12 March 2007 - On rights, odds and ends
Last week, I met with my friend Sapir last week and we continued our discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. During the course of our conversation, I realized that the sovereignty problem I’ve encountered in the past with regard to my proposal for joint negotiating institutions—why build joint institutions when you are trying to implement a partition?—might have a solution after all.
Sapir’s ideas about an indirect peace process—one that begins with the question of what kind of society to create in times of conflict rather than the question of how to resolve the conflict—could create parallel processes in each society that consolidate the independence of each while supporting an overall process of negotiation between the two societies, processes that affirm identity but encourage tolerance all at once.
It is easy to forget that intractable conflicts such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict do not have a single, magical solution, even if the final picture of what peace looks like is fairly well-known and predictable. Several approaches at once—indirect processes, direct talks in public negotiating institutions, direct talks among elite representatives, and the efforts of Machiavellian leaders—may be necessary.
There are also alternatives to negotiation that must be kept in mind—not because they are better, which they are not, but because they make the costs and benefits of the peace process clear to everyone. For the Israelis, the clearest alternative is one that has already begun—namely, unilateral withdrawal. For Palestinians, the historic alternative has been violence (which is really no alternative at all).
Both sides are troubled by a silent alternative that may be chosen by the civilian population—the option of emigration. Israelis seem to be staying put, but over time many consider leaving for more secure surroundings. Today’s New York Times has a fascinating article about the despair among Palestinian youth, and how many Palestinians, concluding peace is impossible and resistance futile, want to leave.
I’ve continued to edit the critical article I’ve been writing about Ehud Olmert and the Lebanon war. I’ve managed to re-frame the issue by stepping back from simply attacking Olmert to calling on him to make tough choices. Leaders should be given a chance to make amends and do something useful with their power, while they still have it; besides that, I doubt that Netanyahu, his likely successor, would do better.
I don’t know—it’s tough to identify exactly what human rights means to me. I flipped through Michael Ignatieff’s Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry this weekend—appropriately, perhaps, since I was in Canada—and tried to understand what Ignatieff and the other contributors thought was important about human rights. For many, they mean the ability not to be coerced or humiliated by the state.
I relate much more readily to the idea that human rights mean the ability to avoid random violence. That’s why I get upset about cluster bombs killing Lebanese children. I also remember that one of the stories that upset me most was an attack on a group of Israeli schoolgirls on a field trip who were killed by a crazy Jordanian soldier. I also feel that I worry more about terrorists than I do about state violence.
At some level, our feelings about these political and philosophical issues seem to have psychological roots. I can only explain the behavior of Jews who hate Israel by imagining that they have something against authority in general. My own feelings in Israel, I imagine, have to do with the idea about fitting in; and I suppose my feelings about terrorists stem from a deep dislike for bullies. Who knows?
Ignatieff arrives at the conclusion that the world’s disagreements about the content of human rights may be irresolvable, and so rights might not work as a doctrine but could survive as a kind of conversation. I think that’s a pretty damning admission. If the doctrine has been destroyed, was it doomed from the start? Was it undermined by those who have used it for selfish ends? Or is that too pessimistic?
By the way, I’ve had the chance to watch West Bank Story. It is a very silly farce, well-produced, with some genuinely funny moments. However, I don’t think its proposed solutions would work. It seems to suggest that everything would be better if both sides accepted a one-state solution, intermarried with each other, and emigrated to Beverly Hills. A quite typical Hollywood assessment of the situation!