The EU Potential for Conflict Resolution in the Middle East

Life in Gaza
The EU Potential for Conflict Resolution in the Middle East - I. William Zartman


Now that the Albright missions to the Middle East has failed, it is important to examine alternative means to putting the Peace Process back on track.' Of all the third parties watching the compounding deadlock between the principal parties, the European Union (EU) is best placed to pick up the challenge; neither the Arab states nor Russia is in any position to play any mediatory role. But the momentary failure of the reigning mediator does not guarantee the success of its replacement. To the contrary, it highlights the difficulties that any intervenor will have to overcome. So it is not the quality of the EU as a world player with power and interests that needs emphasis and analysis, but its strategy in regard to the stalemate.

Let three premises be stated from the outset. The first is that a European alternative is worth discussing even if a common foreign policy approach is not assured. To be sure, a European foreign policy position toward the Middle East in competition with different foreign policies pursued by its members is wasteful, disuniting, and aggravating to both target and observing countries; but a European position that unites a large number of the member countries increases their impact, even if there are one or two dissenters. Obviously, any European strategy will have to be sold to EU members; agreement cannot be assumed from the start. On the other hand, the desirability of unity does not preclude different strategies by different members in service of the same policy; the "good cop, bad cop" routine is one of the most effective ploys even though everyone knows that they both work for the same outfit.

The second premise is that the "two cop" rule applies to US-EU relations as well. A European initiative brings in a rival matchmaker, a situation with obvious structural complications. Not only do both third parties want to succeed in a common goal - in making the match, but each wants to succeed in a competing goal - to enhance its own power and interests in the region. Experience and analysis show that a frequent undoing of mediation is the presence, not of too many, but of uncoordinated mediators. While keeping the integrity of their own demarche, European diplomats would need to communicate actively with the US and make major efforts to allay fears and calm rivalries. Whatever the case that can be made for an EU demarche, it is certain that the EU cannot arrive at its ultimate goal alone. Once it has gotten the Peace Process restarted, at most, it will need the active cooperation of the US to keep the restarted Process going. Carping and sabotage between matchmakers, as has too often been noted in the past, is counterproductive to both mediators.

But coordination means that there is something to coordinate, not simply that one party is following at a respectful distance behind the other. The only way for one partner to attract respect and cooperation from the other is for it to have its own policy integrity and autonomy. This is particularly true at times when American policy is weak or hamstrung by domestic considerations, leaving a policy vacuum and a role for others (Quandt 1991). The importance of the effort and the weight of a European position should not be underestimated. If there is any limitation on Europe's clout in regard to the Middle East, it is not produced by some inherent inferiority vis-a-vis the United States but by Europe's diffidence and disunity. Europe's propinquity, historic relations, current trade, especially in oil and gas, and demographic ties underwrite its interest in the Middle East. These interests are the basis of a policy that has both a right to stand on its own and a duty to coordinate with that of the US.

The third premise is that the Peace Process - based on UNSC/R242 of 1967; launched through the 1973-7 4 disengagements, the Camp David Agreements (1978), and the peace treaties between Egypt and Israel (1979) and between Jordan and Israel (1994); revived through the Madrid process (begun in 1991) and its offshoot, the Oslo Agreements of 1993 and 1995 (including the Hebron Agreement of 1997) - has neither ended nor is irrelevant (Quandt 1993). Although some have suggested that the step-by-step nature of the Peace Process has ended its usefulness (Kissinger 1997; Krauthammer 1997; Siegman 1997), there is a confusion in these comments between the fact that the Process is now approaching vital issues and the judgment whether step-by-step is the best way to handle them.

The Peace Process is arriving where it was supposed to: at the core decisions over statehood, borders, and security arrangements. As a process, it was to create mutual confidence along the way to its destination. It has not done this, at least not as completely as was expected. But the parties are looking each other in the face and recognizing each other's existence and legitimacy, whether they like it or not, and doing so under the extremely destabilizing conditions created by an extremist, rejectionist minority on both sides. To propose to use a momentary downturn in that rapprochement process to skip the remaining steps and jump to a final settlement is to replace a chance at a lasting solution with a momentary tactical advantage for one side (or for one view of one side).

The Palestinians are and should be uninterested in a final agreement at this time because they do not feel they can get a fair deal. None of the proposals for a final jump deal with this problem; indeed, none of them indicate how they would overcome the blockage and change in formula posed by the present Israeli government that constitute the current problem in the first place. In other words, it is precisely because the Peace Process has not completed its work that a jump to final negotiations is unwarranted at this time.

But for the current argument, this does not matter. The following discussion aims at the applicability of any sort of process. Since the purpose of a European demarche would be to get a process restarted, it is not particularly dependent on the type of process it would begin.


To start with the obvious, there is a deadlock in the Peace Process, but - paradoxically - not a stalemate. The Process has been stopped, although probably not yet irrecuperably destroyed. The situation is Sartre's Hell-No Way Out (Huis clos). Palestine is the problem. Israel has the solution. Palestinians cannot impose the solution, they can only augment the problem. In withholding the solution, Israel only augments the problem.

But the blockage is one-sided. One side Israel is not stopped at all, but is moving ahead, making new facts on the ground-expanding settlements, changing attitudes, so that reconciliation becomes harder. There is no agreement among observers whether the Israeli government of Benyamin Netanyahu has a plan or is simply moving from moment to moment, animated by the need to stay in office. If there is a plan, it is to pursue a number of disparate objectives - build settlements, engage the Palestinian Authority (PA) in an anti-terrorist strategy, weaken the PA by withholding payments and other measures - to the point where a popular reaction of frustration explodes and the Palestinians show by their actions that the Peace Process is dead and that security requires a policy of repression, not of reconciliation. If there is no plan, the same disparate objectives are being pursued for their own sake alone, with the same result which is, however, not planned as a causal sequence.

The other side - the Palestinians' - is indeed blocked. It is a policy-taker, having the choice of either going along with Israeli policy, or going along with it in different ways.2 If, as an alternative to accepting Israeli policy, it resists, it will merely reinforce the Israeli policy by dismantling peace and reconciliation, by changing attitudes in responding to the provocation, and by making it even more difficult to restart the Process. The PA is obliged by the situation to resist following the Israeli policy lead as much as possible, lest it show its weakness and cede its place of leadership among its people to Hamas or other hard-line rivals. The survival instincts of Chairman Arafat reinforce this calculation.

While it is true that the Peace Process is a diplomatic activity very much in the ultimate hands of the respective populations, neither side is doing anything to appeal to the other's population to move the process forward. A pre-negotiation analysis shows it should (Stein 1994). Indeed, the Oslo Agreements themselves suffered from reentry problems and from their failure to provide for a public relations campaign and grassroots dialogue back home. As one Israeli negotiator at Oslo has stated, "Oslo killed Rabin and Hamas elected Netanyahu" (Pruitt 1997, p 139). The latter's tactics have continued to nurture that relationship. It is now very difficult for the Palestinian population or its leadership to adopt a strategy of trustworthiness in the face of Israeli government tactics without looking like a patsy -particularly in the light of its widespread view that it is worse off after Oslo then before, just as it is difficult for Israeli doves to appeal to the Palestinians in the context of lsraeli government policy.

Terrorism, it should be recognized, is a side product of the Peace Process and can be caused by both progress and non-progress. As an evil, it need be separated from the Peace Process and treated on its own, by appropriate security measures. The great trap of terrorism, into which many governments around the world have fallen, occurs when governments adopt measures that treat all of the opposing population as if they were terrorists, thus forcing them into a self-proving hypothesis that makes them allies of the agents from which they should be separated. Israeli measures have done this not only to the Palestinian population but also to the PA itself. Instead, assuming it is interested in the Peace Process, the Israeli government should be giving the PA incentives for distancing itself and its population from the terrorists by showing progress in the Peace Process. It does the reverse.

This is not a ripe moment. The classical components of ripeness are a mutually hurting stalemate (MHS) (optimally strengthened by a recently avoided or impending catastrophe), valid spokesmen, and the perception of a way out (Zartman 1989). None of these exists today. In the current deadlock, hurt is not mutual; there is a struggle for the role of valid spokesman, on both sides but particularly for the Palestinian side; and the perception of a formula for a solution to the conflict is being contested and destroyed. The Oslo Agreement set up a process that was moving gradually toward a two-state solution under conditions of security to be worked out to the satisfaction of both sides (according to the 30-year old formula of "territory for security" (UNSC/R 242). However, that outcome is being removed from the agenda by the Israeli government with no clear replacement in sight. Just getting talks restarted in such conditions is a pointless illusion, since the conditions for talking are not present.

There is an alternative to the push of ripeness as defined by a mutually hurting stalemate, and that is ripeness marked by its positive equivalent, a mutually enticing opportunity (MEO) (Zartman 1995, 1997). Such "pull moments" are rare. The initiation of the Madrid Conference in 1991 (by promising improved relations with the US mediator if the two parties would attend) was a possible example. Good relations with the US are not as much of a drawing point at the end of the decade, but if this constitutes an opening for Europe, it will have to be manufactured with much less ready raw material. MEOs often occur in the midst of a soft stalemate, a bearable, if costly, deadlock, or a "grinding crisis" such as exists in the Middle East. Mediation in such contexts is necessary to help the parties out of their bind but it must create its own entry point.


"Ripeness theory" indicates that when moments are not ripe, interested parties can either work to ripen them or position themselves for a later moment when ripeness occurs (Zartman 1989; Haass 1990). Positioning should be treated as a fall-back, so that any efforts at ripening do not destroy the possibility of staying in the action if they fail. Ripening would involve producing a perception by both parties either of an enticing opportunity which would pull them off their deadlock, or of a mutually hurting stalemate that would push them to look for a way out attractive to both sides. The opportunity could be in regard either to the problem or to relations with the mediator.

For the Peace Process to move ahead, the structural imbalance of the sides needs to be redressed. The Palestinians will always be the demandeur and the policy-taker but need to be strengthened so as not to be at the mercy of the other side in the negotiations. Assistance in redressing the imbalance removes the temptation to resort to violence in an attempt -doubtless unsuccessful - to achieve the same end. A number of measures can be taken to provide internal resources for the Palestinians and reduce their dependence on Israel. The PA is dependent on Israel for remission of the taxes that make up about 60 percent of its budget, a situation that dramatically symbolizes the structural imbalance. European aid payments to the PA to replace these withheld funds on an urgent basis would restore the PA's ability to carry out its own internal duties toward its citizens and would free it from an element of dependency on Israel. The payments, which do not involve large amounts, could be made oil an interest-free loan basis, until complete Israeli payments were made, or could be subtracted from any European countries' aid payments to Israel if there are such.

In this situation, it would also be appropriate if the international aid and investment discussed in the 1994 donors' conference were forthcoming in the promised amounts. EU members who have not filled their quotas would, without any offence to Israel, strengthen the Palestinians and redress the imbalance by investing in the West Bank and Gazan economies and by providing aid for development projects that the territories so desperately need. Health, education, and.development (investment) are three areas of depressed activity in the Palestinian territories due to lack of money (Sneth 1992). Interestingly, all three are areas where private activities and civil society can play a crucial role independent of government, so that aid and investments can be offered from abroad to government or non-government agencies to foster socio-economic well-being.

Such economic measures have a number of important effects, beyond diluting Palestinian dependence on Israel. They would also strengthen Palestinian civil society, enabling it to deal with the PA as a partner and a control, which in turn would strengthen the integrity and the performance of the PA. In addition, they would also undercut the message of Hamas and other rejectionists by showing the tangible effects of the Oslo process in improving people's lives and at the same time demonstrate the faith of the outside world in the promise of that process. There is no end of studies on the measures and opportunities necessary for Palestinian development and, beyond that, for Palestinian-Israeli(-Jordanian) economic cooperation (e.g. Fischer, Hausman, Karasik & Schelling 1994; Fischer, Rodtic & Tuma 1993) - all waiting to be implemented.

A third measure to weaken Palestinian dependence involves the development of direct access to Palestinian territory unmediated by Israel. This means above all the construction of a seaport at Gaza, as outlined in a Tel Aviv University feasibility study. The major ingredient required is cement, which has been barred by Israeli restrictions on commerce between Israel and the territories. Physically, there are other directions than from the north and east from which cement could arrive in Gaza, either from Egypt in the south or by direct landings on the coast to the west. There is little wonder that Israel has refused to authorize the port construction or the importation of cement: "authorization" and "refusal" are words of dependency and epitomize Palestinian dependence on Israel, and the completion of the port would provide unmediated communication between the Palestinian entity and the external world. The EU and its members are in a fine position to make this access possible.

Similarly, a desalinization plant at Gaza would be another crucial contribution to the mitigation of Palestinian dependence on Israel. At the same time, it would make a positive contribution to the knotty problems of interdependent water shortage in the area, in effect reducing the burden that the Gazan population places on the Israeli water system. From this point of view, construction of a desalinization plant should be welcomed by Israel, although, of course, other views of Israeli interests would suggest opposition.

It would also be appropriate in this situation to indicate displeasure with the hard-line measures practiced by the current Israeli government, as another means of equilibrating the relations between the parties. Secretary Albright specifically mentioned objectionable measures - "provocative expansion of settlements, land confiscation, home demolitions, and confiscation of ID" (NY Times, 12 Sept. 1997) - without much effect; more tangible expressions of disapproval could be made. Prime Minister Netanyahu has made a number of foreign visits while these measures have been implemented, sometimes even apparently to avoid being on the scene during initial reactions (as, for example, during the opening of the tunnel along the temple wall). Refusal by EU members to receive such visits, even if they are unrelated to Israeli-Palestinian relations, would be an appropriate sign of disapproval (actions of this type by President Clinton and the German government in October 1997 are examples). Other such signals can be envisaged.

Finally, on the direct policy side, an EU declaration against leaping to a final solution would be an important contribution to maintaining the step-by-step process. The fact that the process over the past two decades has not built up the necessary confidence between the two sides is not a condemnation of the process but a testimony to the need for its continuation. Like terrorism, the current Israeli measures are designed to further destroy confidence, to the point where distrust becomes irreversible. The difference between the two sets of activities is that terrorism (on both sides - it was not a Hamas member who killed Rabin) is not the work of the official representatives of either side, whereas the measures against the Palestinians are official Israeli government policy. A European statement focussing on the reconstruction of confidence and condemning measures that destroy confidence and that seek to take advantage of its destruction would also help mitigate the structural disequilibrium between the two sides and would focus the process on the directions it must take to remain alive.

In coda, while governments position for a riper moment and help the ripening process, it is important to underline the contribution that can be made on the unofficial side by a spectrum of "track two" activities (Kelman 1979, 1987, 1993; McDonald 1991). Conferences, colloquia, dialogue groups, and joint projects can build networks of bridges required for the preparation of official negotiations (Stein 1991). These bridges need both to give confidence to the "doves" on each side and to work on the conversion of "hawks" into "doves." They need also to cross the line between the two sides and build support within the other side for the Peace Process and confidence in its popular support on the originating side. Even in times of official support, politicians may be too busy selling their policies to their own reluctant followers and not be able to pay enough attention to selling those policies to the supporters of their partners or adversaries on the other side. As noted, this was the failing of the post-Oslo period, and lessons should be drawn from that failure for the future of the process.

General Considerations

In considering the general approach put forward here, it is important to return to some of the initial assumptions. The equilibrating demarches suggested would work best in close conjunctimi with an American policy which also maintains its announced commitment to the Peace Process and the Oslo track. This would put the two Western allies in the classical "good cop, bad cop" (or, "bad cop, good cop") relationship to the two parties in the Middle East. Such tactics can be very successful, particularly if the policies of a Europe less powerful in the region were to drive the parties into the waiting arms of the usual American mediator equally committed to the same process. The assumptions of this strategy, which need to be underlined in red, are quiet coordination between the two Western partners and joint commitment to the same step-by-step process. If coordination and common orientation are missing, the activities of either party become merely a display of weakness and a target of scorn before the extremists of both sides.

The above analysis and proposals may appear to be insufficient because they do not go on into direct mediation strategies and measures for taking the next steps. That lacuna is only apparent. On one hand, what is now necessary is not an idea for reopening talks but measures for restoring some balance between the two sides so that profitable negotiations -however opened-can take place. Repeated studies indicate that negotiation needs to take place best between approximate equals and that imparting a sense of equality facilitates negotiation (Rubin & Zartman 1996). The manifest inequality and dependency that characterize the structure of relations between Israel and Palestine constitute a serious hindrance to any fruitful negotiations. The Oslo negotiations involved a number of trades over time so that the step-by-step process could create greater equality between the parties (Pruitt 1997). In the current situation efforts to create greater equality are necessary to the revival of the process, whatever its subsequent path.

On the other hand, that path is already indicated, and it would be a wasteful diversion, costly in confidence, to try to invent a new one. The Oslo Accords provide for successive negotiation stages for the transfer of authority, stages which are designed to build competence and confidence at the same time. No alternative proposal aired to date has indicated any process which provides either the same or substitute advantages, and all proposals for a single final negotiation simply assume the existence of pro-negotiation conditions (Stein 1994) whose provision only the step-by-step process addresses. The challenge to any demarche, European or other, is to get the Oslo process back on the track to completion. Eventually, a new round of negotiation needs to be scheduled, less secretly than Oslo but much less under the glare of expectant publicity than previous negotiations. Possibly a prior discussion of the general shape of results in a EU-Israeli-Palestinian forum could lay the groundwork for an official diplomatic meeting that would finalize and officialize details.

Finally, let it be noted that a focus on establishing a certain equality and autonomy between the parties is not a pro-Palestinian policy. It is a pro-peace policy. There is no need to go into the catastrophic failure of the policy of dealing with the Mideast situation by war, by mutual denial and by military balance over past decades. The need to proceed with negotiations implies the need to create the conditions for negotiations and the need to look to envisage an equitable outcome toward which such negotiations should advance. An ostensibly small European role in that effort can have important implications for a process that benefits both parties.

I. William Zartman is the Jacob Blaustein Professor of International Organizations and Conflict Resolution and Director of the International and Conflict Management Program at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C. His books on negotiation include Elusive Peace: Negotiating and End to Civil Wars (Brookings Institution, 1995); Ripe for Resolution: Conflict and Intervention in Africa (Oxford, 1989); and Cooperative Security: Reducing Third World Wars (Syracuse, 1995). He is a member of the steering committee of the Process of Negotiation (PIN) Project at the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), and convenor of the Washington Interest in Negotiation (WIN) Group.