The asymmetry in power between Israelis and Palestinians and the exclusion of key players mean that the quest for UN recognition of an independent Palestine is like the icing on an uncooked cake.
Thursday 8 September 2011
September 1993 marked what many at the time described as a revolutionary breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. It was the month that saw the sealing of the Declaration of Principles – commonly known as the Oslo Accords – between the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), represented by Yasser Arafat, and the Israeli state.
On the 18th anniversary of the failed accords, analysis has focused on the role of the potentially significant United Nations recognition of an independent Palestinian state. The real question, for those interested in conflict resolution, is not whether the UN recognises Palestine but to what extent have things changed since Oslo? Have the ‘spoilers’ of the peace process learnt from the lessons of Oslo? Has the environment in anyway changed to create a context that is more conducive to resolving the conflict?
Essentially, has the situation really changed to allow for the current diplomatic initiative to transcend legal rhetoric and elite jubilance and deliver significant change for those living, day in and day out, this conflict?
Looking at peace processes broadly, especially seemingly successful ones, such as the Northern Ireland case, the essential elements for success are inclusiveness, accountability and an environment that limits spoiler success. Spoilers are actors who attempt to derail the peace process for their own interests.
So did the Oslo recipe include these vital ingredients?
Oslo could in no way be described as inclusive. An elected Israeli government representative could be described as representative of the Israeli people but on the other side of the negotiating table sat Arafat and his clique. Despite it being described as a negotiation with the PLO, the umbrella group representing Palestinian factions, the reality was far from the case.
The Palestinian side was Arafat-centric and, despite claims that the PLO was a representative of the Palestinians, the context in which they came to the negotiating table was one of a bedraggled, increasingly irrelevant group of people who not only physically but mentally were moving away from those whose cause they were representing.
The condition in which the PLO went into negotiation has been described as one of desperate need. Booted out of Lebanon, pushed into Yemen and Tunisia, lacking significant Arab state support following the PLO’s backing of Saddam Hussein during the 1990 Gulf war, not to mention the collapse of the Soviet Union, one of its major funders, all contributed to the organisation feeling very alone and isolated.
In addition, within the occupied territories, groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, later to become some of the key external spoilers to the conflict, had begun to gain ground. Islamic Jihad formed as a radical splinter group of the Muslim Brotherhood and, alongside Hamas, played a role in igniting the first intifada. Yet, the two groups were excluded from the Israeli-Palestinian talks.
This dismissive attitude towards militant groups was a hindrance to the peace process. And it is this continued ostracisation of important, even if controversial and questionable, groups that limits any future chance of effective conflict resolution. That said, the recent Fatah-Hamas unity deal in Cairo, although labelled as a setback for peace by the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, certainly forces an important, even if undesired, extra actor to any future negotiating table.
By comparison, the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland ensured inclusiveness from the outset through the participation – later democratic – of extremely opposing groups and potentially militant movements who were offered a non-violent platform to express their grievances and work towards democratic mobilisation of the masses.
Oslo, on the other hand, not only closed opportunities for participation in the early days but also failed to open up the spectrum for participation gradually. By centring the Palestinian side of the negotiations on an individual and his tightly knit group, it left no room for others to get involved. In addition, the responsibility and title the Oslo process bestowed on the PLO representatives encouraged them to close off the political system to other players. This has not only led to the rise of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, but also the clear creation of an authoritarian regime, in the guise of the Palestinian Authority, led by Fatah.
As the late Edward Said once put it: “After years of being the victims of Arab and Israeli repression, Palestinians have finally earned the right of a repressive system of their own.”
Israel’s insistence on only negotiating with one party has closed the system off to the development of a more representative group of Palestinian negotiators. To this day, negotiations do not take place with those that the Palestinians feel represent them but rather the group, or more commonly the individual, that Israel and the United States deem should represent them. With such a chasm between the masses and the elite, the perfect gap is created for spoilers to do what they do best: spoil the process.
Essentially, a successful attempt at resolution of this conflict would see the Palestinians experiencing improvement in their daily lives and Israelis feeling more secure in their own homes. Unfortunately, Oslo set the tone for an environment of very little positive change, which gave the spoilers on both sides the perfect opportunity to wreak havoc with very little accountability.
The extremely violent, uncompromising, fervent settler communities of the occupied territories are never going to be satisfied with any compromise with the Palestinians on the issue of the land that they feel is rightfully theirs. An example of the actions of their most extreme fringe was the attack carried out by Baruch Goldstein, a resident of the Hebron settlement, who walked into the Ibrahimi mosque and shot 29 Palestinians as they prayed. The reaction from the Israeli state was to increase the number of IDF troops on the ground and impose a curfew on Palestinians to protect the settler community.
This incident continues to reverberate in the minds of Palestinians to this day. Hebron itself has come to be remembered as one of the biggest tragedies of the Oslo agreement. “For the sake of the 500 Jewish settlers, everyday life for the 35,000 Palestinians, who resided in the same area, became a living nightmare”, according to Ghada Karmi(???), and continues to be so.
What became clear after Oslo is that “the Israelis with all their military power cannot extinguish Palestinian aspirations and the Palestinians with all their anger […] will not force the Israelis to submit,” Dennis Ross, Bill Clinton’s special Middle East coordinator, once noted.
What was needed to contribute to a more peaceful coexistence was an understanding of leadership constraints. It is the case that both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership today fail to understand key traits of leadership, especially since they feel their position to be extremely vulnerable. Leaders make decisions, which sometimes anger or disappoint their constituency, and so they sometimes must pay the price with their own career. But no leaders on either side show that level of daring.
The desire for many Palestinian political actors to act as the symbol of Palestine makes the political elite lack a clear strategy, something which is desperately needed. Israeli leaders also lack a clear vision for peace, while the current leadership has a clear anti-peace agenda.
Binyamin Netanyahu, during the Oslo years and now, “showed hatred and bitter animosity towards the Palestinians”, according to the British-Israeli historian Avi Shlaim. This meant, in the words of Ron Pundak of the Peres Centre for Peace, that Netanyahu “sabotaged the peace process relentlessly and made every effort to de-legitimise his Palestinian partners”. The re-election of a leader with such a track record indicates that few lessons have been learnt.
Finally, whilst the Israeli-Palestinian conflict certainly fits the bill of being an intractable conflict, it is not one based on an equal stalemate. The reality of the asymmetrical nature of the conflict makes any negotiations, in themselves, a paradox, as the actors are unlikely to feel the harm of the conflict equally.
Asymmetry is evident in the nature of the relationship between the two sides: the relationship of the occupied to the occupier based on a history of power and military successes for Israel in the face of one loss after the other in the eyes of the Palestinians.
In such an environment, “when a peace process is being conducted between two utterly unequal parties in the context of a deeply asymmetric power relationship, the role of the third party becomes critical”, argues Sumantra Bose of the London School of Economics. Essentially the issue of asymmetry can only been resolved if a neutral third party is present, one that would balance the negotiating table.
The involvement of the United States in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been largely unsuccessful and Washington has taken no steps to change the conflict into some mutually beneficial arrangement. Whilst the United States appeared to act as a neutral party in brokering peace in Northern Ireland, it has traditionally been biased towards the Israelis.
The perception among Palestinians and their supporters is that the US just provides Israel with a cover for its violations on the ground. Washington’s approach is perhaps unsurprising, given that Israel is the largest beneficiary of American military aid, a strategic Middle Eastern ally and the protégé of the influential pro-Israel lobby. This leads to Palestinian resentment to brew against the foundations and the hypocrisy of the entire process.
So whilst reactions have been positive rhetorically, it is understandable why many in Palestinian society are sceptical about what positive changes a UN vote would actually bring.
In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not only are common external spoilers a threat, but those heralding peace and compromise have had a destructive impact. There is little intent from the Israeli government to follow through with promises and no one to hold it to account. Moreover, the blatant asymmetry between the Palestinians and Israelis is exacerbated by a biased broker and a self-interested approach to conflict resolution that, unfortunately, lead to any confidence-building efforts to become mutually destructive.
Combined, these factors make any potential UN recognition just the icing on an uncooked cake.