Dignity and Negotiation: Palestine and Peace

Brian D. Sadie

Comments / 9 April, 2013

Shortly after the formal end of Gulf War hostilities in 1991, during the Iraqi uprising against Saddam Hussein, I wrote a feature about the US and Middle East. Inspired by discussions with Wahbé Tamari, a naturalized American citizen of Palestinian heritage from Jordan who had lived most of his life in Beirut and Washington, DC, the article examined the ethics and human cost of decision-making and regional policies. 
Nearly twenty-two years later the article is still relevant. Why? Not only because the political and negotiation procedures have remained constant since the early twentieth century but also because trauma, deprivation, and other wounds and wrongs leave psychological and socio-economic devastation that requires several generations to overcome. The effects of bad policy and violence are generational: Americans need only think of the Civil War, Civil Rights movement, or Vietnam to comprehend this. 
War can reinforce one’s belief in human brotherhood because everyone is subject to suffering, but it can also spark the urge for justice or revenge or a desire for national identity and statehood. The Levantine conflict began about a century ago when European immigrants to Palestine began fighting for a Jewish state on Palestinian soil. Judaism is a religion and Jewish identity a personal choice, but declaring a nation state in another country is something else. When statehood is the goal, international stress and collateral damage typically occurs, and collateral damage is always personal: Where justice fails revenge often applies. More people today seem aware of this and are tired of unethical politics and business that ruins, harms, or kills, so, with political help, positive change might soon occur. 
Mr. Obama knows this and reaffirmed on March twenty-first that a Palestinian state is long overdue and necessary for at least regional peace: statehood precedes greater stability that the international community relies upon for more secure borders and beneficial functioning of daily life. 
Despite heightened global awareness of the Middle East, many of the underlying issues causing deprivation and violence, especially involving the Levant, remain effectively untended even by international organizations, not least because of the unwillingness of leaders to acknowledge or address the prejudice or purely economic rationale for policies implemented with little understanding of their effects or intended to humiliate and break particular people and their identities. These include illicit settlement building, mismanagement of water, the dismantling of infrastructure, and the separation of individual people and isolation of communities by militarized walls. 
To succeed at providing equal access to satisfactory living conditions and protecting generally accepted human rights, those responsible for settlement negotiations and relief actions must heed the human factor. That requires a willingness to curtail the implicit prejudice, often expressed in nuanced language and assumptions, and institutionalized greed and violence that undermine even the most sincere peacemaking and re-building efforts. Hopefully, and despite attempts by those whose malevolence seems unbearable and others who profit from unrest and war, Mr. Obama’s aims, combined with a popular weariness of conflict and desire for normal life, will lead to an honorable peace. 
That’s the catch. Those subjugated or otherwise oppressed face the problem that forcing an aggressor to negotiate requires dramatic, even violent, action. Regardless of the course taken, those wishing to avoid war or seeking peaceful resolution find that, once diplomatically engaged, much of the world’s political structure and legal process supports a prevalent opinion that to attain binding resolution moral compromise is necessary. Mediators often enforce the notion that there are always two legitimate, ethically right sides in a conflict, thus assuring that negotiations break down or result in untenable conditions. This compromise, of defining fair and unbiased so as to force a victim to accede to an aggressor’s demands, rewards morally corrupt powers. Economics and bureaucracy have long assured this norm, with daily operations maintained by prejudiced, petty officers and the enforcement of ill-formed or unjust law. 
Mr. Tamari once said that despite everything he’d been subjected to he still maintained that diplomacy founded on moral rectitude and compassion would eventually lead to a new Palestinian national state. He added, “My heritage is Palestinian, my religion Christian, my nationality American, and I do not support violence. What does that make me? Superman? Now I believe that all the Europeans, Arabs, Africans, and Americans who hold Israeli passports, serve in the Israeli military, or practice Judaism faithfully, can understand those like me when we speak of human dignity. It is to those people that I appeal, and through whom peace will come.” 
I hope that Mr. Obama inspires those and others, too, and that he is strong enough to handle more than hecklers at a press conference or speech. How great if the preeminent leader of the world’s identifiable powers facilitated a political resolution initiating a period of sustained normalcy and growth? The entire world would benefit: a nation is accountable in ways that groups living under occupation or in refugee camps aren’t and can’t be. Life in a formally recognized nation helps individuals build, or rebuild, a stable society because family, community, and nation-building are interwoven. 
Ultimately, most people want peace. Remove the causes and arguments for terrorist or militia groups by granting statehood and establishing regular social life for these generations and the outliers — those bent on instigating terror — will be more easily seen and more readily stopped. If the adults in charge behave as they ought, then today’s children and teenagers will be able to live without, or at least with less, exceptional cause for prejudice, fear, and rage. Give the young generations the infrastructure every major state assumes or claims is granted and we’ll all have as fine a chance for peaceful living as ever. To do the right thing is the way of a better world, and this world should finally do just that.