This diary is an unplanned follow-up to yesterday's post, in which I put forth the idea that Israel's current strategy towards its neighbors is neither unilateralist nor recent.
Rather, I introduced the term "multilateralist minus one" to describe it. What this means, is that Israel actually does engage in a lot of dialogue, negotiation and coordination - but only with parties it chooses, first and foremost with the US. The real second side to the conflict is left out of the equation, and by virtue of all the workaround with everyone else - the world proceeds onward without counting it.
I also said that Israel has been doing this since its inception. The strategy has delivered short- and medium-term successes, but has ultimately brought Israel into its present dead-end quagmire - and has reflected very poorly on US interests in the region.
Since the whole idea, at least in this particular formulation, is new even to me, there were a lot of gaps to fill. I hope this second part helps. (more ->)
How It Works: Military Adventures
Before Israel initiates major military action, it arranges in advance with the powers that be more or less what is it going to do, and gets a green light of sorts. Nowadays it’s mostly the US. The US then uses its clout to keep the rest of the West in check in terms of their responses – and, even more crucially, the US-dependent Arab regimes such as Egypt. Needless to say, the UN is neutralized as well. Part of the American role is to create some sort of charade of a "diplomatic process", in order to defuse other countries’ opposition - or (more likely in Europe’s case) to give them an excuse for staying on the sidelines. There is no need to assume conspiracies here; it is all played pretty much out in the open, especially during the past decade.
This is not extraordinary in itself; after all, when embarking upon a war this is what countries do to hedge themselves. However, Israel and the US have done it so often and so brazenly in recent years (2002 West Bank, 2006 Gaza and Lebanon, 2008-9 Gaza), that no one is buying the "diplomatic efforts to stop the fire" schtick anymore. Worse, most of the world now justifiably sees the US – and also other Western countries who let it happen over and over – as full partners in whatever Israel does. Conversely, many see whatever Israel has done as little more than an extension of Western power and dominance over the Middle East – and the fact that Israelis themselves prefer to present their case in this manner nowadays (e.g., "we are the major front in the war against Islamic extremism...", etc.) is certainly not helping.
How It Works: "Multilateralism-minus-One Diplomacy"
Believe it or not, but wars are the relatively sane part. The real madness is what happens during negotiations and diplomatic processes.
I pinpointed the 1949 Lausanne conference (raw protocol), set up to resolve the Palestinian refugee crisis and achieve regional peace, as Israel’s key learning experience in formulating its "multilateral-minus-one" strategy. I will describe the conference’s circumstances carefully, from an international-diplomacy perspective.
Barely a year and a half earlier, the UN convened to solve two problems at once – Palestine’s British rule faltering under Jewish and Arab terrorism, and roughly a half-million displaced Jewish Holocaust refugees sitting at various places in post-war Europe. The solution - the 1947 Partition - was quite generous to the Jews (for example, it allocated most of the country’s sparsely-inhabited, completely Arab desert lands to the Jewish state, in spite of Jews not having set a foot in most of that desert since Antiquity. This was done specifically in order to make room for Holocaust refugees.) Now, in 1949, the world community perhaps felt that the Jewish problem was resolved with Israel’s creation, but it faced two new problems: a Jewish-Arab war still not completely over, and three-quarters of a million Palestinian refugees - outnumbering the Jewish refugees now having a potential home in Israel.
Israel, a poor nation less than a year old with its victorious ragtag army controlling regions well beyond the 1947 Partition allocation, was quite content with the world just letting it keep its expanded borders, and realistically expected that whatever bargain would include allowing back a substantial portion of the newly-created refugees. So Israel came to play ball, talking tough about how dangerous it would be to accept them back, and making any repatriation conditional upon general peace. The Arab nations, still unable to digest the drastic change in their geopolitics and displaying a characteristic rigidity in formal statements, objected; in fact, they refused to formally sit in the same room with the Israeli delegation (apparently there was a lot of palling around going around behind the scenes). Palestinians themselves were only observers, not a real party to the negotiations. The conference ended in September 1949 with no action taken whatsoever.
Now, world powers were certainly in position to impose whatever they deemed fair and realistic upon the parties whether they like it or not, just like they did to the Arabs in 1947. But they chose not to. It is quite likely that there was tacit arrangement with Israel about this outcome – though this possibility is not out of the question. Rather, it is likely that the problem of three-quarter-million Arab refugees was perceived by "the world" as far less urgent, than the 1947 problem of a half-million Jewish ones with the associated black cloud of Holocaust guilt. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly: Israel, though being a young state, had seasoned European-born and trained diplomats who spoke the same lingo as their Western counterparts. The Arabs, on the other hand, besides being mostly new in the nation-state business, were from a distinctly different culture and spoke in rather different terms. [By the way, this woeful dissonance between North-European/AngloSaxon and Arab/MidEastern negotiation styles and rhetoric, continues to play a huge role in all the bad stuff that has happened to the Middle East ever since.] So the West saw one party talking in terms they knew and respected, and the other party engaging in strange honor games they couldn't dig and didn't have patience for.
Now, one can say the negotiations failed and it wasn’t Israel’s fault. Ok, but the problem was still there. Think, say, the 1990’s Yugoslavia wars: the parties were fighting, strong parties playing for time to create facts on the ground and using their connections to prevent intervention. It took a while for the world to rein them in, but in the meantime no one walked away from the problem. Yet, walking away is exactly what the world did on the Palestinians after Lausanne 1949. And unlike Yugoslavia, here the world community was directly culpable in creating the problem. Who cares? "Problem not solved; no problem."
[aside: As further proof that it was quite possible and not too hard to get more refugees back: the Palestinians remaining inside Israel (a.k.a. "Arab Israelis") – then a small, terrified, militarily-controlled minority – managed with their own meager powers, to get the Israeli government to grudgingly allow over 20,000 of their kinfolk back under "family reunification". This according to research by the amazing Hillel Cohen.]
So here’s the deal. You can argue all you want about "who started 1948", were these really refugees or just "a bunch of evil Arab whiners", or whatever else. You are totally missing the point. The point is that (to use weather forecasting terminology) the center of the diplomatic scenario-forecasting envelope pre-Lausanne 1949 was roughly half of Palestinian refugees allowed back under international mandates. It did not happen. And more crucially: Israel learned that all it had to do to prevent that from happening was to come to the table and show a willingness to negotiate. In other words, play for a draw or for a deadlock when you have the home-court advantage anyway. The West will do the rest of the job.
The lesson was well learned. Following the 1967 war, all Israel had to do to relieve Western pressure to return territories three times its size, was to express that very same generic "willingness to negotiate with no prior conditions", by then a mantra of our foreign policy. And as stated in yesterday’s diary, the prime example for how "multilateralism minus one diplomacy" works vs. the Palestinians, was the Oslo "process".
Post-1967, the dynamic is this:
- Israel puts forth respectable-sounding rhetoric and a willingness to "talk" – not with everyone of course, only with parties not "beyond the pale". It may also engage in such talks, without any sense of urgency to get anywhere.
- The West headed by the US, applauds Israel and continues its unconditional diplomatic, economic and military support and acceptance of Israel as a full member in the privileged First World.
- If the talks reach an inconvenient point for Israel, it calls them off, stalls them, or derails them in any other manner that could pass as "legitimate" - with no consequence whatsoever.
- On the ground, all along, Israel continues to do whatever it chooses to do (the link is to an explosive article published today in Haaretz, detailing how the government knew many settlements are on stolen private Palestinian lands and tried to hush it up).
- The world community - via international aid to Palestinians whose economy is ruined, pressure upon pliant Arab leaders such as Mubarak and Abbas to cooperate, etc. - cleans up the debris without handing Israel the bill.
The main problem with this ingenious strategy (besides, again, showing Arabs and Muslims that the West and Israel are one and the same) is, well, that the problem is not solved. Palestinians still live under Israeli control and exploitation in a way that no people on Earth would accept. Other Arab nations have territories or other interests confiscated or trampled upon by Israel for years and decades. Even the poor 1948 refugees discussed at Lausanne 60 years ago are still not addressed.
With the proper diplomatic arteries clogged up by this "multilateral minus one" travesty, Arabs turn to militant organizations that stir the pot and upset the nicely made Western dinner table.
Whenever the West manages to deviate from this script, positive results are produced for everyone (biggest example: Carter and the Israel-Egypt peace. A lesser example is the Rabin government of 1993-1995, which tentatively experimented with a different and more truly multilateral strategy; this was aborted by Rabin's murder).
I hope all is clear now.
7 PM UPDATE: Wanted to add something that was in yesterday's diary, but should be emphasized again.
The magic of Israel's "multilateral-minus-one diplomacy", is that during negotiations, or declarations about readiness for negotiations, what Israeli leaders and spokesman need to say are not things that would be acceptable starting-points for the other side. Rather, the declarations only need to sound reasonable to the West, most specifically America.
In view of the aforementioned cultural gaps between the Middle East and America, and of the known and lamentable state of Middle-East knowledge here, this leaves a huge arbitrage space for Israel to leverage upon, making statements that are seen as laughably unacceptable or false over there, and as a "brave outreached hand of peace" over here.
Which explains much of what transpired at Camp David 2000, around the 2005 disengagement (where the hoax of "setting Gaza free as a step for peace" was specifically for Western ears only; even Israelis heard a completely different rationale from their government), and the weird gap between Olmert's "peaceful" pronouncements - always given in political garbage-time - and his two wars-of-choice.