Monday, July 13, 2009

Riding the Jerusalem Carousel

It increasingly seems as if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is mired in an intractable impasse, with both sides unable to agree on anything. There is one hobby they do share, however, and fittingly so because continuing their habit requires the dedication and participation of Palestinians and Israelis alike. This common ground is what I refer to as the "Jerusalem Carousel" - the practice of stubbornly propagating circular arguments with the explicit purpose of stalling negotiations, preventing compromise, and averting any and all hard decisions. Round and round go the allegations, demands, and preconditions. Both sides have fun, look bold for their constituents, and stave off criticism from the international community and moderate, pragmatic elements within their own societies.

There are many such Jerusalem Carousels. So many, in fact, that the Holy Land could be easily described as a carnival of frustration, chaos, lost hopes, violence, and unfulfilled dreams. A nightmare indeed. Here are several examples of the aforementioned carousels:

Palestinian Reconciliation and Israeli Settlements

Barack Obama has himself seemingly jumped onto this ride, injecting his foreign policy team into the question of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and attempting to work with the Egyptians to achieve a Palestinian unity government. The sad fact is that more riders on the carousel do not help bring the whole ride to a stop. Instead they simply provide more momentum, furthering the impasse.

Palestinian reconciliation is stalled because the Israelis have not demonstrated any real intention (i.e. freezing settlements) to pursue an acceptable two-state resolution to the conflict. The current Israeli administration has no incentive to pursue a settlement freeze (even one accommodating "natural growth") until the Palestinians end their embarrassing factional feud and present a legitimate government actually capable of negotiating on behalf of the entire Palestinian people. The incentives just do not exist to spur reconciliation or decisive Israeli action on settlements. Both sides are waiting for the other to get their house in order before embarking on the frustrating and potentially politically dangerous task of organizing their own. Fateh-Hamas reconciliation could seriously weaken one of the parties and both factions surely cannot accept the risk if the Israelis do not seem ready to deal on terms the Palestinians would actually accept for a future state. Similarly, an Israeli administration imposing a settlement freeze faces severe domestic opposition by the highly organized settler movement and conservative Israelis. Why make sacrifices if the other side seems far from ready to compromise for a solution to the problem?

The Gaza Carousel

Carousels in the Holy Land are not just frustrating contributors to impasse. They have the potential to beget and sustain terrible violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Take for example the recent war in Gaza. After holding a 6-month ceasefire, Hamas and Israel were unable to negotiate a continuation because of the presence of such a carousel. Hamas demanded (and still demands) that Israel open the borders of the coastal enclave to humanitarian goods in order to stop the firing of rockets. Israel in return asserts that Hamas must stop all rocket fire from the Strip (including attacks by groups such as Islamic Jihad and the PFLP, both unaffiliated with Hamas) in order for the borders to be open to basic supplies.

Neither side will back down out of fear of providing the other with a demonstrable victory. Compromising on a Jerusalem Carousel are out of the question as well, for jumping off the ride before it stops is apparently a clear sign of weakness, rather than a gesture of good will and a desire to provide security and stability for one's own population.

A similar carousel exists with regard to captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, abducted by Hamas militants just outside the Gaza Strip over three years ago. His freedom now seems to be linked to the opening of Gaza's borders, with both sides making demands on the other in an ever familiar cyclic fashion.

The Original Carousel

The lesson here is that the leadership of both sides will do whatever it takes to avoid making hard decisions and offering any compromises to the other side in an attempt to garner support and legitimacy among their domestic population. Israelis and Palestinians have generally rewarded leaders that have been strong and stubborn in the face of the Other. Arafat and Sharon are textbook examples. Both were at their peak of popularity when they were all but completely disregarding the claims, hopes, and demands of the other side and focused to a fault on pursuing an unattainable goal - security for their own people without considering the security of the Other. And that is the original Jerusalem Carousel: Israeli violence begets Palestinian violence and vice versa, Palestinian mistrust begets Israelis mistrust and vice versa, and cynicism becomes pervasive. Both communities believe they can have peace and security independent of that of their neighbor. This is the carousel that when finally stopped by the collaborative strength, determination, and courage of both Israelis and Palestinians will effectively lead to a just and lasting solution to the conflict.

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