Breaking the Impasse through Open Dialogue
A joke doing the rounds when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited US President Barack Obama recently went as follows: Obama set out in detail his ideas for a peace settlement based on the two-state solution, and rounded things off with the words, "Yes, we can" – Netanyahu's curt reply: "No, we won't."
Is it a joke that betrays the shape of things to come as far as the Middle East is concerned? On the one hand, attempts by the USA and EU to exert influence from the outside, in particular to commit the conflicting parties to accepting the principles of the Road Map and the Annapolis Conference – and on the other, an Israeli government, a majority of whose members are opposed to central elements of the peace process (land for peace, a two-state solution, the status of Jerusalem, settlements).
It need not be so – and not just because of the notoriously unstable nature of Israeli coalition governments. I believe there are at least four possible approaches through which the US and the EU could exercise an effective and realistic external influence on achieving a comprehensive political and socially viable peace in the Middle East.
The "constants" of the conflicting parties
Firstly: Political opinion has sometimes overestimated what the change to a Netanyahu government will mean. It is true that Netanyahu's statements on key issues such as Jerusalem or the settlements represent a contrast to the positions of previous governments, and this is undoubtedly politically significant. On the other hand, as Claire Spencer of the respected Royal Institute of International Affairs has noted, beyond the vicissitudes of day-to-day and coalition policies, all of the opposing parties have their "constants".
In Israel it is settlement of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which in spite of the Oslo Peace Process and governmental changes, still continues.
The explicit statements of Netanyahu and other government members thus offer an opportunity to enter into an open dialogue on these "constants" at the political level that will be less likely to be deflected by declarations of intent than has thus far been the case.
Such a dialogue touches on very sensitive areas on national policy. It therefore requires sensitive handling, with discussion among decision-makers on both sides being of crucial importance.
Secondly: An open dialogue of this sort on the "constants" should involve not only Israel – on the Palestinian side, too, opinions that point to a more tactically motivated attitude towards the peace process are constantly heard, such as the remark by Abbas Zaki, member of the Central Committee of the Fatah, that an agreement by Israel on the two-state solution, including a splitting of Jerusalem, would in the long-term lead to the collapse of Israel.
A realignment of Middle East policy by the USA and the EU should therefore not be a "zero-sum game" where criticism of the one side is accompanied by a lax attitude towards the other conflicting parties. This kind of black and white, friend or foe, logic was something that characterised the Bush government and it did a lot of harm to the region.
Persuading political public opinion
Thirdly: Along with the ideologically motivated reasons, a fundamental of the "constants" among the various conflicting groups is the close connection between security interests and the perception of threat.
Anyone who follows Israeli political debates must be astonished by how broad the gulf is between Israel's appraisal of the central problems in the Middle East and perceptions in the Western states.
In Israel it is the nuclear aspirations of Iran and the radical comments of President Ahmadinejad that clearly lead the field, whereas Hamas and Hezbollah are very much perceived as representing the interests of Iran – in the West, on the other hand, though Iranian policies are seen as a source of concern, it is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is perceived to be at the core of the numerous "Middle East conflicts" and as a separate issue to the Iran dossier.
It is futile to ask whether the reasons for this difference are of a strategic nature or are "actually" believed. In order to understand this complex mix of ideology, fear and concerns over security it will not suffice to simply proclaim the normative superiority of peace over war.
It's not only the decision-makers, but also opinion in the wider public political sphere in the Middle East that needs to be convinced that a move away from the respective "constants" would not prove to be a dangerous mistake. Only if this is successful can the ideologically motivated resistance of various political forces in the Middle East to a lasting peace settlement be broken down.
Clear commitments needed
Fourthly: Advisable in the cases of all of the above-mentioned is the learning of lessons from the failure of the Oslo peace process. A key lesson is that reliance on gradual rapprochement has proved to be a stumbling block. The peace process was profoundly weakened by this, trust suddenly became distrust and the hopes for lasting peace, recorded in many early opinion polls, soon gave way to the old familiar stereotypes whereby each side accuses the others of lacking true commitment to peace.
Any readjustment in Middle East policy by the US and the EU, therefore, must question the region's widespread tendency to "only if" politics and get commitments from the various parties on their own courses of action instead of subordinating new framework agreements to precisely this problematic logic.
The Arab League's initiative is laudable, but why are countries such as Morocco, Qatar or Iraq not prepared to establish diplomatic relations with Israel even without a final Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. Why should it be that "crucial issues" (Jerusalem, refugees) may only be negotiated after confidence-building steps have been gone through (as is the case with the provisions of the Road Map, for example)?
These are just two examples, but together they point to the fact that the US and the EU, with all due respect to the domestic and security concerns of the Arab countries and Israel, need to show a greater degree of initiative and creativity if they are to convince the various parties of the necessity of their becoming much more proactive – and in future Road Maps and agreements to set greater store on clear commitments rather than on conditions that are too open to interpretation.
On June 4 in Cairo, President Obama has used the opportunity to outline fundamental principles for a genuine West-Arab partnership to the public in the Arab states (but also to the West, where much deeply-rooted prejudice about the Arab world exists). There will still be some way to go, however, if the rifts that have been created in the relationship between the West and the Arab countries (not least by the Bush government) are to be repaired.
The same applies to achieving a firmly rooted Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement and the contribution, at both social and regional levels, that the US and EU can make to a lasting and solidly based peace via the above-outlined conditions.
First and foremost, of course, this peace will need the support of the people of the Middle East, but a greater degree of external involvement of the sort outlined here can certainly contribute more positively to the process than has usually been the case in the past. An external contribution of this sort would already be useful were it to help change the "no, we won't" into an "oops, we should".
© Qantara 2009
Stephan Stetter is professor for International Politics and Conflict Resolution at the German Army University (Universität der Bundeswehr) in Munich. His book "World Society and the Middle East – Reconstructions in Regional Politics" is published by Palgrave.