This article was published on Al Jazeera’s website on 31 Jan, 2009. I must confess I was rather pleased to see it on the front page ; ) Unfortunately, however, I accidentally sent the wrong draft, which lacked a few minor changes and additions. The correct draft appears below.
Hope for Realpolitik?
The seductive powers of Barack Obama’s rhetoric are well noted. Throughout the primary contest and presidential campaign his stirring speeches captivated millions, both inside and outside of America. Yet, what made his core message of hope and change so entrancing, was not merely the skill of his rhetoric, but the growing perception that behind this message lay a great pragmatism, common sense, and an inspiring work ethic. For all his uplifting talk, Barack Obama comes across as a practitioner of realpolitik.
The Oxford English dictionary defines realpolitik as “politics based on realities and material needs, rather than morals or ideas.” President Obama’s cabinet choices reflect this. Whereas George W. Bush largely surrounded himself with Neo-con ideologues, (or rather, it might be said, they put forward Bush as their spokesman) Obama has selected a capable team of qualified people. The message is clear – the problems faced by the United States and the world are huge and Obama is serious about finding solutions.
It is unfortunate that the same cannot be said of the situation in Israel and Palestine. Rarely, in recent years, has realpolitik had a look-in. To the outside observer, there seems only one viable option – the two-state solution born of a land-for-peace deal, including East Jerusalem as Palestinian capital. The occupation which began in 1967 is a ceaseless source of resentment amongst Palestinians, and a powerful spur to violent resistance. The ending of this occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state will not solve all the region’s problems, but it is a clear pre-requisite for peace. This is the practical solution; it is realpolitik.
With an election on February 10, Israel seems poised to place its trust once again in the right, in the form of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. Both are in favour of a land for peace settlement, but reject Palestinian demands for East Jerusalem as capital of a Palestinian state. Sadly, it is unlikely that any process will move forward without this issue on the agenda.
In an interview in Yedioth Ahronoth last September, outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert admitted that Israel must accept a land for peace deal. “We have to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, the meaning of which is that in practice we will withdraw from almost all the territories, if not all the territories.” Olmert also acknowledged that Israel must consider relinquishing parts of East Jerusalem. Whilst Kadima party head, Tzipi Livni and Labor Party chairman, Ehud Barak have suggested they are amenable to a two-state solution with Jerusalem as Palestinian capital, both are unlikely to wield much influence in the aftermath of the election.
Whatever the case, such sentiments have not translated into action in recent years. Far from it. The West Bank holds no less than 149 Israeli settlements, with an estimated population of 460,000. New construction is underway in 88 settlements, in which population growth is thrice that of Israel proper. More than 38 per cent of the West Bank is now occupied by settlements, roadblocks, outposts, military compounds, nature reserves and settler roads closed to Palestinian traffic. This is an ever-present source of humiliation; an open sore for the Palestinians.
Strategically, Israel’s policy can only have one purpose: to make a more compelling case for the retention of as much land as possible in any final settlement. Indeed, this strategy has a name – “facts on the ground”, and the policy is facilitated by cheap and easy loans from the Israeli government for those wishing to settle. Were Israel at all serious about relinquishing this territory in a peace deal, then one might expect a reversal of settler expansion – if only to avert the internal upheaval the dismantling of even a minority of these settlements would entail. Instead, however, colonisation of the West Bank continues apace. Even were the Obama administration to cut US $1 Billion in loan guarantees to Israel, in accordance with pre-conditions that the money not be invested in settlements, as has been recently speculated, it seems unlikely that Israel will reverse its current policy. This is not a viable road to peace.
It goes without saying that the Palestinians, too, must make concessions; they too must practice realpolitik. Firstly, Hamas must recognise Israel – an Israel bounded by its pre-1967 perimeter. Not to do so is pure intransigence, and utterly impractical. Israel is there to stay – the only remaining questions regard its size and shape. There is no questioning the folly, and, in many ways, the counterproductive, almost counter-intuitive provocation of Israel by Hamas militants. Like a punch-drunk boxer desperate to salvage some pride and a last paycheck, Hamas has not acted in its best interests. Hamas must rein in its militants and dismantle its infrastructure of violence; it must walk the path of the IRA; strengthening its political arm, whilst discouraging violent resistance.
UN Special Rapporteur John Dugard concluded in his January 2008 report, that Palestinian terrorism is the “inevitable consequence” of Israeli occupation. While Palestinian terrorist acts are deplorable, “they must be understood as being a painful but inevitable consequence of colonialism, apartheid or occupation.” Power brings responsibility. The more powerful a state, the greater the consequences when it acts. To consider that there is any equivalence between the actions of Hamas militants and the IDF is ludicrous. Israel must act first by accepting its illegal appropriation of Palestinian land is the principal obstacle. “In other situations, for example Namibia, peace has been achieved by the ending of occupation, without setting the end of resistance as a precondition.”
Israel is an occupying power and to act contrary to this truth is not to play realpolitik. The Northern Island peace process was a victory for and because of realpolitik. It was successful because all major players made the compromises that had to be made. It survived through the admirable restraint shown by all sides in the face of intransigence. In the Occupied Territories, land is the principal grievance. At the price of short to medium-term political upheaval, Israel can guarantee a long-term peace and viable local economy for both Israelis and Palestinians.
It doesn’t matter that this is no easy solution. The status quo is far harder, far less agreeable. One shudders to think of the scale of disadvantage faced by children growing up in Gaza now; of the young men and women whose education and social development has been retarded by ceaseless deprivation, fear and anxiety. No child, Palestinian or Israeli, should be subject to gunfire, sonic booms, rocket attacks, nor should they have their doors kicked in and their few possessions destroyed. Yet, it is mostly Palestinians who do the suffering; the hapless victims of colonialism, apartheid, disproportionate military aggression, and, one must add, poor leadership and administration. These people need jobs, food, housing and most of all, hope.
How Obama will choose to engage with Israel, and whether or not he will be willing to engage with Hamas, with, or without conditions, remains to be seen. In the meantime we can only hope the ceasefire holds and wait for new initiatives, for a new Israeli government. Pragmatism must overcome ideology. Now is the time for realpolitik.