August 18, 2014

Might Japan Be the Broker to Negotiate Peace Between Israel and Palestine?

After the American Century

The Middle East has been the burying ground for American diplomatic missions for decades. Each new president and each new Secretary of State thinks peace is finally going to be attainable. Each is disappointed in different ways. Sometimes peace seems to have been achieved, with treaties signed and handshakes all around. That was Jimmy Carter's experience. Relations were better for a while, particularly between Egypt and Israel, but real peace did not emerge. It is too tedious to go through all the other administrations before or since then, but no one who has followed it all can help but be a bit depressed.

Not only is Israel seemingly no closer to peace with its neighbors than in the 1960s, but the entire neighborhood is in a worse uproar that usual. Syria is in a civil war, with millions of refugees, and none of the three (or is it four or five?) sides is a particularly attractive option.  Iraq is falling apart, along religious and ethnic lines, even in the face of the rise of ISIS, a new factor in teh region, which seeks to create an Islamic state. The Egyptians have gone back to military rule, after a brief experiment with democracy brought the conservative Muslim Brotherhood to power. Lebanon is struggling to remain out of the violence in Syria. The Palestinians are split into two factions. The one in Gaza continues to launch largely ineffective rockets at Israel, to show that they can do it. In return they are pulverized, and gain some sympathy outside the region. But the Hamas is bankrupt, economically speaking, part of the fallout from the Syrian civil war.  For decades Hamas has built complex systems of tunnels underground, which have now been destroyed. The other Palestinians are a bit less militant, but also unable to come to an agreement with Israel.

But perhaps because things are so bad, a negotiated settlement might be attainable. However, this requires a neutral broker to do the job. Who could that be?  When American diplomats attempt to negotiate peace, they are usually perceived to be Israel's allies, and it is hard to convince Arabs that Washington can be an honest broker. Yet Americans are even-handed, the Israeli government typically becomes upset and stirs up problems in the US, through its conservative allies. In short, the Americans are in many respects not well-positioned to broker a deal. Perhaps it is time for the US to step back from its direct diplomatic efforts and instead to encourage another nation to take the lead.

But if not the Americans, who? The EU would seem the obvious choice, but the EU does not have a shared foreign policy. Each member state has a somewhat different policy, and it cannot function effectively in such a negotiating situation. (Indeed, the EU is not good at handling international crises.)  Russia has strongly sided with Syria, where it has a major base, which makes it unacceptable to Israelis. What has long been needed is an honest broker whom both sides have no reason to distrust. The lone superpower manifestly cannot impose a settlement, or it would done so by now. Instead, a country like Japan, Brazil or South Africa might be able to do broker successful negotiations, though none of these three seems to have any inclination to do so. 

My own preference would be Japan, precisely because they are so far from the Middle East and have no obvious axe to grind. The Japanese are also patient negotiators, who take for granted that before a meaningful agreement is possible it is necessary to spend some time face to face. Wouldn't it be worth a try? Imagine Palestinian and Israeli representatives in a pleasant, remote Japanese hotel, with a view of the sea. Taken away from their familiar surroundings, immersed in the fascincating cultural world of Japan, they might gradually find some common ground.

What might be in it for the Japanese? Three things. (1) International praise for succeeding where all others have failed, with a very real chance to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. (2) National pride as Japan shows its importance on the world stage, pushing its economic stagnation and nuclear woes into the background. (3) Recognition as a force for peaceful coexistence, in contrast to Chinese muscle flexing in their own region.

As the US heads into another presidential election, it seems particularly unlikely that it can negotiate peace between Israel and Palestine. It is time to admit the obvious facts. The US is too entangled with its ally Israel to do the job, and it has so many complex and often conflicting interests in the Middle East that it will have trouble focusing on this single problem.  But will any other nation take up the challenge?