Saturday, April 11, 2009

Conflict 101: Introduction

You've heard of the two-state solution, but do you really know what it is and why it has been so difficult to attain?

When it comes to American policy regarding the Middle East, we’re seeing something rather new: a US administration taking interest in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict at the beginning of its term. While the timing is novel, the viewpoint is not. We’re hearing the same rhetoric: two-state solution with a divided Jerusalem and a symbolic Palestinian refugee return to Israeli lands. This scenario has more or less been the official US position since the peace process was initiated in 1993.

Absent has been a discussion on whether this is the right solution. We’ve had this solution for a long, long time, and it’s become the de facto response to the question of what a peaceful settlement would look like. We’ve grown so accustomed to this language and this concept that no one dare ask the question, “is it still the right solution?”

I’m not going to attempt to answer the question at this point. Rather, I am going to post a series of briefs on the core issues the collectively make up the conflict and offer some sobering assessments of each because the answer to this question is not a simple one, and background is needed before making any hasty conclusions. Consider this post to be the introduction. So, without further ado, I give you:


Since 1937 there has been only one approach to the Israel-Arab conflict that has stood the test of time: the two-state solution, owing its popularity perhaps to the fact that when the United Nations (UN) created the states of Israel and Palestine in 1947 it divided the available land into two parts. However, over the following 61 years achievement of the solution has been incredibly elusive. Events have led to a zero-sum reality where the maximum that either side can offer is less than the minimum the other can accept. The nature of events has led to deeper entrenchment of this paradox.

An important part of history that speaks to the commitment of both sides to living this two-state solution, the events of 1922, is often forgotten when the story of the conflict is told. For the 400 years leading up to the first World War, the land that we now call the Middle East was ruled by the Turks – there was no Saudi Arabia, no Iraq, no Iran, no Syria, no Jordan, no Lebanon, no Israel, and no Palestinian territories. These states, and the region as we now know it, were created by the European powers following the end of World War I. The Palestine Mandate was created out of a chunk of land that Britain took control of after the fall of the Empire and then promised to the Jews for their homeland. However, in 1922 Winston Churchill gave 80% of the Mandate to the Arabs. This land became the home of Trans-Jordan, which in 1946 became the independent Jordan, whose citizens are today 80% Palestinian. In 1947 the UN divided the remaining 20% in half, giving 10% of the original Mandate to the Jews and 10% to the Arabs.

60% of the new Israel was arid desert. The Jews went to work and created a nation that is now on the verge of joining the legitimate “big boys” club: the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), all the while giving citizenship to Arabs living within it, affording them a level of freedom not available in any Arab country. Meanwhile, the Arabs rejected the UN partition in 1947 and have sense used the billions of dollars given to them (the majority coming from the UN, the US, and Israel) to fund war against Israel, instead of building infrastructure, an economy, and a life for its people. With 90% of the British Mandate settled by approximately the equivalent percentage of Palestinians, the Palestinian narrative of a people struggling to forge a homeland calls into question the willingness of the Palestinians to accept any solution that includes a state of Israel.

Despite that while the two-state solution has been beyond reach and the Palestinian commitment to peace with Israel has been highly questionable, there has been several major pushes for a peaceful, comprehensive treaty between the Palestinians and Israelis that would, once and for all, settle the dispute while allowing both to have their nationhood.

The most intensive effort came in 2000 and 2001 at Camp David. The conditions were as optimal as they ever had been: Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) had maintained political ties for seven years; the plan to transfer of responsibility from Israel to the PA had been initiated, first in the Gaza Strip and Jericho, and then in other West Bank cities; the security situation was relatively stable and acceptable; and cooperation between the two sides was steady and improving. Moreover, the three leaders from the three integral groups involved seemed to be the best people for the job: President Bill Clinton, Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and the leader of the PA, Yasser Arafat. Clinton knew the issues well and was willing to spend whatever political capitol was needed to see a solution solidified. Barak had just shown his commitment by pulling the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) out of Lebanon (against the IDF’s advice). And Arafat was the recognized leader of the Palestinian nation; even his rivals did not challenge him. Most importantly, he could inspire his people.

Despite these unparalleled conditions, the process ended without a signed comprehensive treaty. Shortly thereafter the second intifada broke out (having been planned by the PA during the Camp David negotiations), and the necessary conditions for a permanent solution have reversed one-by-one since. There was some lasting good that came out of these negotiations, however. Much of the compromises agreed to during the negotiations are still, by-and-large, agreed to today by both sides.

The next major attempt at a permanent solution came in November of 2007. President Bush invited PA, Arab, and Israeli leadership to Annapolis, Maryland, for a summit to resurrect the peace process. Talks centered on a very similar proposal as that discussed at Camp David. Since then, negotiations have become significantly compromised by the breakdown of the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel and the ensuing Operation Cast Lead. Nevertheless, optimism remains that a Western-backed PA can be an equal partner in negotiations with Israel despite the fact that so long as Hamas has a presence in the Palestinian narrative, the Palestinians will no be united in a uniform strategy or goal.

The basic approach to resolving the conflict is well-established and agreed upon: a two state solution first offered in 1937 by Britain’s Peel Commission and subsequently proposed by the UN in the 1947 partition plan. Since 1993, this solution has been accepted not only by the parties directly involved, but also by the international community driving the process. Additionally, it has been supported publically by the Arab League since 2002. The wide-spread acceptance extends beyond the principles, embracing two fundamental parameters as well: first, that the two states will be contained between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and second, that the future border between them run along the 1967 lines.

While many details were agreed to at Camp David, several issues, now called “core issues,” remain as the major obstacles to peace. Therefore, no matter who takes part in subsequent discussions, the vast majority of the solution is already known, as are the major obstacles. This leads to a very bizarre situation: a conflict were those involved agree to an overwhelming amount of the resolution, yet neither side is willing to take the risks to make it happen. Since neither side is willing to take the risk, neither can be truly enthusiastic nor confident about the solution. Understanding that conditions have worsened since the most favorable situation (2000), that the same failed approach is being leverage today does not provide a confidence boost.

1 comment:

cheek sheets said...

I thought from the title this was going to be about Illinois and Missouri uniting under one baseball team.