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Mediating a Conflict Between Two Rights (or Two Wrongs)


Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, once said that Palestine-Israel conflict was so intractable precisely because it is not a conflict between right and wrong, but rather a conflict between two rights. (The Israeli novelist Amos Oz added that, sometimes, it is a conflict between two wrongs.)

What does that mean for the international community gathered in New York to consider the Palestinians bid for recognition as the 194th state?

To play a positive role it must resist all temptations to take sides and apportion blame and concentrate instead on helping the parties toward a shared future. As Oz puts it, “When you see bleeding people on the road, don’t ask which driver takes more responsibility for the accident, it’s irrelevant, it’s not urgent. Ask, ‘What can I do in order to stop the bleeding, to help the injuries, to bring them to hospital to heal the suffering?’”

Translated into diplo-speak, the question becomes: What course of action is most likely to empower those willing and able to decisively advance the two-state vision and contribute to a more stable, secure, and peaceful Middle East?

This suggests five principles the international community should follow going forward.

1. Foster an environment conducive to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. If Palestinian hopes are raised and then frustrated by the UN bid, or if either side suffers humiliation or claims “victory,” then the resulting violence may badly set back negotiations and erode trust between the parties. Threats to use the bid to assail Israel in international legal forums (so-called “lawfare”) will only have the same consequence. A diversion of the peace process into legal wrangling at the International Criminal Court would be a disaster.

2. Secure the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian nation-building project. Legislation has been introduced in the US Congress to cut off funds to the PA and to any UN organization that embraces the Palestinians bid. Bad ideas both, but an indication of the potential that Palestinian unilateralism has to put Palestinian nation-building at risk. The successful program of international cooperation, coordination, and financing has begun to make a reality of the long-held dream of Palestinian nation-building in the last two years. Securing that achievement is in the strategic interest of both parties, and that means maintaining a closed door to Hamas until it accepts the Quartet principles, securing the continued and highly successful security cooperation between Israel and the PA, and, yes, keeping the aid flowing.

3. Don’t forget the two peoples. While most people on both sides want peace and could live with the compromises (Israelis and Palestinians don’t hate each other as much as is made out), the politicians have failed to overcome the extremists and enforce the will of that majority. Unilateralism risks stoking mistrust, eroding cooperation, and only pushing further away the moment when each side must sit down and “write the other’s victory speech.” Direct negotiations under the auspices of the international community could help create an environment conducive to the leap of faith required of the Israeli and Palestinians peoples.

4. Insist the parties engage one another directly, recognize each other, and compromise. The creation of magnetic attractions away from the negotiating table may seduce the Palestinian side to hold out for maximalist positions that only push a conflict-ending agreement further away. Moreover, once inside international public fora, crowded as they are with third-party spoilers eager to advance their own agendas, good intentions can be forgotten as rhetoric and “megaphone diplomacy” take over.

5. Steer the parties back to negotiations. No giving up on negotiations just because they have not been successful yet. At Camp David in 2000, Taba in 2001, and again at Annapolis in 2007, the gaps between the parties narrowed, and both sides glimpsed a conflict-ending resolution. We should question the motivations of those who insist so vehemently that negotiations are useless. Certainly we should not share their pessimism. There is no alternative to seeing the job through.

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