Who or what is blocking peace in Israel and Palestine?

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 02-Feb-04 | Author: Klaus Becher

Ariel Sharon
Last week's WSN newsletter presented the results of an internet poll conducted among the readers of worldsecuritynetwork.com, asking "What are the major stumbling blocks for a peaceful solution in the conflict Israel/Palestine?". Of the five possible answers in this multiple-choice poll, Israel's elected and democratically accountable Prime Minister Ariel Sharon came in as the clear front-runner, far ahead of the terrorist organization Hamas and veteran Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, while the right of return and the status of Jerusalem were regarded as almost irrelevant.

Given the method in which such internet polls are conducted, they are clearly not representative in a professional, scientific sense. Technically, for example, it would not be difficult for anyone to cast multiple votes and thus tilt the result in one direction. There is no reason to believe, however, that the result is anything but genuine. One can assume that most of the participants were North Americans or Europeans, well-educated and with a keen interest in international relations. In fact, the result is not surprising and fits well with views expressed by many in the current debate. It is deeply worrying, though.

During the Cold War, when the international community kept the Arab-Israeli conflict frozen to prevent nuclear escalation, the habit developed to interpret this particular conflict in simple, polarized ways, looking only at the leadership level without regard for populations and societies. Unlike then, however, today there is room for operational, constructive and creative approaches to conflict resolution. They would have to involve all relevant players and stakeholders if they are to produce lasting peace. Indeed, after 9/11, working towards the successful transformation of the region in this sense has become a strategic imperative for the US and for most other countries. Sadly, though, the outside world's active grip on the multidimensional dynamics of this conflict is not yet up to the challenge.

The absence of visible progress towards a satisfactory solution to the region's problems causes political frustration. After the marked improvement of Israel's security situation after the fall of Saddam, Sharon's government is confronted with particularly high and urgent expectations from other democracies. Based on the erroneous but widespread assumption that all it would take for the parties is to show some more good will, many have indeed begun to pinpoint Sharon as the main culprit. This is faulty analysis. Imagine for a moment that Sharon did not exist. All other factors being equal, peace would not become a bit easier to attain in the region.

Simplistic, personalized views of the obstacles to peace hardly do justice to the complicated realities in Israel and Palestine. Israel's controversial position that Arafat must go before progress becomes possible has little merit, even with his near-dictatorial style of governance and continued tactical use of terrorist violence. In contrast, laying similar personalized blame on Sharon, a fairly and freely elected leader who is politically accountable in a rule-of-law state that is equipped with a powerful parliament, independent courts and free media, violates the idea of democracy that demands respect for the expressed will of voters whether one likes it or not.

While Ariel Sharon is rightly exposed to criticism at home over various scandals and an apparent growing tendency to drift instead of lead, his stance on peace and security continues to enjoy broad majority support across party lines in Israel. It is safe to say that if he were not in charge anymore, maybe the tone of Israel's policies would change but not the substance. The policies he pursues reflect deeply held voter expectations in a situation charged with fear and mistrust, under constant exposure to terrorist attacks that are designed to both undermine Israel's internal cohesion and prevent successful cooperation between Israel and its Arab neighbors under the "roadmap" approach toward a just and lasting peace arrangement.

Yasser Arafat
Many factors, the majority of them beyond the control of political leaders, shape the course of the Palestinian conflict. The list is almost endless: security, terrorism, militarism, succession rivalries, religious extremism, demographic trends, economic disparity, jobs, closure, traffic infrastructure, tourism, bad governance, corruption, organized crime, water, territory, settlements, separation, refugees, holy sites, identity, legitimacy, human rights violations, unfairness, fear, hatred, disrespect, misperceptions, lack of dialog, education, media — to name just some of the most important dimensions. In addition, a large number of third parties — not all of them functioning, accountable states — will be indispensable partners or spoilers in any peace effort.

Peace will become likelier if its terms and conditions are perceived locally as a contribution to dealing with this long list of overwhelming practical issues. The idea of peace as a symbolic act between willing leaders, held so dearly worldwide, is of rather marginal importance in this context. As in other regional conflicts, much more effort will have to be invested in understanding the motivations and constraints that drive events, including the domestic dynamics in both societies. In Israel, an open, free-speech, rule-of-law democracy, this should be relatively easy. Few observers, however, bother to study the full picture, including the views and interests of the various, highly diverse population groups in Israel.

The much deeper tensions – social, political, economic, historical, geographic, religious among Palestinians — and the different perspectives held, but not usually expressed, in Jerusalem and in the rest of the occupied territories are missed almost completely by most outside observers. This is particularly deplorable because the fear of anarchy, civil war and economic collapse in Palestine is probably the single most important factor that shapes the current conflict dynamics.

In such a strategic environment, simplified perspectives such as blaming one symbolic individual (like Sharon) stand in the way of accurate analysis and effective political engagement with the conflicting parties towards peaceful conflict management. Given the key role of the Arab-Israeli conflict for the struggle against terrorism and future developments in the Middle East as a whole, everyone's best effort is needed to avoid such mistakes.

In a globally connected political era, opinion leaders worldwide need to be aware of distant effects of their words. This is not always easy, as we are all engaged in many parallel debates at the same time. Words take on different meanings in each of these debates vis-à-vis different audiences. An intellectual in New York who denounces the Israeli prime minister when discussing relations with Israel does not, of course, implicitly endorse terrorist attacks against Israel. For an Arab audience, however, such criticism can turn into welcome justification for procrastination, resistance and violence.

Bad analysis and loose language are among the chief causes of war. They never help to achieve peace.

Klaus Becher is the UK editor of World Security Network and currently a visiting scholar at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies, Bar-Ilan University