Three Truths for Mideast Peace

War and horror tend to shake us out of complacency, to force us all to confront ugly realities and say what needs to be said, poignantly, once and for all, even if it is not pretty and requires nuance in an otherwise partisan puddle.

And so The New York Times writers who have been following the Hamas-Israel war seem to have been at their best this weekend, when they poignantly summarized three core themes that are required understanding for those who truly wish to end the conflict:

  • Take-away from Ethan Bronner (full article below): Partisan Absolutism will only protract the conflict; for far too long each side has been speaking past each other and does not even understand the meaning of the words from the other side, let alone what historical sacrifices it will take if they want to resolve this conflict and build a future based on co-existence and respect rather than on denial of the humanity of the other side; if each side continues to believe itself the absolute victim and the other side the absolute perpetrator, we will be condemned to eternal war.
  • Take-away from Tom Friedman (full column below): Time is really running out for a two-state solution; all parties must be brought to the table for negotiations that will bring about a solution, lest militants from Hamas and militant settlers permanently destroy the prospects for peace.  And we are not far off from getting there.
  • Take-away from Scott Atran and Jeremy Ginges (full opinion piece below): it is not just about the substance of what the solution will look like but about the dignity with which the negotiations are approached; the existentialist fears and existentialist rights of the Israelis and the honor and suffering of (and injustice towards) the Palestinians need to be acknowledged by each other if a peaceful solution is ever to be agreed upon.

For OneVoice, too, time is running out.  The Movement was born to propel a resolution of the conflict, not to manage it or endure it with niceties.  We should be bold about the final efforts to make an impact, and either succeed or fail for trying, but not fail because time ran out and we did not try hard enough for fear that we’d fail.

New York Times

January 25, 2009

Gaza Notebook

The Bullets in My In-Box


GAZA — Faisal Husseini, a Palestinian leader who died at the start of this decade, used to tell a story about his first visit to Israel. The 1967 war had just ended, borders were suddenly opened and he took a drive to Tel Aviv, where at some point he found himself detained by an Israeli policeman. Questions and answers ensued. At one point the policeman said to him, “As a proud Zionist, I must tell you ….” At which Mr. Husseini burst out laughing.

What’s so funny? the policeman asked. “I have never in my life,” Mr. Husseini replied, “heard anyone refer to Zionism with anything but contempt. I had no idea you could be a proud Zionist.”

I have written about the Arab-Israeli conflict on and off for more than a quarter-century and have spent the past four weeks covering Israel’s war in Gaza. For me, Mr. Husseini’s story sums up how the two sides speak in two distinct tongues, how the very words they use mean opposite things to each other, and how the war of language can confound a reporter’s attempts to narrate — or a new president’s attempts to mediate — this conflict in a way both sides can accept as fair.

Among Israel’s Jews, there is almost no higher value than Zionism. The word is bathed in a celestial glow, suggesting selflessness and nobility. But go anywhere else in the Middle East and Zionism stands for theft, oppression, racist exclusionism.

No place, date or event in this conflicted land is spoken of in a common language. The barrier snaking across and inside the West Bank is a wall to Palestinians, a fence to Israelis. The holiest site in Jerusalem is the Temple Mount to Jews, the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims. The 1948 conflict that created Israel is one side’s War of Independence, the Catastrophe for the other.

After Israel’s three-week air, sea and land assault in Gaza, aimed at halting Hamas rocket fire, it is worth pausing to note how difficult it has been to narrate this war in a fashion others view as neutral, and to contemplate what that means for any attempt by the new Obama administration to try to end it.

It turns out that both narration and mediation require common ground. But trying to tell the story so that both sides can hear it in the same way feels more and more to me like a Greek tragedy in which I play the despised chorus. It feels like I am only fanning the flames, adding to the misunderstandings and mutual antagonism with every word I write because the fervent inner voice of each side is so loud that it drowns everything else out.

George Mitchell, the former Senate majority leader who is Mr. Obama’s new special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, could find something similar when he arrives here.

Even though an understanding crystallized a decade ago over the outline of an eventual solution here — Israel returning essentially to its 1967 borders and a Palestinian state forming in the West Bank and Gaza — the two sides’ narratives have actually hardened since attempts to reach a peace foundered.

So Mr. Mitchell, who once led a commission tasked with finding a solution to the conflict, will begin this latest effort grappling with two separate wars fought here, based on two very different sets of assumptions.

Opponents of Israel feel the Gaza fighting has demonstrated (again) everything they have always believed — that Israel is a kind of Sparta that dehumanizes the Palestinians and will do anything to prevent their dignified self-determination. The ways in which Israel attacked — the overwhelming force, the racist graffiti left on walls — are what one has come to expect of that state, they say; those Hamas rockets were no challenge to the Israeli military behemoth, and, after all, who could blame the resistance fighters for launching them to protest the blockade and everything else about Israel’s longstanding occupation?

Those for whom Israel is the victim and never the aggressor likewise saw in this war a reaffirmation of their beliefs — that Hamas, an Islamist terror group, hides its fighters behind women and children; that Israel’s army was an exemplar of restraint and respect, holding its fire when civilians were in sight, allowing tons of humanitarian aid in even while at war (what other army would be so decent?).

Abroad, people care deeply about this conflict. That should make it easier for a reporter to cover, because the actors and place names and history are familiar. But it turns out that like the actors themselves, the audiences have utterly distinct and contrasting sets of assumptions. Every time I fail to tell the story each side tells itself, I have failed in its eyes to do my job. That adds up to a lot of failure.

What’s more, the competing war narratives are part of a larger narrative disconnect.

One side says that after thousands of years of oppression, the Jewish nation has returned to its rightful home. It came in peace and offered its hand to its neighbors numerous times only to be met with a sword. Opposition to Israel, this side argues, stems from Muslim intolerance, nationalist fervor and rank anti-Semitism, all fed by envy at the young state’s success. Every time I write an article about the conflict that does not mirror this story line — if, for example, I focus on Palestinian suffering or alleged Israeli misdeeds or quote a human rights group like Amnesty International — I have proven myself to be a secret sharer with the views of the enemy.

As one recent complainer wrote, “To read your paper, all the questions and criticism are directed at Israel, and it is all based on a collection of anti-Semitic organizations masquerading as humanitarians.”

The other side tells a different story: There is no Jewish nation, only followers of a religion. A group of European colonialists came here, stole and pillaged, throwing hundreds of thousands off their land and destroying their villages and homes. A country born in sin, Israel has built up an aggressive military with help from Washington in the grips of a powerful Jewish lobby.

Every time I fail to allude to that story — when, for example, I examine Israel’s goals in its Gaza war without implicitly condemning it as a massacre, or write about Israel in ways that do not call into question its legitimacy — I have revealed my affiliation and can no longer be trusted as a reporter.

Since the war started on Dec. 27, I have received hundreds of messages about my coverage. They are generally not offering congratulations on a job well done.

“Thanks to you and other scum like yourself,” said one, “Israel can now kill hundreds and you can report the whole thing like it was some random train wreck.”

“Bronner ,” said another, “you’re back to your usual drivel about only the poor filthy Arabs — who voted for the Hamas people who got them into this predicament — with incessant indiscriminate rocket fire on innocent Israelis.”

There are also blogs and chat sites on both sides that spend time accusing all the journalists here of having agendas because our articles mention facts or trends that they consider a diversion from the real story.

Because Israel barred foreign journalists from entering Gaza until the war ended, The New York Times relied on my Palestinian colleague here, Taghreed el-Khodary, for on-the-ground coverage of the fighting.

We would speak several times a day as she cautiously went out. Her first stop was usually Shifa Hospital to get a sense of civilian casualties. Early in the war, at the hospital, she witnessed the murder of an alleged Israeli collaborator by Hamas gunmen. They shot him in the skull more or less in front of her. One of the gunmen told Taghreed that she should never mention what she saw to anyone. She told him there was not a chance she would stay silent, then made some calls to find out about other such events and sent me the information, which we published the next day.

A couple of Arab bloggers went after Taghreed with the worst insult they could come up with — Zionist. She was a Palestinian Uncle Tom doing the bidding of her white-man bosses at a newspaper that, as one reader said in an e-mail message, “is fully complicit in the atrocities that Israel commits against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. You make it sound guiltless and reasonable. That’s your assignment.”

At the same time, Israeli officials and their backers declared that keeping reporters out of Gaza was the right move because no independent journalism could possibly occur in an area run by Hamas, which controls every utterance here. Have any of these people ever read Taghreed’s work? Or any of our work out of here?

Many have but it doesn’t matter because their belief in their own view is so overpowering that anything that contradicts it becomes a minor detail. As another reader put it, “Basically, you are aiding terrorists and causing the increase in bloodshed while telling one-sided stories, totally ignoring the whole picture.”

He did say one thing I agree with: “You should not be a reporter if you are not telling the whole story, not just the parts that sell.”

I would offer a mediator the same advice.


NY Times

January 25, 2009


This Is Not a Test


Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. “Guy walks into a bar …” No, not that one — this one: “This is the most critical year ever for Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy. It is five minutes to midnight. If we don’t get diplomacy back on track soon, it will be the end of the two-state solution.”

I’ve heard that line almost every year for the last 20, and I’ve never bought it. Well, today, I’m buying it.

We’re getting perilously close to closing the window on a two-state solution, because the two chief window-closers — Hamas in Gaza and the fanatical Jewish settlers in the West Bank — have been in the driver’s seats. Hamas is busy making a two-state solution inconceivable, while the settlers have steadily worked to make it impossible.

If Hamas continues to obtain and use longer- and longer-range rockets, there is no way any Israeli government can or will tolerate independent Palestinian control of the West Bank, because a rocket from there can easily close the Tel Aviv airport and shut down Israel’s economy.

And if the Jewish settlers continue with their “natural growth” to devour the West Bank, it will also be effectively off the table. No Israeli government has mustered the will to take down even the “illegal,” unauthorized settlements, despite promises to the U.S. to do so, so it’s getting hard to see how the “legal” settlements will ever be removed. What is needed from Israel’s Feb. 10 elections is a centrist, national unity government that can resist the blackmail of the settlers, and the rightist parties that protect them, to still implement a two-state solution.

Because without a stable two-state solution, what you will have is an Israel hiding behind a high wall, defending itself from a Hamas-run failed state in Gaza, a Hezbollah-run failed state in south Lebanon and a Fatah-run failed state in Ramallah. Have a nice day.

So if you believe in the necessity of a Palestinian state or you love Israel, you’d better start paying attention. This is not a test. We’re at a hinge of history.

What makes it so challenging for the new Obama team is that Mideast diplomacy has been transformed as a result of the regional disintegration since Oslo — in three key ways.

First, in the old days, Henry Kissinger could fly to three capitals, meet three kings, presidents or prime ministers and strike a deal that could hold. No more. Today a peacemaker has to be both a nation-builder and a negotiator.

The Palestinians are so fragmented politically and geographically that half of U.S. diplomacy is going to be about how to make peace between Palestinians, and build their institutions, so there is a coherent, legitimate decision-making body there — before we can make peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Second, Hamas now has a veto over any Palestinian peace deal. It’s true that Hamas just provoked a reckless war that has devastated the people of Gaza. But Hamas is not going away. It is well armed and, despite its suicidal behavior of late, deeply rooted.

The Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank will not make any compromise deal with Israel as long as it fears that Hamas, from outside the tent, would denounce it as traitorous. Therefore, Job 2 for the U.S., Israel and the Arab states is to find a way to bring Hamas into a Palestinian national unity government.

As the Middle East expert Stephen P. Cohen says, “It is not enough for Israel that the world recognize that Hamas criminally mismanaged its responsibility to its people. Israel’s longer-term interest is to be sure that it has a Palestinian partner for negotiations, which will have sufficient legitimacy among its own people to be able to sign agreements and fulfill them. Without Hamas as part of a Palestinian decision, any Israeli-Palestinian peace will be meaningless.”

But bringing Hamas into a Palestinian unity government, without undermining the West Bank moderates now leading the Palestinian Authority, will be tricky. We’ll need Saudi Arabia and Egypt to buy, cajole and pressure Hamas into keeping the cease-fire, supporting peace talks and to give up rockets — while Iran and Syria will be tugging Hamas the other way.

And that leads to the third new factor — Iran as a key player in Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy. The Clinton team tried to woo Syria while isolating Iran. President Bush tried to isolate both Iran and Syria. The Obama team, as Martin Indyk argues in “Innocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East,” “needs to try both to bring in Syria, which would weaken Hamas and Hezbollah, while also engaging Iran.”

So, just to recap: It’s five to midnight and before the clock strikes 12 all we need to do is rebuild Fatah, merge it with Hamas, elect an Israeli government that can freeze settlements, court Syria and engage Iran — while preventing it from going nuclear — just so we can get the parties to start talking. Whoever lines up all the pieces of this diplomatic Rubik’s Cube deserves two Nobel Prizes.


NY Times

January 25, 2009

Op-Ed Contributors

How Words Could End a War


AS diplomats stitch together a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, the most depressing feature of the conflict is the sense that future fighting is inevitable. Rational calculation suggests that neither side can win these wars. The thousands of lives and billions of dollars sacrificed in fighting demonstrate the advantages of peace and coexistence; yet still both sides opt to fight.

This small territory is the world’s great symbolic knot. “Palestine is the mother of all problems” is a common refrain among people we have interviewed across the Muslim world: from Middle Eastern leaders to fighters in the remote island jungles of Indonesia; from Islamist senators in Pakistan to volunteers for martyrdom on the move from Morocco to Iraq.

Some analysts see this as a testament to the essentially religious nature of the conflict. But research we recently undertook suggests a way to go beyond that. For there is a moral logic to seemingly intractable religious and cultural disputes. These conflicts cannot be reduced to secular calculations of interest but must be dealt with on their own terms, a logic very different from the marketplace or realpolitik.

Across the world, people believe that devotion to sacred or core values that incorporate moral beliefs — like the welfare of family and country, or commitment to religion and honor — are, or ought to be, absolute and inviolable. Our studies, carried out with the support of the National Science Foundation and the Defense Department, suggest that people will reject material compensation for dropping their commitment to sacred values and will defend those values regardless of the costs.

In our research, we surveyed nearly 4,000 Palestinians and Israelis from 2004 to 2008, questioning citizens across the political spectrum including refugees, supporters of Hamas and Israeli settlers in the West Bank. We asked them to react to hypothetical but realistic compromises in which their side would be required to give away something it valued in return for a lasting peace.

All those surveyed responded to the same set of deals. First they would be given a straight-up offer in which each side would make difficult concessions in exchange for peace; next they were given a scenario in which their side was granted an additional material incentive; and last came a proposal in which the other side agreed to a symbolic sacrifice of one of its sacred values.

For example, a typical set of trade-offs offered to a Palestinian might begin with this premise: Suppose the United Nations organized a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians under which Palestinians would be required to give up their right to return to their homes in Israel and there would be two states, a Jewish state of Israel and a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Second, we would sweeten the pot: in return, Western nations would give the Palestinian state $10 billion a year for 100 years. Then the symbolic concession: For its part, Israel would officially apologize for the displacement of civilians in the 1948 war

Indeed, across the political spectrum, almost everyone we surveyed rejected the initial solutions we offered — ideas that are accepted as common sense among most Westerners, like simply trading land for peace or accepting shared sovereignty over Jerusalem. Why the opposition to trade-offs for peace?

Many of the respondents insisted that the values involved were sacred to them. For example, nearly half the Israeli settlers we surveyed said they would not consider trading any land in the West Bank — territory they believe was granted them by God — in exchange for peace. More than half the Palestinians considered full sovereignty over Jerusalem in the same light, and more than four-fifths felt that the “right of return” was a sacred value, too.

As for sweetening the pot, in general the greater the monetary incentive involved in the deal, the greater the disgust from respondents. Israelis and Palestinians alike often reacted as though we had asked them to sell their children. This strongly implies that using the standard approaches of “business-like negotiations” favored by Western diplomats will only backfire.

Many Westerners seem to ignore these clearly expressed “irrational” preferences, because in a sensible world they ought not to exist. Diplomats hope that peace and concrete progress on material and quality-of-life matters (electricity, water, agriculture, the economy and so on) will eventually make people forget the more heartfelt issues. But this is only a recipe for another Hundred Years’ War — progress on everyday material matters will simply heighten attention on value-laden issues of “who we are and want to be.”

Fortunately, our work also offers hints of another, more optimistic course.

Absolutists who violently rejected offers of money or peace for sacred land were considerably more inclined to accept deals that involved their enemies making symbolic but difficult gestures. For example, Palestinian hard-liners were more willing to consider recognizing the right of Israel to exist if the Israelis simply offered an official apology for Palestinian suffering in the 1948 war. Similarly, Israeli respondents said they could live with a partition of Jerusalem and borders very close to those that existed before the 1967 war if Hamas and the other major Palestinian groups explicitly recognized Israel’s right to exist.

Remarkably, our survey results were mirrored by our discussions with political leaders from both sides. For example, Mousa Abu Marzook (the deputy chairman of Hamas) said no when we proposed a trade-off for peace without granting a right of return. He became angry when we added in the idea of substantial American aid for rebuilding: “No, we do not sell ourselves for any amount.”

But when we mentioned a potential Israeli apology for 1948, he brightened: “Yes, an apology is important, as a beginning. It’s not enough because our houses and land were taken away from us and something has to be done about that.” His response suggested that progress on sacred values might open the way for negotiations on material issues, rather than the reverse.

We got a similar reaction from Benjamin Netanyahu, the hard-line former Israeli prime minister. We asked him whether he would seriously consider accepting a two-state solution following the 1967 borders if all major Palestinian factions, including Hamas, were to recognize the right of the Jewish people to an independent state in the region. He answered, “O.K., but the Palestinians would have to show that they sincerely mean it, change their textbooks and anti-Semitic characterizations.”

Making these sorts of wholly intangible “symbolic” concessions, like an apology or recognition of a right to exist, simply doesn’t compute on any utilitarian calculus. And yet the science says they may be the best way to start cutting the knot.

Scott Atran, an anthropologist at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, John Jay College and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, is the author of the forthcoming “Talking to the Enemy.” Jeremy Ginges is a professor of psychology at the New School for Social Research.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

related posts

post a new comment