Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

  • Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution
  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Europe and the Middle East Peace Process

For a number of years I have advocated that the United States enter into a partnership with the European Union for the purpose of sponsoring a non-biased peace process in the Middle East that can engage with both the Palestinians and Israel and bring pressure on both of them. The model for this dual mediation is the Anglo-Irish peace process in Northern Ireland from 1993 to 2007.

But recently an article on the Real Clear World website pointed out that Stephen Wall, a former senior British Finance Ministry official responsible for policy towards Europe and author of a book on British European policy, said that as a result of the Euro crisis in Europe with both Greece and Ireland in trouble and Spain and Portugal threatening to go bad, he expected to see the whole European economic and political project to unravel within his lifetime. He is 64. So figure some time within the next 20 years at the outside. This is partly because Europe is forever trying to run before it can crawl properly.

It has instituted a common currency without having a common monetary policy or economic policy binding on all member states. This has led to the present crisis.

Since 1979 it has been issuing policy statements on the Arab-Israeli conflict and trying to get its foot into the door of regional diplomacy. But in the early 1990s when a crisis--or more correctly, several interrelated crises--occurred in Europe's backyard in the Balkans, Brussels was asleep at the wheel. The Bosnian civil war was finally resolved by American mediation in late 1995 after Washington grew tired of Europe's empty claims of preeminence. Tens of thousands died in the killing fields of Bosnia--many under the noses of European peacekeeping troops--while Europe struggled unsuccessfully to come up with a common problem. This was because Germany supported the Croats in Bosnia and Croatia while Britain and France favored the Serbs for historical reasons dating back to World War I.

It may be another decade before the region is again ripe for a peace process. Before the Palestinians are united around a common negotiating position that would allow a solution with Israel. A decade before the Arabs in the surrounding countries have dealt with the issues arising out of the Arab Spring. That will give Europe and the United States a decade to work out a solution and implement it before Europe collapses. In Northern Ireland it took nearly fourteen years to do this, and the conflict in Northern Ireland is much simpler than that in the Middle East without hundreds of thousands of refugees, without holy sites in Belfast sacred to three of the world's major religions, and without a massive ongoing settlement effort by unionists on nationalist land. 

So maybe all the pessimists are right and the conflict is unsolvable.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The green shade of nationalism versus the plaid of unionism

Peter Robinson, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and first minister of Northern Ireland, recently announced (go to the BBC article for June 25th) that his party would begin a new drive to attract Catholic members. When one considers that for decades the DUP was the political arm of the Free Presbyterian Church, with Ian Paisley in the role of both leader of the former and moderator (leader) of the latter, this is a major change. The Free Presbyterian Church was an independent fundamentalist evangelical Protestant denomination with its theology stuck in the 16th--17th century reformation era when Scotland changed from being largely Catholic to mainly Presbyterian. Paisley used to preach sermons condemning any ecumenical activity between Catholicism and Protestantism. His party newspaper specialized in scandalous and sexually-charged stories about the activities of nuns in Catholic convents and the activities of priests.

Robinson, however, did not belong to the FPC and represented the "secular" wing of the party along with Sammy Wilson that was based in East Belfast and had supporters in urban areas of Northern Ireland as opposed to the more rural supporters of the fundamentalist wing of the party. Paisley and the DUP represented the wing of unionism that was suspicious of all nationalists as an alien fifth column and that advocated their suppression rather than assimilation. This tradition was also well represented in the ranks of the former ruling Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).

Due to the IRA's failure to decommission its weapons in a timely fashion, IRA activities in Colombia and in Northern Ireland that violated the ceasefire, and Protestant ambivalence about power sharing with nationalists, the DUP replaced the UUP as the main unionist party between 2002 and 2005. The UUP was marginalized in the Westminster parliamentary election of 2010 and the Northern Ireland Assembly election of 2011. The Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV),  a DUP-splinter party representing traditional DUP thinking was left with only a single Assembly seat. So Protestant voters generally are left with a choice between three parties as relevant: the DUP, the UUP, and the non-sectarian Alliance Party--which does not define itself as unionist but supports Northern Ireland remaining a part of the United Kingdom as long as a majority of its citizens feel that way.

In the last year a number of prominent activists and candidates in the UUP have defected to both of the other two parties leaving the continued existence of the UUP as a viable party in doubt. The center ground in unionism is now being combated between the DUP and Alliance. Like Republicans who tout the non-racist credentials of the GOP in the hope of attracting white suburbanites rather than large numbers of blacks and Latinos, the DUP may be attempting to attract potential moderate unionist voters away from the UUP and Alliance by appearing more plaid and less orange (the traditional color of unionists after William of Orange).

Meanwhile the fight among Catholics is largely between Sinn Fein and the SDLP with the latter losing much more ground to the former than to Alliance. Thus the SDLP may attempt to appear more green by emphasizing its commitment to Irish unity rather than attempting to win over closet Catholic unionists.

A recent survey  (go to the June 19th articles in the Belfast Telegraph and Irish News) showed a large majority of Northern Irish Catholics as supporting the province remaining a part of the United Kingdom rather than uniting with the Republic of Ireland to the south and west. This is the first time that a majority of Catholics have indicated a preference for the UK over the Republic. This is no doubt a reaction to the recent crash of the economy in Ireland and the discrediting of the main Irish nationalist parties in the Republic.  But it is likely that most of these voters will continue to support Sinn Fein over the SDLP in the believe that Sinn Fein does a better job of protecting their rights (never mind the hundreds of Catholics that the IRA killed and thousands that it maimed during The Troubles).

Maybe the SDLP should go back to its roots as a party--implied in its name--that emphasized social democracy as well as Irish unity? The party probably cannot compete with Sinn Fein's unity credentials (its leaders went to prison and killed for their beliefs), but can compete in terms of delivering social policies based on social democracy rather than corporatism. 

And maybe Alliance should think about starting a membership drive among Catholics not just in its traditional Greater Belfast heartland but also in areas like the Ulster Midlands and west of the Bann--the dividing line between nationalist Ulster and unionist Ulster. It might find that some voters starved of innovative policies for decades may prefer these to identity politics based on the border and past history.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Hafez al-Assad's student

The House of Assad (Beit Assad in both Arabic and Hebrew) stayed in power for forty years (and counting) not by being nice. But not merely by being brutal and cruel either...after all the Saddam dynasty was even more cruel and it is no longer in power. Hafez al-Assad was a very astute student of the politics of power, both domestically and in the region. He saw that it was in his interest both domestically and regionally to remain in a state of no war, no peace with Israel. He lacked the strength militarily to compel Israel to return the Golan Heights to Syria, but could use the quest for it as the legitimizing feature of his regime, based as it was on the minority Alawite group and an alliance with other sectarian minorities such as the Druze against the Sunni Muslim majority.

Assad perfected the art of negotiating so as to extract the less morsel that the opponent could give. He extracted the return of Kuneitra, captured in 1967, along with the territory captured in the 1973 Yom Kippur War from Israel in separation of forces agreement negotiated in May 1974. He then managed to extract a promise from Yitzhak Rabin that Israel would return all the territory captured in June 1967 in exchange for peace before negotiations even began. He, and his son Bashar, at times made what seemed like generous offers but he refused to make any gestures like Sadat did in November 1977 or as King Hussein did to reassure the Israeli public that he was a trustworthy partner for peace. He preferred the appearance of being open to peace more than the actual peace itself.

He was notorious during Bill Clinton's first term for keeping Secretary of State Warren Christopher waiting for meetings and for engaging in meaningless small talk for hours before getting down to the matter at hand. Both Assads only appeared eager for negotiations and peace when there was movement on the rival Palestinian track with the PLO. Thus, the seemingly far-reaching offers by Bashar Assad to Olmert's secret envoy in 2007-08 when Olmert was engaged in negotiations with the Palestinians. Peace talks or hints at peace were more common after the collapse of Syria's Soviet patron in 1992 than before. Both Hafez al-Assad and Bashar needed to keep the administration in Washington sweet.

Damascus's main regional alliance under the Assads was with Tehran. After Anwar Sadat, Assad's partner in the 1973 October War, went to Jerusalem in 1977 Assad was "forced" into the rejectionist camp with his Ba'athist rivals in Baghdad. So when the mullahs came to power in Tehran in 1979 Assad eagerly embraced them as a means of escaping the hated regime in Iraq and allying with a powerful protector. It was a pan-Shite alliance consisting of the Shite regime in Iran, the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, and the Shia Alawites in Damascus.

Knowing the obstacles to Israeli-Palestinian peace on the Palestinian track, and the Syrian record for keeping agreements on the Golan, the Israeli security establishment became a prime advocate of a deal with Syria during the 2000s. They envisaged Damascus trading its alliance with Tehran for one with Washington as Cairo had done under Sadat thirty years before. But that was never seriously in the cards. Tehran never complained about Syria's internal affairs as Washington would have done constantly. And Syria could never have continued its ploy of being the champion of pan-Arabism if it was allied with Washington. But the Iranian alliance prevented the Assads from having any Arab imitators. But they did have one imitator in the region.

In his first term in office Benjamin Netanyahu came into power opposed to the Oslo process, was forced by pressure from Washington to make territorial concessions at Wye in October 2008 and then saw his coalition collapse before he could implement the agreement. Bibi claimed to have learned his lessons. But rather than opting for a coalition with Tzipi Livni and Kadima a decade later he concluded an agreement with rightwing parties with Labor as window dressing. He then paid lip service to accepting "two states for two peoples" in June 2009 in a speech at Bar Ilan University. But he made this conditional on the Palestinians recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, something that Israel's Arab minority vehemently opposes. Like Assad Netanyahu knew when to make concessions to Washington and when to thumb his nose at the Obama administration. He is blessed with Palestinian partners who seem to be as hesitant about making peace as he is. Just as Hafez al-Assad was blessed with the weak Shimon Peres in 1996 and the hesitant Ehud Barak in 1999-2000.

Netanyahu's balancing act will be much more delicate than Bashar Assad's. He cannot call the police and army out into the streets to shoot down protesters...or at least not Jewish ones. So he will be forced to creatively bob and weave with a housing freeze here and new settlement construction there. And he may be forced to change dance partners soon from Avigdor Liebermann to Tzipi Livni. At least then he will have a foreign minister then who can speak passable English and is not loathed by the international community. Should this occur we can expect lots of renewed talk about the new Bibi, just like the new Nixon in the 1960s. There were multiple new Nixons and there will be multiple Bibi's.

So Basher Assad should stop worrying, at least if he is forced into exile he leaves a legacy behind.