15 April 2007

14 April 2007 - Hope and Fear

Hope and Fear. That’s the title of Tony Leon’s first book, published in 1998, which contains his major speeches from the 1990s, before he became Leader of the Opposition in the South African Parliament in 1999. (A second book, a political memoir, is due sometime in the next year.) Leon spoke last Thursday at Harvard Law School, and described the contradictions within South Africa’s foreign policy.

That title, Hope and Fear, says so much about South Africa—and I think it applies equally to Israel. There is always hope that the great problems will be resolved, that the great conflicts will come to an end, that the great challenges can be overcome. And there is always fear that there will be no solutions, that violence will engulf the nation, that the challenges are too great to bear and will eventually lead to collapse.

I feel a cautious sense of hope when I read that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is going to meet his Palestinian counterpart, and that Israel is considering talks with the Arab League over the Saudi peace plan. But I feel a sense of fear when I read about how Hamas is arming Islamic Jihad with rockets to fire at Israeli civilians, playing the same double terror-and-diplomacy game Yasser Arafat once played.

I feel an even worse sense of despair when I read that the British National Union of Journalists voted to boycott Israeli goods and called on the British government to do the same. I feel a sense of hurt and outrage when I read about an Irish artists’ cultural boycott, defended in the same terms that anti-apartheid activists once used to defend for boycotts against South Africa (even against anti-apartheid artists!).

I feel great sorrow when I read about how Adalah, the Arab rights organization in Israel, is taking a war crimes case against the Israel Defense Forces to the Israeli High Court and threatening to take it to international courts if the Israeli court does not rule in their favor. The sorrow is twofold: one that atrocities happen at all, and two that only Israel is blamed, only Israel is held to account for these events.

And, finally, I don’t know what to make of editorials such as this one in Ha’aretz, criticizing Olmert for not meeting with the private citizens who took it upon themselves to mediate between Israel and Syria. Though such efforts are laudable—indeed, I hoped they would lead somewhere—like Pelosi’s visit to Syria, they are no substitute for real diplomacy, which they may frustrate if they are mishandled.

Hope and fear. The best of times, the worst of times. In mathematical terms, I would say this is a saddle point—a point from which it is theoretically possible to travel upwards, but in which there is a constant danger of moving downwards.

In fact, movement in any direction seems likely to lead to more problems. In short, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in a delicate situation of dynamic instability.

The only response is to change the landscape—to refuse to play by these rules and to substitute others. That’s what the ideas I have been working on attempt to do—to put into place an entirely different kind of process, one that involves creating some shared institutions, one that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians were ready to attempt before (and which, admittedly, they may hardly be willing to adopt now).

At the moment, everyone is thinking in terms of the old equation. Israel must be convinced to give up land, and the Palestinians must somehow be constrained from supporting terror. The absence of talks, this line of thinking goes, can only be due to the unwillingness of the parties to talk. So the US begins to talk to members of the unity government, and the EU and other players start to talk to Hamas itself.

Norway was at it this week, meeting with the prime minister of Hamas. Israel promptly canceled its meeting with the Norwegian prime minister. And good job, too. How can any peace process move forwards if no one is willing to abide by a rule to shun terrorists? It would seem that Norway sees the diplomatic anomie as a chance to grab back some of its old Oslo glory. But I don’t see a chance of that now.

It is encouraging to see that some governments flatly reject boycotts: "The only way forward is through an inclusive approach of dialogue with and between Israelis and Palestinians. The government is working directly with the parties, and with our partners in the EU, for the revival of a credible peace process with the clear objective of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," said the Irish minister of arts, sport and tourism, John O’Donoghue.

But it is also discouraging to hear from fellow classmates that human rights law professors at Harvard are telling their classes that the arguments for and against the Human Rights Council’s treatment of Israel are that the same pressures successfully ended apartheid in South Africa, and that on the other hand it might be good, once in a while, to consider other issues.

There’s no real understanding of conflict resolution—of how human rights could play a positive role instead of a negative one, of what really brought the struggles in South Africa and Northern Ireland to an end, of the continuing challenge that terror and violence pose to the peace process. And to think of all those bright people, sitting in that class and listening to that silliness, wasting their time and talent.

How to get out of this saddle point? It will take leadership, and new ideas. Olmert’s days in office may be numbered. His replacement will likely be Bibi Netanyahu of Likud, or Ehud Barak of Labor. Who knows if either one will govern with greater success than they did before, or what a new American presidency in eighteen months time would make possible? Everything hangs on answers yet to emerge.


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