We have become so committed to the fluid and malleable sense of history that the existence of facts or truth has lost its moorings and, more than that, you are considered unreconstructed if you believe in such things. This is especially true in academia where the “social construction of reality” rules the day. History is considered to be the result of myths, subjective narratives, flawed memory, social construction, or written by the victors with all of their self-serving perspective.
I’m thinking in particular about the Klinghoffer Opera currently being staged at the Metropolitan in New York. This is a controversial opera by John Adams called “The Death of Klinghoffer” which has generated protests in New York and demonstrations in front of the Met. These protesters take serious objection to the portrayal of the Palestinian terrorists who killed Leon Klinghoffer on the cruise ship Achilles Lauro. Note: I have not seen the Klinghoffer Opera but I’m not writing about it as if I had. You can read some background on the controversy here.
Very briefly, in 1985 Palestinian terrorists hijacked the cruise ship Achilles Lauro and singled out Jewish passengers. One passenger was a wheelchair bound Jew by the name of Leon Klinghoffer. The terrorists shot Klinghoffer in the head and threw him and his wheelchair overboard. It has always been considered a vicious act of murder, terrorism, and anti-Semitism.
The opera “The Death of Klinghoffer first appeared in 1991 and it was accused of sanctioning blatant murder and rationalizing and legitimizing the terrorism that took place on the Achilles Lauro. The play apparently was sympathetic or at least asked the audience to consider its sympathies for the Palestinians. The opera has since been edited with scenes removed and is being re-staged at the Metropolitan Opera. John Adams, the composer of the opera, and the librettist Alice Goodman have been accused of portraying false moral equivalence between the historical plight of Jews and that of the Palestinians. Adams talks about his work in the opera here.
The Klinghoffer daughters stated that the opera “perverts the terrorist murder of our father and attempts to romanticize, rationalize, legitimize and explain it. The political approach of the composer and librettist is evident with the opera’s disingenuous and dangerous juxtaposition of the plight of the Palestinian people with the coldblooded, terrorist murder of an innocent disabled American Jew.” The arts are central to the full expression and comprehension of political issues, but the Klinghoffer Opera does not critically examine world events; rather, it rationalizes violence and manipulates the historical truths that make up the Palestinian narrative.
History As a Lump of Clay
History can be changed and molded and even if it isn’t particularly easy, over time, and with systematic efforts, what was once true can now be false. The campaign against Israel and the redefinition of Zionism and the historical plight of the Jews is relentless. Even the Holocaust, which is associated with Jewish particularity and the primary stimulus for the creation of the state of Israel, of which there is reams of evidence, is chipped away at, challenged, denied, and ultimately turned back on the Jews. The Palestinians now blatantly claim that they were put in internment camps by Israelis and suffered the same Holocaust.
These issues remain difficult because a committed group of people can always be relied on to daze and confuse others. And they will always be successful with at least some group of people. Part of the answer is to become more rigorous about language. We must continue to try and recognize the distinction between narrative and flagrant manipulation. Of course, the hell of it is that we will never be completely successful at such a distinction. But we must try.
Four years ago in 2010 Al Jazeera acquired a set of documents known as “The Palestine Papers.” These were classified documents characterizing behind the scenes comments pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as far back as the Madrid conference and the Oslo agreements in the early 1990s. They included emails, minutes, transcripts, reports, strategy papers, and draft agreements all detailing the US mediated negotiations. The Palestine papers can be accessed in English at this site: The Palestine papers. Moreover, a more detailed analysis of the Palestine papers and the issues discussed below appears in Zayani (2013) in the journal Media, War & Conflict.
Of course, the release of these documents can be and was hailed as a blow for freedom of information, greater exposure to the truth, and a gold mine for scholars. Al Jazeera began by holding the documents closely but then found it too overwhelming to deal with and decided to make them available on a website for all to examine. But what is the main news value of these documents? What information is truly relevant and informative? It was tantalizing to read some memos and examine what were thought to be private opinions, but what are the real political effects?
It turns out that the release of these documents was pretty damaging and just possibly might have set the entire negotiation process back. They are a good example of how media can reorganize relationships can cause changes in the issues. We can see this with respect to issues if we compare the state of negotiations in 2010 to the present. First, in 2010 the Palestinian Authority was trying hard to keep Hamas out of the picture. The Palestinian Authority was trying to minimize Hamas and establish themselves as the dominant Palestinian political unit. This was the preference of the United States and Israel each of which assumed that negotiations would be more middle ground and mainstream without Hamas. There was even documentation representing a covert operation between the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority against Hamas and cooperation between the US, Israel, and the Mubarak regime.
The Palestinian Authority was under critical scrutiny and embarrassed by the state of affairs. There were additional revelations about the weak performance of the Palestinian negotiating team and the strength of the Israelis including Palestinian concessions that made them look like they were outmatched by the Israelis and the United States. The Palestinian community felt their pride was eroded and even perhaps their leadership was in an unhealthy collaboration with Israel.
The exposure of these issues has had the effect of hardening the Palestinian position and essentially made negotiations more difficult. The recent formation of a unity government between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas is probably in some way a response to the WikiLeaks documents. Behind the scenes the Palestinians were seeking to marginalize a more extreme group, but the presence of new media that exposes these behind-the-scenes strategies put the Palestinian negotiating team in the untenable position. They have incorporated Hamas into the negotiations, and even though as I argued in an earlier post this might have some salutary effect, it is also possible that it will push the Palestinian Authority into more hardened and extreme positions.
Al Jazeera played an important role in the release of these documents. Some accuse them of making a conscious attempt to embarrass the Palestinians and empowering Hamas. The documents reconfigured the relationship between the Palestinians and other Arab groups by taking backstage behavior and pushing it to the front stage thereby redefining everyone’s role. But then again, this is what media does.
The unity and reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas holds promise for the future. Clearly, we have to take a wait-and-see attitude. But I consider it potentially a turning point in the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. Many Israelis reacted negatively to the news and quickly assumed that Hamas would dominate. But let’s consider a few issues.
Hamas and the Theory of Contamination
The argument that this reconciliation will result in something positive is based on the assumption that the PLA will moderate Hamas rather than Hamas “contaminating” the PLA. The theory of contamination is based on the theory of disgust. Briefly, disgust is an evolutionary emotion probably related to knowing what to eat and avoiding food that is bad or contaminated. We always assume that contamination passes from the dirty to the clean and therefore “contaminates” the clean. If I drop a piece of food on the floor, the dirty floor contaminates the clean food. Nobody assumes that cleanliness passes to the dirty and purifies it; the “clean” food does not pass to the dirty floor and make it cleaner.
And so it is psychologically. Things that are considered dirty, harmful, or just plain “bad” are always assumed to contaminate the “good.” A racist will consider his or her neighborhood “contaminated” if a member of an undesirable minority group moves in. Most people assume that Hamas will “contaminate” the PLA. But in the realm of human interaction, in the socio-symbolic world, it is possible to avoid contamination and have influence move in the other direction. The normal theory of contamination would clearly have Hamas contaminating the PLA and making matters worse between Israelis and Palestinians.
But the extension of theories of contamination and disgust into the social world has its limits. It is not inevitable that desirable social processes be contaminated; in fact, contamination as a psychological construct is culturally created. It was learned, and that means it can be unlearned. Let’s hope the PLA can withstand the normal flow of contamination and have a positive influence on the culture of Hamas.
First, a united Palestinian people are going to be more responsive to the peace process. Did anyone ever really think the peace process would be successful with Hamas and Fatah separated and in conflict with one another? Did anyone ever really think a solution to the conflict would include a separate West Bank and Gaza, under separate political entities? The unity of Hamas and Fatah was inevitable. This will be especially true if the two groups unite on some fundamental issues regarding the peace process and international recognition. The United Nations and European Union welcomed the efforts toward reconciliation and the possibility for new dialogue.
Everybody with an opinion on this matter could turn out to be wrong. Two possibilities bound the ends of the continuum. The worst-case scenario is Hamas overtaking the PLA and the government and security services. Hamas maintains its rigidity and continues to call for the destruction of Israel. Hezbollah continues to prosper in Lebanon and the Islamic Brotherhood gains a stronger foothold and provides support for a Hamas driven Palestinian Authority. This scenario will guarantee war, not peace.
The best case scenario, and the one that I think is most likely, is that Hamas is moderated by the PLA and becomes more normally integrated into a Palestinian governing body that realizes the need for certain practicalities. The new Palestinian unity government gains credibility and brings a fresh voice to the peace process. It will take some time for the Palestinian unity government to prove itself to the Israelis. Netanyahu will not go gently into a relationship with Hamas. The Israelis and PLA currently share certain security responsibilities, and it’s hard to imagine continuing this shared security relationship with Hamas. But a Fatah Hamas reconciliation is necessary to a successful peace process. It solves the problem of Israel needing someone to talk to who represents all of the Palestinians.
Hamas is an Islamic militant group and Fatah is a secularist party. The two groups have always opposed one another with respect to tactics and their relationship to Israel. They have separate security systems and there are plenty of stories of Palestinians who are arrested one day by the PLA and the next day by Hamas. But the unity arrangement will strengthen the Palestinians in their quest for a Palestinian state – not two states (Gaza and the West Bank) but one state. This unity agreement could be a new era for the Palestinians.
According to some analysts, it was Hamas who made most of the concessions that enabled the unity agreement. They are perceived as weak and known to have difficulty carrying out legitimate elections. The reconciliation between Hamas and the PLA will present a unified stance for the Palestinians. There is a clever sleight-of-hand operating here also. The United Nations will undoubtedly support a Palestinian state and this will confer legitimacy on Hamas. Hamas will go from a militant Islamist party steeped in violence with extreme political attitudes that are unsustainable in any context, to an internationally recognized political operation that represents the Palestinian people. Although there is an irony to this, it does pressure Hamas to yield to international demands.
The United States and Israel should see this reconciliation as an opportunity. Hopefully, talks can continue and Hamas will find itself in a situation where it must cooperate and engage with United States and Israel. This will include stronger pressures on Hamas to maintain cease fires, eliminate rocket attacks into Israel, and control violence. There’s a good chance that any resultant political platform will be more consistent with the PLA than Hamas. The hope is that Hamas will not contaminate the PLA, but the influence will run in the other direction.
Revised slightly from May 8, 2011.
How Many More Decades Do We Have To Watch This Silly Shuttle Diplomacy between Israel and Palestinians? It doesn’t work!
How much longer do we have to watch an American diplomat shuttle back and forth between Israel and some neighboring country? From Henry Kissinger in the 1970s to John Kerry it’s all the same process. The tennis match image comes to mind and I would use it if it were not such a cliché. I’m increasingly coming to the conclusion that it’s all pointless and that comes from somebody who believes in talk. Even though I recognize that talk is slow and there’s nothing magical about it, there comes a point when you have to ask yourself whether it’s all worth it.
When talk fails it is usually for one or a combination of three reasons. One, it’s the wrong kind of talk. Two, the wrong people are talking, or three the structural conditions are interfering. All three are at work in the Israel-Palestine shuttle diplomacy. It’s the wrong kind of talk because the two sides are unprepared to have serious political conversations when they need more authentic mutuality. The wrong people are talking because there should be more conversational work at the civil society and interpersonal levels. The structural conditions could be improved to increase democratic forms of communication, inclusion, and more creative and grassroots routes to problem-solving.
Palestinian supporters often boldly claim that resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict is the key to bringing greater peace to the region and although this is an exaggeration supporters have been successful at turning the conflict into the symbolic prototype for all the world’s problems. I think about the ugliness in Syria, the savagery of militant groups, rising religious authoritarianism, escalating economic inequality, Iran and the spread of nuclear weapons, and then discover that serious people in Washington want to talk about West Bank Palestinians!
Of course the conflict must be resolved or at least managed into agreement. But the biggest beneficiary of any resolution is going to be Israel. How long can Israel continue to occupy the West Bank? How long can it remain a security state? How long can Israel maintain its successful democracy and market economy if it has to oversee 2 million Palestinians?
There will not be peace between Israelis and Palestinians – real peace when barriers can be removed – until it emerges from democratic impulses born in civil society. When Palestinians demand more of their own rights from their own leadership they will be in the position to demand rights from Israel. America should be supporting Palestinian political infrastructure by working on the economy, improving governance and civil liberties, and expanding business practices that can rationalize relationships and serve as a foundation for future democratic relationships. But the conflict remains intractable and diplomats like Kerry are operating at the wrong levels.
Muslims and the Jews tell two different stories both of which are fueled by media and policy decisions. Israel tells a story of historical oppression and discrimination culminating in the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel. Jews feel vulnerable and threatened. Muslims feel disrespected by the West and the victims of media biases that portray them as fundamentalist and inherently backward, not to mention violent and religiously extreme.
These narratives produce tensions between Islam and the West and are decisive. They make for a cultural divide which results in polarization of identity issues, adversarial framing of historical matters, and rejection of any sense of shared responsibility for conflict. US policy and world media circulate these images and messages to the detriment of any sense of complementarity between the two.
In my opinion, there are two things that can happen: the differences between these stories can be emphasized, which will lead to increased intensification leaving the disputants to be trapped inside their own threatened identity. And the macro level of official contact will continue to founder. Or, these narratives can be reframed in order to seek points of convergence where it is possible to formulate cooperation and mutual affinities that direct them away from a “conflict-saturated” reality. Rather than rival narratives, Jews and Muslims can avoid the drift toward polarization and begin to tell a new story, one that affirms a distinctive identity while acknowledging the “other.” I choose this direction.
The fact that Secretary of State John Kerry has organized talks between the Israelis and Palestinians is noteworthy for two reasons – it’s a positive anytime you can bring these two sides together, and the world has issued a collective shrug. Israelis are generally bored with the Palestinians and don’t believe there is anyone really to talk to. The cynicism over the possibility of anything actually coming of these talks is extensive. Few people are even paying attention because they are so sure that this will all be an empty exercise. Even President Obama seems distant from the process.
But we should avoid cynicism and I am all for any sort of engagement and it can be anytime, anyplace, and even under less than ideal conditions. There are numerous posts on this blog at various points in time explaining the advantages of communicative contact (e.g. see July 8th 2013). There are good reasons to have talks all of which are pertinent to unpacking this complex conflict and repackaging it into something sustainable. Let’s look at a few of them, but first a little context.
The Unique Nature of the Talks
The Kerry Talks are supposed to focus on final status issues; that is, the crucial six issues which are the status of Jerusalem, refugees, borders, Israeli security, settlements, and the Palestinian right of return. These issues have been ignored in the past and sometimes defined as too difficult and hence put off for a future date. Read some background on final status issues here . Barak and Arafat made some attempts at a final status agreement as did Olmert at Annapolis. These efforts failed and the explanation always was that the two sides were still too far apart. But it is also the case that both sides simply cannot imagine themselves settling on the decision. Conservative political blocs in Israel oppose the creation of a Palestinian state, and Palestinian leadership is a proxy for the larger Arab world and feels very uncomfortable giving up anything or recognizing Israel.
The divisions that separate these two groups run deep especially when it comes to the special status of Jerusalem and refugees. Jerusalem just may be the most intractable problem because of its sanctity. The Palestinians, on the other hand, choke on the possibility of any recognition of Israel and will not accept their presence as a Jewish state. Gritty and thorny as these issues are talk is all the two sides have and there are reasons to engage it.
The Palestinians have been frustrated and thus decided to go around the Israelis through, for example, their petition to the United Nations as a basis for claiming statehood. Any final agreements must be and should be the result of negotiation between the two principal sides, and the Palestinian petition to the United Nations was counterproductive and responsible for the deterioration of the process. Israel and the United States opposed the Palestinian petition to the United Nations and threatened financial pressures. The proposed talks can help repair the damage to the relationship between the three parties (the US, Israel, and the Palestinians) and move the center of discussion back to the principals.
Secondly, the United States does not have the luxury of waiting around. Even though the conflict has been with us for decades and seems to be a constant on the political playing field, one in which the issues are fixed in people’s minds and will not change much, it remains a powerful symbol of difficult ethnopolitical conflict and the “clash of civilizations.” Moreover, the US has practical “on the ground” concerns with respect to terrorism, balanced international relations, oil, democracy development, and national security. Although the claim that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the cause of so much international tension is simply unjustified, it is a combustible political symbol that arouses ethnopolitical passions around the world.
The settlement issue must be solved. Israel will have difficulty moving settlers and the Palestinians have stated that they want no Israeli presence in the future state of Palestine. A Palestinian state must be negotiated by the two sides and cannot come into being otherwise. The two-state solution is the only way that Israel remains Jewish and democratic and there is considerable work to be completed before the contours of this potential state are fashioned.
Finally, talking to one another is the only way that compromises and adjustments will be made. Both sides have powerful positions that control aspects of the discussion and direct communicative encounters are the only way these compromises and adjustments will come into being.
My guess is that these talks will fail but at least represent a step in a long journey. It’s possible that both sides believe the other will be the cause of the failure and have agreed to enter into the discussions for that reason alone. Sadly enough, I’m still of the opinion that there is insufficient pain. In other words, if conflicting parties have to wait until they are at a “hurting stalemate” before they get serious than these two parties simply aren’t hurting enough yet.
Ethan Bronner of the New York Times last week wrote about the disconnect between Israelis and the general problem they face with the Palestinians. Bronner, who was a former Jerusalem bureau chief for the New York Times, had recently returned to Israel and found Israelis to be almost intoxicatingly removed from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They could “care less” about it and are more removed from the political situation than ever. Israel is a very successful economic culture and, various social inequities notwithstanding, they are enjoying the fruits of Western democracies and market economies. Bronner writes that even the Israeli left is increasingly insignificant, and a shell of its former activist self.
I must say that this is generally consistent with my own experiences. I was teaching in Israel last year at this time and quite struck by how “bored” the average Israeli is with the entire matter. They don’t believe there is anyone to talk to or that the Palestinians are serious. I spoke to plenty of students, wait staff, bartenders, and average citizens and the majority is fed up and has simply decided to ignore the whole thing. Cynicism about the peace process is so great that nobody cares to talk about it. Israelis don’t understand the extent of their international condemnation; Israelis don’t understand how anyone could offer up political and moral support for organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah; Israelis don’t understand why the world can’t learn from the lesson in Gaza that giving the Palestinians in Gaza what they wanted (an Israeli pullout) resulted in more rockets fired into Israel.
The Palestinian Authority is in bad shape and things will get even worse with the resignation of Salam Fayyad who was focusing on economic and institutional security in the West Bank. Things are quiet at the moment with John Kerry’s diplomatic efforts deserving of some credit. Even though the Palestinian Authority continues to receive criticism, it’s unlikely for now that the system will be pushed to its limits. The Palestinians are just as tired as the Israelis but for different reasons. They are fed up with their own political leaders and divided amongst themselves with respect to how to proceed. The issues of checkpoints, settlements, prisoners, and financial matters are weakening with respect to their individual issue capabilities. In other words, these matters do not hold the intensity they once did because the population has spent the political capital associated with them and the peace process is still elusive.
The International Crisis Group (go here) issued a report on May 29, 2013 concluding that the Palestinian Authority is in financial trouble and cannot pay salaries. And although they have been recently lulled into a sleep-like state with respect to larger peace issues with Israel, things are beginning to change. The Palestinian Authority, according to the crisis group, is under threat of dissolution. It is simply likely to evolve away into a different reality as Abbas ages. Abbas has a certain amount of historical legitimacy and is committed to a negotiated settlement. But with the Palestinian Authority so fragile, and enough time has gone by such that patience is running thin, any political act (settler violence, clashes in Jerusalem, hunger striking prisoners, or some act of violence) will spark the combustible mixture into a conflagration.
It does not matter how complacent Israelis feel or how content they are about their own good faith efforts, the current situation is not sustainable for very much longer. There remains economic fragility, violence, humiliation, and perceived injustices that cannot stand a much longer test of time. Images of the Titanic come to mind with some killer iceberg waiting in the not-too-distant dark.
Those who argue that Israeli settlements are illegal cling to their position with considerable passion. They maintain that settlers are living in a fictional world with a tremendous commitment to Israel but not to human rights or anyone else. The arguments are typically made on the basis of international law – which is a questionable and still unclear legal domain with respect to matters of legitimacy and efficacy. But in any case, the challenge to the Geneva Accords is directly confronted. The Geneva Accords, the argument goes, is concerned with people, not land, and claiming that the Accords do not apply to the West Bank because it is not strictly the territory of a sovereign state is inconsistent with the spirit of the convention. The Accords are further interpreted as protecting any group of people who find themselves in the clutches of an occupying power. This argument than devolves into discussion of the minutia of the Geneva Accords including interpretations and intentions that are probably impossible to know with any reliability. Those who deny the legality of the settlements claim that the near universal consensus on the matter is sufficient to establish the argument.
The international standing of the United Nations does not rise to the level of commonly accepted international law, but it is a significant body that functions in a legal capacity. That said, United Nations Security Council resolutions consistently call for Israel’s withdrawal from the territories and reaffirms the conviction that Israel is occupying the land illegally. The UN regularly treats the Israeli occupation as illegal and often defines it as a simple fact which is not subject to dispute. If it is possible to establish the territories as “occupied” then settlement activity is illegal. The West Bank is consistently considered occupied by the UN and this by definition makes settlement activity illegal. Very simply, it is somebody else’s land.
Moreover, if a territory is occupied then the occupying powers cannot transfer its citizens to the conquered territory, making what Israel does illegal. As I stated in last week’s post if the legal status of the land is unclear and no one has a clear political claim then settlement in that territory is permissible and the settlements would be legal. The defenders of legality claim that the prohibition against population transfer applies in cases unrelated to Israel; that is, if the land is available for use than those who moved there to use it are not violating any laws. But, of course, if the West Bank is considered to be official Palestinian territory then Israeli settler encroachment into that territory would be illegal.
Israel insists that its presence in the West Bank is militarily justified because of the attack on Israel in 1967 and Israel’s right to establish defensible borders as a result of success in the 1967 war. But the counter to this point is that Israel’s presence is not necessary for its security and that the occupation is thus illegal because it is a ruse for rank land acquisition. There is what is called “customary” international law which argues for the legal power of such “customary international law” when it represents the accumulated weight of international opinion. Even if there is no legitimately recognized international court, when it is a matter of overwhelming international opinion that settlement activity is illegal and inappropriate then such sentiment has the weight of legality behind it.
Finally, the International Court of Justice concluded that the mandate for Palestine was about self-determination for Palestinians and never mentioned anything about Jewish rights. Accordingly, any Jewish presence in the Palestinian territories is illegal.
The arguments on both sides of the issue can carry weight and have elements of them that are defensible. For that reason, the matter will not be solved on the basis of legal issues alone. Rather, the pressing interest of peace and solutions that respond to the needs of all parties are more important than legal debates. Having said that, I do not mean to diminish the importance of legal precedents and standing except to remind people that the law is simply a form of conflict resolution and some problems are solved by methods that do not involve formal legal arguments. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be one of them.
Even the beginning student of conflict management knows that some people simply will not change their mind or be convinced by arguments, no matter how unassailable, about historical incidents and accuracy. But the law is one of the best ways to understand an issue. Everyone wonders about the legal standing of settlements eventually. The video lecture below is a well done explanation of some issues and I highly recommend it.
Click The Legal case for Israel to hear the lecture.
But let me make a few other points. When some states don’t even recognize the legal legitimacy of the state of Israel, you know that” the law” is as easily manipulated and fungible as any other domain of knowledge. My goal here is not to explicate in detail elaborate legal arguments but to try and find some clear simplicity. In addition to the video above, a good reading pertaining to the legality of the settlements appeared a couple of years ago in the American Interest. It can be found here. Read the article in the American Interest at your leisure but we must begin with some basics.
What is now the West Bank was part of the outskirts of the Ottoman Empire that was largely ignored and lightly governed. After the Turks were defeated in World War I the current area of Palestine was assigned to the British who were given a “mandate” to administer the territory. Jews flowed into the territory of Palestine until 1947 when the British government wanted out of the mandate and the UN recommended the adoption of the partition plan creating one Jewish state and one Arab state. The Arabs rejected the partition and war ensued. It’s important to first point out that the UN resolution partitioning Palestine has no legal standing. The General Assembly has no authority of international law and the resolution was a recommendation only. As a result of the Six-Day War in 1967 Israel made further incursions into the West Bank as a security and buffer zone. This incursion resulted in increased “occupation.”
Some legal scholars argue that the West Bank and Gaza remain unassigned by the mandate. Others claim it is Palestinian territory. But one of the strongest arguments against the legality of the settlements results from the Geneva Convention in 1949. It stated that no occupying power (that would be Israel) can transfer its own citizens into occupied or newly acquired territory. Moreover, UN resolution 242 calls for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from occupied territory. But it is also clearly recognized that Israel in the Six-Day War fought a lawful war based on its inherent right of self-defense recognized by the UN charter. Israel’s incursion into the West Bank was the result of aggression and Israel had every right to defend itself including maintaining a security presence.
Two Arguments That Support the Legal Status of Israel and the West Bank
1. Since the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I no country has any firm legal standing or recognized legal rights to the occupied territories. Hence, what is termed the territories has never been part of a legally recognized sovereign and consolidated state and thus the prohibitions about population incursions from the Geneva Convention do not apply. If Spain overwhelmed Portugal and began to establish Spanish communities and populations in land acquired through violence then this would be a clear violation of the Geneva Accords. But what is termed “the territories” does not meet the definitional standards of a sovereign state.
In addition, it has been cogently argued that the Geneva Accord was designed to respond to the Nazis who transferred populations for the purpose of colonization and to obliterate the existing population. This, the argument goes, has nothing to do with Israel whose settlements are not designed for colonization.
2. A second argument is that the occupied territories were assigned to the Jews by both the mandate and the United Nations partition thus giving Jews the right to use and settle the land. This is based on the assumption that the legal status of the territories has not been established and Jews have no fewer rights or less justified legal standing than anyone else.
I will state the arguments for the illegal nature of the settlements perhaps in the next post. But it is important to underscore that legal arguments are not always the best way to solve a problem. They often enough lack clarity and specificity and do not satisfy sufficiently both sides. Making a legal claim, especially in an unclear legal environment, can fail to satisfy either party. The Israelis and Palestinians should solve their problems themselves.
The data below show interesting trends with respect to media use and news. The data were reported in the Journalist Resource (journalistresource.org/studies/) and represent current trends in the sources of news. The conclusions from these data are not my primary concern here because they reinforce what we pretty much already know. That is, newspaper circulation is in decline, television viewership has dropped and more and more people get their news from social media – online and digital outlets in particular. These are the only two lines moving upward in the graph. But what is interesting is the theoretical possibilities of this trend for any international community. In other words, what are the potential consequences of this shift from traditional media to digital outlets. Below I speculate about a few possibilities with respect to groups in conflict and the Palestinians in particular. Again, the data in the graph do not pertain directly to any other international community, but they do represent a very common trend and one that either does or will influence allcommunities.
Historically, journalism and stories reported in media outlets provided a sense of coherence and at least a certain amount of consistency. Journalism was part of the power network in a culture with considerable respect and cultural capital. This was particularly true in less developed political systems such as many of those in the Middle East and of course the Palestinian Authority would qualify. There was typically one primary news outlet and everyone was exposed to the same information.
In the West Bank political communication was very limited by a combination of Israeli restrictions and undeveloped cultural traditions. From the 1980s into the 1990s penetration rates for news and media outlets were very low. This was because of poor communication infrastructure, economic development that was insufficient to improve access, lower literacy rates, and the general resistance of the culture to adopt new technology.
Things improved as a result of the Oslo Accords in 1993 where the Palestinians gained more control over their own technology. But the Internet became a revolutionary change. Because of the cross boundary capabilities of the Internet, and the fact that the Internet respected no borders, the Palestinians began to thrive with respect to information access and distribution. Internet penetration in the West Bank and Gaza is higher than in many other places such as Syria. New technology has energized Palestinian NGOs, human rights organizations, and made the formation of online communities possible. Also, during periods of violence and uprising when there is damage to buildings and Palestinian communication infrastructure, they are typically back on the air quickly because of availability of advanced technology.
But given that the PNA in the West Bank and Gaza has digital access and opportunity at least comparable to many political systems, it means that they also experienced the consequences of the digital age. One consequence is that Palestinians are now more involved in the media industry and thus more influential. Foreign news organizations use Palestinian talent and there are more young people involved in the news business with more ambition along with critical sensibilities.
There is still the problem of media control with no shortage of leaders who would like to use the media as a voice of propaganda. But multiple media outlets and the possibilities of user generated content make this more difficult. The ease and accessibility of digital forms of communication performs its democracy work in the West Bank and Gaza as well as any other place. Multiple voices and outlets are important and effective constraints on power. Where authoritarian media are governed by obedience and respect for political power, new digital media are more likely to broaden possibilities and make government monopolies difficult.
It is true enough that the Israeli-Palestinian problem is not easily addressed, but it remains the case that the rise in digital technology can structure in certain conflict resolution features that can contribute to a deliberative space responsible for helping to prepare the discourse of problem-solving. Some of the features of new digital technology that can enable the deliberative process are accessibility or availability of use to multiple citizens, equality or fairer access to media by a wider variety of people, along with the potential for more transparency and accountability. All in all, digital technology will benefit many aspects of West Bank and Gaza media. Even organizations that are more authoritarian such as Hamas cannot control digital technology sufficiently to manage the media environment. That is one reason why Hamas will maintain its reliance on violence as a form of control. Still, digital technology will facilitate the availability of mediated information that will one day at least find its way into the qualities of interaction necessary for progress toward mending political divides.
Obama’s visit to Israel was important but it probably suffer from too much media manipulation and too many platitudes. This is a time when Israel will be at the center of news stories around the world. And as tired as the world is of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there will be increased attention to the issue. For that reason alone it is a good time to influence the agenda and improve the quality of discourse that surrounds key issues in the Middle East conflict. There are three topics that deserve attention and could help move the resolution process forward by improving clarity and accuracy.
1.The first issue that could use some attention is the exaggerated tense relationship between Obama and Netanyahu. This is based simply on the notion that Obama is not sufficiently supportive of Israel. I grant you that Obama talks about Israel and the Middle East with greater nuance and understanding of what it will really take to solve problems but this does not detract from his support for Israel. He recognizes that Israel is essentially a mirror of the United States and, of course, the importance of security issues for Israel. Those who question Obama simply have to look at the record.
It took tremendous courage for Obama to confront the Arab League in Cairo in 2009 and unabashedly declare US support for Israel. Obama told them our support for Israel was steadfast. Expressing some well-placed defensible criticism of Israel (e.g. with respect to the West Bank) should be viewed as part of our support for Israel and its future state; it is certainly no sign of weakness.
2.A second misnomer is that Israel is not interested in peace, and amongst the Palestinians there is no one to talk to. Granted, Netanyahu is a stern negotiator who is not going to jeopardize Israel or give up much on his own watch. But as the saying goes, “there is a new sheriff in town” in the form of a reconstituted government that has moved, albeit slightly, to the center. The peace process is not easy and it never has been so I don’t expect it to change much. Still, Netanyahu has made more than a few conciliatory statements. He has come around to the recognition of a possible state for the Palestinians – at least he’s on the public record – and is capable of advancing the peace process.
The statement that there is nobody to talk to on the Palestinian side is also a common refrain that has the effect of shutting down the process and becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Abbas is respected enough and although he is not a powerful charismatic leader he is recognized as the legitimate leader who can make decisions in the name of his people. Abbas does have the challenge of doing something about Hamas and finding a way for future unity, but that seems to be a topic for the far future. Abbas must manage Hamas because most Israelis recognize that the only thing that followed their exit from Gaza was rockets. Israelis rightly claim that there is no evidence that conciliatory behavior on their part is reciprocated. Both sides are to blame for lethargic peace process.
3.The issue of the settlements has to be discussed more specifically and thoroughly. Israel suffers international condemnation and all the unpleasant epithets that go with it because of the settlements. There have been periods of time during settlement freezes when peace talks were supposed to flourish. But that rarely happens. This is because the role of the settlements is exaggerated. Even freezes on development cannot draw attention to realistic solutions. And both sides are equally to blame for perpetuating the conflict by constant references to the settlements. And undue focus on the settlements is part of this sentiment around the world that the Middle East can be pacified if only the Israelis and Palestinians would solve their problems. The Arab spring has brought the problems of the Middle East into sharp relief all of which have little to do with Israel and Palestine.
In the end, it is the quality of discussion and analysis that will make the difference in the peace process. Obama’s visit will help fortify relationships between the US and Israel as well as the Palestinian Authority. Obama should recommit to pressuring Iran and that will pacify the Israelis. But real progress requires more effortful deliberation designed to sharpen preferences and ameliorate differences.