The unprecedented success of recent Arab mediation vis-a-vis Lebanon raises the question of whether Arab mediation is a viable route to take in other conflicts and matters of Arab concern.
The escalation in tensions that led to an outbreak of violent confrontations two months ago in Lebanon created widespread fear that another civil war might erupt. This brought Arab countries, first represented by the Arab League and later the leadership of Qatar, to exert pressure on the different Lebanese parties to sit down for reconciliation. This in turn led to agreement resulting in the creation of a new national unity government.
One of the main lessons from that experience is that since the Lebanese tensions were partly a reflection of the conflicting interests of Arab countries supporting different Lebanese parties, a solution was possible only when these competing governments were willing to reconcile. The fact that Syria and Saudi Arabia were part of the collective Arab effort was a significant and decisive factor in ensuring its success.
The question, however, is whether this successful experience can be developed into a model that can be applied to other similar conflicts or in dealing with matters of concern for the Arab world. The experience of another Arab mediation process, to end the internal Palestinian conflict, may be telling.
That process began with the Saudi-mediated Mecca agreement of spring 2007, which brought a national unity government to power that lasted less than 100 days. Since then there have been a number of attempts, all unsuccessful, by Arab countries to bridge Palestinian divisions.
Saudi Arabia made several low-profile attempts to reconcile Hamas and Fateh after the June 2007 confrontations that resulted in the ousting of security forces loyal to Fateh from the Gaza Strip. Later the Egyptian government had a go, also failing in spite of Cairo's success in mediating a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel.
The recent visit by President Mahmoud Abbas to Syria witnessed Syrian attempts at starting a dialogue between Hamas and Fateh. That attempt too had very little success, however, Bashar Assad, the Syrian president did accept Abbas' position that Arab countries including Syria should support Egyptian-led meditation efforts in the future. Indeed, for historic and geographic reasons Egypt appears to be the right party to mediate intra-Palestinian tensions, especially when they center on Gaza.
The reason Arabs have so far failed to achieve reconciliation among Palestinians is the very strong influence of non-Arab factors in the domestic Palestinian situation. These non-Arab actors are beyond the sphere of influence of Arab countries.
First among them is Israel, the most influential party as far as domestic Palestinian politics is concerned. As long as Israel is directly and indirectly encouraging divisions among Palestinians, mediation will remain a huge challenge. The other non-Arab influence is Iran and the current Iranian-American tensions, which have engendered a tense regional atmosphere that undermines efforts at reconciliation.
There are two other factors that limit the potential for successful collective Arab efforts. The first is the absence of democracy. This weakens popular pressure on Arab governments to serve the common interests of the Arab people. It's important here to note that western states have discouraged democratization in the Arab world over the last 50 years in order to keep Arab regimes loyal.
The other factor, in essence an outcome of the first, is the trend of radicalization and political Islamization that on the one hand creates justification for continuing to avoid democratization and on the other hand gives rise to new fears and tensions that further divide the Arabs and prevent successful collective efforts.
As long as Arab regimes are not subject to democratic elections and consequently public accountability, continued fragmentation and radicalization will undermine any serious ambitions for systematic mediation serving Arab interests and wielding Arab legitimacy.- Published 14/7/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons.org family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
A good thing in the right circumstances
by Yossi Alpher
One of Israel's central strategic concerns during the second intifada that began in late September 2000 was that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat would succeed in "internationalizing" the renewed Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Jerusalem feared lest Arafat somehow induce or compel neighboring Arab states to intervene military, thereby expanding the conflict and leveling the battlefield from the Palestinian standpoint. Israel invested a major diplomatic effort to ensure that Jordan and Egypt remain on the sidelines.
Now, ironically, this very "internationalization" (the term in fact denotes regionalization) is taking place and Israel is playing a major role in encouraging it. Israel relied on Egypt to broker a ceasefire with Hamas in Gaza and is now using Cairo's good offices to discuss a prisoner exchange. Cairo has also offered to mediate renewed intra-Palestinian discussions aimed at again creating a unity government that embraces both the West Bank and Gaza Strip, while Israel voices no protest at the prospect of Hamas rejoining such a government.
Meanwhile, Israeli-Syrian peace talks have helped pave the way for Damascus to upgrade its inter-Arab status and either compete or cooperate with Egypt in facilitating Palestinian unity talks. In the course of the past two years, both Saudi Arabia (the Mecca agreement) and Yemen (the Sana'a agreement) have played active albeit abortive roles in mediating among Palestinians. The distinct Arab-Arab dimension to this flowering of Arab mediation efforts also extends to areas that don't involve Israel. Thus, Qatar brokered the Lebanese reconciliation agreement that has now finally produced a new government in Beirut.
These developments reflect a number of significant strategic underpinnings and ramifications.
For one, Israel's decision to turn to Egypt for help in dealing with the Palestinians, which began with the Gaza withdrawal three years ago and the arrangements made then concerning the Rafah crossing, reflects Jerusalem's dilemma regarding the two militant Islamist non-state actors on its northern and Gaza borders. Neither Hizballah nor Hamas plays by the traditional inter-state rules; neither recognizes Israel or agrees to talk to it, thereby denying it a diplomatic solution; and both appear to welcome the prospect of Israel, in its exasperation, invoking military solutions and ending up confronting their terrorism as occupiers. This to some extent explains Israel's decision to solicit the deployment of UNIFIL II to southern Lebanon two years ago as well as its eagerness to discuss the fate of Hizballah with Syria and its current reliance on Egypt.
But Egypt does not have easy solutions, either. In view of its concerns regarding the Muslim Brotherhood at home and Islamist terrorism in Sinai, all of its efforts regarding Hamas and a Palestinian unity government seem designed to ensure that Gaza remains an Israeli problem and not an Egyptian problem--but not to solve the problem.
In this regard, the current Egyptian and possibly Syrian efforts hardly reflect some sort of Arab diplomatic renaissance. Neither Egypt nor Saudi Arabia, traditional leaders of the Arab world, has recently pulled its weight in inter-Arab affairs. No fewer than five Arab League members--Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Sudan and Somalia--are in a state of semi-disintegration or chaos, with Yemen threatening to join them. True, the state of affairs has improved recently in Iraq and Lebanon, but it is too early to judge whether these tactical successes will prevail or induce yet more violence.
Nor is it an accident that Qatar and Turkey--the one an immensely wealthy tribal emirate that can buy its way to successful mediation, the other a non-Arab regional power--have been the most successful facilitators and mediators recently rather than Egypt, Saudi Arabia or the Arab League. Incidentally, even Doha and Ankara's efforts have succeeded to no small extent because the global superpower, the United States with its huge diplomatic and military investment in the region, has receded to lame-duck status until 2009.
Despite all these drawbacks and weaknesses, the appearance of Cairo, Doha and even Damascus as regional mediators is potentially a good thing--for Israel, for the region and for the international community--as long as it fulfills two conditions. First, it must not evolve at the expense of Israel's vital interests, for example by strengthening Iran and its allies and proxies. In this respect, Doha's success with Lebanon is a mixed bag insofar as it stabilizes Lebanon but strengthens Hizballah. And second, once a more rational and constructive American administration takes over in Washington, room will have to be made for its renewed and welcome efforts in the region.- Published 14/7/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Who wants a solution?
by Ali Jarbawi
Why is it that all Arab initiatives to bring about dialogue between Fateh and Hamas have failed to produce the intended result? Why is it that even Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' own initiative failed to yield what was expected of it? Is it because behind all the sweet public announcements by Hamas and Fateh about their "readiness to talk" lies a fundamental lack of interest? Or is it because Arab intervention has not been as serious as it should be if it is to replicate the Arab-sponsored Doha mediation between the Lebanese political factions? Is it actually because of an Israeli-American veto on any rapprochement between Fateh and Hamas that would lead once again to the inclusion of the latter in the Palestinian Authority without it unequivocally accepting the conditions laid down by the Quartet?
It would seem that a combination of these three explanations contributes to continued stagnation on the Palestinian scene. Beginning from the end, there is indeed an Israeli-American veto that plays a significant role in influencing the PA and many Arab capitals. It is rather obvious that Israel wants to impose a settlement on the Palestinians. For Israel the real issue is not the Gaza Strip, but East Jerusalem and the West Bank of which it wants to annex a good portion. In line with its policy of "divide and conquer", Israel's interest is best served by a deepening of the internal Palestinian rift. It believes that Abbas (Abu Mazen) is weak, and his party, Fateh, is in a state of disarray. This means Israel can continue negotiating with Abu Mazen while creating facts on the ground through its settlement policy. Israel does not actually care if Hamas is content ruling Gaza; rather it might prefer it as long as a truce holds and rockets are not fired at Israeli towns. Israel might even be entertaining the idea that Hamas is more amenable than Abu Mazen and Fateh to accept a future "interim solution" with a "temporary Palestinian state". The US administration will go along with whatever Israel decides it wants.
With respect to the two Palestinian parties, neither seems to have any interest in compromise. Rather, both want the other to bow to their conditions. Abu Mazen is slowly asphyxiating from the prolonged negotiations with successive Israeli governments that have yielded no other result than the continued expansion of settlements on occupied Palestinian land. Because his only strategic option is to reach a political settlement through negotiations, Abu Mazen's hopes rest with the Americans and Israelis. Thus, not to upset these sources of hope, any dialogue he might undertake with Hamas can not produce tangible results unless Hamas accepts the Israeli-American conditions, a.k.a. the Quartet conditions. Hamas, on the other hand, is also not in a hurry to reach a compromise with Abu Mazen, unless its conditions are accepted in whole. Within the rank and file of Hamas there is a widespread belief that things are going to fall their way since the negotiations with Israel will not produce even the minimal conditions acceptable to the Palestinian people. Meanwhile, Hamas will use the time and the truce, if it holds, to strengthen its hold over Gaza. When 2008 ends, Hamas will be in a better bargaining position, not only with Abu Mazen, but with Israel.
With the above in mind, it should be obvious why Arab mediation in domestic Palestinian affairs is being kept on the back burner. Apart from American influence, no Arab capital wants a repeat of the Mecca agreement. If the Palestinians cannot respect the wishes and good offices of the Saudis, with all their leverage, and uphold an agreement reached in the holiest Islamic site, would they respect it if reached elsewhere? What has changed to convince any Arab capital to put its weight behind a new mediation attempt?
The only current concern for Cairo, which has its hands tied by its good relations with Washington, is not to mend fences between Palestinians but rather to save itself from the embarrassment caused by the continued closure of the Rafah crossing that has left the Gaza Strip suffering a severe siege. The Egyptian priority now is to solidify the truce between Hamas and Israel in order to find a solution to the siege through which the Rafah crossing can start operating again. The Egyptians do not want a repeat of the scenes witnessed in late January when Gazans stormed the border, because Cairo does not want to be forced to shoot at Palestinians should this happen again.
Damascus is busy trying to mend fences with the international community, more specifically with the US and France. Syria is consumed by three key strategic issues, and Hamas is not one of them. First, the Syrians are extremely keen to spare their regime the international investigation into the murder of Rafiq al-Hariri. Second, Damascus wants to get its Golan Heights back from Israel. And third, Syria wants to retain its influence in Lebanon. Therefore, neither Hamas nor even Iran are strategic issues for the Syrians, who are not going to play an active role in Palestinian affairs. Nor will they hinder any progress on that front. They will simply leave events to take their own course.
If the Saudis, Egyptians and Syrians (and also Jordanians) are not actively involved in serious meditation to bring an end to the Palestinian political rift, then it is left to the Arab League to promote a dialogue. This, however, is hardly likely to produce any results.- Published 14/7/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Ali Jarbawi is professor of political science at Birzeit University.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Back to constructive chaos
by Zvi Bar'el
A miracle happened. Egypt--not the United States, a European state or an international organization, let alone the Arab League--weaved a negotiated agreement between Israel and Hamas.
What has changed?
In January 2008, thousands of Palestinians toppled the border wall that separates Gaza from Egypt. Hundreds of thousands of Gaza Strip inhabitants crossed the border to Egypt in search of basic supplies. Egypt was alarmed, fearing that the flood of people, among them members of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and armed gangs, could reach Cairo. Egypt could no longer afford to stick to its routine call for restraint or merely to reprimand Israel for its policies. Egypt found itself at war with the Palestinians and with its own public (and the Arab media) that criticized the Egyptian president for cooperating with Israel in implementing its sanctions policy.
Egypt had to respond swiftly. It pulled together two threads, mediating between Hamas and Israel over the exchange of Palestinian prisoners for the kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and formulating together with Hamas and Israel the "tahdiyeh" (ceasefire) agreement. Thus Egypt became a partner in a solution rather than just a sponsor.
The chaotic political arena in Israel recently made room for another "private" mediator. Turkey has always been keen to play a role in mitigating Middle East conflicts. Although a strategic partner of Israel and a friendly neighbor of Syria (and Iran), Turkey was never awarded the status of mediator or facilitator and was pushed aside by the parties in the region when it came to peace negotiations. Suddenly, Turkey is recovering lost glory. When the Israeli prime minister is urgently searching for a political achievement to save him from political disaster and when Syria is trying to regain its political status in the Arab world and reestablish its connections with the United States, even Turkey is a good channel.
These are not the only examples of regionally initiated mediations. Recently, direct talks between Arabs states and the Iraqi government have brought Arab leaders to reconsider their stand toward Baghdad.
Two months ago in Lebanon, more than 80 people died nationwide and over 200 were wounded after Hizballah militants and their allies overran streets in the capital Beirut and clashed with government supporters. The country was on the verge of civil war. Almost two years of political stalemate, failed negotiations between the Hizballah-led opposition and the paralyzed government and fruitless mediation attempts by France, the Arab League and enthusiastic Arab leaders paved the road to the abyss. But like in Gaza, chaos at last ushered in negotiations.
Qatar, a close friend of Syria and a renewed friend of Saudi Arabia, a small state that practices independent policies in the Middle East, offered its services. With the blessings of Syrian President Bashar Assad--who wishes to control Lebanese politics but understands that a civil war in Lebanon could backfire on Syria and badly affect its economy--an acceptable agreement was drafted in Doha. Lebanon has a new president and a new government. So far, civil war has been averted.
Interestingly, in all three cases of locally initiated negotiations the US was not a partner; indeed, it was generally antagonistic. President George W. Bush does not like Israeli-Syrian negotiations and does not understand why there should be talks with a terror organization called Hamas. In spite of his administration's praise for the Doha agreement, Washington cannot be happy with what appear to be Hizballah and Syrian gains in Lebanon.
Yet even without US support or participation, local initiatives by regional players are no longer looked upon as empty gestures. In fact, regional states that have a vested interest in solving a conflict or are directly intimidated by the absence of a solution can be useful and efficient negotiators or mediators. It is not so much that these players are wiser or better equipped to mediate than in the past. Rather, it is probably the understanding that big powers in general and the US in particular, while having the ability to launch war, have limited clout when it comes to solving conflicts. Secondly, small scale, locally confined conflicts are perceived now to be more dangerous than the big conflict between Israel and the Arab states. Yet in spite of their potential danger, these limited conflicts are viewed as "internal" problems that do not demand international intervention.
A case in point is the effort being made by Egypt and Syria to generate talks between Hamas and Fateh. The lethal clash between the two organizations is pivotal not only in preventing the formation of a unity government that can run Palestinian affairs; it is also a major obstacle to the peace process. Indeed, one cannot imagine two separate solutions, one for Gaza and the other for the West Bank and Jerusalem. Yet this conflict does not appear on either the Israeli or the American radar. Only Arab leaders and the Palestinian rivals themselves comprehend the scope of the danger projected by that "internal conflict" and probably only they are able to solve it.
Thus the Arab states appear to be changing course and are no longer clinging to their traditional bystander position. Rather, they are now undertaking to try and solve conflicts that were considered unsolvable without a non-Arab, mainly American, mediator. Israel and its Arab and Palestinian counterparts should take advantage of this.- Published 14/7/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Dr. Zvi Bar'el is the Middle Eastern affairs analyst for Haaretz daily.
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Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.