Transformational diplomacy and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

By Michael Marten
September 23, 2007

Before the US/UK-led invasion of Iraq, George W Bush and associated neo-conservatives overturned the received wisdom of several generations of politicians, diplomats, policy-makers and activists around the world in asserting that the road to peace in the Middle East went ‘through Baghdad’, rather than ‘through Jerusalem’.

Seeing the Middle East (often not more closely defined) as a region in which conflict is a key issue, the root of this, the neo-cons claimed, lay with Saddam Hussein’s regime, rather than, amongst other key issues such as western involvement in oil-rich states, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and the ethno-racial conflict underpinning relations between Zionists and Palestinians as well as the wider Arab world.

Remove Hussein and install a democratic government in Iraq (but only one that would be ‘friendly’ to the west, of course – the irony here escapes most neo-conservatives), and, so the neo-cons claimed, stability and peace would spread throughout the Middle East. In 2006, Condoleezza Rice defined this kind of thinking with the Orwellian term ‘Transformational Diplomacy’.

Although the accepted view of the primacy of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which after all dominated significant foreign policy efforts by a number of Bush’s predecessors – including his own father – was widely scorned by Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Rice and others, there are reasons to think that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be returning to prominence in international concerns. Whether this is for the good or not, remains to be seen.

Most observers of the region recognise that the foreign policy morass that the US and the UK find themselves in in Iraq will continue to dominate the agenda in terms of media coverage and public and private debate until such time as western powers accept this is a war they cannot win and withdraw, however ignominiously (of course, none of this says anything about the almost unimaginable devastation being wreaked upon Iraqis – so much more could be said about that, but will not be commented on further here). Ironically, perhaps, it is possible to see the recent dominance of Iraq as one of the reasons for the return of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the agenda of western governments.

Almost immediately after the destruction of the World Trade Centre towers on 11.9.2001, the then Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, compared the attacks to those carried out by Palestinians over many years in attempts to resist Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. Israeli governments in recent years have been very successful in subsuming their attacks on Palestinians into Bush’s ‘war on terror’, thereby securing ever wider support from the US for their policies, policies that have resulted in the theft of land illegally occupied since 1967, irreversible settlement creation, numerous extra-judicial assassinations and increasingly severe repression on all levels of daily life.

Many conservative commentators, especially in the US but also here in Europe, have accepted these actions as part of the ‘war on terror’, and have largely ignored the illegality of virtually everything the Israeli government has done in the occupied Palestinian territories.

However, the extent of the dispossession and repression of Palestinians, symbolised particularly in the monstrosity of the Wall, has not gone unnoticed, even if substantial sections of the mainstream media have chosen to largely ignore it. But amongst NGOs and activist groups, within religious settings and beyond, this is not the case. Indeed, quite the reverse appears to be happening.

It almost seems that the more the media ignore what is happening in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the more attention is paid to it in the ‘alternative’ media. Innumerable websites and electronic news sources have sprung up in recent times, some being run on a highly professional basis and targeted partly at the mainstream media (such as the Electronic Intifada), while many more are operated for smaller circles of readers and thrive on dedication and passion rather than professionalism. Whilst varying considerably in quality and reliability, they all serve the ultimate purpose of revealing what the Israeli government would rather remained hidden, and they do this ever more effectively.

This we can call the informational aspect to ‘civil society’ – a term that in this context we can take to simply mean ordinary people who are willing to become involved in an issue in some organised fashion. The outrage that many people feel at what is happening just beyond the fringe of Europe is a motivating force in providing these news services, and it helps a wide circle of people engage with their political representatives and government bodies: a classic instance of information leading to action.

There can be little doubt that the growing importance of such action puts pressure on those in positions of authority to themselves become involved, and it can reasonably be assumed that the gradual return of the conflict to the mainstream media and political interest is in part, at least, as a result of increasingly persistent lobbying and campaigning.

However, if we can accept that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is returning to the attention of senior politicians, the mainstream media, and diplomatic efforts, can this be seen as a ‘good thing’? Is it likely that positive action may result from these efforts?

There are two main efforts on the international stage that bear closer examination at the moment. The first is the appointment of ex-UK Prime Minister Tony Blair as an envoy of the so-called Quartet (UN, Russia, Europe and USA). Guessing what he will report to the first Quartet meeting that he is attending in this role next week (I write on 22 September 2007) is pointless, but it is worth looking at his mandate. Contrary to popular opinion, he is not being sent as a ‘peace envoy’ by the Quartet, but as an envoy to encourage the Palestinians towards ‘good governance’.

Ignoring for a moment the irony of someone being appointed to help others improve their governance who has himself done so much to damage to good governance in the country he led for a decade, one also has to ask what this war-tarnished politician can achieve in a conflict zone when during his term in office as British Prime Minister he consistently supported Israel’s position as occupier. And these two issues related to the person of Tony Blair ignore the more fundamental issue that pursuing good governance of a people under military occupation whilst not seeking to undo the occupation itself can hardly lead to success.

The second international effort that has been heralded as an opportunity for movement is the autumn meeting for the parties to the conflict that George W. Bush has proposed. However, the omens for this are far from positive – there is as yet no clear agenda (and certainly nothing that indicates an attempt to end Israeli occupation) and deliberate vagueness as to the invited participants (though the winners of the last internal Palestinian elections, Hamas, will almost certainly be excluded). There is no direct connection to international law and nothing that would indicate any inclination to grapple with the real issues of occupation and conflict over land that lie at the root of the conflict.

It would seem that the only consistency in mainstream international efforts at the moment lies in the obfuscation and procrastination of any meaningful move towards a just resolution of the conflict. Regardless of what shape or form such a resolution may take, it is clear that there is precious little relating to justice that is emerging from international efforts at the present time.

So what next? There is an increasing body of opinion voicing serious concern at government policy in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the International Crisis Group, several of the major churches, and the UK parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee. All are calling at different levels for a recognition that having urged the Palestinians to hold elections despite the ongoing occupation, it behoves the West to ‘urgently consider ways of engaging politically with moderate elements’ within Hamas (FASC).

Not communicating with those who do not share our world view will not lead to peaceful resolution of conflicts, but rather empower those who already feel that the West is neither trustworthy nor sincere in its desire for democratic and peaceful change.

The potential transformation of relationships that can come about through open and honest meetings with (supposed) opponents is something that many within the churches, involved for example with ecumenical and interfaith groups, will be able to bear witness to. It is the activities of ordinary people, involved in what are often extraordinary acts of rapprochement and reconciliation, that can be used as examples in exercising pressure on those in positions of authority, as demonstrated on a very public level by the recent involvement of South African and Northern Irish politicians in helping Iraqi politicians meet and discuss issues between them.

Those who take an interest in the situation in the Middle East should take heart from the fact that the renewed prominence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not due solely to weariness with the disastrous everyday toll of death and destruction emerging from Iraq, but is also due to the continued pressure from the countless people who are working hard to change attitudes to the conflict. Some of these actions, such as the growing boycott of Israeli goods, are almost certainly completely ineffective in direct power-political or economic terms, but are a tremendous tool for communicating the issues to those unaware of them, as well as empowering those involved.

Civil society can effect change – it is already doing so – and the churches need to continue to play their part in this. As non-party political participants in the wider political scene in this country they occupy an important role, but they do that often through the work, not of the church hierarchies, but through the engagement and dedication of ordinary members – the civil society of the churches, one might say.

Encouraging the government to listen to advice from regional experts rather than partisan envoys, engaging with ‘the enemy’ (as a certain Palestinian Jew encouraged us to do 2000 years ago), treating Occupier and Occupied as such and working towards enabling a just resolution of the conflict between them – these and more are things that the churches and its members, together with the other elements of our wider civil society (Muslim, secular and so on), can continue to pursue and involve others in. Now that really would be ‘transformational diplomacy’.


(c) Michael Marten. The author, an Ekklesia associate, is is an Edinburgh-based historian and political scientist specialising in international issues, with a particular focus on the involvement of Europeans overseas, especially in the Middle East. He has taught Middle East history and politics in the Department of Politics and International Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, London, and is a guest lecturer at the Institute for Advanced Study, University of Pavia, Italy. He has recently contributed to the Eerdmans Encyclopedia of Christianity and to Christianity and Jerusalem: Theology and Politics in the Holy Land, ed. Anthony O'Mahony (Gracewing: 2007).

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