The only lesson we’re learning from the sorry recent turn of events in New York, Gaza and the West Bank involving Israelis and Palestinians is that the parties need outside help. But the harsh reality is that the only power capable of injecting some needed mediation is unlikely to answer the call in the short term — or at least not until the situation gets worse.
And worsen it surely will. The successful bid by Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas for observer status in the UN, which was followed by Israel’s decision to build new settlements in East Jerusalem and cut off financial transfers to the Abbas government, won’t solve anything. Palestinians think they have won the diplomatic war in Gaza even though they took a severe drubbing from Israeli attacks on their missile installations. Israelis are not about to make concessions because they now feel more acutely than ever that their back is against the wall.
Those who crave a pivotal role for Canada in this always-incendiary region are dreaming in Technicolor. At best, we can encourage and support a leadership role by the Americans (and avoid rhetorical impulses or diplomatic theatrics that overstate our significance).
With Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the way out and President Barack Obama preoccupied with ‘fiscal cliff’ mediation challenges on the home front, there is little likelihood of early U.S. action in the region. Meanwhile, the situation in Syria deteriorates by the day and the Egyptian experiment with democracy becomes more precarious. The situation may simply have to get worse before genuine mediation becomes obligatory.
That being said, the experience of the last twenty years of diplomacy in the region offers many lessons on how to negotiate successfully. The first and most critical lesson is that the parties will need help from the outside.
Talking does not come as naturally as fighting, so a persuasive, intrusive, compelling third party is required. Mediators, as they can be called generically, are needed to overcome various types of obstacles.
The United States was a communicator or facilitator carrying messages, as in some of the instances of shuttle diplomacy and at Oslo. But this go-between role, as we learned from subsequent situations leading up to Annapolis Peace Conference hosted by the Bush administration in 2007, generally doesn’t go far enough.
More frequently, the U.S. needed to act as a formulator, inserting itself into the process with ideas of its own. Many outside players have taken on this role over the years: Henry Kissinger in the Israeli disengagement from the Sinai, Jimmy Carter at Camp David, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state George Shultz in Lebanon, and Bill Clinton at Camp David II.
But when ideas are not enough and direct involvement is required — through warnings and threats, predictions and promises — then the mediator must act as a manipulator. Think of Kissinger in Sinai II or then-secretary of state James Baker at Madrid.
What makes the difference between a successful and unsuccessful exercise is recognition that mediation is a risky business that calls for deep engagement, long preparation and serious commitment. Talks that worked began with detailed study and brainstorming, and took persistence and patience in the process. The mediator had to roll up his sleeves and push, travel, call in high-level support, plead and cajole, warn and even threaten. An enormous investment of time and personal — even national prestige — is required.
But if those perceptions are not present, the mediator must first create them, sometimes by creating the objective facts on the ground but other times simply by encouraging a subjective appreciation of the objective facts.
Mediators often have to seize on a new turn of events, as Baker did after the 1991 Gulf War at Madrid or as Kissinger before him used the October War, or even as a pair of Israeli academics used the election of a new prime minister in Israel at Oslo.
Let us hope that Hillary Clinton’s successor as secretary of state, whoever it may be, will have the fortitude and tenacity to operate in the Kissinger or Baker mould.