Roger H. Lieberman: Changing the Roles of Peace Making

By Roger H. Lieberman
Special to

All the news to come out of Annapolis suggests that the two constants that have doomed successive diplomatic efforts in the Holy Land remain unchanged: Israel’s quest to legitimize a separate and unequal relationship with the Palestinian people, and the White House’s foolish endorsement of this Israeli paradigm. In American life, the latter has become a fixture as constant as death and taxes – indeed, it is intimately related to both.

Back in 2004, when President Bush conveyed his notorious “understandings” to then-Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon – in which he recognized Israel’s “right” to annex settlement blocs and deny Palestinian refugees the Right of Return – he let a nasty genie out of its lamp, which now hovers over the Annapolis process. Although these had been America’s de-facto positions on the Israel-Palestine conflict for many years, Bush, by publicly articulating them, added considerably more weight – much as the US Supreme Court’s notorious ruling in the 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson case became a formidable tool in the hands of segregationists for over half a century.

As the legacy of the Oslo years painfully reminds us, a faulty “peace process” can be more harmful to the struggle for a just peace than no process at all. When the American public is told that their government’s diplomats are earnestly laboring to resolve the Mideast crisis, they tend to lose interest in the crisis itself on the assumption that the most able individuals are giving peace a good college try. When diplomacy breaks down and fighting between the parties in contention resumes, ordinary Americans generally come to one of two erroneous conclusions.

The first of these is that the Israel-Palestine conflict is a tribal feud of Biblical antiquity, beyond the ability of “rational” Westerners to mediate. The second, of course, is that peace efforts have failed because Israel has no Palestinian “peace partner”, and thus has no option but to perpetuate the occupation, and “daily reconquer its existence” – or something. But either of these misconceptions leads to the same result: allowing Israel to continue bulldozing its way through the remnants of Palestinian society under the ludicrous pretext of “defending itself”.

All this begs a question, though: if deferring to Uncle Sam for a resolution to a conflict that has persisted for six decades has proved so unproductive, why does the international community keep on doing it? The rationale, of course, is that the United States is the most influential foreign power in the Middle East, as it has has been ever since the British withdrawal from Suez. The US is in a class by itself when it comes to supporting Israel, and is also the patron of Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia – three Arab nations with much as stake in the outcome of the crisis in the Holy Land. If Washington holds all these cards, it is reasoned, only Washington can broker a credible, lasting peace in the region.

But this theory contains a fatal flaw: it is predicated on the assumption that the US – somehow, somewhere, under some administration – will use its unparalleled financial and diplomatic leverage over Israel to compel it to terminate its occupation of Palestinian land in accordance with international law. That has not happened for a fairly simple reason: for far too many years, US Middle East policy has been guided, neither by morality nor by a clearheaded assessment of national interest, but rather by a melange of obtuse prejudices.

It is a fairly well understood law of business practice that any monopoly – whether a public utility or a private enterprise – tends to facilitate a deterioration in the quality of service, as the entity in control of the market no longer has to fear competition for customers. (Anyone who has ridden Amtrak from New York to Florida at Christmastime knows what I’m talking about.) This is precisely what has happened to Mideast diplomacy because Europe, the Arab states, and even the United Nations itself, have made a bad habit of deferring to the Lord High Executioner of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The detrimental effects of allowing the Bush Administration to subordinate the other members of the Quartet to its designs since the “Roadmap” was first put forth were starkly described by UN envoy Alvaro De Soto earlier this year. By allowing Israel to continuously confiscate Palestinian land, isolate communities from one another with the Wall and the galaxy of checkpoints, and wreak havoc on the Palestinian economy, the Bush Administration has allowed its professed goal for the region – a negotiated two-state compromise – to be put farther out of reach than many ever thought possible.

If this appalling state of affairs is to be reversed – and for obvious humanitarian reasons, this must be done soon – other players must become active in the pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace, irrespective of America’s manifestly unsound agenda. Let us now consider what a number of political entities around the world have at stake in a just resolution of the conflict, and what they can do to help bring it about.

First, the Arab states have many pressing reasons to facilitate an end to Palestinian dispossession and statelessness. The cruelty of Israel’s occupation, and the perceived inability of Arab governments aligned with the West to improve the situation, has been a major source of popular resentment and radicalization throughout the region (aggravated, of course, by the dreadful course of events in Iraq). It is precisely with these tensions in mind that the Arab League has been striving to advance its Peace Initiative for Israel and Palestine – arguably, the only viable formula for conflict resolution under present conditions. Were League members to remind the US of their considerable collective leverage in the global economy, their ideas might be listened to more seriously.

Europe, too, has both the financial clout and the regional political incentive to act on its own good judgment in the interest of Palestinian freedom. For too long, European governments have fallen into line with US diktats on the Israel-Palestine conflict. There can be little doubt that this attitude has been motivated in part by of the specious notion that unquestioning support for Israel redeems European nations for their centuries-long legacy of persecuting Jews – and for the complicity of many Europeans in the genocidal policies of the Third Reich. Nothing could be farther from the truth: Europe can only make amends for the racist obscenities of its past by supporting justice and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. Furthermore, continued and exacerbated unrest in the Middle East can only bring Europe more troubles in the form of waves of frustrated asylum-seekers, and increased antagonism between Muslim immigrant communities and their neighbors. Lending firm support to the Arab Peace Initiative is the wisest course of action the European Union can take to avoid this disturbing scenario.

Japan, though less obviously affected by events in the Middle East than Europe, nevertheless has compelling reasons of its own to contribute to legitimate peace efforts. Perhaps the foremost of these is that post-9/11 US foreign policy has increasingly compelled the Japanese government to abandon its longstanding practice of non-intervention abroad and involve its military forces in the “War on Terrorism”. This trend cannot be in the interest of Japanese society – for, if allowed to proceed far enough, it will surely undermine the domestic tranquility and prosperity the country has enjoyed since the end of World War II, and could easily reawaken the regional militaristic impulses of a dark past. Rather than travel down a path toward renewed confrontation with mainland Asia, Japan should use its influence as a first-rate economic power, and its hard-won respect as a practitioner of peace, to help put an end to the injustice that has done more to fuel unrest in the Middle East than any other: the denial of Palestinian self-determination. Tokyo, after all, would have no need to participate in a “War on Terrorism” if a major catalyst for violent extremism, and thus a rationale for waging “war” against it, is removed.

India, as an emerging political and economic center in Asia, would likewise benefit enormously from a just peace in the Holy Land. Since the Bush Administration inaugurated its “War on Terror”, many of its neo-conservative supporters have envisioned ditching US support for Pakistan, and roping New Delhi into their “crusade” by courting Hindu fundamentalist elements. This more “purist” version of neocon foreign policy is (surprise, surprise!) in perfect accord with Israel’s long-standing “periphery” strategy of marginalizing the Palestinian cause as peculiarly “Arab” or “Islamic” – as opposed to a universal moral imperative – by pursuing unconditional normalization with other parts of the Third World. For India to blindly travel down this road would be tragic on two levels. First, it would certainly exacerbate tensions with an increasing volatile Pakistan – which, like its neighbor, made the neurotically irresponsible decision to develop nuclear arms. Second, it would intensify sectarian hostilities between India’s Hindu and Muslim communities, which have never disappeared since the catastrophic upheavals that accompanied the partition of the Subcontinent. By contrast, Indian support for the Arab Peace Initiative, and the rebuilding of Palestinian civil society, would be a triumph for the noble legacy of Mahatma Gandhi, whose values would be of great service to the Mideast.

Finally, one should also consider the moral potential for South African participation in an international peace effort. South Africa’s victory over Apartheid remains an awe-inspiring example of how people who have lived under an oppressive and unhealthy political system for generations can overcome their fears and hatreds in the interest of justice and reconciliation. For years, Apartheid South Africa and Israel stood together as bastions of herrenvolk “democracy” in a world that was consigning the spurious conflation of race and “nation” to the ashcan of history. Today, Israel stands alone in this dubious category – yet the ill winds from its occupation of Palestine blow in America, and threaten to erode the culture of multi-ethnic tolerance we struggled so long to secure. If the efforts of men like Archbishop Desmond Tutu could at last achieve equality and human rights for the Palestinian people, it would be a most appropriate postscript to the great moral triumph that freed South Africa from its own racist past.

There are those who would say that no effort by the Arab states, Europe, Japan, India, South Africa, or the UN – even if undertaken collectively – can influence Israel’s behavior without America’s support. Yet history has shown that persons and governments in possession of seemingly unsurpassed authority rarely yield to moral convictions until these are annunciated by others who are less short-sighted and selfish. One need only recall that the Reagan Administration bitterly resisted efforts to censure Apartheid South Africa – indeed, branded the ANC as a terrorist organization – until more progressive-minded Americans and internationals (including Congressional Democrats) took the initiative. The neo-conservative ideologues who have dominated the Bush Administration’s foreign policy agenda have been able to do so only because those with the power to curtail them have refrained from doing so, in the interest of Romper-Room etiquette. This has been the single most destructive political failing of the past six years – as much on the international diplomatic stage as on the domestic.

It is clear that Israelis have a sincere desire for normalization – to be received as an integral part of the Middle East, rather than a fortified settler-colony. What they need to understand, however, is that this normalization cannot come about as a “free lunch”. Israel can only gain a secure and fulfilling place for itself in the region by making amends honestly with the people whom it has repeatedly wronged and injured in the name of forging a “Jewish state”. That is the consensus of international law. That is what the Arab Peace Initiative is all about. And that is why the entire global community, not just an elite clique of US policymakers, must make its voice heard for peace to become more than lofty words, and photogenic handshakes.

-Roger H. Lieberman is a graduate student of Environmental, Technological, and Medical History at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey.

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