Regarding existential, zero-sum struggles it matters which side has more options.
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By David B. Kanin
Another American Secretary of State seems to have decided to stake his legacy in part on getting credit for solving the Israel-Palestine imbroglio. John Kerry has at least a long-shot’s chance at forcing through a deal, especially since events in Egypt and Syria have inflicted some damage on HAMAS’s short-term political standing relative to the Palestinian Authority. He would do well to learn from the Kosova-Serbia dance of enemies that a two-state agreement would not result in a two state solution.
Who has what choice?
Serbia has continued to build on the favorable deal it reached with a beleaguered Kosova last April. Bilateral negotiations on telecommunications, energy, and other issues have failed to produce arrangements that would permit Pristina to act as a state even in technical areas. Kosova cannot even claim its own numerical phone code except—eventually—as an indirect technical shadow of another country’s identity. None of the five EU members who have refused to recognize Kosova have moved to do so. Neither Romania nor Slovakia, the most likely to do so, have budged from their stances and—in view of mounting separatist noises from Catalonia—chances that Spain will do so have diminished to near zero.
Belgrade, confident of its diplomatic ground, is urging Serbs living in Kosova to take part in November elections that amount to a poison pill for Pristina. Where local “businessmen” fear losing their informal economic advantages and hardliners think only in terms of not giving an inch to a Kosovar presence, Serbia’s skillful duo of Ivica Dacic and Aleksandar Vucic—even as they maneuver for their inevitable political competition—remain focused on bolstering Serbs’ long-term options to reverse Kosova’s fragile sovereignty while protecting Belgrade’s prospects for eventually joining the European Union. Belgrade has dissolved recalcitrant local “assemblies” in the north and has coopted the once-skeptical Aleksandar Vulin.
The decisions that ballots will have no imprint of “Kosova” but only those of the election commission and that courts operating north of the Ibar will be “neutral” mark further significant Serbian victories. The symbols of politics once more reject the idea that Kosova is a sovereign state. No matter Pristina’s rhetoric, its laws do not count north of the Ibar.
The strategic core of these policies is captured by the successful campaign to make sure the internationals accept the idea that every action and agreement must be “status neutral.” There is no such thing as “status neutral.” Whatever happens either advances or retards Kosova’s prospects to become sovereign—there is no other issue. No deal on technical or political details will change this. At best, Kosovar-Serbian relations will become something like what France and Germany had between 1871 and 1914, with “normal” interactions taking place while both sides wait for the next opportunity (or threat) to change the security status quo.
The fact remains that Serbia has options while Kosova does not. Serbia has all the trappings and substance of a sovereign state. The April agreement guarantees that Serbs in Kosova — whether or not they vote in November elections— possess an internationally-recognized legal status and need not accept the permanence of the current political status quo. Kosova, meanwhile, remains a supplicant entity lacking a coherent international identity.
How much choice do the Palestinians have?
Israel, like Serbia, holds much better cards than its adversary as both sides wind up to engage in the next round of diplomacy. The Israeli version of ‘status neutral” is its insistence that whatever deal the Americans manage to put together must protect the security of what Palestinians must accept as a Jewish state. West Bank Palestine would be a hemmed in and divided from Gaza Strip Palestine in a manner that would burden a weak new state with something like the problems that eventually undid the divided Pakistan that lasted from 1947-1971. Various schemes for bypasses and communications corridors seem as unlikely to lead to permanent security as did the interwar Danzig Corridor between Poland and Germany. In addition, whatever Palestinian police and security forces are permitted to exist likely will be too weak to manage their own population, much less oppose future Israeli punitive police or military operations.
Israel’s advantages in holding most of the contested ground and other measures of power mean it can appear magnanimous in ways its adversary cannot. The Israelis claim their military acts more humanely toward civilians and captured enemies than others and tout their treatment of Syrian civilians fleeing the fighting in that collapsing country. There is truth in this, and in the attendant warning that the Israelis know their enemies will not treat very humanely with them in case the security shoe some day is on the other foot. Still, Israel has the luxury of choosing how it will behave because it already has most of what it wants.
Nevertheless, the Palestinians have options the Kosovars do not. First, a Palestinian state would have a universally recognized international status (with the important exceptions of hard-line orthodox Jewish Israelis and Islamists and those Palestinians who are unwilling to accept a truncated Palestine and the notion of a resoundingly Jewish Israel). This means Palestine would be able to rely on allies and, perhaps, donors other than the United States, whose performance as Kosova’s only real patron since 2006 suggests it is either too weak or unskillful to provide reliable diplomatic and political cover for anyone unlucky enough to become its client. Of course, various Arab states, Russia China, and other powers would have varying priorities and could well prove less than trustworthy partners for Palestine. Still, having more options than one easily distracted superpower puts Palestine a leg up on Kosova.
Second, Palestine would retain the option of maintaining its connection with the international boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. Unlike Kosova, Palestine benefits from a civic, multi-cultural campaign to undermine Israel’s trading prospects and international legitimacy. No one challenges Serbia’s status as a legitimate state, but Israel’s is becoming increasingly uncertain. Whether the BDS mavens so far have had much impact on Israeli international economic ties is debatable, but the existence of a global, well-organized, and non-violent, movement dedicated to ending the “Occupation” forces Israel to deal with a problem unlikely to go away even in the wake of a two-state arrangement.
It is likely Israel will make it a condition of any agreement that the state of Palestine disavow the BDS campaign. This gives the Palestinians leverage in negotiations on borders, territorial swaps, and on the two issues that typically get the most attention—the right of Palestinian refugees expelled from the newly forming Israel during the war of 1947-1949 and their descendents to return to their homes and the status of Jerusalem. (It should be remembered that the Palestinians either have nothing to say about the many tens of thousands of Jews expelled from Arab states between 1948 and the end of the 1950s, or else tend to deny these expulsions the way many Israelis deny that Palestinians were thrown out of the newly forming Israel before 1950).
It will be important for Palestinian negotiators to resist likely US pressure to give up the BDS card until they are satisfied on these other points. Otherwise, Palestine could find itself in the strange position of becoming an important scab actor that undermines what is potentially one of the most important weapons Palestinians have against the aggressive campaign by radical Zionist nationalists and religious zealots to colonize as much as possible of the little space the US and Israel are willing to leave to a Palestinian state.
The third asset the Palestinians have is their ability to deny Israel the one thing it cannot get with its power and control over real estate—peace. They can just say no if Israeli settlement policy or terms for an agreement do not satisfy core Palestinian political, economic, or other needs. Indeed, saying yes to a deal in which the Palestinians accept a Jewish state with a united Jerusalem as its capital and to which Palestinian refugees cannot return would mean giving up those demands—or, more accurately, surrendering those demands to rival Palestinian elements—forever.
The main reason a two state agreement would not be a two state solution is that too many organized, armed, funded, and bloody-minded people would remain opposed to the deal from all sides. Pick your poison—jihadists, Iran and Hezbollah, many Arab and Muslim states, radical Zionists and Jewish Haredim all would condemn what would be a half-measure masquerading as a “final status.” (It is worth noting that this unfortunate, meaningless phrase is creeping into the lexicon regarding the nascent Israel-Palestine talks as it did during the run-up to the April Serbia-Kosova agreement). A couple of years ago I posted a piece on this website about the Michael Collins problem, in which I referred to the fate of the Irish Republican Army leader who made the fatal decision to accept a less than maximal Irish state. Those Israeli and Palestinian figures who sign a deal that by necessity would make major concessions to the other side would face the same danger that took the life of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Less lethal but still important institutional spoilers also exist. I already have mentioned the BDS movement—ideologically motivated leftists, Muslim groups worldwide, and Palestinian sympathizers in the West all would retain an interest in undermining what for them would be a diplomatic sell-out. In addition, it is worth remembering that Russia’s primary foreign policy goal in the Middle East (as in the Balkans) is to pursue whatever policy frustrates US interests and strategies—no matter the substantive content of the issue in question. Even the severe dangers posed by the cascading conflict in Syria did not materially alter Moscow’s bedrock priority of preferring insecurity to any condition that might be interpreted as bringing credit and influence to the United States. Russia almost certainly would lend support to those opposed to a deal between Palestine and Israel—no matter its content.
Kosova and Syria?
The bizarre process by which the US debated whether to punish Bashir Assad’s use of chemical weapons included glib invocations – an analogy of the 1999 NATO bombing campaign against Serbia. Advocates of bombing meant to present a perceived success that would skew the discussion of how a limited bombing campaign could accomplish something. The hyperbole around the 1999 events played down the fact that it took three months before Milosevic caved in (because of Russian pressure, complaints from his patronage network that the bombardment was destroying their assets, and preparations of a frustrated NATO for a ground campaign).
One difference between Kosovo then and Syria now is the nature of the adversaries. Milosevic had struck a favorable deal for Bosnian Serbs at Dayton in 1995 (the Bosnian Serbs still owe him credit for diplomacy that negated their military defeats and still guarantees their strategic advantage against the rickety Federation). Even after the bombing, he believed he could once again work with the Americans. Assad is not working under any such impression.
Another difference is the contrast between third parties. Putin’s Russia has a very different approach to the US than did Yeltsin’s in 1999. In the 1990s Balkans, there also was no actor remotely like Iran or Hezbollah. The West would have done better to take lessons from Israel’s less than successful bombing campaign against Hezbollah in 2006. This involved the same region and, in part, the same enemy.
US and, to a certain extent, European diplomacy in both the Balkans and Middle East operate under the illusion that indispensable Western stewardship can and does lead to benign, universally legitimate, and final historical endpoints. This is true in neither region, as the Palestinians already know and the Kosovars will find out. Decisive solutions in these and other regions remain more likely to emerge from messy battlefields (to include Tahrir Square and other sites of muscular direct democracy as well as more traditional fields of combat) than from cushy negotiation sites. Just look at Syria and Libya (the latter remains in a dangerous state of flux). Neither the April deal between Serbia and Kosova nor anything that comes from US efforts to knock Israeli and Palestinian heads together are likely to change this pattern.
David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).