un peacekeepers 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
The eruption of the second intifada in 2000, and concurrent collapse of the Oslo Accords, also brought about a severe outbreak of a recurring political condition that might best be called "Third Party Syndrome."
This is the belief - or delusion - reaching near-messianic proportions among some professional Middle Eastern interlocutors and observers, that the Gordian knot of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can best, or only, be solved by an infusion of international observers, administrators, or even forces, into the disputed territories of the West Bank and Gaza.
Although predictably this was the call from several Arab and European capitals at that time - as it has been almost continually since 1967 - even less partisan and more levelheaded parties were stricken with severe cases of Third Party Syndrome.
This included New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and former-US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, with the former proposing that NATO troops be deployed in the territories, and the latter suggesting the Palestinian areas be put into a US-managed "trusteeship."
None of that happened, of course. Yet Third Party Syndrome is a phenomenon that will likely never die out until the very last peace agreement is signed by Israelis and Palestinians. It waxes and wanes depending on developments on the ground between the two parties - and as the US-sponsored Middle East conference set for November approaches, there are signs that we may be in store for a particularly severe outbreak.
According to reports, the Palestinians are planning to call at the conference for an international third-party body to oversee the implementation of any agreements between Israelis and Palestinians.
Ha'aretz writes that this likely includes a "force of observers, able to separate the two sides and decide controversial issues." It sounds all too familiar, and as unlikely to actually develop along those lines as the countless list of similar proposals over the years.
But before we dismiss this as just another manifestation of Third Party Syndrome, it's worth examining why the circumstances are a little different, and perhaps even slightly less delusional, this time around.
To start with, Third Party Syndrome does have a solid base in reality; both the Israeli and Arab sides, ever since the UN negotiated the first cease-fire during the War of Independence, have accepted the principle of third-party intermediators taking part in or conducting negotiations between them. Nor is the principle of international observers, including armed forces, being put in place on the ground here in sensitive areas, unprecedented. Most prominent are the Multi-International Forces and Observers in the Sinai since the Camp David Accords, the UNIFIL troops in southern Lebanon, and the European Lebanon Force also put into place there since August 2006.
All those forces, though, sit outside of Israel's sovereign borders, which is why they won Jerusalem's approval. Every Israeli government has almost always refused proposals for any similar third-party presence in the West Bank and Gaza, for reasons both political and practical.
There is legitimate concern that "internationalizing" the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the ground will definitely favor the latter, especially if UN, Arab, or basically anybody but American personnel are involved. And surely the last thing Jerusalem wants is to find itself in the position of putting those observers or forces in the crossfire of IDF operations against Palestinian terrorists.
Yet there are two rare exceptions to placing international observers in the territories. These are the European monitors put in after the Gaza disengagement at the Rafah border-crossing between Gaza and Egypt, and viewed by Israel as having proved fairly ineffectual in controlling the situation there; and the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH,) regarded by practically everyone as little more than window-dressing since they were placed there following Baruch Goldstein's massacre of Palestinians in 1994.
These are, to say the least, hardly the most promising precedents.
Certainly any foreign military presence in the territories is as unlikely today as it was in the past; perhaps even more so, given the example of the current American predicament in Iraq.
But certain circumstances do make plausible that the Olmert government might be more amenable than Jerusalem has been in the past to a broader third-party presence in the West Bank, be they called observers, monitors or some new name.
First off, the relationship between Israel and the Palestinian Authority under PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salaam Fayad is stronger than at any time during Yasser Arafat's PA reign. Second, the appointment of Tony Blair as the Quartet's Middle East envoy has put into place an international interlocutor that Jerusalem trusts to a far greater degree than any such prior mediator, and one could imagine him playing a role in such a third-party presence that would be far more palatable than the typical UN or EU officials who usually fill such positions.
Most importantly though, is the simple fact that something concrete has to come out of the forthcoming conference, for the political sake of the Olmert, Abbas and Bush governments. The establishment of a third-party presence in the West Bank, though problematic in some aspects for Jerusalem - especially given the more active posture of the settlement movement - would certainly be the kind of concession Prime Minister Ehud Olmert could make without suffering too much domestic political damage.
Of course, none of the above may happen, and the conference itself remains a risky proposition. But as it approaches, expect to see many more expressions of Third Party Syndrome, which this time may finally look less like a delusion than a prophecy.