Yitzhak Rabin’s statement of intent on the lawn of the White House was followed by the famously symbolic handshake with Yasser Arafat, Chairman of the Palastinian Authority (PA). It heralded the possibility of a new dawn in the Middle East, one of peace, diplomacy and understanding – yet nine years later and the Middle East is still a hot bed of violence, mistrust and despair. The second infitada shows no sign of abating, suicide bombings, military occupation, claims and counter claims are the norm. What makes this conflict so difficult to understand and seemingly impossible to solve? This essay will seek to discover and explain the complex dynamics of the conflict, while arguing peace in the near term is impossible. However it will offer hope for the future and make it clear peace is not unachievable in the long term and thus not an illusion.
Pope John Paul II once said there were only two possible solutions to the conflict: Realistic, which would involve divine intervention or Miraculous, which would involve a voluntary agreement between both parties. This seemingly negative view from the pontiff, where divine intervention is more likely than agreement has echoed the feelings of many people who have grappled with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We must remember when analysing the dynamics, the value of and equally problem created by opinion. Opinion adds to the complexity of the issues because someone is always going to feel cheated, bereaved, and unhappy with whatever happens in the Middle East. For example the opinion of Yasser Arafat may not be shared by Hamas. We must therefore take in to account that the complex dynamics mentioned here after are accounted for on the most basic levels of analysis, to try and summarise everyone’s views, even the majority would be fruitless, impossible and indeed naï¿½ve. After all, whether the solution to the crisis be economic, military or diplomatic peace, things in the Middle East are never static, the situation is fluid and thus the interrelated dynamics which effect it are equally so.
Religion has been a centre of campaign throughout history and indeed is the biggest dynamic of this conflict. Religious Ideology whether it be sprouted by Ultra Orthodox Jews or Suicide Bombers has often been given as the first excuse for their actions. Suicide Bombers have often declared their love of Allah before committing their acts and it is crucial we see the link between say some Islamic ideology, for example bombers becoming martyrs and gaining virgins in heaven and the subsequent actions in this conflict. Of course this is seen only on the religious extremes, but its effect has been considerable. Indeed one the most disturbing photographs to emerge in recent times was a small child wearing suicide bomber clothing.
Further more on the Israel side you have the firm belief by the majority of the 4.5 million Jews of “Zionism.” Zionism was a response to the European challenges, world war two, a belief that the only way Jews would be safe would be to rule themselves. Kirsten Schulze puts together a fine picture of the complex religious dynamics. “Zionism as with Arab Nationalism embarked upon a course of parallel development in the 19th century” this development has lead in the 20th century to a clash. Both are based on emancipation and self-determination. The concepts of identity, nationhood, history that both Zionism and Arab nationalism provoke has thus caused inevitable clashes. It seems that as long as both sides use religion as both a reason and excuse for their seemingly non-negotiable positions, the situation is unsolvable. However Sri Lanka and Northern Ireland can offer hope. They are now generally at peace, suppressing, if not eradicating the religious divides their conflicts were over. Thus we must look at other dynamics to the issue.
Religious Heritage leads on to the importance of land in the whole conflict. It is the land issue that was the initial root cause of tension as Jews came to what is now Israel in ever increasing numbers and simply took land from the Palestinians who lived there. Both sides use religious documents to justify their settlement or right to settle. Whether it be former tribes like the Hebrews or the Israelites or historically the land of the Arabs it has been the borne of contention. The Palestinians in general have painfully accepted they will never gain all the land back, but Jewish Settlements on the West Bank, Gazer Strip and other contested areas has led to accusations of greed and spite against the Israelis. But geopolitics is particularly important in the whole complexity of the conflict. The Israelis have in general got the “surrounded” mentality, the belief they are the last outpost of democracy surrounded by people who simply would rather see them gone. This mentality is in part justified; it is painfully true each nation around Israel would find life easier if it simply was not there. On the other side the Palestinians generally feel victimised as the Israelis continue their military actions and thus powerless to stop it without terrorism.
Resources and economic viability are other dynamics to the conflict that is largely omitted from basic analysis. Israel as an actual geographic area (8,019 sq miles) is very resource poor, mainly relying on long term contracts with say the UK for oil. This lack of any viable natural resource has led them to seek both land and means to gain these resources and the economic security they bring, including drawing salt from the Dead Sea to the anger of many. Why is this of any significance within the conflict is complex. It is because resources have been used as an excuse by both sides as to why they want particular areas of land or equally to justify the idea that they are fighting for survival and need to be economically viable. Recently for example, the Israelis have had diplomatic rows with Lebanon over drawing water from the Wazi River, while in the past the Arab countries have sought to limit Israel’s potential to operate with trade blocks. Indeed it is as the gateway to the “black gold,” oil that has provoked the USA and other outside parties to take a special interest in Israel and confirm as the USA did in 2000, trade deals with the Jewish State.
Jimmy Carter once said, “The simple truth is that one of the most cherished, complicated, frustrating, challenging and least understood of our nation’s relationships is with Israel.” The US interest in the Middle East, can at best be described as patchy. They are undoubtedly the only true outside influence that could change the path of the Israelis and the Palestinians and it is for this reason their interest in the area and its effects must not be discounted from the complex interrelating dynamics of the conflict. The US interest spreads from a few core aims – to curb Arab radicalism and preserve democratic government, now even more important post September 11th; to maintain the openness of the gateway Israel provides to two thirds of the world’s oil supplies and finally ideological commitment to the Zionist Project. The US government and population admire both the Israeli pioneering spirit and their use of democracy in a generally undemocratic region.
Equally the Jewish vote in the USA commands respect enforced by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), one of the most powerful and well-organised lobby organisations in the USA. The Jewish Lobby simply cannot be ignored. This complex relationship is maintained with Israeli loyalty being replicated and accompanied with a yearly grant of 3 billion dollars from the USA. Put simply, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, if the Americans are not listened to, it is likely know one else will be. Although Ariel Sharon has at times seemed to ignore US pleas to stop Army incursions, it is still George W. Bush whose phone calls metaphorically he will take first. Equally on the Palestinian side, the Americans may not be well liked, seen by some as an anti-Muslim pariah, but they are the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and for this reason they hold great stock with Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority.
The continuation of the conflict must be in some part blamed on the inability of the UN and other powers to wield any significant influence on either side especially the Israelis. Thus the International Communities failings become linked however indirectly, with the dynamics of the conflict. Envoys from the European Union and Russia are commonplace in the Middle East but their lack of credibility; with the Israelis in particular give them little chance of success. Equally one must not forget the Arab league and the neighbours, which surround Israel and the Palestinian territories. Whether there effect is positive or negative they certainly have influence in the situation, after all it is these countries, such as Syria Israel has fought wars with to defend or expand its land. Equally countries like Jordan must take in to account the reactions of their large Palestinian population if conflict rages on.
Meanwhile the UN, the supposed bastion of world security is struggling to find a common voice and role. Avi Shlaim claims, “the world organisation was incapable of settling one of the most persistent and dangerous conflicts of modern times.” It is clear the UN has very little bearing on Israel at least. Both sides often go to the UN for resolutions, winning some, but both sides generally treat the UN as a fair weather friend and propaganda tool. This is perhaps down to the UN’s structural problems; the Palestinians have no vote in the UN, giving them an alienated precondition. While the Israelis have little desire to listen to an organisation which often votes in large numbers against its so called “defensive” incursions. The UN needs to some how leave behind its credibility problem with regards to the Middle East in a bid to have a lasting influence. A role supplying troops to govern contested sites has been talked about and although dismissed by Israel, is one policy it could consider.
Within a conflict it is the individual who has the clearest ability to change the picture, adjust the dynamics. Traditionally the conflict has been dominated by those who are unwilling to try for peace, or have been affected by every politician’s nemesis – public opinion. We must look at the political workings of the two sides to really see the chances of peace. Israel electorally is plagued by a proportional system that makes government by coalition not a possibility but the norm.
This is not an particular critique of this system of election and thus democracy, but is a point that coalition governments in a climate of conflict has lead quite often to new Prime Ministers coming and going and thus the continuity factor lacking. For example Ehud Barak, who offered Arafat a compromising deal, was replaced after this failed with the “hawk” Ariel Sharon, a total different set of ideas came in to the conflict, the politics had changed in weeks and thus the conflict dynamics had shifted. On the Palestinian side continuity politically can no longer be guaranteed. Yasser Arafat presides over a split and failing Palestine Authority and has to face the rivals of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Equally as of June 2002 the USA have roundly isolated Arafat calling for a new Palestinian leader. This is unlikely, but Arafat’s constant need to be seen internationally as a man of peace, domestically as a man for the people and politically as the Palestinian spearhead has a clear and obvious influence on the conflict dynamics.
Carl Schmitt would say that war is inevitable and thus must be fought as a genuine part of foreign policy. True Neo-realists would agree and would perhaps state the conflict in the Middle East was a prime example of states and/or people maximising their situation. This in itself is too simplistic; we are not looking at the dynamics of a state versus state situation. The Israel-Palestinian conflict more over, is one where survival, respect for history and centralising religion are key. Indeed if we take the strict realist viewpoint any hope for the Middle East seems lost. If man naturally makes war, then the conflict will go on. However we have seen through past examples the Middle East could be more peaceful, take the Oslo Accords of 1993, which heralded the Rabin ~ Arafat handshake. Here both sides looked at each other’s point of view and tried compromise. As Shlaim rightly points out the Oslo Accords broke an Arab taboo, that there could be no deals with the Israelis. It is cultural polarisation that permeates every dynamic of the conflict. Whether it be a lack of understanding about each other’s culture or not, what is clear is that both sides too often try to emphasise their differences while forgetting their far more numerous similarities.
Yitzhak Rabin’s hopes back in 1993 have not been extinguished and must not be allowed to. The Israeli – Palestinian conflict has clearly waged for too long, too many have suffered. We have seen the complex interrelating dynamics of easily the most vicious circle of violence in the world today. These dynamics have shown us that if there is ever to be peace many things will have to fall in to line, each side will have to give that little bit more leeway and there needs at the root of all this cultural understanding a belief in a global community. The USA and the UN are the two outside players with the greatest ability and potential to help and they must not betray this responsibility, if they do, peace will be unattainable. The current tensions set against the possibility of war against Iraq, the war on terrorism and Yasser Arafat’s lack of US support, means peace in the near term, however long that is defined, is sadly impossible. But it is not a long-term illusion. On the lawn of the White House something special did happen which still has not been lost. The ability of man to forgive, understand and change. International relations has too often been the study of conflicts, we can only hope in the next 20 years it can be the study of attaining seemingly unattainable peace.