Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Negotiation is the only path to sustainable peace

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ABC "The Drum" - August 13, 2013

The idea that peace can successfully be imposed on the Middle East through an "impartial" body like the UN demonstrates a misunderstanding of history and diplomacy, writes Or Avi-Guy.

Reactions to the current talks between Israel and the Palestinians in Washington have been expectedly mixed. Many are sceptical that any real progress can be made, with some cynics even questioning the motivations and underlying intentions of the parties. Yet some are, for good reasons, cautiously optimistic.

Just as varied are the envisaged outcomes that commentators, analysts and different advocates promote. But not all of the words of advice and suggestions made by the global punditry are helpful, productive or even practical.

Eulalia Han's recent article on The Drum ("Australia's role in middle East peace talks ") lays down her so-called path to peace which is based on a "solution" imposed by an international group, and backed by the UN, that would impose sanctions to "encourage compliance" with the terms of a "just peace" based on previous UN resolutions and international law.

Han's article is an example of common misunderstandings and misrepresentations about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and the processes by which just and lasting peace must be achieved.

At first glance, it sounds plausible that if the Israelis and Palestinians are stuck in a stalemate and cannot resolve the conflict themselves, the international community should try to help them out.

However, any deeper examination reveals that this facile "solution" is based on false assumptions about the conflict itself, about the peace process to date, and more broadly about how peace is made.

Imposing peace does not work

While the role of third parties and honest brokers is at times crucial both during negotiations and in the implementation stages of peace accords, the terms of the agreement must be accepted by the parties to the conflict for two main and interlinked reasons - sustainability and justice.

For a sustainable lasting peace to be established, the peace agreement must be seen as legitimate and a just compromise by all parties. Otherwise, if the agreement is imposed, in the post-agreement transitional stages, conflict is more than likely to re-emerge as groups that were excluded from the peace-making process question its legitimacy.

Peace requires a sense of legitimacy and leaders who are genuinely committed to making a goodwill effort to meet the terms of agreements and overcome any continuing disagreements over interpretation or incidents - such as fringe violence - which threaten the reconciliation process. An imposed peace offers little prospect of either.

Moreover, anyone who thinks that peace can somehow be imposed by international bodies without the free agreements of the parties to it should review their basic diplomatic history. It is hard to think of even a single example of such an effort leading to a stable and lasting peace ending a long-running and fraught conflict.

Replacing the US as a broker is extremely unlikely to generate legitimacy

Even the UN's most loyal supporters and true believers in the role of the international community and its institutions in peace-making and peace-building would find it very hard to argue that the UN, or any UN-sponsored body, could serve as an "impartial" broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The politicisation and anti-Israel bias in UN agencies, mainly due to voting blocs and the numbers game whereby a majority of member states are aligned with the Arab states via the Non-Aligned Movement, means the UN is emphatically not seen as impartial by the Israeli side to the conflict - and with good reason. Moreover, the UN lacks the assets that the US brings to the process.

Exactly because of its long-lasting relationship with Israel, Washington is much more likely to broker talks in good faith and eventually instil a sense of security in both sides, assuring the parties that their primary interests would be protected under any future agreement.

The US relationship with Israel both provides Israel with security guarantees essential to the risks Israelis must take for peace, and also the leverage over Jerusalem to encourage such risk-taking.

On the Palestinian side, the US has the wherewithal and global clout to offer major economic incentives - both its own and by encouraging other players to participate. It can and has offered assistance to the Palestinians in democratic state-building, and can also offer, or arrange from other parties, for security measures to guarantee the security of a future Palestinian state - which will almost certainly have to be largely demilitarised.

The UN can offer none of these advantages. Indeed, to recognise this one has to only follow the history of past UN mediation attempts in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which have achieved little since Ralph Bunche's efforts in the immediate aftermath of the 1948-49 war.

Moreover, the assumption that the best mediator is one that is perceived as most completely impartial is, at best, heavily contested in the extensive academic literature of mediation. Many scholars emphasise that it is the power or leverage of the mediator that matters the most.

Meanwhile, while it is easy to criticise the US track record as a peace broker after three years without peace talks, this is extremely short-sighted. Firstly, the US successfully contributed to Middle East peace when they mediated peace accords between Israel and two of its neighbours, Egypt and Jordan. The US also offered mediation, essential clout, and economic and military support without which the Oslo Accords would likely have been impossible.

What can Australia do?

If Australia wishes to play a productive role in the peace process, it should verbally, materially and in the international arena support negotiations in good-faith between the parties as the only legitimate way to achieve a peace agreement.

It should continually reiterate its support for a negotiated two-state resolution, including mutual recognition of the national aspirations and self-determination of both Israelis and Palestinians, as the only way to sustainably and justly resolve the conflict.

It should offer, with like-minded countries, material support for a peace deal in the form of peacekeepers, economic and other forms of aid to help get a nascent Palestinian under way, and assistance in achieving the final resettlement of Palestinian refugees.

Finally, it should oppose all efforts to externalise the conflict to international bodies, as these detract from the only path that can lead to a resolution - direct negotiations between the parties.

Or Avi-Guy is a policy analyst at Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) and a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, researching post-ethnic conflict political reconciliation.

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