The race between escalating diplomacy and warfare

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During the past week, the Israeli-Palestinian limited war suddenly assumed two significant regional dimensions. On the one hand, the military action expanded beyond the confines of the traditional Palestinian-Israeli war zones. Hizbollah-Israeli reciprocal attacks in the Israeli-occupied Shabaa Farm area on the Lebanon-Israel border were followed consecutively by an Israeli attack against a Syrian military installation in Lebanon and then a Palestinian artillery attack against the Israeli town of Sderot, east of Gaza in Israel proper. On the other hand, Jordan and Egypt have pushed ahead with their diplomatic initiative to calm the situation, pull back from the brink of full war, and return to a negotiated resolution of the conflict.

The Jordanian-Egyptian initiative that was formally presented to Israel Monday by Jordanian foreign minister Abdul Ilah Khatib seems to be the only proposal on the table to reverse the cycle of war and resume negotiations. It represents a truly historic moment in the longer-term perspective of the Arab-Israeli conflict: two Arab states that have peace agreements and diplomatic relations with Israel took the initiative to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians, while the USA and Europe assisted in the background. The simultaneous escalation of fighting and peace-making may seem contradictory, but strikes me as the normal trajectory in such situations. Politicians on both sides who cornered themselves into ever tighter spaces now seek the assistance of diplomats to expand the space in which to turn around and head back to a place where they can achieve their goals through peaceful talks rather than killing each others children.

All sides have wisely refrained from rejecting outright the Jordanian-Israeli proposal, and are giving it serious consideration. The proposal seeks to separate the three main baskets of actions needed for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: 1) immediate steps to calm things down and stop the escalation of violence by both sides, 2) confidence-building measures based mainly on implementing the October 2000 Sharm esh-Sheikh agreement that itself had aimed to implement the third phase of the Oslo interim accords and enhance mutual security, and, 3) a return to the negotiations for a final status agreement and an end to the conflict.

If this initiative is to have any chance to succeed, it might ponder some lessons learned from the past nine years of Arab-Israeli negotiations. The following principles might be relevant as this process moves ahead:

1. Warfare and military actions express each sides genuine fears and anger, but cannot provide a long-term policy option for either side. Mutual military attacks must be ended immediately and simultaneously, for they are a dead end path for both sides. Honest leaders on both sides should have the courage, and elementary respect for their own people, to say this loud and clear.

2. Israels resort to massive military force and retaliation, however packaged in the rhetoric of deterrence or self-defense, is a policy that failed most dramatically when implemented in Lebanon by the current Israel prime minister Ariel Sharon. Every Israel military action designed to impress or to punish or to deter has been tried before, always without success. What is the ultimate logic of Israels escalating military response to the Palestinian intifada, a reoccupation of Gaza and south Lebanon? Back to 1982? The iron-fist approach that Israelis like to boast about is a cruel self-delusion, more like banging ones own head against the wall than pacifying the enemy. Honest and courageous Israelis should appreciate and act on this fact.

3. Both sides, but especially Israel, should differentiate between emotional, violent retribution and a methodical approach to ones own security and national well-being. Striking back with military means may make you feel good for a while, but it only ensures that you and your people will be caught in an ever-escalating cycle of war that spreads to new areas with the same certitude that the sun will rise tomorrow.

4. Nobody should expect the other side to retreat first. In serious peace-making, there is no room for humiliating unilateral dictates or barked orders. We reached this situation following a predictable and logical cycle of actions by both sides who have been locked in a mentality of existential fear, desperate self-defense, and vicious revenge. We will get out of this situation by working towards mutual and simultaneous steps to wind down the fighting, wind up the talking, and give both sides gains that are meaningful to them. Both sides have demonstrated that they are tough, willing to fight, and able to absorb much pain. Now lets see if both sides are also smart enough to figure out that this is a suicidal route they walk together. They have to explore more fruitful and humane ways to end the Israeli colonial occupation of Palestine, establish a Palestinian sovereign state, resolve mutual historical claims, and ensure mutual security, acceptance, and normal relations.

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