11 February 2007

11 February 2007 - A TRC for the Middle East?

Last week, I happened to notice a draft paper on a shelf in the reference section of Harvard’s Langdell Law Library. It was sitting face-up at the end of a row of books on one of the shelves devoted to student-edited law journals, presumably waiting to be edited by an army of sub-citers. I noticed that the sources on the shelf were all familiar staples of the Israel critic’s diet—Avi Shlaim, Ilan Pappe and so on.

I saw that the paper had been written by a friend of mine—a Jewish student who shares my fascination with Israel and South Africa and with whom I disagree about almost everything. Her paper suggested the creation of an historical commission of inquiry, modeled on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), to “to investigate 1948 and the creation of the Palestinian refugee population.”

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard the idea. Last year, Justice Dennis Davis—a South African Jewish leader and former anti-apartheid activist—also suggested that the model of the TRC could be applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Heribert Adam and Kagidla Moodley touched on the idea in their somewhat flawed 2005 book, Seeking Mandela: Peacemaking Between Israelis and Palestinians.

Yossi Beilin also brought up the TRC when I interviewed him in September 2001. Interestingly, he specifically ruled out a search for historical “truth”: “When I met with Archbishop Tutu,” he told me, “we talked about the ability to build something like the TRC between Israelis and Palestinians—without the ‘T’. I mean, I don’t need ‘lies,’ but the truth is not the important thing, because you have many truths.”

The TRC inspires imitation because it came to symbolize the “miracle” of the South African transition to democracy. Notorious agents of state terror, and violent anti-government radicals, came together in a forum where they confessed their complicity in human rights abuses in exchange for possible amnesty. Victims confronted and even forgave their persecutors for the sake of the new nation.

It is natural to wonder whether a similar “miracle” could be produced in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the prospects seem unlikely. First of all, the TRC was only established when the South African struggle was at an end; it was a post-conflict institution. Second, it relied heavily on Christian notions of forgiveness that may have little currency in a conflict that is largely between Muslims and Jews.

Third, the TRC was actually a deeply flawed institution. Some complained that it did not address the culpability of those who had not participated directly in human rights abuses but had benefited from apartheid. Others point out that many people denied amnesty by the TRC have yet to be prosecuted, while others have been let out of jail for no reason, and that reparations promised to victims have been paltry.

The TRC also propagated a version of South African history that suited the ANC’s political purposes—though Tutu, to his credit, did not obey calls for him to absolve the party of any responsibility for human rights abuses. It remains a controversial part of South Africa’s history—and given the reluctance of the government to do anything about Aids or Zimbabwe, one from which South Africans have yet to learn.

I have become rather skeptical of the possibility that the TRC or any such “transitional institution” can bring about peace between Israelis and Palestinians in the absence of real and reciprocal political will to resolve the conflict. But I understand the desire to search for possible solutions in the pages of not-too-distant South African history. I have often turned to those pages myself.

Four years ago, I published an article in the Palestine-Israel Journal of Politics, Economics and Culture entitled “Let Peace Go Public.” In it, I argued that while comparisons between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other conflicts have been “extremely selective and highly partisan,” there were lessons to be learned from other cases that could be useful to the peace process in the Middle East.

I examined the successful negotiations in South Africa and Northern Ireland, and concluded that what had been missing from the Oslo peace process of the 1990s was the creation of “shared, public negotiating institutions composed of representatives from the various parties on both sides.” These institutions generated public support for negotiations that sustained the peace process through violent interruptions.

Crucially, by excluding groups that refused to abandon the “armed struggle,” the negotiating forums in South Africa and Northern Ireland—the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) and the Belfast Assembly, respectively—had marginalized extremists. They had also provided a means through which moderates on opposite sides could reach out to each other and build a constituency for peace.

I proposed the creation of a multiparty “Israeli-Palestinian Forum” to negotiate and oversee the implementation of the “road map” for peace. I acknowledged, however, that there were two problems with my idea. One was the lack of trust between the two sides, which I hoped the forum could overcome. The other was that a joint elected institution might be seen as “a backdoor entrance for binationalism.”

The feeling I had at the time was that I had “nailed my colors to the mast”—that I had gone as far as I possibly could in drawing lessons from the South African experience that could be applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I was skeptical of unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, believing that it would be “inadequate in dealing with most outstanding issues.” (And it has been.)

But as Israel began constructing its security barrier, and prepared to disengage from Gaza in 2005, I began to change my mind. Unilateral steps do not resolve enduring disagreements over borders, refugees, and Jerusalem; nor do they provide lasting security, as rockets from Gaza and Lebanon remind us. But they do begin to set boundaries, and they provide a backup plan in the absence of real negotiations.

At the very least, Israel’s security barrier—to take one example—has saved hundreds of Israeli and Palestinian lives, though it follows an inappropriate route and causes hardship to many people. In a region where people cannot even agree on what is happening outside the Al-Aqsa mosque, in the face of clear evidence, it may be better to build fences and save lives than to invest hope in truth commissions.

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