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UN Week – 8/23/2010

September 4, 2010

by John and Douglas Carey, Editors, 

Contents of this issue: direct Middle East talks, a step backwards.

           On August 20th a statement was issued by the Middle East Quartet, consisting of the UN, Russian Federation, US and European Union. Here it is in its entirety, for the record:

“The representatives of the Quartet reaffirm their strong support for direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians[1] to resolve all final status issues. The Quartet reaffirms its full commitment to its previous statements, including in Trieste on 26 June 2009, in New York on 24 September 2009, and its statement in Moscow on 19 March 2010, which provides that direct, bilateral negotiations that resolve all final status issues should ‘lead to a settlement, negotiated between the parties, that ends the occupation which began in 1967 and results in the emergence of an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian State living side by side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbors’.

“The Quartet expresses its determination to support the parties throughout the negotiations, which can be completed within one year, and the implementation of an agreement. The Quartet again calls on both sides[2] to observe calm and restraint, and to refrain from provocative actions and inflammatory rhetoric. Welcoming the result of the Arab Peace Initiative Committee in Cairo on 29 July, the Quartet notes that success will require sustained regional and international support for the negotiations and the parallel process of Palestinian state-building and the pursuit of a just, lasting and comprehensive regional peace as envisaged in the Madrid terms of reference, Security Council resolutions and the Arab Peace Initiative. The Quartet principals intend to meet with their colleagues from the Arab League in September in New York to review the situation. Accordingly, the Quartet calls on the Israelis and the Palestinians to join in launching direct negotia-tions on 2 September in Washington, D.C., to resolve all final status issues and fulfill the aspirations of both parties.”

          Some say direct talks are a step backwards because they are bound to fail and in the process drive the parties further apart. I, on the other hand, say they are a step backwards for a different reason, because, between bitter enemies, mediation is safer than direct confrontation with its risk of tempers getting out of control. Yes, mediation has been tried at great length with US Senator George Mitchell doing everything possible to inch the parties closer to each other. But mediation between enemies is still better than confronta-tion.

There is a third way, which I urge be put to use. Instead of haggling over settlements, borders, refugees and Jerusalem, why not tackle an entirely different issue, one that is seldom mentioned publicly but which is of great importance. That is the issue of how to manage shared water resources.

The area is mostly dry, if not parched. But fresh water does flow from the Jordan’s headwaters into the Sea of Galilee and then, in limited amounts, down the Jordan Valley to the Dead Sea. And additional fresh water lies beneath the surface, in aquifers that cross the lines dividing lands occupied by Israel from Palestinian lands. Who gets to use that water, and how it is divided up, are potentially explosive issues.

If the parties would just put aside for now the big issues and work together on the less incendiary one of water control, they might just be able to reach some measure of agreement. They might be able, for instance, to establish a joint advisory agency, at first with little or no decision-making power over water use. After a while, they might come to realize that it is possible for them to deal with each other in a small but business-like way. Then they could consider enlarging the authority of the joint body.

In this process, Israel and the Palestinians would be following the example of France and Germany when they decided after World War II to cease fighting generation after generation and make a mutually beneficial peace. Since they both dealt in iron and steel, they created in 1951 a joint agency to exercise a measure of control over those industries, regardless of the boundary between them. Thus was born the European Coal and Steel Community, la Communauté Européenne du Charbon et de l’Acier, known by its French initials as CECA. Italy and the Benelux countries also joined.

The Community was given a High Authority, an Assembly, a Council and a Court of Justice. The joint apparatus limited to control of the two original industries, coal and steel, expanded into broader areas of the economy when the European Common Market was established. And in time, that evolved into the European Union. While nothing so far-reaching is visualized for the Middle East, at least the first step is within reason.

So also in the Middle East, where centuries of intense hostility may rival but not exceed that existing traditionally between France and Germany, it might be possible for Israel and the Palestinians to begin by agreeing on how to control their mutually shared portion of the life-dependent resource of water. If the two sides were to discover that doing business across ethnic and religious boundaries is possible in smaller matters, they might be willing to move slowly to larger areas.

This would seem like a more productive approach than to leap at all the big issues at once, while setting unrealistic deadlines. It would also seem more sensible for mediation to continue, with someone both sides respect in the middle, rather than throwing these enemies into an arena alone where they are more likely to contend than to cooperate.

This brings us to the close of the August 23, 2010, issue of United Nations Week: News and Views. We’ll be back with the next issue. Meantime, do send along your own views on these or other UN-related issues to Good-bye for now, and thanks for watching.

[1] No reference is made to the conflict between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, the latter being clearly the intended negotiating partner.

[2] There are really three sides, Israel, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, all of them needed for peace.

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