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Negotiating Peace

By Henry (Chip) Carey

To negotiate a peace, one must have an interlocutor who sincerely desires peace. Neither Israel, Hamas nor the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) thinks that Abbas, any Hamas leader, or Netanyahu meet this criterion. 

Yet even Hamas was engaging in peace talks with Israel right up to the moment last month that Israel assassinated Ahmed al-Jabari, Hamas’ security chief, who had been involved in the talks. This is unfortunate, since today's terrorist can be tomorrow's peacemaker, and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyau’s decision to attack Gaza again may well have turned other potential peacemakers into terrorists.  Hardline leaders are often best equipped to bring the reactionaries over to the cause of peace, so hopefully Netanyahu will use that power for good after this January’s election, which current projections suggest he will win.
 
Here’s to hoping!
 
I am not predicting that Hamas or the P.A. will produce a leader like Sadat, which is to say a leader willing to risk his life by trying to persuade his Palestinian constituencies to accept the uncertainly of a peace process that will only achieve minimal goals. This possibility exists, though, and a reelected Netanyahu must be just as courageous. There can eventually be peace between Israel and Palestine, but only if leaders on both sides recognize that few moments of peacemaking exist, that now is one of them, and that great leadership is possible. As Shakespeare wrote, “Some men have greatness thrust upon them.”

Few movements and countries are blessed with a Sadat or Mandela, who can forgive and renounce violence, or a Ghandi or Martin Luther King, Jr., who can practically reconcile themselves to death in order to mobilize non-violently. That is what is required by leaders on both sides. American legislators are currently more willing to pursue short-term political advantage rather than cooperate to keep the United States from the fiscal cliff; Palestinian and Israeli leaders, including all core cabinet officers, have a triply difficult assignment. Outside arbiters who have credibility on both sides also do not seem to exist. The United States is overwhelmingly supportive of Israel, while Europe is overwhelmingly behind Palestine (though slightly less so, and against Hamas, who is supported by Turkey and Bahrain).

The gratuitous use of the term 'terrorist' with respect to Palestinians in general is awful. But so is the gratuitous use of the term 'resistance' for acts of Palestinian terrorism, which is only half-truthful.  It is quite possible to be both a terrorist and a resistor—and with disastrous effects in practice for all those who want a peaceful alternative to Palestinian terrorism and Israeli terror.  

Oversimplified labels overlook the complexity of the resister-terrorist phenomenon. Groupthink reigns in European narratives of the Middle East: “Palestine resists. Israel oppresses.” Many seem to think one side is always blameless and heroic. This is sloppy thinking, caused by an ideological blindness in which reason is recklessly abandoned to avoid facing complexity.
 
The same is true of the reading of Israel, and the ignoring of its diverse press and human rights NGOs, by those in the United States: Israel never directly attacks or uses disproportionate violence against civilians, they say. Only terrorists target civilians. Even assuming Israel has never targeted civilians, it still violates other fundamental, international humanitarian laws requiring proportionality (using only the minimum amount of force necessary to achieve a legitimate military objective) and necessity (only using this force after all peaceful alternatives have been exhausted). The Palestinians violate these laws, too. Viewed with just a little complexity, it is clear that there is more than enough fault on both sides.

Israel-defenders may deny that the government has perpetrated crimes or assert that they could and should be worse, given Israeli security needs. Israel is to be admired for accepting the requirements of international law in justifying its actions. However, these laws, which have existed for over a century, cannot be so patently ignored in the interpretation of their meanings.

For their part, Palestine-sympathizers are also selective in their invocation of international law. They may justify rocket launches with stories of desperation. But these crimes are the very reason peace has been impossible: everything that the other side does is seen as an act of war. This breeds a relentless cycle of war and fear, and must be stopped if we are going to negotiate seriously for peace. It is time to acknowledge that continued war crimes by both sides will escalate the crisis until it cannot be resolved.

Someone has to stop first. There is no security in a permanent state of war, for any side. Negotiations must begin. Both sides need to suspend judgment about probabilities of compliance with any accord, and to eschew maximalist demands. However, the average person—Israeli, Palestinian, or otherwise—is war-weary, and thinks the time for talks is now.
 
Whether the pressure to negotiate can come from determined leaders or grassroots pressure remains to be seen; perhaps we will find out in the January elections in Israel. However, some international stances are beginning to soften. After condemning Hamas’ rocket fire and calling for the Palestinians to negotiate for “the independent state they deserve,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at least condemned the new Israeli settlement plan—in front of a Jewish-American audience, no less, as well as in private meetings with both sides. She stated publicly that the United States thinks “these activities set back the path to a negotiated peace.” Meanwhile, the EU appears to be calling off its threat of a boycott of “settlement products.” Let’s hope this is the beginning of a progression toward moderation.

This cycle of war and fear is entrenched, and seems impossible to break. If it is not broken, though, the consequences will be too horrible to contemplate.

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Henry "Chip" Carey is Associate Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University in Atlanta. He is the author of: Privatizing the Democratic Peace: Policy Dilemmas of NGO Peacebuilding and Reaping What You Sow: A Comparative Examination of Torture Reform in the United States, Israel, France and Argentina.

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