Peace in their own time

50 students and young foreign policy professionals gather in TA to simulate Arab-Israeli peace talks.

Peace 2007 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Peace 2007 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
August 21 was a landmark day in Middle East politics: Israel and Syria agreed to high-level peace talks; Hamas and Fatah formed a unity government, which immediately exchanged captive soldier Gilad Schalit for the imprisoned Fatah leader and convicted terrorist mastermind Marwan Barghouti; America gave Egypt $5 billion and a plutonium-fueled nuclear reactor; and Syria was granted Most Favored Nation trading status and a package of American military aid. These events transpired not through the looking glass, but at the Middle East Student Conference, hosted by the pro-Israel advocacy and education organization StandWithUs. The conference brought 50 university students and young foreign policy professionals to Tel Aviv University to simulate Arab-Israeli peace negotiations. The participants arrived from locations as varied as Jordan, Umm el-Fahm, Paris, Ramat Gan and India to travel through Israel, hear lectures from prominent locals and, most importantly, try to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict in five days. AT FIRST glance, the conference seemed grandiosely presumptuous in its ambitions to reconcile the interests of nations in the halls of Tel Aviv University. But as time went on, I found that the simulated negotiations represented the Middle East's reality in microcosm. According to Shira Bergman, one of the conference's organizers, it aimed to "bring people together from different countries and viewpoints and show them the complex reality of the situation," and indeed it introduced its participants to the manifold strange realities of Middle East diplomacy. For the purposes of simulating peace talks, the conference's 50 participants were divided into five delegations, each pretending to represent a different political actor. Israel, Egypt, the Palestinians and Syria formed four groups - Iran and Saudi Arabia were conspicuously absent. The EU and US were merged into a single team, which miffed some of the European participants because, as explained by Andreas, a wise political scientist from Vienna, "Austria has different values than America." And yet, the EU/US group quickly found its role in the negotiations. "Everybody likes us because we give them money, which is what they want," explained Eugene, a Ukranian émigré studying modern music composition in Paris who played the head of the EU. Aashish, an Indian student of international peace and conflict resolution, discovered the conference on Facebook. He played the president of the US and nicely summed up how the West conducts peace talks: "Mostly the US will give the people anything they want, as long as they say they'll stop terror." Naturally, the largesse of the Western superpowers was artfully exploited by the Arab states. Dylan, the Canadian PR man who led the Syrian team, expertly negotiated trade concessions from America and the EU. Though an Assad might have pursued other goals, forgive Dylan: He comes from the land of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The Egyptian team focused on the important things: guns and money. "We persuaded the US to give us a civilian nuclear reactor and $5 billion just for agreeing to host a Cairo summit," explained Ortal, the Israeli spark plug who generally had her way in the negotiations. True to form, the Palestinians emerged empty-handed. While three quarters of their delegation argued about the settlement of refugees, the others vainly solicited money from the Americans and Europeans. Saddened by the mounting failures of the Palestinian delegation, I offered unsolicited advice. I explained that if token rhetorical concessions were offered, like a promise to have fair elections or to crack down on militants, then maybe Aashish would fill their imaginary Swiss bank accounts. But my radical plan required the approval of the Palestinian delegation's leader, who was nowhere to be found. When I finally cornered the rais, an Israeli named Uri, he promptly left to be interviewed on TV. I believe that Uri got some face time, but the Palestinians, as usual, made good on an opportunity to miss an opportunity. FOR THEIR part, the Israelis were strangely and inexplicably desperate to sign a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Late on the final day of the conference, after Israeli-Palestinian talks had broken down and most participants just wanted to go to a bar in Jaffa, I saw the prime minister of Israel, a short fellow, crawling across a row of desks waving a crumpled sheet of paper in the air and screaming something about "the right of return" - or was it "secure borders"? He was frantically searching for a member of the Palestinian delegation who might sign his latest peace overture. No takers. The urgency of the make-believe Israelis to sign a peace deal was more realistic than the conference participants might have guessed. At the conference's closing dinner, real-life MK Colette Avital delivered a speech calling for peace - now: "Peace agreements are on a ticking clock," she said. "Of course, I'm referring to the two sets of elections likely coming up, not only our own, but the Palestinian ones in which Fatah might be replaced with Hamas." Well, at least Avital is on a ticking clock. She presented the Israeli imperative to sign a deal - any deal - thus: "We need to agree about a Palestinian state now, because we might have a Hamas government in the West Bank soon." I do not pretend to have the powers of logic necessary to understand this. FOR ALL of the conference's virtues - the education of its participants in the ways of Middle East diplomacy and their introduction to Israel, which they universally loved - the mock peace negotiations seemed anachronistic, a relic of the 1990s when the promise of the Oslo process waxed. The issues that were debated - permanent settlement of Palestinian refugees, the borders of a Palestinian state - are no longer timely. Today's Israeli policy makers labor to minimize the role of Iran-backed Hamas in the West Bank and to keep al-Qaida out of Gaza, while preparing to confront the more ominous Iranian threat. The Palestinians are principally focused on internal rivalries funded by outside powers. The Arab states are obsessing over a shift in power from the region's west to its east, which they perhaps wrongly interpret in schismatic terms. The US is occupied with Iraq and the mounting crisis in the Straits of Hormuz. In 2008, the importance of the shepherds' war in the Judean Hills has diminished and is more than ever derivative of the larger conflict in the Persian Gulf. As a result, negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians may not be able to accomplish much. Therefore, the supposition that the time is always right for diplomacy is deeply flawed, for diplomacy cannot fundamentally shape larger political forces - at best, diplomats may navigate them. Miracles may still be expected from diplomacy, and it is true that stunning feats of statecraft, like Richard Nixon's famous trip to China, reshape political reality. But meaningful diplomacy is based upon shifts in the architectonic political forces, not bluster. In the "Nixon goes to China" example, hostility between China and the US transformed into cooperation because the USSR. had become the principal threat to both countries - and not because Henry Kissinger or Zhou Enlai made fancy speeches. While Kissinger's and Zhou's genius was to see the diplomatic opening caused by geopolitical change, neither of them created that opening. Similarly, diplomacy in the Middle East cannot achieve more than the prevailing political and material conditions allow, and right now, at least among Israelis and Palestinians, I don't believe that they allow for much. The conference's organizers appreciated the surrealism of unlimited diplomacy. "I'm a little worried that the participants are going to sign a thousand treaties," said Bergman. "They should know that life's not like that. Not all problems can be solved by negotiation." The savvier among the participants also seemed aware of this. Tesser, a bright Jordanian diplomat-in-training, provided the most haunting and prescient comment of the week. I asked him what policy he thought a hypothetical Jordanian delegation would pursue at a peace conference. "There are large forces now working in the region, forces from the east and forces from the west," he said. "We have to survive them. Countries must know that no matter what they say, the forces will continue to work in the region. So it is better to stay quiet, not to talk about little things, to manage the big things as best as one can and to act when one has to - but always quiet." I hope that the conference's participants, as well as the democratic panoply that forms both Israel's and America's real-life diplomatic corps, will heed the practical conclusions that come from considering Tesser's worldly advice, which is really no different from the frontier wisdom that Theodore Roosevelt dispatched more than a century ago: "Speak softly, and carry a big stick; and you will go far." The writer is a fellow at the Shalem Center and at the ICSEP (Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress).