Terms of peace

by Israela Oron
TEL AVIV - Israel's record since its creation includes many more wars than peace treaties. Could this be because, ironically, war seems less dangerous than peace?

On the face of it, the statement is absurd: people die in wars, property and infrastructure are damaged and vast sums of money that could have been used for education and health are squandered -- only to increase hostility on the other side. Could the price of peace possibly be any higher?

True, some wars (such as the 1973 War) were imposed on us and left us with no choice but to fight in self-defence. It must be then, that when it comes to peace there always seems to be a choice: it appears as though all other options have not yet been exhausted.

Even assuming that throughout its history, all of Israel's leaders desired peace, they may have felt that victory in war would make it possible to negotiate or impose better terms for peace with the enemy. This perspective is based on the doctrine that deterrence will carry the day. In other words, we should have military power capable of deterring the enemy from attacking, and failing that, of carrying the day in case of war. Unfortunately, though, this conception has failed the test of reality, in the past twenty years, vis--vis the Palestinians and other Arab groups; they're not deterred by Israel's military superiority, and Israel can't carry the day in an armed confrontation with them.

It must be then, that the region's leaders consider the price of peace higher than the price of war. Perhaps that's because in a peace treaty, you're buying an unknown quantity: Payment is made upfront, but without assurances of delivery schedules or quality. Besides, the price of peace is considerable in and of itself: It could destabilize the country and significantly worsen its starting position in case of renewed conflict. A leader might have to pay for the decision to wage peace with his position -- or even his life. On the other hand, when it comes to war, you don't pay in advance, and there's always a chance of victory that might improve your strategic position. War creates the illusion that its risks are easier to quantify; and this, in turn, gives leaders the illusion of control over its execution.

Another prevalent feeling among leaders seems to be that it's easier to rectify the failures of war than the failures of a peace treaty: Future concessions in peace negotiations are always based on past achievements -- poor though they may be. Failed agreements simply lead to more concessions in the future, without any additional gains.

Obviously, war and peace aren't the only options in our region. Most of the time we actually exist with something in-between: periods of violent confrontation, followed by a hiatus. These limbo-like situations allow leaders to avoid difficult decisions such as painful concessions for peace. In fact, though, in spite of their inevitable price, concessions for peace may actually be more rewarding than a situation that's somehow perceived as exacting no price at all.

It so happens that right now, both our peoples find themselves at a critical point in their history. Leaders on both sides have the opportunity to take critical decisions affecting the future. In my opinion, the main obstacle preventing negotiations over reasonable solutions isn't leaders' concern for personal survival. Rather, they're afraid that if they make a bad deal, they'll go down in history as having sold their children's futures in response to a moment of populist pressure.

The Oslo Accord was an Israeli leader's serious attempt to take significant risks in the core conflict with the Palestinians, in return for a chance for peace. And yet, today this agreement is perceived as the ultimate proof of the futility of pursuing a settlement with the Palestinians: The agreement didn't hold; the parties backed off from their commitments as soon as they reached the threshold of difficult decisions -- and Yitzhak Rabin paid for his historic move with his life.

The conventional explanation for Oslo's failure is that the peoples and their leaders weren't ripe enough for the concessions required. This reticence stemmed from both sides' belief that they could receive more for less, and their certainty that the other side would break the agreement as soon as possible. Oslo's failure made leaders on both sides wary of encouraging any future hope for peace in case it collapses yet again.

Given the current lack of trust between peoples and leaders, there's simply no point in addressing the public directly over political leaders' heads. This might change if someone were to follow Anwar Sadat's lead and take a huge personal risk. Any such move would score a lot of points -- even in today's environment of mistrust.

Non-governmental peace organizations (NGOs) also have a valuable role in promoting a peace process, especially in what's become a protracted diplomatic impasse. At such times, an endeavour such as the Geneva Initiative can negotiate understandings between both sides, thus giving the public a sense of hope that an agreement may be possible and encouraging popular pressure on the leaders to seriously consider the option of a negotiated settlement.

How can both sides be made to give up part of their dreams, in return for stopping the bloodshed and achieving mutual respect for their sovereignty? If we assume that the parameters of an agreement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are known and based on the two state solution, in order to reach an agreement each side must believe that it won't be possible to get any more, and that the other side will fulfil its obligations.

Due to the absence of mutual trust between the parties, no agreement will be possible without the international community's intense involvement. Both peoples have to internalise the true price they're paying for the lack of a permanent agreement, as well as the potential represented by one. And both sides will have to trust the international community's guarantees for any agreement's implementation. Without diplomatic and financial backing from the international community no serious progress towards a permanent agreement is possible. The alternative is continued, intermittent bloodshed and instability, under the euphemistic title of "conflict management".


* Israela Oron was deputy national security advisor during the Barak and Sharon governments. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 10 May 2007
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A paradigm shift
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Other articles in this series

Resolving the leadership-public paradox: a consultative approach by Naomi Chazan
A paradigm shift by Ziad Asali
A missing link: acknowledgement of historical narratives as part of peacemaking by Paul Scham
The role of public opinion in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by Ziad Abu Zayyad