Can you describe your role in your former position as EU Middle East Envoy:
My role was to co-ordinate a bottom-up process to compliment a diplomatic top-down process - typically an effort by the diplomatic community or politicians to come up with an agreement. But unless an agreement has some connection with reality and addresses real power relationships and security, and has a certain acquiescence of grassroots support, then it will fail.
This was the first time the EU had been involved in bottom-up peace-building which I started on an informal basis. Initially opposed to it, the Israelis objected, but reluctantly acquiesced. Part of my role was also to explain to Israelis that we weren’t involved with Palestinians in a conspiracy against Israel, but were trying to bring about the de-escalation of violence that would allow a political process to start.
What were your ‘town hall’ meetings - what did they achieve?
The meetings served three purposes: first to explain to people with influence in communities what was being proposed - many had a completely wrong idea of what was being proposed at the national level. The extent of misconception surrounding a political process is vital because it has the potential to undermine the initiative. Secondly, they showed the process was transparent and not hidden from people and hatched in 5 star hotels, but was something about which they could have their say. Thirdly, they provided an opportunity for people to vent frustrations and anger at the international community. In general, when people are not consulted, they oppose something, but once consulted, they may grudgingly express reservations, but generally would not sabotage it.
Their importance was to explain the peace-building process and push-start daily developments to give substance and momentum. I would meet with Arafat every day, and I then took his responses back to community leaders and commanders who had been at the meetings. Arafat would push things in a certain direction; it was time-consuming, but was fundamental to the process.
One way of influencing people with weapons is to influence the community that supports them. This needs to be a natural process of starting a debate on political options. One of my rules of thumb was never to undermine the concept of resistance, but rather to change the meaning of words; to say, of course everyone has the right to resist occupation, but there are other ways of continuing resistance.
Were there positive outcomes, for example, removing checkpoints?
Checkpoints were particularly difficult: it took 17 different Israeli agencies to lift a checkpoint. There are realms of different interests in the checkpoints: settlers committees, customs and revenue, the Civil Administration, and several military, intelligence and internal security interests. Essentially, de-escalation of violence requires an accelerating dynamic towards improvement in people’s lives. Visible feel-good factors are important. Opening a checkpoint, paradoxically, seemed to be the most difficult for Israelis. The first 2 weeks of an attempt to de-escalate conflict are critical; you have a small horizon. What was apparent in 2001-2003 was that the period to bring about change was getting shorter.
What were the lessons learnt for the EU at a policy-level?
Before 2000 - a period when Palestinians and Israelis had no communication between each other - my role had been to try and get Israelis to talk to the EU about security. They had steadfastly refused to do this: their position was that the EU was there to sign cheques but not to involve itself in policy. Eventually isolation broke down and discussion began without which this initiative would not have been possible.
For Palestinians, the hardest thing was Israel’s policy not to engage with the EU. I had built up trust with Palestinian political leaders - with Tanzeem and Fateh leaders and the rank and file of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, not their political leadership. The EU first engaged with Hamas’ leadership in 2000. It had been generally viewed that Israel would be so angered by it that it would damage relations and that the EU would loose the ability to work with Israel who resisted Europeans venturing into the political process.
The EU understood there needed to be a practical element to peace-building as a way into the political process. But they found this difficult because the natural instinct was to go to member states rather than develop a joint European approach. They currently have a top-down approach with, I feel, insufficient understanding of conflict dynamics, psychology, and the complexity and divisions within Palestinian society. Many believed it was self-evidently in the Palestinians’ interest to stop the firing. I think EU policy retreated out of fright at what the schism with the US over Iraq, and resulting internal divisions which the attack on Iraq provoked.
What is your experience from working in other areas of conflict on peace-building in a context of asymmetrical power?
In most of these processes there is a lack of trust. This is not an obstacle, but should be expected and a process designed for this. Preparation for a political process must include psychological preparation - treating people with respect, courtesy and patience. This may be obvious but is often ignored. Often mediators get irritated because people don’t want to shift positions; they instruct them on what is in their interests which is a mistake. Establishing a good relationship; under- not overstating prospects; being clear what you are trying to achieve, what is not achievable; and avoiding diplomatic ‘constructive ambiguities’ is fundamental. You can’t demand a large element of trust at the beginning of a process. Many contexts show how poor Western mediation efforts have generally been: the claim to be objective has proved hollow, instead pushing political positions that skew outcomes towards western interests.
After you left, did the EU continue with this initiative?
I don’t know why it wasn’t continued after I was removed. Many people asked and complained why there wasn’t a successor. The breakdown of trust and then putting Hamas on the proscribed list had created too many uncertainties for people to agree how to move ahead. Presumably, there was also opposition from Israel.
What did the Israelis and Palestinians feel about this initiative and process?
We had an indirect channel with Israel which had divided views: some were opposed to the conflict’s internationalization and wanted it to be dealt with only by America; others felt the war on terror should be taken advantage of to undermine the Palestinian national project. Others in the security services welcomed this as a way to prevent crises and occasionally save lives. They said so in the press. I know everything major that I did was reported to PM Sharon; he was probably skeptical but at that stage he was still thinking of a two-state political solution and so was ready to listen. But when he opted for the unilateral approach, I don’t think he wanted mediators - probably one of the reasons for my removal.
Palestinians felt it was a positive approach, but that the EU did not back it up with sufficient resources. Arafat wanted it expanded. However imperfect, they felt it important to have people see and report back the effects of Israeli actions to make it less easy for Israel to take certain actions.
Does the offer of a long-term hudna provide a context for initiating bottom-up peace-building?
A hudna offers a good opportunity - de-escalation of violence provides the opportunity to build steps that can be reciprocated between parties. Trust is not going to come from signing a paper. For Islamist movements, it is important that there should be psychological parity in the process between the parties, and a sense in which a just solution, not a pragmatic or compromise one, is the focus. They tend to be more self-reliant, preferring a third party or mediator engage with them first; only when they see a real political process underway would they sit with the other side. For Islamists, when there is conflict, it is the duty of Muslims to push parties to negotiation and reconciliation of differences.
How does the Islamist approach challenge Western models on conflict resolution which assume paradigms of violence that are basically Eurocentric?
Because of the asymmetry of power, Muslims have a view that continued resistance is not detrimental to a political process - resistance sometimes is necessary to create circumstances for political processes to begin. This is different from Western models which see violence as an obstacle to political processes, rather than as a necessary component to arriving at a solution.
How do you bring into negotiation processes psychological requirements for conflict transformation where conflicts have gone on for along time?
There is no easy answer to this. One major thing is to find other tasks for the military. On the Palestinian side, if people cannot be armed, they can act as citizens committees - to directly organize their communities, thereby giving them a sense of value; that they are still needed even if their military skills aren’t.
The institutionalization of occupation mindset for Israel constitutes a major problem. One army commander told me it took him 2 years to effect a change in the ethos of toleration of unnecessary Palestinian casualties caused by his troops – and this at a time when relations were not strained. He knew pointless deaths were happening which were a fact of an army on the ground getting into local conflicts.Ittakes5-10yearstohavean impact on an army’s ethos that has developed over years where people are seen as enemies. The only thing you can do is ensure that people give strict orders from the very top. On the military side, change requires political decisions. They have to do their own internal consensus-building.
How would you try to sell this approach now?
The only way you can sell it to Israelis is to advocate a step-by-step approach: reassure them that parties will not be irrevocably committed to something until they choose to be. Israel has traditionally set preconditions that are intended to commit Palestinians, whilst leaving Israel unencumbered, and third party mediators generally have acquiesced to Israeli demands. Senator Mitchell told me you can’t have a political process until the sides at least see that the other has a case, so maybe you have to step further back and start by convincing people that the other side has valid aspirations – even if these are contested.
Were lessons from your involvement in the Mitchell Committee incorporated in this initiative?
Narrative – by which I mean a party’s perception of its own history, its vulnerabilities and view of the future - was pre-eminently important in the Mitchell process. The ability to listen and hear this narrative is crucial. Other lessons were the need to focus on core issues and not get sidetracked, and then build on these. The key issues for Senator Mitchell was a trade off between a cessation of settlement building in return for security from the Palestinians. That was the key to the process - at the beginning we insisted on a real stopping of settlement expansion. A third element is to keep a final report or recommendations simple.
Given the current polarization in the OPT with the West supporting one side against the other, could such a process be developed now?
It isn’t hard to convince people of this approach: most understand this, yet to implement it seems difficult for Europe. It could be done by the Swiss or Norwegians; Sweden or Ireland might be possible, although neither France, Germany, nor the US or Britain, have credibility.
An individual with credibility can give a strong element of integrity. There will be a huge sense among people that something disadvantageous is being cooked up behind their backs, so how they regard the person overseeing the process is vital. I know it made a huge difference in Northern Ireland – Senator Mitchell was key to the whole process there.
The Palestinian-Israeli situation is totally different now; this role couldn’t be done by someone drafted in. I’m not sure they would not survive; they would need armoured cars and you can’t do this in those circumstances. One would need a tremendous amount of trust in the individual leading this. The only person who could do this at the moment is George Mitchell. Palestinians would give him the opportunity. The idea of people coming in and having the ability and time to make connections and links is just not there. We have cut ourselves off from that.
Aisling Byrne is Projects Co-ordinator with Conflicts Forum in Beirut (www.conflictsforum.org)