is capable of being an effective — not necessarily an honest — broker in the region. There is a concept in international relations called the “paradox of the partial mediator.” The United States is a partial mediator, but even as such it has had more success than any other third party in brokering an agreement. The issue is not whether the US is honest: it is whether it can be effective. The answer, under these circumstances, is no.

 What circumstances need to be in place? 

 There need to be two leaders willing and able to pay the price of compromise. There needs to be an urgency, sufficient amounts of “pain and gain.” Publics and their leaders on both sides need to be willing to court the risks of changing the status-quo. If these circumstances are in place, a serious peace process can happen. Barring these circumstances, though, there will be very little progress.

The recent Palestinian gambit in the UN was quite groundbreaking and controversial, but it raised questions about the entity’s role in the conflict. What role, in your opinion, should the UN play, that is, how can a forum of international opinion be leveraged to solve, or conversely, perpetuate the regional problem?

 The UN cannot resolve the conflict — only the two parties, and a third party that has influence with these two, can do that. The UN does not have influence. It can play a useful role in peacekeeping operations. It can create, as it did in UN Security Council Resolution 242, a framework for resolution. But it is a marginal force, as with many other issues. It is only as strong or as competent as the five permanent members of the Security Council, who are willing or unwilling to work together. It does not exist as a separate entity of any consequence. It exists, and has power, as a consequence of its members when they are able to work together.

As for the Israeli issue, an international “solution” is not possible: there is no precedent for it.

Some analysts have noted that Israeli settlers are posing a serious barrier to the peace process. How are these settlements, if at all, hampering the possibility for a successful resolution?

 They predetermine the outcome of negotiations, send signals of humiliation and impotency to Palestinian leaders. They constitute their fair share of the problem by exacerbating violence between the two parties. Yet they are not the single greatest obstacle to peacemaking: that would be the unwillingness of the Israelis and Palestinians to pay the price for a two-state solution. Even if the settlement-problem could be solved, a solution would still be very far away.

But ultimately, nothing the Israelis do is more unhelpful in terms of barring the way for a peaceful solution.

In your Foreign Policy article, “The False Religion of Mideast Peace,” you argue that US policymakers have a tendency to warp international political reality when it comes to the Arab-Israeli peace process. Have policymakers become more aware in recent years of these mistaken realities?

 President Obama has been learning that, in terms of the Middle East peace process, there is very little likelihood of dramatic successes.

In a region where religion is intertwined with politics, the labeling of the Mideast peace process as religious was particularly poignant. Why did you choose that descriptor?

 Religion is not only a term that is applicable to those who worship a god. It can be secular: national socialism, communism (both Russian and Chinese iterations). Anytime one party tries to persuade another that the world works according to a certain set of principles, that first party needs to be very careful.

I have been using the term “resolution,” yet there seems to be a divide between conflict resolution and conflict transformation. Should analysts make such a distinction when talking about the Israelis and the Palestinians, and the attainment of a stable end of violence?

The true distinction is between resolution and management. Transformation is beyond resolution: it implies latitudinal change. Resolution merely addresses the issues. The distinction you described is a false dichotomy. The situation is about conflict management.

In recent weeks, the dilemmas posed by a nuclear-aspirant Iran have become more pressing. What harm would a nuclear-armed Iran do to the possibility of a peaceful cessation of violence, and the potential for an ultimate resolution?

If Iran becomes a nuclear power with deliverable weapons, there would no hope for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If Iran gets a weapons, Israel will be distracted by myriad other issues: proliferation, analyzing Iranian strategy, monitoring Hamas and Hezbollah. There are so many pieces that will overshadow the issue in Palestine.

The greater issue at stake if Iran gets a weapon is that surrounding the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. If this treaty goes south, no deal can be reached between Israel and Palestine.

Might it then be in Israel’s best interests to neutralize the Iranian nuclear facilities?

That depends on a number of factors. Can the Israelis succeed? What will the Americans say about such a strike? How time-sensitive is the situation? There really are no “best interests,” just degrees of complexity. Since there is no solution right now to the question of Iran’s nuclear acquisition, the international community is drifting. An Israeli strike this year is very unlikely. There is no clear answer to the Iranian question — there will be no resolution — which makes the situation in Palestine all the more difficult. The Israeli government will not be serious about peacemaking as long as the nuclear issue with Iran remains unresolved.

Has the crisis in Syria — which shares a border with Israel — posed any new threats or, conversely, optimism for the peace process?

The Syrian situation gives no cause for optimism. There is a risk that, if Syria comes apart, the agreement on the Golan Heights could somehow be violated. Yet that result is not very likely at the moment. Ultimately, the result for Israel of the conflict in Syria is not going to be positive.

 ***

AARON DAVID MILLER is a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He served as a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations, most recently as the Senior Advisor for Arab-Israeli Negotiations. His blog, Reality Check, runs weekly on ForeignPolicy.com.

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