08 April 2007

08 April 2007 - Why multiparty forums work

I’ve been feeling pretty glum about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lately—unusually so, since I tend to count myself among the optimists. What saddens me is that in the absence of bold leadership and real progress, Israel is getting much of the blame. Robert Novak is the latest to blame Bush and Olmert for the lack of progress, even dismissing Olmert’s recent statement that he is open to talks with Arab states.

When the peace process founders, responsibility for starting it up again is often placed on Israel’s shoulders. On the one hand, this is understandable: Israel is stronger and better able to make concessions. On the other hand, Palestinian violence is chiefly responsible for the impasse. No matter how urgent the need for peace, it will not succeed if it is not reciprocated by both sides, weak and strong.

Novak declares that peace is impossible under Bush. I’m not so sure. This weekend, I re-visited David McKittrick and David McVea’s history of the Northern Ireland conflict, Making Sense of the Troubles. They provide what seems a reasonably fair and accurate account, but predict in their concluding chapter that Protestant leader Ian Paisley would never agree to peace and power-sharing. How wrong they were.

In the absence of new leaders, new ideas are needed. And one of the best ideas to emerge from Northern Ireland was the idea of a multiparty debating forum, elected by all registered voters, to discuss peace negotiations. Parties such as Sinn Féin, which continued to be associated with paramilitary groups actively carrying out violent attacks, were denied entry to the talks, in spite of having won seats.

The forum built on a similar system that had been used in South Africa in the form of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa). There, the parties were not directly elected (since one-person-one-vote had not yet been agreed upon) but were broadly representative of all political groups in the country. The catch, again, was that parties could not participate until they “suspended the armed struggle.”

These institutions failed. Talks broke down, not just because they were interrupted by extremist violence but because the parties simply could not agree. And yet these institutions also succeeded. They guided the parties toward a final agreement and helped dampen and then extinguish political violence—even when the institutions themselves had been suspended, or had collapsed. What was behind their success?

I have written before that these forums made the peace process a public reality—that, following Arendt’s logic, they created the “space of appearance” in which peace could enter and become a political fact. But the more direct and less theoretical reason these forums succeeded is that they helped coordinate the mutual and reciprocal suspension of violence among the parties over the course of several years.

Groups in conflict do not want to join an institution that includes their enemies and requires them to abandon the use or threat of violence. They will only do so when two preconditions have been established. The first precondition is that they must be convinced that violence alone cannot work, either because it has been successfully repressed or because violence from the other side has become an effective deterrent.

The second precondition is that the parties must believe they have something to gain from participation in the forum—or, more accurately, that they have something to lose if they do not. This means the forums must have actual or potential power. Neither Codesa nor the Northern Ireland Forum for Political Dialogue had power, but it was understood that they were determining the future.

In the end, groups that are implacably opposed to each other will still choose to share power if they believe that by doing so, they will gain something or prevent their enemies from gaining at their expense. That is why Paisley and Gerry Adams were able to sit down together; they both believed that they might miss out on the chance to deliver benefits to their voters if they let another opportunity slip by.

I have argued that the Oslo peace process failed partly because it failed to create any such institutions between Israelis and Palestinians. It is tougher to do so in the Israeli-Palestinian context because the solution is going to be a divorce, not a marriage. Yet there are certain issues, such as environmental issues, on which the parties will always need to cooperate. Perhaps that is where a forum should start.

It has been impossible to get Palestinian leaders—Fatah or Hamas—to renounce violence in their unity government. And continued military pressure by Israel may be necessary for a long time yet. However, if Palestinians were offered the chance to participate in a forum that had some say in how air and water were used in Israel and Palestine, they might suspend violence. It might be a concession worth making.

These are just some of the ideas I’m exploring and playing with as I brainstorm for the paper I’m working on with Sapir Handelman on alternative approaches to conflict resolution. But perhaps new ideas can allow old leaders to become new leaders. There are other ideas needed, too—ideas on how Palestinians can start building a state of their own, for example. I wish there were more of those around.

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