Archive for February 4th, 2011

Friday, February 4, 2011

Mideast Process: Good Advice, Wrong Time

When Israel and Palestine are the issues of a debate, it’s going to be one with a lot of emotional undercurrents in most cases. Germans, too, are full of big pictures and  “great ideas”.

“Israel’s Fear of Isolation” is an article by Germany’s weekly Die Zeit, published on Tuesday, and the article’s author, Steffen Richter, is no know-it-all. A number of commenters on his article, however, are.

Richter  weighs Israel’s options. Democratic elections in Egypt could lead to  Israel’s further isolation. If there were no elections at all, and a power vacuum be filled by islamists instead, things would be even worse.

In neither case, however, would Egypt be in a position to help mediating the Mideast process (im Nahost-Prozess). Richter reasonably avoids the shopworn term “peace process”. A rather tackling approach would be to complete the  negotiations with the Palestinian authority (PA), thus making a Palestinian state possible at last, he writes. An agreement with Syria to return the Golan Heights in exchange for an end to Syria’s cooperation with Hezbollah and Tehran could be another move.

Egypt in the Arabian living rooms, Aleppo, Syria

Egypt in the Arabian living rooms, Syria (click on picture)

That’s good advice, and has been good advice before, but it may currently be provided at the wrong time. To me, more vigorous Israeli efforts to come to an agreement with the PA can easily come across exactly the way Mubarak’s promise not to seek another term as president in Egypt did. Better efforts for peace than in the past would probably be perceived as an indication of a weakening Israeli position in the Middle East, and lead to the feeling that the tides were turning. This would probably be a misconception to some degree, but it wouldn’t help to resume talks with genuine prospects.

Either way, many comments on Richter’s article are in tune with the article itself, and some are not, but most of the commenters seem to be focused on their usual “values” of choice.

Israel can’t start early enough to say Good-bye to pigheads such as Netanyahu and to try diplomacy for a change. Israel’s leading circles have been riddled with hatred, crime, and fundamentalism for many years. Whoever refers to himself as the only democracy in the Middle East cannot and must not allow for that,

says one comment. A credo to the contrary, from the other side of the aisle:

Israel may feel a lot of things, but it won’t fear isolation. This young country’s founding fathers have been forced to build their state “with their backs to the wall”. It may appear to be inconceivable in our no longer vital society, just because that which must not, can not be – every new conflict forces the Israelis to be faster, more intelligent, and more rigorous than their adversaries. An unstable, possibly soon “more islamic” Egypt would only turn another “cold” border into a “hot” one.

Aluf Benn, an editor with Haaretz, sees the turmoil in the region as a blessing in disguise for Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu:

Netanyahu has a dual interest, external and internal, to advance on the Palestinian track. Israel’s international isolation is increasing. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who this week visited Israel, urged Netanyahu to advance the political process. Israel’s strategic ally Hosni Mubarak is about to leave the stage. U.S. President Barack Obama, who abandoned the region after his failure to mediate between Netanyahu and Abbas, this week reappeared as the prophet of democracy and change, urging Mubarak to resign immediately. If Obama’s call is indeed met, the U.S. president will return to the Israeli-Palestinian arena, too, and will hand Netanyahu the bill.

But both Benn’s, and much of the advice from America, Europe, or elsewhere, seem to be based on the premise that Mahmoud Abbas can still be a partner for peace, capable of making real steps towards it. Recently leaked documents which appear to show how far Palestinian negotiators had been willing go in the past to strike a deal with Israel does make them come across as dedicated negotiators indeed – but not necessarily with their public at home, and not necessarily under the now changed circumstances.

The premier spoke about peace as an essential element for Israel’s security and made an almost desperate call to Abbas to talk to him. (…) Netanyahu expects more flexibility from Abbas, in light of the threat to his rule,

writes Benn.

If things are really that desperate, I can’t help asking myself why it seemed to be impossible to put a freeze on further settlements in the area of East Jerusalem. Two months ago, it could have been seen as a gesture of good will – not by Israel’s enemies, who won’t be prepared for peace anyway, but for all those who were willing to negotiate with real results for their people on their minds.

Democratic government, under the rule of law, is more lilely to shape policies that serve the country, than are autocratic forms of government. But a combination between lawfulness and democracy is no guarantee to that end. When it came to the settlement movement, only Gush Shalom and the settlers (above all their political activists) were determined to advance their respective and conflictive goals. Much of the Israeli public kept caught somewhere in between, and – or so it appears – weren’t itching to deal with the issues burning between the peace and the settlement movements, and between Israel and Palestine. A democracy like Israel may not have to care of the issues of non-citizen neighbors. But for legal and moral reasons, it does need to care when its army is in control of its neighbors’ territory. And for practical reasons, it needs to be able to see when it is in its own interest to care after all.

Israel, it seems to me, has missed the right point in time to do its share of the work in the Mideast process – for now, that is. That doesn’t mean that another window of opportunity won’t open again in the future. The “second chance” may have come right with the Egyptian revolution, as Benn apparently believes, or it may come in the future. Having missed an opportunity doesn’t mean that the state of Israel would have to wither away. In terms of to-be-or-not-to-be, there are both critics and supporters of the current Israeli government who are taking their dramatic talk a bit too far at the moment.

I had an argument with a friend and smart alec the other day, who (somewhat gleefully, I felt) suggested that Israel should have taken a constructive approach in negotiations with the Palestinian authority much earlier. Yes, he had been preaching that for years. Yes, Israel could have done more. But it might be useful to remind ourselves how long our own decision-making processes can take. It took Smart Alec‘s and my country – that’s Germany – several decades to repair some minor welfare state problems here, and that alone has since led to nearly devastating election results for the social democrats (SPD), the party that led those reforms. America, one of the richest countries on the globe, is still struggling on its path to universal healthcare. When it comes to building a policy which would make it a belieable partner for peace in the Middle East, Israel’s challenges have always been much greater than other democracies’ challenges.

What I’ve learned online in recent days, from commenter threads, seems to have taught me that much of the coverage on Israel’s relationship with its neighbors right now isn’t necessarily punditry, but frequently just the old lobbying from all sides, based on some very new, but mostly still unknown, premises. You can even link Chinese and Egyptian issues, when it fits into your usual pattern of arguments.

But we don’t know yet where Egypt will turn. We don’t know where most Egyptians want their country to turn, either.

What I do know is that there will be peace in the Middle East – sooner or later. If this is the moment of opportunity to be seized I don’t know.


Khamenei: Events “echo Voice of Iranian Nation”, IRNA, Febr 4, 2011
Will “Day of Rage” Rock Syria, Syria Comment, Febr 2, 2011
London: a Flurry of “Justice”, December 11, 2009
Wen in Arabia: Trusted Brothers, November 8, 2009
Judgment and Civil Society, August 22, 2009
Globescan Opinion Poll, February 6, 2009

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