Overcoming the zero-sum hurdle

Ali Gharib

It seems as if the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been dissected from every possible angle.But despite these various close examinations, there has been relatively little progress made towards a lasting peace deal between the two parties, discouraging some peace activists. Many observers, still abiding that by the well-worn adage that “the road to peace runs through

Jerusalem”, hope to work out a two-state solution in what is widely perceived as the short remaining window for one. So with the incoming President-elect Barack Obama administration, which has campaigned on and, in transition, promised an early push for Middle East peace, activists and experts are seeking new ways to frame the challenge of the peace process that may carve out workable solutions.

In a recent article for the journal Foreign Affairs, senior Council on Foreign Relations fellow Walter Russell Mead calls for a new approach that goes beyond the scope of what many negotiations of the past, such as the Oslo and Annapolis processes, have addressed — an honest consideration of Palestinian realities and aspirations. At a panel discussing the piece, New America Foundation’s Middle East Task Force director and former Israeli negotiator Daniel Levy delighted in Mead’s description of engaging the peace process as a “necessary evil”.

“In the past, US peacemakers have had an Israel-centric approach to the negotiating process; the Obama administration needs to put Palestinian politics and Palestinian public opinion at the centre of its peacemaking efforts.” “The reason peace is so elusive is not due a handful of weak or bad people somewhere, but due to the very, very difficult nature of the interests involved,” said Mead. “I think the American negotiators, particularly in the case of the Oslo negotiations... sort of simplified Palestinian politics,” he said. Mead called for increased focus on some issues on which the two central parties have failed to attain compromise solutions, but where the international community could play a bigger role, such as Palestinian refugees.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees live in poverty without passports in camps in Lebanon and other places “where they do not have basic economic and social rights,” said Mead. “To provide an honest, decent, dignified road into the future for these people is not necessarily to take something away from Israel.” The notion of a new approach to the same old problems on Monday closely echoed comments made by peace activist and former speaker of the Israeli Knesset, Naomi Chazan. Chazan repeated the mantra of “reframing” key issues in order to reinvigorate stalled efforts of the previous processes.

She also reinforced a notion hit upon repeatedly by Mead that “reframing” and

“reconceptualising” require looking back critically at the history and root causes of the disputes

between Israelis and Palestinians in order to get past them. Mead, who in an earlier issue of Foreign Affairs had argued somewhat controversially that US public opinion drives staunch support for Israel rather than the so-called “Israel lobby”, was insistent that a new Palestinian-centric approach wouldn’t compromise US support for Israel. On the contrary, he thinks that it will strengthen Israel by putting the peace and security that Israel desires within reach.