Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Negotiations, but no big sticks

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 2008, pages 32-33

United Nations Report
Negotiations on Palestine, Western Sahara Continue to Continue to Continue
By Ian Williams

It is a year since U.S. Ambassador John Bolton left the U.N., and the title of his recent book, Surrender is Not an Option, sums up his career there—and, in fact, much of recent U.S. foreign policy. The first question of many which he begs is “surrender to what?”

The answer is soon clear. Application of international law and U.N. decisions in circumstances inconvenient to the U.S. and Israel, and indeed, more recently, Morocco, would be “surrender.”

Viewing Bolton’s tenure as part of a long process, he was not unsuccessful in furthering the drift to privilege at the United Nations, where issues are more and more set in the context of “negotiations” that are manifestly not about applying international law, but rather about twisting the elbows of the victims so that they acquiesce in their own dispossession.

Ever since Oslo the U.S., and now the U.N. in the form of the Quartet-entangled secretary-general, have stressed bilateral negotiations. At the time, I compared then-President Bill Clinton’s incantations about bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians to an invitation to a toddler to enter the ring with a Sumo wrestler. It has become worse since then, as in both Palestine and Western Sahara the dispossessed are put in the position of someone whose house has been stolen and who has been offered the chance to discuss the possibility of cleaning it once a week while leaving the thieves in full occupation.

With his customary acuity, Afif Safieh, PLO envoy in Washington, deplores what he calls “static diplomacy” despite the thousands of hours invested in talk about talks, negotiating pre-negotiations and pre-negotiating negotiations.

It is always easy to sell diplomats on negotiations: that, after all, is what they do. While some have the good sense to appreciate Teddy Roosevelt’s advice to speak softly and carry a big stick, all too often the purpose of talks is to avoid action. One of the lessons that tyrants like Slobodan Milosevic and Omar Al-Bashir learned in the Balkans and Darfur is that as long as you are talking sweetly, you can carry on doing what you want without interference. At the same time, countries that were reluctant to intervene could always tell their electorates that the issue was in the hands of the U.N., while keeping quiet about how they made sure that the U.N. was at best weak and at other times totally ineffectual.
All too often the purpose of talks is to avoid action.

Although many people have noticed Belgrade’s and Khartoum’s use of this tactic, fewer have noticed that this is precisely what Israel and Morocco have been doing. In both cases, the U.N. has been put in the position of brushing under the carpet its own resolutions, which offer just and lasting solutions to the problems.

In Western Sahara, all hopes have been placed on talks between the parties taking place in Manhasset, on the outskirts of New York. The third, inevitably inconclusive round took place in early January. It is a long time since a secretary-general, let alone any of the major powers, have called upon Morocco to honor U.N. resolutions—and its own promises—by accepting the referendum that is now more than 30 years overdue.

The Web site for MINURSO, the peacekeeping operation which was supposed to superintend the referendum, and which has been sunning itself in the desert for 15 years, does not even mention the Security Council resolutions condemning the Moroccan occupation, let alone the International Court of Justice ruling—that Morocco had actually asked for—which reaffirmed the right of the people of Western Sahara to self-determination and dismissed the king’s claims to sovereignty.

Currently France has been joined by the U.S. and, of course, Britain in forcing POLISARIO, the Saharwi representatives, to succumb to Moroccan pressure. Sadly, the three powers are meeting with decreasing resistance from other, mostly smaller countries with an atavistic attachment to legality. The U.N. Secretariat, which one might expect—or at least hope—to stand up for the U.N. Charter and international law, remains silent, and in some cases even connives at this abuse.

Ironically, this is one of the few issues where Bolton was on the side of the angels, not least because he had worked many years with James Baker in negotiations. Of MINURSO Bolton says that, as with other peacekeeping operations, “there was simply no chance of success if one of the parties dug in their heels and refused to cooperate.”

Almost everyone, except the Saharwis baking in the desert, is happy with the status quo, he correctly points out. MINURSO has become an excuse for perpetual inaction based on what Bolton assesses as the disjuncture between “political reality” and “international legality.” The U.S. has now joined France in trying to push Rabat’s so-called “autonomy” proposal, regardless of previous decisions, and Britain is following suit.
The Uses of International Legality

International legality is not a concept that Bolton generally favors, but he does not hesitate to castigate his traditional enemies in the State Department and the Bush administration for failing to uphold it, not to mention their own slogans about “democracy” in Western Sahara.

The former diplomat, now a senior fellow at the neocon bastion American Enterprise Institute, is blithely unaware of any contradiction. His own role at the United Nations, and for years before in the State Department, was precisely to frustrate its decisions, not least on the issue of Palestine. It is also obvious that when Washington wants the U.N. to succeed in its endeavors, it does—and that when it wants the organization to fail, that is also what happens.

That brings us to the present Middle East impasse, where the U.N. is doubly constrained. The Quartet began with at least some hopes that the membership of the U.N. secretary-general would remind other members of the agreed legal framework of a Middle East settlement. However, the reverse is now the case: the Quartet has become a vise that squeezes the U.N. into effective repudiation of its own principles.

Inside the U.N., Ban Ki Moon’s administration offers unprecedented access to Israeli diplomats. In the past, of course, the U.S. performed the same role, with just the same effect, but now the reflexive pro-Israeli posture of the new secretary-general’s team exacerbates the abandonment of principle. Bolton records how Ban followed his advice closely, but the secretary-general is a person of principle, and is progressively discovering the difference between Bolton’s world and reality.

His team, however, lacks the U.N.’s institutional memory, which has made it even easier to overlook the U.N.’s history of previous decisions. That has made the U.N. a more attractive field for Israel, which has always been conflicted about the organization. Despite owing its existence to the U.N. partition resolution, the Jewish state has hitherto professed disdain for the organization because of the inconvenience of subsequent decisions.

Now that those resolutions are ignored, or at least not being stressed, Israeli leaders are happy to return to a more active role in the U.N. Bolton professes disdain for international law, but the Israelis are more pragmatic. While they want to endlessly negotiate about negotiations, all the while solidifying the facts on the ground, in the end they seek U.N. ratification of their conquests, which can only come about if a compliant Palestinian leadership agrees.

In an attempt to keep the U.N. spotlight on the issue, the Security Council holds a regular monthly session on the Middle East—but in the face of the perpetual American veto, it has now become a ritual, albeit an instructive one.

Israel has taken a tip from the Palestinians about using the United Nations. It recently moved and carried a resolution in the General Assembly, which, if relatively innocuous in itself, is almost certainly the harbinger of more substantive moves. Israel now is complaining to the U.N. about the Qassam attacks from Gaza. A Jan. 10 Security Council press statement understandably condemned an attack on UNIFIL in Lebanon, but squeezed in a condemnation of the Qassam attacks from Gaza.

No one at the U.N. will support the rocket attacks, of course, but the precedent will soon dispel any illusion of even-handedness, since the U.S. will promptly veto any complaints about Israeli attacks and incursions in either the West Bank or Gaza. The expansion of the illegal Har Homa settlement on Abu Ghneim, for example, which previously was the subject of furious, if ineffective, activity by the Security Council, is now almost totally ignored.

Lynn Pascoe, the former U.S. diplomat who is now the under secretary-general for political affairs, raised the issue of the construction at Har Homa in his monthly report on Dec. 21, pointing out that the secretary-general had reaffirmed the United Nations position on the illegality of settlements. The Quartet had expressed its concern over the tenders, calling on the parties to refrain from steps that undermined confidence, and underscoring the importance of “avoiding any actions that could prejudice the outcome of permanent status negotiations.”

The Security Council’s monthly meeting on the Middle East lasted the ritualistic 20 minutes it took for Pascoe to read his report. The minutes say bleakly, “No Action”—which about sums it up. As they say, negotiations continue.

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