Saturday, August 21, 2010

Israel/Palestine - Why Now?

The big foreign policy news from Friday is that apparently the US has brought the Israelis and Palestinians kicking and screaming back to the negotiating table to try to hammer out some sort of lasting peace agreement. The big question is why?

Finding an end to the intractable Israel-Palestine problem has been something of a mania for the past several presidents; sadly it has also proved to be a fool’s errand. There's no reason to think this time will be any different: there has been no substantive change on the ground, if anything the two sides are less suited for talks than they were when the last round of negotiations fell apart under George W. Bush – the Israeli government is even more right-wing and hawkish than it was previously, while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is even weaker than he once was (not to mention that his term of office actually ended a year and a half ago...). And if the two sides were just waiting for George W. to leave the scene before starting negotiations again, then talks would have started long ago, not more than a year and a half into the presidency of Barack Obama.

Given all that, I can't see why anyone in Washington can believe these talks will be anything more than yet another Mid-East fail. The government of Benjamin Netanyahu is steadfast in their refusal to put a full and binding halt to Israeli settlement construction; the key irritant to the Palestinian side (they raise a good point – how can they be expected to have a country when Israeli settlements are swallowing it up bit by bit?) Meanwhile Israel refuses to negotiate with Hamas, who hold half the cards in Palestine as the ruling party in Gaza.

Both Israel and the United States consider Hamas a terrorist organization, and both maintain that they won't negotiate with terrorists, which is true, except when it's not... The United States does negotiate with terrorists, and does so quite frequently in fact. The success of the much-ballyhooed “surge” in Iraq was based in large part on negotiating with “terrorists”, particularly Sunni tribes, who following the 2003 invasion became allied with al-Qaeda militants in the country. The US negotiated with, and eventually won over, many Sunni militias, rechristening them the “Sons of Iraq” who were not dedicated to rebuilding their country. Now, as we try to replicate the surge strategy in Afghanistan, a key facet is identifying and negotiating with “more moderate” elements of the Taliban – another group the US considers to be terrorists. And it's worth noting that the successful peace process in Northern Ireland came about after the British began negotiating with a group they considered terrorists, the Irish Republican Army.

The simple truth is that peace negotiations mean sitting down with people you hate. Or as the great Israeli statesman Yitzhak Rabin is often quoted as saying: “you don't make peace with your friends. You make it with very unsavory enemies.” Excluding Hamas from the talks alone is a clear indication that no one is serious about this process actually yielding results. After a couple of weeks the talks will likely end after Palestinian militants launch one of their home-made rockets into Israel, or a hawkish member of the Israeli government (looking at you Avigdor Lieberman) makes another ill-timed announcement about the further expansion of Israeli settlements; or both. As other nations around the world make a bid to be big-time players on the world stage, playing moderator for the Israel-Palestine peace process is a role the United States should gladly relinquish.
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1 comment:

Grotusque said...

Once again, some good thinking here.

I'd suggest the occasional link--to Yitzhak Rabin, for example--so people who don't know offhand who he is can go to a wiki bio.

You're writing well but not quite taking advantage of the internet part.