Barack Obama meets with Mahmoud Abbas in the Oval Office (White House photo)

Obama’s Chance To Renew Middle East Peace Process – OpEd

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By Doron Pely

President Barack Obama’s upcoming trip to the Middle East presents an opportunity to move the dormant Palestinian-Israeli peace process forward. If he’s serious about making progress, the president should take into account how dispute resolution works in the Arab and Muslim world and note how little resemblance it bears to the West’s approaches to resolving conflicts. Understanding the sides’ different cultural perspectives on key aspects of negotiations will be crucial to creating a successful peace bid.

Rather than face-to-face negotiations with the Israelis, where a third party would serve mainly as a mediator, the Palestinians—in keeping with the Arab tradition of resolving disputes via third-party arbitration—call for a strong third-party intervener who will use a mix of mediation and arbitration tools to propel—and, when necessary, compel—both sides to reach across major areas of difference.

Palestinian leaders have beseeched President Obama to assume this “super intervener” role, urging him to personally kickstart and facilitate negotiations. This role would also involve articulating the Palestinian position to Israeli leaders and the Israeli position to Palestinians.

Israeli leaders, on the other hand, want direct negotiations without any arbitrative elements — a classic Western-style mediation mode. The Israelis fear, and even resent, a strong role for the United States (or Europe or both). To them, such a posture signifies an opening to a dictated process, one that would trample their perceived independence and sovereignty.

If there is one indisputable fact about the Palestinian-Israeli peace effort thus far, it is that it has been a failure. Conferences, direct negotiations, and shuttle diplomacy have all been tried over the past four decades, and none have produced results.

It is therefore unrealistic to expect progress using the same tools that have proven impractical so far. Achieving a different outcome will require using a different approach. The time may well have come to try the Muslim/Arab model. President Obama should consider accepting the Palestinians’ plea to become personally involved in the peace process as the third-party intervener, effectively becoming the leader and manager of the effort.

Characteristics of Direct Intervention

If the Palestinian preference for a mixed mediated/arbitrated process gains traction, and if Obama takes on the challenge — two enormous “ifs” — what will the actual process look like?

At first, Obama will meet separately with the each of the two parties and try to move them toward agreement on various areas of contention. This will involve presenting to each side the advantages of proposed concessions, aggressively highlighting the complications that would emanate from failure to compromise, and re-framing perspectives and narratives to help the sides move closer to each other.

Up to this point in the process, the approach resembles the “shuttle diplomacy” method that has failed in the past. However, in this new mode of action, when things get stuck, the process will move to an arbitration phase in which the intervener takes on a much stronger role. Under these conditions, the intervener will tell the sides what should take place, and will work with them on ways to present the necessary (if unpalatable) concessions to their constituencies. If they refuse, the intervener can use the implied threat of sanctions or penalties until they come back to the table.

This dual mediator/arbitrator role is a familiar one in traditional Arab dispute resolution and has been used successfully to resolve disputes throughout the region. The advantage of this model is that when things truly get stuck, the intervener can carry the sides across what appear to be unbridgeable divides, getting them to live with concessions that they would not otherwise have been able to accept.

In this scenario, all parties use the intervener’s high stature as a “shelter” behind which they can take cover. That is, when they explain the concessions to their constituencies, they can say: “We would not have done it if it were up to us. But we could not refuse the request of such a highly esteemed and powerful intervener.” The clear implication would be that if the parties were to refuse the deal, the negative ramifications for the intervener, the disputants, and the surrounding communities would be tremendous. The very unacceptability of a refusal to accommodate is what could enable the process to move forward.

Why Would the Parties Accept Mediation/Arbitration?

Will the Palestinians and Israelis accept a mediated/arbitrated process? They might under the right circumstances, but only if the intervener is the president of the United States, and only if he has the explicit backing of the international community, including the rest of the Quartet (the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia) as well as the Arab League. This may appear to be a tall order, but examining the positions of the primary actors reveals that there is a chance they will all endorse and support such a move.

For their part, the Palestinians understand that this is the last chance for them to gain independence and start moving toward normalcy under the supportive umbrella of the world’s most powerful leaders and countries.

Similarly, current Israeli leaders understand the mess they’re in. But a confluence of demographic, historical, psychological, and economic trends precludes Israel from moving ahead on its own steam in a constructive direction. The muddled position of Israeli leaders is the result of complex and sometimes conflicting sentiments.

These include a strong fear of losing a military conflagration with their Arab neighbors, an equally paralyzing fear of losing their Jewish majority in Israel, and a similarly powerful fear of a Jew-on-Jew civil war if they try to evacuate settlements in the West Bank. Israel’s leadership is also aware of the growing international impatience with Israel. This is particularly true in Europe, where anti-Israel sympathies may culminate in a European Union move to brand Israel an apartheid state and turn it into a pariah. Given this combination of dynamics and concerns, it is perhaps not surprising that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a master conflict-avoider, has thus far chosen the path of least resistance –- that is, doing nothing for as long as possible.

Yet even as Israel’s leaders are stuck, the Israeli population does seek a way out. Most Israelis understand (though they may be loath to admit it) that the “direct” negotiations track has played itself out. More importantly, most Israelis also realize that Israel is dependent on the United States and Europe for its survival and successful development. Moreover, most Israelis comprehend that the status quo is neither sustainable nor to their advantage in the medium to long term. This is why a solid majority of Israelis consistently supports a two-state solution.

Some may ask: Why should Obama accommodate the Palestinian request for a mixed mediation/arbitration process and not the Israeli preference for a face-to-face mediated approach? The reason is that the mediation option has already failed, several times. For example, President Clinton, in his unsuccessful attempt to bring the sides to an agreement, pushed hard, but never crossed the line from mediation to arbitration.

There is, moreover, a precedent for the mediation/arbitration approach succeeding: President Carter’s role during the Camp David negotiations with Egypt and Israel. When direct negotiations showed no signs of leading to an agreement, Carter took on a directly interventionist role, becoming, in the words of a PBS documentary, “so involved in the discussions that he drafted in his own hand what became the treaty on the Sinai.” At one moment, when things got especially rough, and Egyptian President Sadat was planning to leave Camp David, President Carter adopted a patently coercive posture: “Carter went to Sadat’s cabin and told him, ‘Our friendship is over. You promised me that you would stay at Camp David as long as I was willing to negotiate… I consider this a serious blow… to the relationship between Egypt and the United States.’ Sadat agreed to stay.” Carter’s combination of mediation and arbitration at Camp David, which succeeded in producing an accord, could provide valuable lessons for President Obama going forward.

If President Obama chooses to take on the mediator/arbitrator role, he will have to learn some new skills. These include aggressive coercion (for example, using threats and painting apocalyptic scenarios of a post-failure future), leading rather than facilitating, and re-framing issues. He will also need to put the full influence and weight of the United States behind the process. To do that, Obama will have to commit himself wholeheartedly to seeing this effort through the multiple crises that will no doubt occur during the process.

If Obama chooses to continue pushing the Middle East conflict resolution process along the old tracks, the effort will surely degenerate into an all too familiar sequence of futile maneuvers and clichés. By the time a new president moves into the White House, the prospect of a two-state solution will have become but a fading illusion.

True, the proposed path is risky. But under certain circumstances it stands a chance. It is risky because failure will leave the disputants, indeed the entire world community, with a sense of having run out of options. Moreover, failure will be attributed to President Obama, and will have an impact on the standing of the United States throughout the world. But it is exactly the looming threat of an unacceptable failure that may compel the parties (particularly the American mediator/arbitrator) to do what it takes to make the process work. There is no guarantee such a move will succeed, but a chance of success—even a slim chance—is far better than the certain defeat of the same old process.

Doron Pely is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus, a PhD candidate at Kings College London, and the executive director of the Sulha Research Center in Shefar’am Israel. His research focuses on Muslim dispute resolution.

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