Nothing Gets Crossed Out

December 29, 2008 at 6:45 pm | Posted in International | Leave a comment

In a sense, writing about the troubling developments in Gaza is somewhat counter-intuitive. Sure, I can blog my way through some general observations about British & American politics or the broad principles of the debate on climate change, but in so far as I have a niche, many of my posts dwell on domestic social policy. This is convenient for me because whilst you do have to flick through a daunting number of dry reports, it’s still relatively easy to diagnose problems and propose solutions. How do we treat asylum seekers better? You start by giving them the right to work & having their claims heard by independent, specially-trained magistrates. How do we improve our care for victims of domestic violence? You start by investing in more rape crisis centres and a national hotline. How do we reform our criminal justice system to prevent people from being led on the path of perpetual crime? You start by introducing an independent sentencing commission, building smaller prisons and improving prison education & drug treatment. Problem, solution.

On the Middle East, of course, that kind of analysis isn’t possible, and even the smartest commentators are struggling to articulate anything beyond noting the rights or wrongs of the carnage currently being visited on Gaza. Part of the reason for that, I think, is neither Israel or Hamas’ actions can be seen as working towards either side’s long-term objectives. Nobody has adequately explained to me how even the deadliest, most accurate strikes against Hamas leadership will lead to long-term security for those Israelis who live under threat of bombardment, and you’d really struggle to make a case that Hamas’ reckless missile-hurling serves any positive function towards freedom for the Palestinians. So if neither side seems capable of acting in their own-long term interests, the task falls to those of us made nauseous by the death and suffering to try to act as a restraining or enabling influence.

I’ve read a number of very good, serious and humane posts about the crisis, but what puts this post by Daniel Levy above the others is that he manages to articulate a constructive way the international community can engage in the region. I’d advise reading the whole thing, but this is the key section.

Just as in 2006, Israel needs the international community to be its exit strategy – and there is no time to waste. Even what appears as a short-term Israeli success is likely to prove self-defeating over a longer time horizon and that effect will intensify as the fighting continues. Over time, immense pressure will also grow on the PA in Ramallah, on Jordan, Egypt and others to act and their governments will be increasingly uneasy. Demonstrations across the West Bank are calling for a halt to all Israeli-Palestinian talks and for Palestinian unity.

If the U.S. is indifferent or still under the neocon ideological spell then Europe, the rest of the Quartet, Arab States and other internationals must act – with a variety of players using leverage with Israel and Hamas to de-escalate. Escalation poses dangers at a humanitarian and regional-political level. International leaders should head to the region before the new year, even if the warring parties discourage it, and for some of them Gaza must be on the itinerary, the boycott (anyway unwise) is a secondary matter now. High-level visits in themselves can create a de-escalatory dynamic.

Both sides will want to land the final big punch and both will need a dignified narrative for home consumption – any ceasefire deal will have to take this into account (and this during an Israeli election campaign, with violence usually helping the right, and the centrist government desperate for an image make-over after that Lebanon 2006 debacle).

The obvious ingredients will have to be creatively re-configured for this to be possible, including ending rocket fire at Israel and removing the blockade on Gaza. New ingredients may also be necessary and while extending the ceasefire to the West Bank is (unfortunately) probably out of the question, it might be possible this time to establish a monitoring mechanism for the ceasefire. Such a mechanism could serve both sides’ interests (Israel gets a more solid guarantee, Hamas gets more recognition). There is a precedent for this – after the April 1996 Israel-Hezbollah conflict a formal Ceasefire Understanding was reached that included the establishment of a Monitoring Group consisting of the U.S., France, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel (with Syria basically acting as guarantor for Hezbollah). That mechanism proved useful and met with constructive IDF cooperation – something similar might be needed now.

In addition efforts need to be revived for achieving Palestinian national reconciliation (which itself could ease the management of the Gaza situation) and for allowing Gaza greater access to the outside world through Egypt via the Rafah border crossing.

But there is a bigger picture – and it is staring at the incoming Obama administration. Today’s events should be ‘exhibit A’ in why the next U.S. Government cannot leave the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to fester or try to ‘manage’ it – as long as it remains unresolved, it has a nasty habit of forcing itself onto the agenda. That can happen on terms dictated to the U.S. by the region (bad) or the U.S. can seek to set its own terms (far preferable). The new administration needs to embark upon a course of forceful regional diplomacy that breaks fundamentally from past efforts. A consensus of sorts is emerging in the U.S. foreign policy establishment that this conflict needs to be resolved – evidenced in the findings of a recent Brookings/Council of Foreign Relations Report or the powerful statements coming from elder statesmen like Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, themselves building on the findings of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group. It will require tenacity and bold ideas – in framing the solution, bringing in previously excluded actors, creating mechanisms to implement a deal (such as international forces) and utilizing the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative – but the alternative is far worse, its what we see today and it guarantees ongoing instability in a region of paramount importance to the United States.

This might seem a strange time to slip in an indie rock reference, but there’s a line in a Conor Oberst song where he groans of “making these to-do lists, but nothing gets crossed out”. Reading the news this past year, you can see what he means. We’re living through the most severe economic crisis most of us have ever known. We’re inhabiting a planet undergoing a climate crisis which could claim countless lives, an energy crisis which has us consuming resources we can’t replenish, and a food crisis in which population growth is outstripping production. We have unresolved, life-sapping conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the ominous prospect of two nuclear powers squaring off in the Indian subcontinent, and there are human rights sins being committed daily against women in Saudi Arabia, gays in Iran, democrats in Zimbabwe, workers in the UAE and just about everyone in Burma and North Korea. The to-do list mounts by the day and nothing ever gets crossed out.

My point is that if we want to look back at 2009 with greater fondness than the year before, we need a renaissance in internationalism to meet these mounting challenges. No one country can resolve these emergencies by itself, and whilst the election of Barack Obama might help galvanise the effort towards global solutions, the international community certainly can’t afford to wait for America to take the lead. Only with a combined, multi-national effort will we ever inch towards crossing these crises off an ever-growing global ‘to do’ list, and whilst that might sound incredibly trite as a piece of ‘serious’ analysis, as a New Year’s Resolution, I can think of nothing better.

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