The Only Path to a Middle East Picnic?
There’s a phenomenon in complexity science called “path dependence”. It’s the kind of blind persistence ants display when following pheromone trails back to a table from which the picnic basket has long since been removed. It’s a common failing of politicians, too, when they persist in supporting polices that have already failed. A current example is the blind commitment of American policymakers to the chimera of a two state “solution” in the Middle East.
The potential to achieve a just and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians through a two state model is near zero. Few on any side are genuinely eager for such an option, and objective realities stand against it. The most obvious roadblocks are water, Israeli settlers, security responsibilities in a Palestinian state, human rights for non Jews in Israel, the physical separation of the West Bank and Gaza, and the “right of return”. Equally important, if less obvious, are the conflicting interests and interventions of regional and global powers.
These and other inconsistencies undermine the potential for success of any two state structure, regardless of what boundaries might be delineated. They indicate that the most viable and resilient model for a just and lasting Middle East peace is a single, democratic, non-ideological state.
Extremists on both sides – ardent Zionists and Islamists – despise such a concept. The former argue that Jews must have their own state in order to be secure; the latter that any emergent state must be Islamic. Both positions are path dependent.
The presence of a Jewish state has not made Jews in the Middle East and elsewhere more secure. Rather it has made them less so by providing a rallying point for Al Qaeda and other enemies. An Islamic state cannot offer necessary protections and freedoms to Jews, Christians and others. Nor have Islamic regimes to date proven able to deliver the kind of economic and social development the region will need to recover from 60 years of war and occupation.
To move toward resolution, the narratives underlying both the Israeli and Palestinian positions must be addressed openly and honestly. Despite a masterful 50 year public relations campaign by Israel – and the acceptance of its perspective by much of the western world – Palestinians were deprived of their homeland through a UN-imposed partition, two wars and what would now be labeled ethnic cleansing. Most are still denied basic human rights within Israel and the occupied territories. Millions more live in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Gaza.
This situation has become a festering sore that has poisoned relationships throughout the region and beyond. It is a primary excuse of jihadist groups for their war on the west and modernity, and a rallying cry for radicalization through the Islamic world. The United States, which provides some $3 billion each year to Israel in mostly military aid, is seen as sanctioning and abetting this behavior.
The Israelis are not the only intransigent party, however. It would be hard to find an entity more consistently corrupt, incompetent and self-defeating than Fatah, the traditionally dominant Palestinian faction. More concerned with personal power and graft than the welfare of their people, mainstream Palestinian politicians have routinely suppressed reformist movements, and either ordered or sanctioned actions intended to torpedo peace initiatives.
Hamas, the Islamic movement originally supported by Israel as a counter to secular Fatah, is generally less corrupt. But it is hardly more effective. Like Fatah, its efforts are largely posturing and theater. Its support among Palestinians – who elected a majority of Hamas candidates to the legislature in 2006 – stems mostly from the fact that it is not Fatah, and is still feebly resisting the Israeli occupation.
This dysfunctional blend of politics, corruption, mythology and rhetoric has produced a strategic stalemate. The deadlock is increasingly painful and expensive for all sides, and increasingly dangerous. As the pressures of its internal contradictions and unmet expectations build, some kind of explosion is inevitable. Unless the United States and other nations intervene quickly and vigorously to achieve a different outcome, it is likely to dissolve into greater violence and disorder.
Several factors could combine to tip the scales toward chaos. The first is simple demographics. Palestinians will soon outnumber Jews within the disputed boundaries. Second is the “porosity” of globalization. Individuals, ideologies, weapons and technologies can now transit borders with relative ease. Third is the “evolution of lethality”. Because of increasingly powerful weapons, small groups and even individuals may now fight nations with a reasonable chance of success. Fourth is shifting public opinion in the US and Western Europe away from Israel in the wake of its most recent assault on Gaza.
These looming realities mean Israel cannot hunker down behind a wall – regardless of its height or the boundaries it defines – so long as its neighbors feel aggrieved. Deterrence, Israel’s fundamental strategic paradigm throughout its existence, is dead.
To find a way out, the solution space must be enlarged. The process should begin by focusing on a simple strategic question – what is the desired future? The answer cannot simply be, “A state in which Jews feel secure.” Or, “A Palestinian state within pre-1967 borders.” It must be an answer that speaks to security, equity and sustainability for all.
Regional powers must be part of this process from the beginning. No agreements can be kept without addressing their interests and enlisting their support. Some model of truth and reconciliation must be facilitated – both in its creation and operation. Palestinians and Israelis each have their own victim narratives and believe themselves the aggrieved party. Trust building on all levels must precede meaningful negotiations on larger issues.
Contrary to conventional thinking, the diversity of the region is an asset. Its rich variety of people and traditions constitutes a deep body of wisdom. While it is harder initially to facilitate agreement in such a diverse system, agreements and relationships, once forged, tend to be resilient.
Barack Obama has, to date, expressed no inclination to consider anything other than a two state structure within the rough confines of the 1967 borders. Should he persist with this path, it is likely he will become the 12th US president in 60 years to fail in an effort to bring forth a stable and secure Middle Easy. It is a failure he can ill afford in the midst of America’s economic crisis and military entanglements. More important, it is one he need not suffer. It is the right time – and Mr. Obama is the right person – to expand the solution space and begin to bring to a close almost a century of separation and conflict.
JOHN GOEKLER is a trainer, facilitator and consultant specializing in applying emerging scientific understandings to organizational effectiveness, transformative policy and global security. He is the founder of Change Factors, in Santa Fe, New Mexico.