(This is a guest post by Daniel Levy, policy director of the Geneva Initiative; Tel Aviv, Israel and as of Thursday this week the new Fellow and Director of the Middle East Initiative at the New America Foundation and Century Foundation)
10 Comments on the Current Crisis in the Middle East
by Daniel Levy
Comments on why the G8 declaration is some kind of step in the right direction but lacks implementation muscle; what next on the Lebanese and Palestinian fronts; how Israeli diplomacy was characteristically asleep on the job in failing to promote a new deal for southern Lebanon since the Hariri assassination and Syrian withdrawal; how the US is failing not only to intervene in preventing further civilian losses and wider escalation but has also avoided any peace initiatives for 5 1/2 years and after 5 1/2 years of not visiting me in Israel I am beginning to wonder if President Bush is really my friend; why unilateralism must be buried and any ceasefire or de-escalation can only hold water if it is immediately followed-up by kick-starting a political process of negotiations in the region, that must address the core issue of the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s a long post, but hey, it’s a messy situation.
1. G8 — Imperial grandeur, diplomatic modesty
The coincidence (or not) of the world’s 8 most powerful industrial nations convening just as the Middle East went off the deep end did not produce a ‘must act now’ urgency to end the crisis, it did though produce a fairly thoughtful and useful statement on the way forward, that is the very transparent upshot of a compromise between ‘you know who’ and everyone else. The grand trappings of Russia’s former imperial capital of St. Petersburg were not matched by any grand diplomacy.
Israelis have been informed by their ever-reliable media that the G8 statement is an unequivocal and ringing endorsement of all Israeli positions (“the world; ‘we are right!'” screamed one newspaper headline, “the statement might have been written by Olmert” suggested a TV news commentator), which is a shame, as the statement itself (how many of them actually read it?) is far more nuance.
The gaping chasm is its failure to demand an immediate, unconditional cessation of hostilities — the agreed language being “create the conditions” for this to happen, but it does begin by stating that “the root cause of the problem is the absence of a comprehensive peace”, it distinguishes between different elements in Hamas (a first), rejects unilateralism and understands the need for political engagement and negotiations. It’s a starting point Ã¢â‚¬â€œ but where’s the muscle?
Oh, and anyone surprised at the absence of muscle to end the bloodshed might ask a Darfurian just how bad things can get before the world, well actually, still fails to act decisively. And if anyone is still short on reasons to end the conflict in the Middle East, how about this one — rather than discussing follow-up to the last “Make Poverty History” G8 — programs to combat HIV AIDS, infectious diseases and invest in education — what were they, and we, talking about. . .you guessed it.
2. Lebanon — what next?
Israel apparently has several more days to inflict pain on the Hizbollah and its military capacity (while at the same time terrorizing and sometimes worse Lebanon’s civilian population and taking out a fair chunk of that countries infrastructure). Hizbollah’s raid into Northern Israel was indeed unprovoked, Israel certainly has the right to defend itself, and the situation in Southern Lebanon, namely the absence of the sovereign Lebanese state and army giving free reign to the Hizbollah militia is both in contravention of UNSCR 1559 and untenable over time.
Israel does have a goal in this mission and it is not primarily the release of captured soldiers — Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser — (all admit that will not be achieved by this operation), it is to change that Southern Lebanese status quo, but few see this as an exclusively militarily attainable objective. When we eventually arrive at the morning after this crisis (how? belated international pressure and even deployment, a missile horribly off-trajectory, a face-saving formula of sovereign Lebanese very partial deployment in the South, you pick, but mission accomplished is not on the list), then we will be faced with many of the same problems and diplomacy might have its day.
When there was a serious border bust-up in 1996 it ended with a ‘Ceasefire Understanding’ that was externally guaranteed and monitored. This time there may be a need and possibility to replace the beleaguered and discredited UN UNIFIL forces with a more robust international presence (as called for by Annan and Blair ) and the expending of greater diplomatic energy and creativity on solutions for Lebanon that move towards meeting the terms of UNSCR 1559, but Lebanese internal politics will remain devilishly complicated.
Oh, and then there’s the minor irritation of the Iranian and Syrian roles. The absence of a serious and comprehensive international dialogue with Iran and Syria, to which the US would be a party, will continue to perhaps fatally handicap the prospects for real positive results in Lebanon. Akiva Eldar in Haaretz has called for a Grand Bargain in this op-ed piece, which includes a realization of the broad Israeli-Arab normalization envisaged in the Saudi Initiative.
3. The curious similarity between the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the Italian world cup soccer team, and one crucial difference
Defense, defense, defense, that’s the similarity, but while it served Italy’s footballers, Israel’s diplomats (or to be fair, their elected bosses) deserve a red card for failing to devise a diplomatic offensive that could have encouraged a new reality in Southern Lebanon. Israeli diplomacy has been desperately bereft of initiative for too many years, that always seem to be the exclusive redoubt of the military, with foreign policy relegated to a preventive holding position — avoid the international community taking any initiative, dissuade and accuse of ulterior motives, convince everyone there is no partner or not to talk to an elected Government, and cede no inch on the route of the separation barrier.
The last years, since the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000 and especially after the Hariri killing and Syrian withdrawal — have been a gargantuan missed opportunity for Israeli diplomacy. Why did Israel not initiate a public overture — offering Lebanese prisoners in return for certain steps in the South for instance, or make this a priority talking point with the US or international community? Because we were too busy discrediting the Palestinians and legitimizing unilateralism. Ultimately the Hizbullah presence will require a political solution, the military campaign is at best a partial palliative, at worst a fillip to extremists throughout the region.
4. The Risk and Costs of Inaction
The lack of urgency on the part of the US and international community to push an immediate de-escalation and ceasefire looks inhumane in the face of the civilian casualties, appalling destruction (and resultant reconstruction price tag) and pervasive communal anxiety on both sides of the border. But it also contains an element of political risk.
A wider regional conflagration is not the game plan of any of the protagonists right now, messages have even been exchanged between Jerusalem and Damascus to that effect, but when a high tech and intensity shooting match is in progress, unpredicted and unintended things may happen — and that is a real danger in letting this continue. Will the relatively limited theatre of operations be maintained if, perish the thought, a high casualty or high value target is struck in Israel, or an IDF missile goes astray in a Syrian direction?
Some appear sufficiently concerned to have disturbed their summer holiday plans — EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana is in the region as is the UN Under-Secretary General Nambiar and his mission on behalf of Annan, other will surely follow. Secretary of State Rice is belatedly reported to have been spotted checking flight schedules. And President Bush? Well in 5 1/2 years in office he has not once visited Israel — when my so-called best friends don’t pay a call in 5 1/2 years I begin to get suspicious.
5. Failing to stop war, failing to make peace
The diplomatic and in particular US aversion to preventing military escalation has been preceded by a spectacular absence from the peace-seeking arena . This is most troubling when one considers that in the region the principal actors have perhaps never been closer — Israel set the precedent of evacuating settlements and openly recognizes that more in the West Bank will follow, President Abbas has consistently expressed his belief in a negotiated compromise, the Hamas leadership have laid heavy hints of their acceptance of a 2 state solution and the publics on both sides overwhelmingly support realistic negotiating positions.
The US Administration has at no stage tried to forge these ingredients in to a working peace initiative. At this juncture the people of the region may be unable to do it alone, but peace may be attainable with external engagement — can the Administration finally pick up the gauntlet?
Any eventual ceasefire and de-escalation must be seized as an opportunity to move towards the renewal of a political peace process. By linking any ceasefire to a political track both may be given the necessary oxygen to succeed. The vacuum created by no political horizon or international engagement are two of the key factors that led to the latest political crisis. The best commentary on all this has come from Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times.
6. Root Causes
. . .And this brings us to the core of it all. . . many in the neo-con camp are talking about root causes right now, the evil and unshakable hostility of the Iranian and Syrian regimes to Israel, the product of bad systems and regimes populated by bad people with bad ideologies. That may be so, but why the (accurate) assumption on their part that turning the vitriol against Israel may win widespread sympathy and admiration in the Muslim world and beyond and be difficult for others in that region to staunchly oppose? Why the resentment, anger and ease of mass mobilization?
Yes, for some the answer is Israel’s Jewish character, but for many many others, none fanatics, it’s a one word answer — Palestine. The Palestinian cause, the injustice and hypocrisy of the US and West is a genuine grievance for millions worldwide, for whom a particular policy not a nation or a religion are the problem. Others abuse and use that Ã¢â‚¬â€œ and will continue to do so, with effect, until the conflict is resolved. If post-crisis there is no return to dealing with the core issues on the Israeli-Palestinian front and moves towards negotiations aimed at resolving the conflict, then everyone should recognize that we are simply beginning the countdown to the next escalation.
Two articles that really hit the nail on this are David Clark, former UK Labor party special policy advisor in the Guardian and Henry Siegman from the Council of Foreign Relations in the Observer. This realization and policies that address it need to be built in to any ceasefire and morning after scenarios.
7. Israel-Palestine, what next?
The necessity of linking any ceasefire package to an effort to kick-start an Israeli-Palestinian political process has already been explained.
The ingredients of the package are well known, the exact chronology and details are difficult to calibrate, these include; the release of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, an end to Qassam rocket shellings and suspension of all hostile acts against Israel from PA territories, end the Gaza incursion and IDF military initiatives against Palestinians, including assassinations, release of the PA Cabinet and PLC members and a prisoner release (women, children, pre-Oslo prisoners) as previously committed too.
Such a package would create an opportunity to launch a political process, including encouraging the Palestinians to conclude the National Understanding (i.e. prisoners document) whereby President Abbas could lead negotiations with Israel in the name of a broader Palestinian coalition and whereby a ceasefire could be used to test the intentions of Hamas. Initial talks should be open-ended and exploratory in nature with official Israeli and Palestinian representatives discussing parameters for renewing political negotiations, supported and preferably overseen by the Quartet.
8. Bury Unilateralism
Israel withdrew from the Sinai in the context of a negotiated peace agreement with Egypt and from parts of the Arava in a negotiated peace treaty with Jordan, results: quiet borders, no military exchanges since, solid if cool peace. Israel withdrew from South Lebanon and Gaza unilaterally without agreements. . . enough said.
After the latest events avoidance of negotiations with the Palestinians and pursuit of a unilateral convergence on the West Bank, or re-alignment, or disengagement or whatever new name is found is a joke in poor taste.
The unilateral paradigm has ill-served the US and Israel, bury it.
9. An Historical note on Prisoner Releases
On the 9th of November 2003 the then Israeli Cabinet voted on the arrangements for a prisoner swap between Israel and the Hizbollah, which included the return of one civilian and the bodies of 3 murdered soldiers to Israel in exchange for over 450 Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners, including senior Hizbollah clerics. In addition to then PM Sharon, the list of Ministers who voted in favor of the prisoner exchange with Hizbollah includes; Ehud Olmert, Benjamin Netanyahu, Shaul Mofaz and Meir Shetreet. No comment.
10. And finally. . . Get her on the next plane over
Now that the Secretary of State has plans to visit the region it might encourage a ratcheting up of hostilities in the interval until she arrives, so no time to waste, log on to expedia.com or travelocity.com, or be patriotic and make it elal.co.il and book a ticket to the region in the name of one Ms. Condoleeza Rice, next departure. Secretary Rice successfully brokered a mini-deal on local economic, border crossing and Palestinian movement arrangements on November 15, 2005, post-Gaza withdrawal, but there was no follow-up and nothing happened. The task today is far more demanding and urgent.
The agenda for the visit might be: no return flight home until ceasefire achieved; do not flinch at talking directly or if needed via envoys to the Syrians; if an interim robust international military deployment is necessary and there are trusted nations willing to deploy then use this option and be sure to have monitors overseeing the ceasefire provisions; post-ceasefire encourage via reliable 3rd parties an urgent process for negotiating the terms of the release of the Israeli soldiers (unfortunately at this stage this is the only option); do not depart until you have agreement on all sides for renewing a political dialogue and process, especially on the Israeli-Palestinian front and continue to personally manage that process.
Awaiting your arrival.
— Daniel Levy