01 April 2007

31 March 2007 - Bad Thursday, Good Friday?

The Riyadh summit failed to deliver. Rather than the optimistic vision of a renewed peace process, the Arab League seemed to confirm on Thursday the pessimistic prognosis that the Saudi plan would be little more than a propaganda ploy. The 2002 proposal, reaffirmed in Riyadh, is at best an opening position. At worst, it is an attempt to provide cover for the continued rejection and demonization of Israel.

There is still hope, however. In responding to the Riyadh summit, Israeli leaders chose to downplay the Saudi plan and to focus on the willingness of Saudi Arabia and other “moderate” states to negotiate with Israel. This was a wise response, one that leaves open the possibility of progress. However, it remains to be seen whether the Arab states actually intend to start negotiations or prevent them.

(The New York Times coverage of this event, by the way, has been abominable. When Israeli Prime Minister Olmert announced that he was prepared for talks, the front-page headline in the Times the next day was about how Olmert rejected the Palestinian right of return. That’s not news, and a story that was reported elsewhere as one of Israeli openness became one of Israeli intransigence.)

While the Israeli-Palestinian peace process continues to sputter, the “Irish question” appears to have been solved by a power-sharing agreement between Ian Paisley’ Democratic Unionist Party and Gerry Adams’s Sinn Fein. These men and their parties represent the extreme poles of public opinion and have gained strength at the expense of moderate parties; how, then, were they able to come together?

The answer, I believe, is that there was real pressure from the external powers that are associated with the two sides—namely, the British government and the Irish government. These two governments made it clear long ago that violence was unacceptable and illegitimate, that parties supporting violence would be marginalized and suppressed, and that both sides bore responsibility for progress.

As Matthew d’Ancona recalls in this week’s Spectator:

“The peace process initiated by John Major had distant roots in Margaret Thatcher’s Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. The governing principle of that document was as clear as it was controversial: the explicit involvement of the Republic of Ireland in the affairs of Ulster would help to marginalise extremist groups on the political spectrum in the Province, and create the beginnings of a centrist political culture in which paramilitary violence would be redundant.

“Step one was to persuade the terrorists to call a ceasefire. The second was to bring the centre-ground political leaders – David Trimble for the Unionists, John Hume for the nationalists – to the table. The third was to establish devolved government and a power-sharing executive.”

Not only did the devolved government—the Northern Ireland Assembly, or Belfast Assembly—fail; the moderate parties that supported it also failed. The only growing parties were those that had paramilitary wings. And yet, I would argue, it was precisely because of that Assembly—which maintained a kind of “shadow” existence in the public mind—that the extreme parties were able to agree in the end.

There are two lessons here for peacemaking in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One is that both sides must feel pressure to negotiate from the external powers with which they are associated. Israel feels such pressure from the U.S.—save, perhaps, when it is under direct attack by terror groups. It is clear the Palestinians feel little pressure from the Saudis or the Arab League (and certainly none from Iran).

The other lesson is the role that public, multi-party institutions can play in promoting negotiation. Even when these institutions (or their champions) fail, they make the peace process a public political reality. They give ordinary people a stake in the negotiations, however indirect, and thus create a broad base of support for the peace process—support that proves surprisingly resilient over time.

I’m not sure that the Arab League is the kind of institution that could create a framework for negotiation. First of all, Israel is not admitted as a member or even as an observer. Second, when Israel sits down with all of the Arab states, the Arab states tend to goad each other towards hard-line positions, as happened in Madrid in 1991. To get beyond the Saudi plan, different institutional framework is needed.

Above all, what is required is political will. Good or bad, the Riyadh summit has left that factor in doubt. The Palestinians seem unwilling and unable to deliver peace; the Arab League seems able, but unwilling. What, then, is left? Peres is calling for, and Olmert is suggesting, direct talks between Israel and Arab states. What I wonder is whether the will exists on the Arab side to make such talks succeed.

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