False Dichotomous Thinking – peace process.20.03.13

False Dichotomous Thinking 20.03.13


Howard Adelman

What does it mean when journalists report that "expectations are low" concerning Barack Obama’s visit to Israel with respect to the peace process? No one expected him, especially given all the forewarning, to make a new proposal to break through the current impasse. In that sense, ‘expectations are low’ meant simply that no one anticipates a proposal for a breakthrough let alone a breakthrough itself. The expression, however, could mean something else at the other end of the conceptual spectrum. Expectations are so low that absolutely no headway can be expected with respect to negotiations. This is how Foreign Policy Mideast Daily reported it this morning. Or it could mean anything in between – a few openers for further discussions; a definition of the key elements of the impasse with some dialogue procedures set in place to see if they can be overcome; a set of sub-negotiation bilateral or trilateral committees to discuss key elements re the impasse with a range of options for each:

1) settlements

  • No settlement activity at all
  • No new settlements
  • No building in settlements on territory slated for transfer to the Palestinians
  • Settlement activity only to fill in areas in existing East Jerusalem settlements clearly indicated for remaining part of Israel
  • No settlement freeze at all unless Palestinians return to the peace negotiations

2) The Holy Basin

  • Israeli Sovereignty but Islamic administration re their holy sites
  • Shared sovereignty
  • Shared sovereignty with international partners
  • International sovereignty
  • Separate sovereign status a la Vatican

3) Security

  • Israeli further withdrawals and replacement with Palestinian police forces in West Bank
  • Further refinement to past agreements on a demilitarized West Bank
  • Role, make up, responsibilities and accountability of an international peace keeping force in the West Bank

4) Refugees

  • Further discussions on number to be repatriated to Israel under family reunification – no less than 5,000 and no more than 100,000
  • Refinement of compensation proposals
  • Refinement of proposals for compensation to Jews from Arab lands
  • Tweaking of the "right of return" to accommodate this fundamental principle for Palestinians while ensuring that it does not apply to Israel
  • Education program to prepare Palestinians for this result
  • Proposals to integrate UNRWA with respect to areas governed by the Palestinian Authority into the Palestinian administration

5) Mutual recognition

  • Recognition by Israel of a Palestinian state
  • Recognition by Palestine of Israel as a Jewish state

6) Land Swaps

  • Refinement of maps for planned land swaps
  • The outcome re Ariel

On the other hand, pre-negotiations could avoid any discussions about advancing on substantive issues and be confined only to confidence building measures. Dow Marmur dealt with some of these in his discussion of Dennis Ross in his column in the Toronto Star on Monday:

1) a unilateral declaration by Israel to confine new building within settlements and only those that will almost inevitably be involved in the land swap to Israel;

2) unilateral offers by Israel to offer financial incentives for Israelis to abandon settlement outposts;

3) unilateral moves by Israel to further reduce the areas over which it still exercises its security presence;

4) mutual recognition by Israel of a Palestinian state with borders not yet defined in correlation with Palestine recognizing Israel as a Jewish state;

5) Palestinian changing maps to show Israel;

6) Palestinians not only pledging but insuring no further demonization of Israel.

Dow ended his column: "Obama is uniquely positioned to be the catalyst for this process. His visit could become a game changer by helping both sides to take small steps now in preparation for peace later."

But the next day, Dow had switched back from wearing his hat of small hopes to being very pessimistic. (See his blog that I received this morning and that I have included at the end of this blog.) Dow contrasted the pessimistic picture painted by Shlomo Avineri versus the insistence of Naomi Chazan on pushing an optimistic agenda. Shlomo, he wrote, "maintains that neither the Palestinian Authority nor the new Israeli government – the most right-wing in its history, will do much about solving the problem. All that we can hope for is that the situation can be managed better in anticipation of good times, whenever these may come." (Shlomo Avineri’s views are set out in the January issue of Foreign Affairs where he, in fact, sets out his own list of pragmatic and achievable measures that can be taken as interim steps.)

This is the pessimistic picture. Yet confidence building measures proposed by Dennis Ross were merely steps to manage the situation rather than substantive progress, but were treated as a blessing of small hopes rather than a despairing pessimism. But perhaps in the fuller acquaintance with Shlomo’s views, his proposals for maintenance were more restrictive than Dennis Ross’ proposals. But not by much! As Avineri said, "you try to achieve a lot of proactive conflict management measures, some of them partial agreements, some of them unilateral steps, some of them doing things below the radar where people can reach understandings even if they don’t have to sign or even if they don’t want to sign on the dotted line about the final issues."

As can be seen from his Foreign Affairs article, those views of Avineri were not that much more restrictive than those of Dennis Ross. In Avineri’s participation in the Israel Policy Forum on "The Future of the Peace Process", he anticipated Obama’s address to the Israeli public through his talk to the students as being at the heart of his visit to at least convey that Obama hears what worries Israelis and understands those fears. On the core issues of settlements, borders, Jerusalem, security, refugees, the gap between the current more right wing government versus the previous moderate government engaged in the last negotiations is even wider than the considerable chasm still left when moderates were negotiating with moderates. "To try to reopen those kinds of negotiations now is probably doomed to failure." That is certainly the generally universal pessimism, even of Naomi Chazan.

Yet Naomi Chazan argued vehemently against the notion that nothing could be done and insisted that "survival demands that those in power don’t wait for ‘the right time’ for peace negotiations but create them now" by instead of "lowering expectations" about the Obama visit, pushing Obama to press both sides to resume negotiations.’ However, the overwhelming view of most observers and specialists in conflict management and peace negotiations is that a push towards direct negotiations at this time would be counter-productive. Naomi Chazan’s push is not idealism or optimism but the despair of hope and the guarantee that hope will turn into greater despair.

Subjective reactions to proposals as instilling pessimism or optimism are one thing. But positing a false and misleading dichotomy of proposals as pessimistic or optimistic may be far more misleading than helpful.

Part of the equation is also knowing the American administration and, in particular, Barack Obama’s mindset as well as that of the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority. Avineri has advised that, "the president shouldn’t really put his life on the line on this issue because he has already failed in the past," and has suggested an emphasis on back channels or Track II diplomacy. I think Obama has already incorporated that view. This is why when Gerald Steinberg in his article in the National Post this morning, "Natanyahu is from Mars, Obama is from Venus" is so misleading with his false dichotomy. Steinberg correctly calls Netanyahu a hard-core realist. However, he argues that Obama has a very opposite perception of international politics who takes "an idealist (or optimist) approach" and "believes that disputes generally can be overcome through dialogue and compromise. For Obama, the use of military force is an undesirable last resort." The portrait of the al-Qaeda and the Taliban as outliers would perhaps explain his use of drones to assassinate them. [I am
being sarcastic!]

The portrait is so wrong and so distorting that one despairs at correcting it. For example, the difference between Obama and Netanyahu over Iran is on whether to draw a line in the sand before hand of after you have given diplomacy and talk the best chance that can be afforded. The argument for drawing the line in the sand early is that the other side knows very early on when their actions will trigger a military response and this will prevent escalation creep. The argument for not drawing a line in the sand early is that it psychologically blackmails the negotiation process and limits the saving of face. There are arguments for both positions. (Listen to American National Public Radio today on "The Value and Risk of Drawing a Red Line" with Aaron David Miller from the Woodrow Wilson Center whom I have cited before with respect to Obama and Israel.)

Both Netanyahu and Obama are variations of realism and not a realist versus an idealist. There is an abundance of evidence that Netanyahu is a hard-core realist and that Obama is what may be termed a softer realist, but it is very clear that he is not a Kantian idealist. Painting him as one may be considered a credit or a demerit, depending on your point of view, but, whatever its normative value, it is descriptively false. False either/or dichotomies in international politics, however convenient they are in explaining issues, much more often mislead.

The issue of red lines is not only applicable to Iran but also North Korea and Syria. Ignore North Korea for the moment, however difficult it is to bracket the self-aggrandizing and advertisements for himself of Kim Jong-Un. Last year, intelligence reports informed the president that the Assad regime was weaponizing missiles with nerve gas. Obama and the USA drew a definite line in the sand for Syria. As Foreign Policy reported, "In August, President Barack Obama first asserted that Syria’s use, or movement, of chemical or biological weapons (CBW) would be a ‘red line’ that would result in ‘enormous consequences’." (5 December 2012) Presumably, the rationale would be humanitarian rather than siding with one side. Intervention was required to protect civilians under the universally accepted doctrine of the responsibility to protect that Canadians pioneered in forging. After all, the international community to its everlasting shame did nothing when Saddam Hussein used Sarin and VX in 1988 on the Kurdish village of Halabja, killing 5,000, injuring over 10,000 others and leaving a legacy of birth defects. In 1982, Bashar al-Assad’s father massacred between 10,000 and 20,000 in Hama to repress a rebellion so mass murder by this regime would not be a total surprise.

Foreign Minister, Jihad Makdissi of Syria has repeatedly stated that the Assad regime would only use chemical weapons against invaders and not against Syrians. If the Assad regime does resort to the use of chemical (or biological) weapons in Syria, the Syrian regime could expect to invite some type of military response from the USA without specifying whether that meant arming the opposition, imposing a no fly zone or bombing certain facilities. The possible use of poison gas in Syria against civilians in Aleppo needs first to be verified. Little noticed in today’s news reports about possible chemical warfare in Syria, is that the report itself may be a way for the Iranians to test run how seriously to take red lines by the USA if ever they were to be drawn. Iran has repeatedly used Syria as a proxy.

Dichotomies that apply to subjective states and attitudes – such as pessimism and optimism – may be very misleading when applied to characterizing positions held on peace negotiations. False mutually exclusive categorization is often misleading and sometimes even dangerous when misapplied to the positions of world leaders. Dichotomies posed as polar opposites with many intermediate positions between can also be misleading as well; it may be useful to distinguish realists along a range between an extreme hard-core group and realists who soften that realism with moral considerations with many variations between. But posing realists and idealists as polar opposites on a spectrum of variations does not work very well.

Both/and thinking analyses may often be better suited to an issue than either/or positioning.

[Tags: dichotomous thought; Israel, Obama,
Netanyahu, peace process]


The day after the swearing in of Israel’s new government and the day before the arrival of President Obama, a symposium was held in Jerusalem under the title, “Israeli-Palestinian Conflict – Where to?” on the occasion of the publication of The Routledge Handbook on the Israeli Palestinian Conflict, edited by Joel Peers and David Newman.

The four panelists were on the centre-left of the political spectrum, i.e., in favour of the two-state solution. Nevertheless, there were differences, particularly between the realism of Shlomo Avineri’s analysis and the idealism of Naomi Chazan’s vision.

I was both heartened and depressed by Avineri’s presentation. Heartened, because what he said as an expert I’ve been saying as an amateur: though the Arab Awakening is likely to lead to the balkanization of the region and complicate life for Israel, the two-state solution is still the only viable response to the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Depressed because much of what I’ve written from Israel has been along Avineri’s line. It depresses me and, alas, my readers. He maintains that neither the Palestinian Authority nor the new Israeli government – the most right-wing in its history, he said – will do much about solving the problem. All that we can hope for is that the situation can be managed better in anticipation of good times, whenever these may come.

Naomi Chazan differed sharply. She argued vehemently against the notion that nothing could be done about peace at present and, therefore, containment is all that’s possible. I understood her to say that in the same way as Avineri’s skepticism is self-fulfilling prophecy, so can the belief that peace can happen now. It’s essential for Israel’s survival and, therefore, requires the same kind of idealism that brought it into existence.

Chazan maintained that this fight for survival demands that those in power don’t wait for “the right time” for peace negotiations but create them now. For example, much could have been achieved towards it, she argued, if Israel had been the first to support the Palestinians’ bid for statehood at the United Nations. Similarly, instead of joining in the chorus that tells everybody not to expect much from Obama’s visit, his being here can and must greatly stimulate the process by pushing the two sides to negotiate.

I left the meeting wishing that Chazan were right but believing that Avineri got it right. Instead of hoping for the ideal we should settle for the real and make it less difficult than it is now and much less difficult than it’ll become if we do nothing at all. That’s why prudent management is the best possible interim measure to be taken now.

I understand this also to be behind Dennis Ross’s idea about what each side could do independently of the other to create confidence building measures that would ease the tension and prepare for the future. (Thus my latest column in The Toronto Star.)

The third speaker, Professor Arie Arnon of Ben Gurion University, pointed to the vital importance of the many Track Two encounters between experts who’re preparing the ground for peace whenever it comes by dealing with specific aspects of it. I understood him to say that these encounters blend realism with idealism.

The last speaker was Professor David Newman, also of Ben Gurion and co- editor of The Handbook. He reminded us that little of the left’s message, whether realistic or idealistic, is now touching the Israelis. The new government of the right reflects it. The citizens, indeed the world at large, have to learn to grin and bear it. Advantage: Avineri.

Jerusalem 20.3.13 Dow Marmur

False Dichotomous Thinking.doc