This morning’s session at the Valdai conference was titled: ‘The role of global and regional actors: separately or together?’ There were three speakers to start off with, all of whom were relatively downbeat about the current state of the Middle East peace process. The first speaker complained that the co-ordination among the Middle East Quartet was inefficient, and she singled out the United States for particular criticism, suggesting that a number of factors, including last month’s mid-term drubbing for the Democrats, had weakened Obama’s position vis-à-vis the peace process.
As a result of what she described as the US failure to deliver on its optimistic forecasts of a deal within 12 months and then 24 months, she called for a more active role by both the European Union and Russia, and indicated she was also at least open to efforts to try to enlarge the number of stakeholders by finding moderate, impartial actors to assist with mediation (a possibility I mentioned yesterday for China and India).
Rightly, in my view, she suggested that it was also important to draw in other issues – not just the often talked about questions of security, but also issues like ensuring adequate water supplies in the region. There’s surely a good case to be made that finding common challenges on which to focus could encourage co-operation and foster that conspicuously missing ingredient – trust.
She also raised the question of Iran (a subject that has generally been shunted to the sidelines of the conference), arguing that despite Iran’s apparent desire to play a greater role in the Islamic world, it’s not clear whether it will actually act in the interests of the Palestinians. Indeed, she suggested that Iran’s position that Mahmoud Abbas doesn’t have legitimacy is more damaging than its supplying arms to Hizbollah and Hamas.
The second speaker launched a scathing attack on the role of the United States, arguing that it simply doesn’t have the capabilities for dealing with the peace process. He went on to criticize the ‘incompetent’ Israel government, arguing that the problem with the peace efforts hasn’t been confined to the extremists. He said the Israeli government had consistently followed the illogical position of defending the settlements and concluded the peace process was, in his view, dead.
It was an outspoken speech, and in a way epitomized one of the problems the Palestinian ‘side’ seems to have in such meetings. It was an angry performance, and not the only one today. A couple of regular attendees of such conferences I’ve spoken with said it’s actually typical of these kind of meetings on the issue – day one is relatively restrained, but the tensions bubbling under the surface tend to boil over on the second day.
I’m not saying, of course, that the Palestinians don’t have good reason to be angry – they certainly do. But a couple of the speeches were delivered as if they were launching a tirade at the United Nations General Assemby. The problem is that if the delivery doesn’t fit the venue, you risk losing a little sympathy from the start. Yes, there have been wrongs committed toward the Palestinians (and toward Israeli civilians as well). But simply angrily recounting a list of grievances with the most sweeping of rhetoric might feel therapeutic, but it doesn’t really advance the discussion in any constructive way. Both sides can take the moral high ground and lecture anyone who will listen about the wrongs they’ve suffered. But they can also take the morally higher ground and try to move forward.
Yes, this is all easier said than done. And of course, neutral observers and mediators should be able to set aside body language and tone and respond based only on the merits of an argument. We should all be able to look at the bigger picture, at the issues. But we’re all also human and have human responses. A suggestion for some speakers to bear in mind, and something that should really be Diplomacy 101, is that you need to at least appear like you’re willing to concede something. A speaker who gives no ground and admits no wrong, no matter how justified in doing so, simply sounds unreasonable.
If you want to keep an audience onside, you’ve got to throw them a bone, admit the other side at least has a point, indicate you understand the pressure they’re under and why they might be acting as they do. This gets harder to do the longer a process drags on – and by god this one is protracted and poisonous. And as I said, tactical rhetorical considerations like this shouldn’t matter. But again, we’re all human and so they do.