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Archive for April, 2011

Refugees and Settlements

by Michael Lame, posted on April 28, 2011

 At the end of last week’s article, which argued that a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is not in the offing, I suggested that we look instead at addressing specific, discrete issues. I offer two this week: refugees and settlements.


The concerns of Palestinian refugees and their descendants do not receive nearly as much media attention as they deserve and certainly not as much as do other key conflict issues – borders, settlements, security, and Jerusalem. Perhaps that is because these other matters are of great concern to Israel while the fate of Palestinian refugees is not. Or perhaps it is because the growth of the settler population is so physically evident, as settlements and outposts spread out horizontally across the West Bank’s landscape and as Jewish families replace Muslim families in east Jerusalem neighborhoods. In contrast, the growth in Palestinian refugee numbers, both inside and outside Palestine, results in higher population densities within existing communities but not in the more visible activity of building entirely new suburbs and towns.

Whether refugees are in the news or not, their problems are not being addressed and their problems will not go away. What is needed is a project to finally end the exile of Palestinian refugees, either by allowing them to return to their old homes or by finding them new ones. Even a peace agreement between the PA/PLO and the government of Israel will not achieve this goal, for two reasons.

First, no Israeli government led by Likud, Kadima, Labor, or any other mainstream political party will agree to allow the immigration into Israel of more than a tiny fraction of the total number of refugees and their descendants, currently estimated at several million.

Second, ignoring for a moment the Gaza-West Bank divide, the PA claims to represent only those Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories, not those living in ’67 Israel or outside of Palestine. The PA does not represent Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and elsewhere in the Middle East and around the world. That is the job of the moribund PLO. Remember the mantra from the ‘80s: “The PLO is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”? Today, the PLO is an empty shell. Its governing bodies don’t govern. Its executive committee doesn’t meet. 

Is there a way to help end the statelessness, alleviate the suffering, and increase the opportunities available to Palestinian refugees without prejudicing their claims to repatriation, reparations, and compensation? I believe there is. Whether Palestinians will welcome it is another matter. Regardless of what is offered, some Palestinians will choose to remain in refugee camps until a final resolution of the conflict or until they can return to their pre-1948 homes. But others might be willing to relocate and obtain citizenship in another country, especially if their status as Palestinian refugees is not thereby adversely affected.

An international guarantee – preferably UN-sponsored, US-backed, and signed onto by the Arab League members and Israel – could be provided to Palestinians stating that whatever rights they have as refugees will not be lost by virtue of their accepting resettlement and permanent residence status or citizenship in another country.

For some Palestinians, this suggestion is anathema. It smacks of an Israeli or international Jewish conspiracy to have the Palestinian refugee camps disappear. With the camps gone, the refugees themselves may be forgotten or ignored. Their decades of suffering will have been for naught and their dreams of returning home will be snuffed out. That is not the purpose or the intended result of this proposal, though it will probably be so interpreted by some.

Over the last sixty years, several plans for resettlement have been developed, all of which aroused intense opposition from Arab countries and from Palestinians. But the myth of Palestinian refugee solidarity was exploded long ago. Watch the powerful documentary “Chronicles of a Refugee” for a glimpse of the diversity of opinion among Palestinian refugees today regarding representation, loyalty to the camps, the question of resettlement, and the right of return.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN agency responsible for all the world’s refugee populations with the sole exception of the Palestinians, has a resettlement program. In contrast, UNRWA offers no such resettlement option. The international community could choose to fund a voluntary resettlement program for interested Palestinian refugees, managed either through UNRWA or a new agency established for that purpose.

If the U.S. is willing to spearhead this effort by opening wide its own doors to a significant number of Palestinians, to encourage other countries to do likewise, to reassure Palestinians and the world that no rights are being waived by Palestinians who take advantage of this program, and to take the inevitable heat that will accompany its leadership, then something truly useful can be done for at least a portion of future generations of Palestinians.


With U.S. backing, the PA insisted that Israel stop all settlement activity in the West Bank and east Jerusalem as a prerequisite to a renewal of negotiations. That strategy failed miserably during the last two years. A more targeted approach might succeed, however.

The Israeli Supreme Court has designated many Israeli outposts as illegal and has called on the Israeli government to dismantle them. On more than one occasion, the government has ordered the outposts’ removal but has failed to follow through. The few outposts that have been dismantled have quickly been rebuilt by determined settlers. Others have been re-designated as having been built on state land rather than private land so that they can remain.

On April 21, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., told the Security Council that:

Like every U.S. administration for decades, we do not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity. We have long urged both parties to avoid actions, including in Jerusalem, that could undermine trust or prejudge negotiations. The fate of existing settlements must be dealt with by the parties, along with the other permanent-status issues.

Urging “both parties to avoid action…that could undermine trust or prejudge negotiations” is a weak and insufficient policy.

While “the fate of existing settlements” may only be dealt with in the future, the plans for constructing additional settlements need to be addressed in the present. It is just possible that focused, persistent, active opposition by the United States government to the establishment of any new West Bank settlements and to the continued presence of any unauthorized outposts, whether built on private Palestinian land or on state land, could result in Israel dismantling the illegal outposts and restricting its West Bank construction efforts to already-existing settlements. Such a focused approach represents far less than what Palestinians and their supporters want from the U.S. government but, if it succeeds, it could finally put a limit to Israeli settlement expansion.

I have never understood why the PA has been so inept in communicating to Israelis, Americans, and the rest of the world about the damage done to prospects for peace by the ongoing establishment of new settlements. Perhaps it’s because of Palestinian reliance on the argument that the settlements are unlawful according to the prevailing interpretation of the Geneva Conventions. That’s not a potent argument to make to Israelis, most of whom consider the United Nations in particular and the international community in general to be hostile to Israel’s legitimate interests and concerns. Nor does the international legal argument resonate with the average American, who much prefers the U.S. constitution to European or UN-mandated legal norms.

Most Israelis living along the country’s coast never visit Jews who reside on the other side of the green line nor do they strongly identify with them. Since the Palestinians seem incapable of making a convincing argument to this majority of Israelis as to why they should oppose building new settlements, perhaps the Americans can make the case. I believe that Israelis will respond positively to moral arguments, provided that they are not delivered in a scolding manner or from a position of moral superiority. A stern admonition that adopts the tone of “How could you, the children of Holocaust survivors, so mistreat the Palestinians?” won’t fly. Instead it will likely provoke an angry response of “Who are you to lecture us?” On the other hand, Israelis will respond well to cogent arguments framed to appeal to their national interests and particularly their security interests. International legal arguments, however, will not persuade the Israeli public. 

Unfortunately, President Obama has waited too long to reach out to the people of Israel. I hope I’m wrong about this, but I believe that he has forever lost the opportunity to be viewed by Israelis as Israel’s trusted friend, regardless of whether Palestinians and other Arabs view him as pro-Israeli. But it still may be possible for someone else in the Obama administration to represent him publicly to the Israeli people and then privately in tough talks with Israeli leaders. Of everyone on the president’s team, Secretary of State Clinton is the one best able to have an adult conversation with the Israeli public by appealing to them directly, over the heads of Netanyahu, Barak, Livni and the rest of the current crop of mediocre politicians. Even better, if pressed into service for this specific task, Bill Clinton would do an exceptional job of speaking to the Israelis in a language they would be receptive to.

The proposal for a complete building moratorium was a bridge too far, but the settlements and the occupation regime are issues of too great importance to all the parties for the U.S. to back off from dealing with them altogether. Only the United States is in a position to challenge Israel, as a friend and ally, regarding a host of civil and military practices in the West Bank that embitter – to use a Passover term – the lives of Palestinians on a daily basis and exacerbate tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.

Specifically, the United States could press Israel to

  • prohibit and prevent the establishment of new settlements and outposts in the West Bank;
  • re-think and rewrite the zoning system for land usage in the West Bank;
  • set up a fair, rational, and transparent system for the issuance of building permits to Palestinians;
  • stop confiscating privately-held Palestinian land;
  • stop appropriating state-land for settlement purposes;
  • stop evicting Palestinians from their homes.

 The list could certainly be longer, but at least it’s a start. The point is for the U.S. to insist that Israel begin to apply the brakes to further demographic change in areas beyond its already-existing settlements.

In order to succeed in shifting America’s and Israel’s stance on building new settlements, the Obama administration will have to seriously and extensively engage with Congress and with the organized American Jewish community far more than it already has. Of course, this is far easier said than done.

Most Israelis don’t know and don’t want to know how the government, the army, and the settlers are treating Palestinians in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Nor does the current Israeli government (or past governments) particularly want them to know. So we shouldn’t expect any Israeli prime minister to level with Israeli citizens about the planned policies and the ad hoc actions imposed on the territories regarding treatment of Israelis versus treatment of Palestinians. No Israeli government has ever told its people what the long-term economic and diplomatic costs are for the on-going settlement project.

If the majority of Israelis know little of what’s going on only a few miles from where they live, most Americans – including most American Jews – know even less about the mechanisms and consequences of Israeli occupation. The truism that the media is better at covering events than processes is highly relevant to the West Bank. The ugly story of a horrific Palestinian terrorist attack on a sleeping Jewish family in an Israeli settlement is broadcast around the world, but the daily denial of building permits or the fencing off of a few dunam are not the stuff of headline news. They do, however, change people’s lives.

As President Obama is fond of saying with regards to any major change that needs to be made: “It won’t be easy, and it won’t happen overnight.” The policy changes required of Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians are difficult ones and of unequal size in this most asymmetrical of conflicts, but each of the players is capable of initiating change to help alleviate suffering and, ultimately, to resolve the conflict.

Note: Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

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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.

Note: Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

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September at the U.N.

by Michael Lame, posted on April 12, 2011

Prime Minister Salam Fayyad announced that his government will submit a report to a committee of the European Union in Brussels on Wednesday, April 13, showing the Palestinian Authority’s readiness for statehood. In September, Fayyad and President Mahmoud Abbas plan to present Palestine’s request for official membership in the United Nations. The prospective new member will claim all of Gaza, all of the West Bank, and that part of Jerusalem east of the 1949 armistice line, thereby rolling Israel back to its borders before the ’67 war, at least on paper.

Admission to the United Nations

The UN charter specifies that for a country to join the UN, the Security Council must vote to recommend membership to the General Assembly which, in turn, must approve the membership resolution with a two-thirds majority vote.

On March 4, 1949, the Security Council voted to recommend Israel for membership by a vote of 9 in favor, 1 opposed (Egypt), and 1 abstention (U.K.). On May 11, 1949, the General Assembly voted to accept Israel’s membership. 37 voted for the measure, 12 voted against, and 9 abstained. The U.K. could have blocked Israel’s membership with a veto in the Security Council, but it chose not to.

When the PA-backed resolution for recommendation of membership comes before the Security Council this fall, the U.S. can veto it. If it does and if the specified U.N. Charter rules are followed, the measure will die there. It will not proceed to a General Assembly vote, where the Palestinians’ popularity would easily guarantee it two-thirds of the UN’s 192 voting members.

Even if the U.S. vetoes the membership resolution in the Security Council, an alternative route for securing U.N. membership may still be open to the Palestinians. According to the language of General Assembly resolution 377 – “Uniting for Peace” – adopted on November 3, 1950, during the Korean War:

“[I]f the Security Council, because of lack of unanimity of the permanent members, fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security in any case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression, the General Assembly shall consider the matter immediately with a view to making appropriate recommendations to Members for collective measures…to maintain or restore international peace and security.”

In other words, when the Security Council permanent members can’t agree on a matter of critical importance, the General Assembly can act in its stead. A GA resolution lacks the force of law that is generally attached to one issued by the UNSC, and a GA resolution takes the form of a recommendations. Still, its impact should not be underestimated. Indeed, one may recall that the hotly contested 1947 partition plan – U.N. Resolution 181 – calling for the division of Palestine between a Jewish and an Arab state, was voted on in the General Assembly, not the Security Council, and that it too took the form of a recommendation.

Is Palestine a state?

Membership in the United Nations, according to Article 4 of its charter, is open to all “peace-loving states which accept the obligations contained in the present Charter and, in the judgment of the Organization, are able and willing to carry out these obligations.”

Although membership is restricted to “states”, the U.N. Charter does not define what constitutes a sovereign state. The generally agreed-upon criteria of statehood include a permanent population and defined territory over which control is exercised by a government capable of conducting relations with other governments.

Is Palestine a state? It fits some of the criteria. It has diplomatic relations at various levels with over a hundred countries. A Palestinian government rules over the land and people of Gaza. A Palestinian government, albeit a different one, rules over various villages, towns, and cities in Area A of the West Bank.

On the other hand, two rival governments, rather than a single undisputed one, claim to represent Palestine. Neither Palestinian government controls all the territory it claims – none of Jerusalem or Area C in the West Bank, both of which are controlled by Israel. Nor is it clear whether the Palestinian population includes the half million Jews living in east Jerusalem and the West Bank. But such real and significant on-the-ground problems would probably not deter most Security Council or General Assembly members from considering Palestine to be a sovereign state and welcoming it into the club.

Should the U.S. support Palestine’s membership in the U.N.?

The Obama administration does not look forward to the prospect of wielding its Security Council veto power in support of Israel for the second time this year. Only last September, in his speech before the General Assembly, Obama stated that “those who speak on behalf of Palestinian self-government should help the Palestinian Authority politically and financially, and in doing so help the Palestinians build the institutions of their state.”

Prime Minister Fayyad, an ex-International Monetary Fund official, is generally credited with having done a fine job of institution-building in the West Bank and bringing greater transparency to the PA’s financial operations.

Obama envisioned aloud that “when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations — an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.”

That statement seemed to condition American support for Palestinian U.N. membership on a prior peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. Yet less than six months remain before the opening of the next annual session of the General Assembly. That leaves barely enough time for Israeli and Palestinian political leaders to decide to restart negotiations (if they impose no pre-conditions), determine a venue, and agree on an agenda.

An exceedingly rosy best-case scenario would see the working out of a mutually-agreed-upon set of principles by September, but certainly not a peace deal resolving all the final status issues – Jerusalem, refugees, borders, settlements, security, water. That will require months and months of diligent work by multiple committees.

Camp David III?

The only way to shorten that cycle is to launch intensive sessions at the highest levels of government. Camp David III, however, is not in the offing, for several reasons:

1) Camp David II, starring Arafat, Barak, and Clinton, was a bust, which everyone remembers. When the reviewers pan a film and the investors lose money, Hollywood usually doesn’t make a sequel;

2) Camp David II’s failure led to the outbreak of the second intifada, far bloodier than the first. The risks of failure this time could be even higher;

3) Given how fast events are currently moving in the Middle East and how much attention they demand, neither Abbas, Netanyahu, nor Obama can afford the weeks of dedicated time required to reach a deal;

4) Neither Abbas nor Netanyahu show any eagerness to begin intensive negotiations with each other, especially not when mediated by Obama, who is not currently trusted by either side;

5) Unless and until Hamas and Fatah reconcile, Abbas cannot speak for Gaza and therefore does not represent the Palestinian community as a whole;

6) A Camp David summit is not Obama’s style. He prefers to have others negotiate most of the way and then come in towards the end to seal the deal. But the essence of a Camp David approach to Middle East peacemaking is for the president to be personally immersed in the process, moving the Israeli and Palestinian leaders along and holding their hands each step of the way;

7) The president just announced his re-election bid. High-stakes gambling on Middle East peace is rarely a winner with the voters, even when one succeeds. Carter skillfully managed the first Camp David talks between Begin and Sadat all the way through to a breakthrough conclusion, yet he failed to leverage that historic accomplishment into a second term in the White House.

Although presidents Bush and Obama both have spoken of their commitment to Palestinian statehood, they also emphasized that this destination can only be reached by following the path of Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations. Given the administration’s emphasis on direct talks as the key to resolving the conflict, a Palestinian end-run around the White House to the United Nations runs the risk of alienating the president even more than the anti-settlement resolution already did earlier this year.

How a state comes into existence

States do not exist because they have a right to exist. They come into existence and maintain their existence by force or by agreement or by a combination of the two. The Palestinians lack the military might to bring their state into existence by force of arms. In order to establish a sovereign functioning state, the Palestinians need the agreement of their immediate neighbors – Egypt, Jordan, and Israel – far more than they need the support of the general membership of the United Nations. If those three neighboring states, collectively or individually, oppose a new Palestinian state, they can cause it enormous difficulties.

Will Palestine’s membership in the United Nations increase or decrease the likelihood of reaching a deal with Israel? Wide gaps separate the two parties’ positions on the key issues, while Israel’s relative strength continues to far exceed Palestine’s. The Palestinians, therefore, are looking for additional leverage. They think that international recognition might provide it. They believe that even more pressure can be brought to bear on Israel by efforts to delegitimize and ostracize it. Can their strategy work?

The Israelis know what the Palestinians are up to, and so do the Americans. Netanyahu has already threatened to take unspecified unilateral actions against the PA if it seeks membership in the U.N prior to reaching an agreement with Israel. This is a risky and unpredictable game in which both sides can severely damage each other. There will definitely be losers if they play it out, but it is unclear if either side will win anything of significance.

International acceptance and legitimacy are obviously of great importance to both Israel and Palestine. But the situation on the ground needs to be addressed directly and locally. Activity in New York and Washington is no substitute for communication in Gaza City, Jerusalem, and Ramallah.

Should the United States support U.N. membership for a new state of Palestine? No, not until Israelis and Palestinians have resolved the key issues between them, if not to their mutual satisfaction, then at least to their mutual consent. Only when they have a deal between themselves will we know for sure that such a deal can be reached. And if it can’t be reached, then premature Palestinian statehood will likely result in exacerbated conflict and a higher body count.

I remain skeptical that the differences on Jerusalem, refugees, security, and the other key issues between the parties can be resolved. Regarding security, for example, the Israeli minimum requirements currently exceed the maximum that the Palestinians can tolerate. If the Israelis insist on the right of hot pursuit, overflight rights, control of the electro-magnetic spectrum, listening posts, and border controls, no self-respecting Palestinian will be willing to sign off on these severe limitations to their sovereignty. But absent such safeguards, no Israeli political leader accountable for the safety of Israeli civilians will sign a peace agreement.

I genuinely hope I’m wrong in my assessment of the incompatibility of Palestinian statehood with Israeli statehood, but to know for sure if the gaps can be closed between the two sides, negotiations must be held. If the negotiations prove successful, then drinks for everyone! But if they fail again, then the world should be told openly – not through WikiLeaks – what the final positions of each side were on all issues discussed. We need to know if a two-state solution can be arrived at through negotiations, and we don’t know that yet. If it can’t be, then either it must be imposed, against the will of the parties, or a new solution must be found.

Before Palestine becomes a state, let’s find out if Palestine and Israel can co-exist.

Note: Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

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Gilgamesh, Gaddafi, and other thoughts on Libya

by Michael Lame, posted on April 4, 2011

Gilgamesh and Gaddafi

The epic of Gilgamesh dates back 4,000 years, written first in Sumerian, and later in Akkadian, a Semitic language that was spoken in ancient Assyria and Babylonia.

Last month, while reading Stephen Mitchell’s brilliant verse translation of Gilgamesh, I was struck by how modern this figure seems. Gilgamesh ruled over the city-state of Uruk on the Euphrates in what is today Iraq. His character, as described in the epic, reminded me of so many strong men who have ruled in the Middle East and North Africa through the ages, a type most recently exemplified by Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi.

The city is his possession, he struts

Through it, arrogant, his head raised high,

Trampling his citizens like a wild bull.

He is king, he does whatever he wants,

Takes the son from his father and crushes him,

Takes the girl from her mother and uses her…

Is there something in the region’s geography, in the dynamic between fertile soil and desert, which leads to the political prevalence of pharaohs, prophets, and presidents-for-life? If the pattern really does extend back to the days of Gilgamesh, then it predates the dominance of Arabic and Islam. How can we account for this recurring theme?

Tyranny is universal, one might object. At one time or another in human history, dictators have been found everywhere. Still, the stubborn persistence of the phenomenon in the Middle East is at issue today. Does the “Arab spring” truly signify the passing away of the Strong Man model of rulership in the region? Or, as some have suggested, perhaps the artificial borders drawn in the 19th and 20th centuries by the British and French, cobbling together independent states out of disparate religious, ethnic, and linguistic elements, require a heavy hand to hold these fragile polities together.

What makes a ruler legitimate?

Obama said that Gaddafi had lost “the legitimacy to lead”. One cannot lose something one never had. For Gaddafi to have lost his legitimacy, he must have had it once. When was that? The colonel came to power in 1969 when he and other Libyan army officers overthrew King Idris. Was the revolution legitimate? Was his rule legitimate when the U.S. sent its most recent ambassador to Libya in 2008?

It is a dangerous activity for a president of the United States to make pronouncements about which nations’ rulers are legitimate and which are not, especially in the Middle East, where some of the leaders we cooperate with most closely are unelected monarchs – in Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf States.

President Obama has not enunciated any theory of governmental legitimacy. Absent that, we should be concerned that rulers in America’s good graces until a few short months ago, such as Mubarak and Gaddafi, suddenly are told by an American president that they must now leave office, apparently because of widespread popular demonstrations against them.

I would argue that, regardless of street demonstrations, today’s illegitimate rulers include Kim Jong-il, Mugabe, Gbagbo, Khamenei and Ahmadinejad. But I would also advise the president of the United States to refrain from saying so unless he is prepared to follow through with overt or covert action to replace them.

The issue of replacement should be considered prior to any determination that a ruler must go. Unfortunately, the simple political calculation of weighing alternatives prior to taking military action does not seem to be a principle of presidential foreign policy decision-making under Bush and Obama.

Saddam Hussein was a vicious tyrant who deserved to be deposed, but did President Bush have a reasonable alternative governmental option in mind for Iraq prior to launching a war to remove him? Gaddafi is generally regarded as an erratic, autocratic, and sometimes dangerous ruler who has retarded the development of his nation. But the State Department and the CIA are now desperately trying to figure out who the rebels are and what sort of government they would establish if they win. First we provide them with air cover. Then we ask who they are.

Hope as a foreign policy

Writing in the New York Times and the Washington Post last week, Tom Friedman and Fareed Zakaria expressed similar sentiments. Zakaria: “Washington is now hoping that a bit more military power will dislodge Gaddafi’s regime. My fingers are crossed.” Friedman opined that “most of all, I hope Mr. Obama is lucky. I hope Mr. Gadhafi’s regime collapses like a sand castle, that the Libyan opposition turns out to be decent and united…” He concludes his article with a prayer: “Dear Lord, please make President Obama lucky.”

American involvement in Libya is indeed a gamble that everyone hopes will pay off, but hope is a poor basis for a foreign policy. American battlefield commanders have some influence over the military course of a campaign, but as commander-in-chief of all U.S. armed forces, the president has no real control over the political dimension of conflict in another country. As a nation, we should have learned that lesson in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the conflicts’ outcome is significantly shaped by the governmental policies of al-Maliki and Karzai. We hope that if Gaddafi is removed from power, his eventual replacement will be better for Libya and for the United States, but that is only a hope. At this point, we can’t even call it a likelihood.

Despite Gaddafi’s responsibility for killing American servicemen in Berlin and bombing Pan Am flight 103, he was rehabilitated in western eyes after he gave up his WMD program in 2003. A U.S. interest section was opened in Tripoli in 2004 and full diplomatic relations were re-established in 2006. Two years later the United States sent an ambassador to Libya who was only recalled in January of this year in the wake of the Wikileaks disclosures. In other words, after years of viewing Gaddafi as a menace to the world, the Bush and Obama administrations no longer considered that to be the case. Here was a tyrant we could work with.

War Propaganda 101

Only since the demonstrations against Gaddafi began in February of this year has the U.S. government turned on him, so that once again we are hearing about Lockerbie and stockpiles of chemical weapons.

Every government of every nation that goes to war vilifies its opponents in order to solidify public support. Knowing this, we should not assume that we are being told the truth about Gaddafi and his supporters by the hawks at the White House, on Capitol Hill, in Foggy Bottom or the Pentagon.

The administration line is that mass murder of Benghazi’s 700,000 men, women, and children was barely avoided.  In the words of President Obama, speaking to the nation last week:

At this point, the United States and the world faced a choice. Gaddafi declared that he would show “no mercy” to his own people. He compared them to rats, and threatened to go door to door to inflict punishment. In the past, we had seen him hang civilians in the streets, and kill over a thousand people in a single day. Now, we saw regime forces on the outskirts of the city. We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi…could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.

The reference to Gaddafi killing more than a thousand people in a single day surprised me, since I had never heard that charge before. I found no explanation or questioning of this remark in any American media accounts of the speech. Eventually, with the help of Libya expert and Dartmouth professor Diederik Vandewalle, I discovered that Obama’s words referred to an alleged massacre of some 1200 prisoners at Abu Salim prison in Tripoli in 1996 – fifteen years ago.

Gaddafi’s public threat to show “no mercy” to the rebels in Benghazi was a godsend to the Security Council and the Obama administration. It allowed them to use Gaddafi’s own words – possibly hyperbolic – to justify intervention. Would Gaddafi really have mass murdered people in Benghazi after the city had surrendered? Possibly so. We can’t know that since we stopped his attack, yet it has been reiterated by countless intervention advocates as an incontrovertible truth. In the American media it is now axiomatic that we prevented a massacre of tens of thousands of Libyan civilians. And perhaps we did.

Alternatives to Intervention

Was the possibility of massacre or a humanitarian disaster the real reason for intervention or merely the pretext for it? If the goal was to prevent a massacre, one would imagine that alternative courses of action were explored.

What could we have done instead of launching a billion dollar air campaign that has destroyed Libya’s military infrastructure, blown up its soldiers, shut down its airports, and shattered its economy? We could have:

1)      Contacted Gaddafi and told him that if his forces began to indiscriminately kill people in Benghazi, we would target him personally. In other words, we could have threatened his life; or

2)      Contacted Gaddafi and told him that we will entirely destroy his military, intelligence, and governmental apparatus if he unleashes his forces on the people of Benghazi. In other words, we could have threatened his regime; or

3)      Targeted his military forces around Benghazi, taken them out, and left it at that.

There may well have been additional channels of communication that could have been opened and other approaches made, perhaps through African leaders Gaddafi respects or with whom he has cooperated over the years.

The course of action we took was not a single discreet move designed to save Benghazi. Rather, it was an open-ended action of interjecting ourselves not only into the fight for Benghazi but the much broader struggle for the future of Libya. And now we are in it, one way or another, for the duration.

Stuck in a civil war

If this is a civil war, partly tribal in its complexion, then it’s conceivable there will be massacres carried out by one side or the other or both, without orders received from above. Given how little is known about the rebels, we cannot currently assume they will be generous in victory, if they achieve it. Imagine this scenario: The rebels get their act together and, with the support of western air power, defeat Gaddafi, race on to Tripoli, enter it and start killing Gaddafi loyalists, possibly including large numbers of the city’s civilian population. Will the allies then intervene to prevent a massacre of the people they had been bombing?

The distinction between military and civilian tends to blur in a civil war. Is a civilian carrying an AK-47 still a civilian? According to Army General Carter Ham, in his congressional testimony two weeks ago, yes he is. If however, he is driving an armored vehicle or is in possession of a heavy weapon, he is no longer a civilian. By this definition, the mission to protect civilians includes protecting the lightly-armed rebels driving around in jeeps and vans.

When an established government, legitimate or otherwise, attempts to put down a rebellion, the result is typically loss of life. The only way that the lives of rebel “civilians” can be safeguarded is to see the rebellion through to victory.

Gaddafi came to power in a bloodless coup. Apparently he will not leave power absent a protracted struggle and a high body count. Until he is gone, America is stuck in Libya.

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