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Archive for the 'Peace Process' Category

What can the U.S. do?

by Michael Lame, posted on April 22, 2011

“I know that the President will be speaking in greater detail about America’s policy in the Middle East and North Africa in the coming weeks.” So said Secretary of State Clinton earlier this month to the U.S.-Islamic World Forum. She went on to reaffirm America’s commitment to “a negotiated two-state solution” and to reiterate the indispensable party theory so beloved of American diplomats:

“And while it is a truism that only the parties themselves can make the hard choices necessary for peace, there is no substitute for continued active American leadership. And the President and I are committed to that.”

The appropriate role of American leadership in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is worth re-thinking. In the coming weeks, when President Obama speaks to the world about the Middle East, what can he say, beyond peace platitudes expressed in soaring rhetoric, that could really make a difference? What can the U.S. government do that would be genuinely useful in helping to resolve the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians?

First of all, the administration could publicly communicate to the Palestinians in no uncertain terms 1) that it opposes Palestine’s efforts to become a U.N. member prior to reaching an agreement on borders with Israel, and 2) that it will veto any membership resolution which comes before the Security Council absent such an agreement. As Susan Rice, America’s ambassador to the U.N., told the Security Council this week,

Negotiations between the parties remain the only path to a solution that resolves all issues and establishes a sovereign state of Palestine alongside a secure state of Israel as a key part of a comprehensive peace among Israel and all of its neighbors.” [Emphasis added.]

Secondly, administration efforts to get the parties back to the negotiation table in order to reach a grand bargain should be shelved for the time being.

George Mitchell should be allowed to retire, with the thanks of the president and the nation for his energetic though ultimately unsuccessful pursuit of Middle East peace.

An agreement on final status issues arrived at through bilateral negotiations isn’t going to happen any time soon unless Netanyahu and Abbas suddenly and uncharacteristically get serious about cutting a deal. There is scant evidence that a negotiated peace agreement is high on either one’s priority list. Both like to posture as if they are anxious to return to negotiations, just as soon as the other side meets certain criteria which they know full well the other side will not agree to. (Abbas wants a complete cessation of Israeli settlement activity beyond the green line and Netanyahu wants Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.)

Thirdly, it’s time for the administration to look for individually important issues that it can successfully address with the Israelis, the Palestinians, or both. That we can’t accomplish everything right now should not stop us from trying to accomplish something. And doing nothing would only feed into the negative direction in which the conflict is now headed.

Downward Spiral

Why should the U.S. President and his staff, the Secretary of State and her staff, the National Security Council, and various other federal agencies continue to invest so much time and effort in attempts to resolve a conflict that many have argued is not currently “ripe” for a solution? The reason is that, politically speaking, Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans are all trapped in a lose-lose-lose downward spiral.

Israel’s global standing takes hit after hit for its treatment of Palestinians. What passes in Israel for the best diplomatic news in months is Richard Goldstone changing his mind.

The West Bank’s economic strides forward and the PA’s governmental maturation are not matched by domestic political reforms or by diplomatic progress at reconciling with Hamas or reaching a peace agreement with Israel. The economic development or stagnation of the West Bank and Gaza remain under Israel’s control. Although the “Arab spring” has not yet reached the Palestinians, if it does, it is unclear whether the object of Palestinian demonstrations will be Israel, the PA, or Hamas. None of them has legitimacy in the eyes of many Palestinians.

People who care about Israelis and/or Palestinians must be concerned about the two peoples’ uncertain future and about the continuing deterioration of the relationship between the two communities. The worse it gets, the more likely it becomes that there will be further rounds of lethal violence.

The downward trajectory for the U.S. in regards to Israelis and Palestinians is due to the vast discrepancy between the world’s expectations and America’s performance. During the last several administrations, the United States has promised much and delivered little regarding “the Holy Land”, a matter of great concern to key constituencies at home and key allies abroad.

Although American influence on Israel and on the Palestinian Authority has its limits, no other outside player – not the UN, the EU, the Arab League, or the Quartet – has a relationship with both sides anywhere near as strong or as consequential as America’s. It may not be indispensable, but the U.S. has the power to do great good or great harm to both parties. Apart from the strategic benefits that could accrue to the United States by playing a central role in the resolution of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, American credibility is at stake. For all these reasons, the United States should continue to look for ways to resolve the conflict in whole or in part.

All parties have failed

Currently we are faced with a situation of failure by all parties. The Netanyahu government, which has been in office for over two years now, has failed to offer any compelling vision of coexistence or concrete steps towards a solution. The Abbas government has likewise failed to move towards a negotiated peace with the Netanyahu government. Abbas and Netanyahu have only met a handful of times, in contrast to Abbas and Olmert, who held more than thirty sessions together.

The leaders of Israel and Palestine should insist on meeting each other every week, whether they are addressing final status issues or not. The number of friction points, large and small, as well as the number of opportunities for improving relations and improving lives, ought to be sufficient to warrant regular, frequent, problem-solving sessions at the highest levels of the two governments. Shame on both leaders for their fecklessness.

The Obama administration has also been a miserable failure in its Middle East policy. As Yossi Alpher, a keen observer of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for many years, wrote earlier this week:

“US President Barack Obama has made nothing but mistakes in the Israel-Arab context since taking office. A policy of “engagement” and gentle persuasion doesn’t work in Damascus, Jerusalem or Ramallah. Peace envoy George Mitchell’s fabled patience is not the right tactic. You don’t give presidential “vision” speeches in Cairo and Ankara without giving one in Jerusalem. The settlement freeze demand had no chance of succeeding…”

Given this track record of all-around failure, who or what could break the logjam?

Breaking the Logjam

An Israeli-Palestinian deal on even a single issue of importance could make a huge difference. Arguments are always raised, by one side or the other, against more interim agreements or against agreements on anything less than everything. Especially for those who hope to arrange trade-offs between different issues, an attempt to resolve a single issue removes a source of bargaining leverage for addressing other issues. For example, some hope to trade Israeli concessions on Jerusalem in exchange for Palestinian concessions on the right of return.

This trade-off notion is based on a deep misunderstanding of the parties to the conflict. There is no monolithic Palestinian community which stands in opposition to a monolithic Israeli community. Instead, there are multiple interest groups on each side, in competition with one another for the priority of their issues.

For many Palestinians living in Lebanon, in conditions of statelessness and severe economic restrictions, the right of return is profoundly important, in practice as well as in principle. It is of far less concern to those West Bankers who were never refugees.

Jerusalem is of great symbolic significance to millions of Palestinians and Israelis, but whether and how to divide the city are issues of far more immediate concern to the Jews and Arabs who live in Jerusalem than to Palestinians in Gaza or to Israelis in Haifa and Tel Aviv.

The Palestinians in Lebanon will not be helped by trading away their concerns to benefit the Palestinians of Jerusalem. Each problem requires its own solution.

What issues, if any, can be addressed individually, without waiting for a comprehensive end-of-conflict agreement? Even if the solution to a single issue or sub-issue cannot be agreed to between the parties, perhaps unilateral action by one party can change the trajectory of the relationship between the parties in a mutually beneficial way. We can argue whether Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza was positive or negative in its long-term impact on the conflict, but it certainly altered the political landscape.

I invite readers to consider which issues, friction points, injustices, or counter-productive behaviors could be addressed unilaterally by the Palestinians, the Israelis, the Americans or others. Alternatively, on which individual issue might the parties reach agreement, even if an all-encompassing settlement of outstanding issues is much further off?

In my next article, I will suggest areas in which Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians might look to generate positive movement towards resolving discrete issues.

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Peace Process Time Out

by Michael Lame, posted on Dec. 14, 2010

Of course it’s premature to bid a final farewell to The Peace Process. Like hope, the Middle East peace process springs eternal. Like Proteus, it constantly shifts its shape.

One year it’s all about West Bank settlements. The next year the focus is Jerusalem. For six months the action may shift to Damascus as US-Syrian rapprochement seems to be in the offing. After that, opening up Gaza becomes the cause du jour. Next, Istanbul captures our attention as the Israeli-Syrian track heats up. Soon our gaze shifts back again to Washington for high-level Palestinian-Israeli meetings. But wait; are we on the eve of a potential breakthrough between Hezbollah and Hariri? That fizzles, but soon we are dazzled by the capital-hopping schedule of a peripatetic Special Envoy. Then Foggy Bottom becomes the center of the universe as the Secretary of State makes an impassioned speech on the need for redoubling America’s commitment to stabilize a democratic government in Lebanon or to finally send an ambassador to Syria or to ink a new aid agreement with Palestine or to announce a new strategic understanding with Israel or to warn Iran one more time that if it wants to end its isolation it must . . . blah, blah, blah.

It’s exhausting, and almost entirely fruitless. Process does not produce results. It simply provides channels through which people committed to producing results can do so. Even high-energy American diplomatic facilitators and mediators must have willing partners to facilitate and engaged parties among whom to mediate. Middle East protagonists are not a bunch of hot-headed kids who will shape up if we just sit them down opposite each other and force them to talk out their differences: “Why are you mad at Johnny?. . . Johnny, did you say that? Tell Billy you didn’t mean it. Billy, did you hit Johnny? . . .Tell him you’re sorry. Shake hands. Now you boys run along, and remember to play nice!”

A slight variation of that condescending tone frequently recurs as a theme in the speeches of Obama administration officials. On Friday, December 10th, Secretary of State Clinton, appearing at the Brookings Institution in Washington, claimed that “Unfortunately, as we have learned, the parties in this conflict have often not been ready to take the necessary steps. Going forward, they must take responsibility and make the difficult decisions that peace requires.” Grow up, kids! Eat your vegetables. We know what’s best for you.

Communication is a necessary condition for conflict resolution, but it’s not a sufficient one. More talks won’t produce results unless and until each of the parties in conflict is A) serious about reaching a deal and capable of implementing it, and B) considers the opposite side likewise serious about reaching a deal and capable of implementing it. Right now Abbas doubts Netanyahu’s commitment to a two-state solution and Netanyahu doubts Abbas’s ability to deliver on a deal, certainly in Hamas-run Gaza but also in the West Bank.

Let’s not rush back from indirect talks to direct talks to indirect talks one more time. Secretary Clinton has already launched a new round of “two-way conversations” (read “indirect talks”) “on the key questions of an eventual framework agreement.”

I propose a time-out for The Peace Process, since the funeral still seems to be a bit premature. During that time out, the United States will only send George Mitchell & Company to the Middle East if there is a specific request for his presence from one or more governments in the region. “Diplomacy-on-demand” one might call it. If there is no demand for an American go-between, then we don’t provide one. And even if they want us, we won’t play unless our own pre-conditions are met. Israelis and Palestinians should understand that it is costly, in terms of presidential power, prestige, and time, to have the U.S. engage at the highest level in Middle East peace-making. Some practical demonstrations of their serious commitment should precede the next round of American mediation. This does not mean, however, that until that time comes the United States withdraws from the region or from involvement with the conflict.

The mistake – the terribly costly mistake of the Obama Administration regarding Israeli settlements that resulted in the waste of the last two years – was not that the U.S. tackled the issue but rather that the call for a settlement freeze became linked to the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks. This had never before been a Palestinian pre-condition. Perhaps it should have been, but it wasn’t. The Americans not only elevated the profile of the issue but tied it to the talks. Doing so inevitably caused the Israelis to look at a settlement freeze or moratorium, whether a full or a partial one, as a concession required for the restart of negotiations. But tough negotiators like the Israelis want to get something back for something they give. Towards the expiration of the initial freeze, they made their requests. An ill-conceived package of permanent American deal-sweeteners was offered to the Israelis in exchange for a 90-day continuation of the freeze. Fortunately that deal fell through.

Instead of trying again to slow down or stop Israeli construction in order to restart the Israeli-Palestinian talks, I suggest that the United States take on Israel, publicly or privately, without regards to negotiations with the Palestinians, on the limited issue of stopping the establishment of any new settlements or outposts in the West Bank. Coupled with this, the U.S. would insist that Israel prevent any further confiscation or constructive taking of privately-owned Palestinian land in the West Bank by the state, the IDF, or the settlers. This stoppage would remain in force until there is a signed peace treaty with the Palestinians.

If this administration is truly committed to “two states for two peoples” and if it genuinely considers a resolution of Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be a vital American national security interest, then it ought to be willing to tackle on its own the key impediments to producing a two-state solution. Obviously one of those impediments is the establishment of new settlements eating away territory that would otherwise become part of a Palestinian state.

One caveat is that the U.S. shouldn’t bite off more than it can chew. If Obama and his team don’t believe they can win a fight with Israel (or Congress) over the dismantling of unauthorized outposts which the Israeli government itself calls illegal, then they shouldn’t try.

Since another key final status issue is Jerusalem, the U.S. could also confront Israel and demand that it change its policy of allowing the eviction of Palestinian families from the homes in which they have lived for decades in the Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan neighborhoods of east Jerusalem. If, as Secretary Clinton made clear in her speech, behavior modification on the part of the Israelis and the Palestinians is called for, then the U.S. should name the behavior and put some muscle behind insisting that it change.

Another mistake the Obama administration made was to ask Arab countries to offer concessions to Israel, such as overflight rights and upgrading of commercial and diplomatic relations, in return for an Israeli settlement freeze. Any reciprocal concessions should have been asked of the Palestinians, not of Arab states. Certainly American diplomats have received an earful of complaints from the Israelis about the Palestinians just as they have heard a litany of grievances from the Palestinians about the Israelis. They could take on the Palestinians too. After all, although it can’t dictate policy, the U.S. can still exert considerable leverage over the Palestinians as well as the Israelis.

What change in official Palestinian behavior would make the biggest contribution in moving towards peace with the Israelis? More of a crackdown on would-be terrorists? A reduction of incitement against Israel by Palestinian media? An educational program to combat anti-Semitism? Scheduling new parliamentary and presidential elections? How about an end to the PA’s efforts to delegitimize Israel in international organizations and forums?

Without creating any linkage between its efforts, on the one hand, to rein in Israeli construction in the West Bank or to stop evictions of Palestinians in east Jerusalem, and, on the other hand, efforts to alter Palestinian behavior towards Israel, the United States can move both parties towards one another, without even hinting at a resumption of talks, direct or indirect.

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IN SEARCH OF AN HONEST BROKER

by Michael Lame, posted on December 7, 2010

Last month in Washington DC, at an Aspen Institute forum on U.S. national security interests in the Middle East, an Arab diplomat publicly urged the necessity that “the United States should be perceived throughout as an honest broker that takes no sides.”

But how can the United States be an honest broker if it favors Israel? Shouldn’t it be impartial instead? There is much confusion in the world about the meaning of the term “honest broker” and about what is required of the United States to play that part.

Who needs an honest broker anyway? Can’t the adversaries make peace without the intervention of a third party? Theoretically a deal can be reached by the parties in conflict without anyone else butting in. Most bilateral peace accords are reached not between equals but between stronger and weaker parties. Usually one side has defeated or repelled the other. Then they sit down to negotiate the terms of the new order. Negotiations between Israel and her Arab neighbors have not followed this pattern. Although the power differential is obvious between Israel on one side and Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine on the other, a negotiation between these parties will not be that of victor and vanquished.

The precedent established by Jimmy Carter at Camp David was that the United States will underwrite peace between Israel and her neighbors. Call it a payoff; call it a bribe; call it financing an agreement. Begin and Sadat understood that their two countries would be handsomely rewarded by the United States for making peace. Those billion dollar plus payments to both countries, initially scheduled for only three years, have continued now for more than three decades.

The U.S. is interested in peace between Israelis and Palestinians. It is also interested in being seen as the party that makes that peace possible. To be known as the president who finally brings peace to the Middle East will provide bragging rights for life. And the U.S. administration that succeeds in that endeavor will reap a huge bonus on the diplomatic scene, gaining increased respect, credibility, and clout around the world, particularly in the Middle East and with Muslim-majority countries from Morocco to Indonesia.

Americans in the room: the pro’s and con’s

If Israel and one or more of her Arab neighbors proceed to make peace without the benefit of U.S. presence in the room, they may lose out on peace dividends from Uncle Sam. The prospect of receiving one or two or three billion dollars per annum cannot be lightly dismissed. Let those Americans get the kudos for the deal, Israeli and Arab leaders might say to themselves, while we take home the cash. That may seem cynical, but it reflects the precedent that the United States itself established in 1978 with Egypt and Israel.

Besides the financial incentive for bringing the U.S. into the negotiating room, there are other reasons why both sides want the Americans there. The leaders of the P.A. know that the only outsiders who Israeli politicians and negotiators will listen to are the Americans. However, they mistakenly think that the White House can not only pressure but also “deliver” Israel, forcing it to sign off on conceding east Jerusalem to Palestine, to dismantle settlements in east Jerusalem as well as in the West Bank, and to take back a significant number of refugees, whether Israel likes it or not. Palestinians hope that they can negotiate primarily with the Americans who will then lean on the Israelis to agree.

The Israelis, though leery of the Obama administration’s pushing them into taking a deal they don’t want, also need the Americans in order to galvanize European, Russian, Chinese, regional Arab and global Muslim support for whatever deal they strike. The Palestinians are constrained in their negotiating positions, particularly with regards to Jerusalem, as to how to cut a deal with the Israelis without losing the support of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. The American president can work the phones and try to drum up support or at least blunt opposition to a deal with Israel.

Of course, there is also a downside to American involvement. If and when Palestinian-Israeli negotiations reach an impasse, the Palestinians, who are clearly the weaker party, anticipate that the Americans will introduce bridging proposals more favorable to them than the Israelis’ positions. This prospect of a better deal being offered by the Americans creates a disincentive for the Palestinians to moderate their positions prior to U.S. intervention. The Israelis, knowing this, are less likely to be forthcoming in their offers as well.

Partially counteracting this dynamic is the memory of the Clinton parameters, which offered both sides a mixed bag of the palatable and the unpalatable. Waiting for American bridging proposals to emerge is a dangerous game to play. The Obama-Clinton-Mitchell team is less predictable than were the players in the last two administrations. No one knows for sure what the new team might put on the table or how much pressure would then be applied to Israelis and Palestinians to accept the American proposals, however distasteful they might be.

What is an “honest broker”?

How can the appropriate role for the United States in Middle East peace negotiations best be characterized? Is “honest broker” the right term? Its first usage can be traced back to the Congress of Berlin in 1878, when German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck brought together representatives of the Great Powers of Europe and the Ottoman Empire to settle the Balkan question in the wake of the latest Russo-Turkish war. In Bismarck’s own words, “I don’t picture to myself a peace-mediator playing the part of an arbitrator… but a more modest one, something like that of an honest broker [ehrlicher Makler] who really wants to transact business.”

A broker is a business person, someone “who really wants to transact business” and who is remunerated for services rendered. If you’ve ever worked with real estate agents or brokers, then you know they are anything but impartial or disinterested parties, even when they are honest. A commission-based broker only makes money if the deal goes through. The richer the deal, the more money the broker makes. So it is in the broker’s best interest to promote closing a deal. Despite what he or she may say to clients, the broker’s financial interest is never identical to the interests of the buyer or the seller. An honest broker is a deal-promoter and a deal-closer, not an impartial judge and not a disinterested party.

America’s Interests

The United States has its own interests in the Middle East, which are not identical to those of the Israelis or the Palestinians, though there are significant overlaps.

It is in America’s national interest that the Palestinian problem go away, disappear one way or another, cease being a rallying-cry for terrorists, radicals, and Islamists, stop being a destabilizing factor in the Middle East, quit being a bone of contention between Arab and Muslim governments and the United States. A resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would also allow the United States to improve its image at the United Nations and more broadly in the international community, particularly in developing countries. And for those few in the U.S. government who still back a global democracy agenda, the development of Palestine as a viable secular democratic state would be a major boost to the cause of democracy in the Arab world.

In addition to its interest in resolving or at least defusing the Palestinian problem, the United States has a long-standing commitment to the security of the state of Israel, a commitment which is strong enough to outlast the policies of any particular president. But, quite naturally, the U.S. government cares less about the particular shape of the Jewish state than does the government of Israel. Whether east Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim or Ariel and Qiryat Arba are part of Israel or Palestine doesn’t really matter and shouldn’t really matter to the U.S., as long as those pieces of real estate don’t become the cause for another war. Matters of vital concern to Palestinians and Israelis may not be vital to Americans. The American interest is to get the matter settled once and for all. The Palestinians and the Israelis deeply care how it is settled.

Despite the many positive attributes of America as an honest broker, neither Israelis nor Palestinians should fully trust that broker. Each party, after all, has its own distinct interests.

Those who call for America to be impartial or “even-handed” in the negotiations are voices crying in the wilderness. America is not a neutral party in the Middle East. Annually it gives hundreds of millions of dollars to the Palestinian Authority and, through USAID, millions more are directed to numerous programs and projects in the West Bank and Gaza. But it gives close to three billion dollars a year to Israel and maintains the closest of working relationships with Israel’s foreign policy, defense and intelligence establishment. Israel and the U.S. are strategic allies. The P.A. and the U.S. are not. There is no comparison between the depth and breadth of the American-Israeli relationship and the American-Palestinian relationship. Even though many Arabs and other supporters of Palestine would like to see the two sets of relationships placed on an equal footing, that will not happen.

It would be a surreal development indeed and a denial of a sixty-year history for the United States to act impartially in its honest broker role with Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. The alternative is not for the U.S. and Israel to gang-up on the PA or for the U.S. to act as Israel’s advocate. Again, each party has different interests, and though America’s interests are heavily weighted in favor of Israel, skillful American diplomats can play many useful roles in encouraging compromise, finding creative solutions to help protect both sides’ vital interests, and lining up the political and financial support the two sides will need in order to make painful concessions for peace.

What makes a broker an honest broker is forthrightness and the absence of lying and deceit. An honest broker doesn’t make promises he can’t keep. He doesn’t misrepresent the property in question. He doesn’t exaggerate the benefits of the deal or diminish the difficulties faced by the parties. Rather, he acknowledges his own interests in the outcome. He makes full disclosure. He doesn’t pretend that he’s impartial or disinterested. He helps the parties see their way through to a meeting of the minds. As a player in the process, he facilitates the parties in reaching agreement. For America to pretend that it is a neutral party in efforts at Middle East peace-making when it clearly is not would be to play the part of a dishonest broker. The world already contains far too many of those.

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BP and the Peace Process

by Michael Lame, posted on May 26, 2010

What has BP (the company formerly known as British Petroleum) got to do with PP (the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process)? It provides a comparison for how one might approach another problem of catastrophic proportions. So let’s look at the efforts to deal with the devastating oil spill in the Gulf (no, not that gulf; the other one) and compare those efforts with the methods used to address the ongoing human tragedy of no war/no peace for Jewish and Arab residents of Palestine/Israel.

BP is responsible for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano never tire of telling us. And BP is responsible for shutting off the flow of oil from the leak. As everyone in the world knows by now, it has not yet succeeded in its various attempts to end the crisis.

BP tried putting a big box on top of the underwater oil gusher. That didn’t work. Then it prepared a smaller box, which is still sitting on the ocean floor, unused. Chemical dispersants of questionable toxicity were sprayed (and despite EPA objections, are still being sprayed) on the ocean surface and underwater. Next came inserting a tube and stopper inside the underwater pipe. After some initial difficulties, the tube seems to be partially successful, but only partially. If all else fails, then the two relief wells currently being drilled may stop the oil leak in the next few months. While BP tries to staunch the spill, the ecological damage grows apace.

At the same time, around the country and around the world, engineers, inventors, entrepreneurs and environmentalists are coming up with a steady stream of new ideas for ways to stop the spill and clean up the mess. Whether anyone – in BP or the U.S. government – is seriously listening to them is unclear. As of the morning of May 26th, nothing has solved the problem, though a combination of methods is somewhat lessening the damage.

But BP hasn’t given up or exhausted its possible actions. Its next move is called the “top kill” which, if unsuccessful, will be followed by a “junk shot”, and if that doesn’t work, there’s still the possibility of lowering another “blowout preventer” to sit on top of the one that malfunctioned.

Who comes up with these names? They’re not classy, but they are memorable. And though they are not the technical names employed by industry specialists, they are useful in communicating to the general public. The language of Middle East negotiations, by contrast, is saddled with highly conceptual names: conflict resolution modalities, proximity talks, third-party intervention, permanent status agreement. Maybe we would get a little further – or at least discover what doesn’t work a bit faster – if the language we used were less a function of diplomatic obfuscation and more the result of the way people really talk off-the-record. How about setting a date for lock-the-door-and-don’t-let-‘em-out-till-they’ve-agreed talks? Or calling U.S. mediated and facilitated negotiations the Big Brother Talks? Or, based on their likelihood of success, referring to the umpteenth round of multi-party consultations as The Crap Shoot?

With or without clever names, BP is simultaneously pursuing – and publically discussing – a multiplicity of approaches to shut off the oil. Obviously the nature of the problem that BP is working on is completely different than that of the Middle East. BP’s predicament is technological and requires the application of various disciplines: geology, geophysics, marine biology, oceanography, environmental and other sciences, engineering, information technology, manufacturing, project management, resource deployment, and more. The problem is huge and complex, and accordingly, there are thousands of people  collectively working on it.

Now, compare the concurrent multiple approaches employed by BP in addressing its man-made disaster with the same-old same-old ideas for ending another man-made calamity, this one in the Middle East. What are the approaches to solving the Israeli-Palestinian impasse that are currently being pursued?

1)      Negotiations, in a few different shades. You’ve got your direct talks, your indirect (proximity) talks, your multiparty talks, and your talking about talks;

2)      Peace plans, put forward at different times by the Israeli government, the Palestinian Authority, individual Israelis, individual Palestinians, likeminded Israelis and Palestinians working together, and various external players – the U.S., the U.N., the Quartet, the Arab League, the EU, NGOs, and, of course, Tom Friedman;

3)      Declarations, resolutions, and other unilateral or multilateral statements, issued by individual nations, the United Nations, and other groupings of nations.

Outlined above are the talk-based approaches. But not everything is talk. There is also

4)      Force or the threat of force, by the IDF, the PA’s U.S.-trained forces, Hamas, other Palestinian factions, and settlers; plus

5)      Creating facts on the ground, whether by Israelis establishing new settlements, expanding existing ones, building new roads, adding and removing road blocks, or by Palestinians, UN agencies, and NGOs establishing new businesses, funding development projects, and supporting civil society initiatives.

Clearly there are multiple approaches here too, and many people are involved. Yet, for the most part, these are not coordinated, but rather separate efforts by different players. They often operate at cross-purposes. Turf wars abound. And these efforts continue whether they are successful or not. Failed or outdated efforts are not retired. Instead, they are accumulated and enshrined.

For example, U.N. Resolution 242, passed by the Security Council in November 1967, never even mentioned Palestinians though it did refer to “the refugee problem”. Yet it is still reverently cited as an authoritative statement of the world community’s commitment to . . . what exactly? Land for peace? Israel’s right to exist? Returning to prior borders or adjusting them? The text is intentionally ambiguous and its interpretations have multiplied over the decades. And the Quartet’s Roadmap, a 2002 relic of the Bush era, is still approvingly referenced by diplomats who know that of its three phases which were designed to result in “a final and comprehensive settlement of the Israel-Palestinian conflict by 2005”, not even Phase One was ever fully implemented by either Israel or the PA.

BP doesn’t bother with solutions that were tried and failed 50 years ago or 5 years ago. It addresses the current problem by applying current technology. True, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a technological problem but rather a political one, with many other facets: geographic, demographic, ethnic, cultural, religious, economic, ideological, and historical. BP’s focus on today’s problem with a real sense of urgency is not matched by similar energy displayed by Palestinian, Israeli, or American leaders in dealing with Middle East conflict. The political leaders act is if they have all the time in the world.

We can count the number of days since the April 20 explosion that killed eleven men and eventually sank the Deepwater Horizon platform. Who still remembers how many years the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has festered? Who knows how many Palestinians and Israelis have been shot, stabbed, or blown up since the conflict began? Where is the sense of urgency to solve the problem? Where is the mobilization of human resources to grapple with this complex set of issues?

Perhaps a political conflict like that between Israelis and Palestinians must be addressed slowly by a small group of people operating out of the limelight. But I doubt it. It certainly is safer for political leaders that way. They don’t raise expectations and they don’t present much of a target for criticism since so little is known of what is or is not discussed. But leaders don’t build popular support for a peace deal that way either.

We have grown accustomed to on-again off-again Middle East negotiations that require years of tough bargaining to produce results, if results are produced at all. The value of looking outside the peace process for alternative models of problem-solving is that it pushes us to question the go-slow, low-expectation, low-probability of results method currently employed by the U.S. administration, the Israeli government, and the Palestinian Authority.

I sincerely hope that BP will plug the leaking well in the next few days. And I hope against hope that the Obama administration’s investment in Middle East peacemaking will produce a tangible return in a matter of weeks or months, not years.

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