Grasping the Nettle

Grasping the Nettle

Mini Teaser: As strange as it may seem, now is the best time to push for peace in the Middle East.

by Author(s): John C. Hulsman

Of course, this plan leaves plenty of unanswered questions: Can Hamas be prodded into categorically accepting Israel's right to exist? Will the rest of the Arab world-not to mention Iran-accept such a settlement? Can Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) prove a stabilizing influence on the hotheads surrounding him, or will he remain well-meaning but ineffectual? On the Israeli side, can a newly threatened Israel be persuaded to ignore the siren song of unilateralism? Will the policy of assassinating senior Palestinian leaders be quietly shelved? After the Lebanon disaster, will the Israeli people avoid the lure of their own rejectionist right, led by Netanyahu? Can settlers in the West Bank be politically handled by any sitting Israeli government? Can a leader of unimpeachable stature, such as Rabin and Sharon in their own ways, be found to make the concessions necessary to secure Israel's future?

All these questions are very hard to answer, and the response could well be "no" to most of them. This does not mean that the effort to reach a settlement should be abandoned. A peace deal founded on the ethical realist principles discussed here stands at least a chance of acceptance. Moreover, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its ramifications are so dangerous for vital U.S. and European interests in the struggle against terrorism that elementary patriotism simply demands a determined effort to end this conflict.  One good thing about the present disastrous state of the region is that things could hardly be worse. It should therefore be obvious that the United States must try again, and try differently.

Let's consider some of the "hard stuff" in light of an ethical realist approach to solving this conflict. One aspect of a lasting settlement which has never been discussed in necessary detail is that of compensation to Palestinian refugees and their descendants in return for giving up their legal right to return to their former homes-a matter of immense emotional and moral importance to Palestinians, but naturally completely unacceptable to most Israelis. Properly addressed, this can become a way not only of helping solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but of bringing economic and social development to the entire region.

So the Palestinian refugees and their descendants must be guaranteed compensation for their lost land and property at a level set by a neutral international tribunal, and to an extent that will not only allow them to create prosperous and contented lives, but will also transform the economic prospects of the countries where they live: Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and, of course, the Palestinian territories. Given the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the struggle against terrorism, and the centrality of that struggle to American and European security, the sums made available should be comparable to those provided by the United States to Europe and East Asia during the first decades of the Cold War.

The Europeans should pay the overwhelming share of this compensation. They should commit themselves to this in advance, as an essential part of bringing about a settlement. If they object, they should be harshly and publicly reminded of Europe's historical responsibility for anti-Semitism, and therefore indirectly for the creation of the state of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The U.S. Congress will doubtless compensate Israel for the withdrawal of West Bank settlements. If peace is to be achieved, someone also has to fully compensate the Palestinians-and that can only be the Europeans.

The European Union's role in a settlement can also be vital in other ways, and can be used not only to help bring Middle East peace but to strengthen transatlantic relations.  This involves the critical interlinked issues of long-term security and identity. For an agreement to work, both sides must feel that there are real external guarantees for their future security. Historically, Israel is suspicious of the United Nations, for the obvious reason that over the years the General Assembly has been remarkably tone-deaf about Israel's concerns or even existence. Weak un forces can also guarantee Israel very little.

On the other hand, given their present daily lack of security, many Palestinians feel they have nothing to lose by backing extremists and terrorist attacks. Only the United States, in league with its European allies as well countries in the region such as Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, can provide the military, economic and diplomatic guarantees necessary to reassure both sides.

Never has more true Euro-Atlantic cooperation been needed than over this issue. The Israelis will never agree to a final settlement without the Americans being in the room, just as the Palestinians will never agree to such a deal without European involvement. Too often transatlantic differences over Israel and the peace process have been seen as an insolvably divisive issue imperiling the transatlantic relationship; the reality is that there is a real complementarity here, if only the Americans and Europeans can coordinate a common approach to the crisis based on both ethics and realism.

As part of the negotiating process, the European Union should formally promise Israel and the Palestinian Authority that if they sign an internationally recognized settlement, they will be accepted into the EU accession process (something which Israel already deserves if its economy alone were at issue). U.S. pressure on the EU for this should be considerably stronger even than that exerted over the issue of Turkey's EU membership.

Neither the EU's Barcelona Process (aimed at some kind of very gradual and limited re-integration of the two shores of the Mediterranean) nor any other presently existing treaty or organization offer chances of future aid and security guarantees sufficient to move Israelis and Palestinians out of their present positions. Such aid and guarantees can only be provided in the long run by the two leading Western organizations, the European Union and NATO. The EU represents economic, social and political integration into the West. NATO's Article V guarantee represents long-term military security.

Of course, actual accession will depend on reforms which are in any case in the interests of the United States, the international community and these countries themselves to introduce. Above all, the Israelis must grant full equality of citizenship to the Palestinian Arab minority within Israel, and the Palestinians must move to create a genuine modern democratic state-ending their present rampant levels of corruption, maladministration, arbitrary rule and political violence. Just as in Turkey, gradual integration into the EU would be the best way in the long-term for moving Palestinian Islamists towards democracy and pluralism. It is essential that both states-not just the Israelis-be accepted as possible candidates for membership, because, like it or not, even after a settlement they are going to remain closely intertwined.

In the Balkans, it is generally recognized that the only long-term hope of resolving the frozen ethnic conflicts of the region lies in the integration of that region into the eu and nato. The prospect of membership in these organizations played a key role in preventing national conflicts in the Baltic states and elsewhere. There is no reason in principle why this could not be the case in Israel and Palestine as well.

Accession to the EU would in a sense take both countries out of the Middle East. Especially if combined with nato membership, it would give the Israelis tremendous added security in terms of their identity and their economy. It would turn the Palestinians from an oppressed foster child of the Muslim world (and a pretty shamefully and hypocritically treated one at that, as far as the behavior of many Muslim governments towards the Palestinians is concerned) into the richest and most prestigious of all the Arabs, and ambassadors of the Muslim world in the West. This, by the way, is a role to which the Palestinians are already entitled, since, together with the Lebanese, they are by far the best educated and most economically dynamic of all the Arab peoples, with the strongest intellectual and cultural presence in the West. From the European side, it would "complete" the integration of the eastern Mediterranean basin in political and economic terms-as set out in several EU documents and plans.

NATO responsibility for securing borders would not begin until the comprehensive agreement was in place. NATO troops would be sent to help guarantee such an agreement, not to help create one. Too often, as in the present case in Lebanon, peacekeepers are offered up on the altar of unresolved conflicts to be at best humiliated, and at worst killed; nato forces, therefore, must not be sent into the region until there is a genuine peace to keep, complete with the formal commitment of the United States, UN, EU, Contact Group and major Arab states to adhere to such an agreement. But whatever the specific details of a final diplomatic outcome, a Western military presence will be necessary to underwrite the agreement. For once though, this is a use of our troops that can be explained to the folks back home, and in terms of the American national interest.

This may seem to many readers an ethical but hopelessly unrealistic approach. But if as has so often been argued by both Republicans and Democrats, and by certain European leaders like Tony Blair, the War on Terror really is equivalent in strategic and moral importance to the Cold War, then it demands a similar level both of commitment and imagination on the part of the leaders of the West.

Essay Types: Essay