All posts by DavidW

Graduated from the University of Birmingham in October 2017 with a Masters in International Relations.

The Madman Theory – Did Trump Scare North Korea?

It has been a fascinating transition from 2017 to 2018. At the end of 2017 we were facing the possibility of war between a nuclear-armed North Korea and the United States with Hawaii testing its nuclear attack sirens for the first time in close to three decades (Jones and Kelleher, December 2nd 2017).

In the rising tensions between the US and North Korea, it was Hawaii, that as one of the US states closest to North Korea, alongside Guam, was, if the North Koreans are to be believed, within range of their Hwasong-15 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile with its range of 8,100 miles. This placed the US Pacific Command and the Naval base at Pearl Harbour, Oahu island, Hawaii and Andersen Air Force Base and Naval Base Guam within the reach of North Korea’s missile capabilities.  (deGrandpre, 11th August, 2017; Jones and Kelleher, December 2nd 2017).

Flashforward a few weeks and we are now talking about a renewal in North-South Korean high-level talks, the first in two years, the reopening of the emergency hotline between the two nations which has been down since February 2016 and North Korean participation in the February 2018 Winter Olympics (The BBC, 9th January 2018; McCurry, 9th January 2018).

How has this shift come about? Could the US under Trump have re-awakened the classic Nixon-Kissinger “Madman Theory” in an attempt to bring North Korea to heel and create this breakthrough?

The “Madman” Theory of Leadership

The “Madman” Theory of leadership related to the foreign policy approach taken by US President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. The theory was devised by Kissinger, who utilised the image of Nixon as an unpredictable and irrational President whose inclination was to exceed reasonable norms of international behaviour and who hated communism to the extent that he would use any and all forms of military threat to bring the Vietnam war to a close.   (Dumbrell, 2012 p. 108; Kimball, 1993 p. 155).

As part of the US strategy, it was argued that in order to resolve the conflict in Vietnam, the US might unleash irrational force against North Vietnam rather than utilise Soviet-Chinese diplomacy or “Vietnamisation” to resolve the conflict by forcing Hanoi to negotiate concessions (Dumbrell, 2012, p. 17, 108). The 1969 “secret” bombing of Cambodia, the Christmas Bombing of North Vietnam in 1972, the mining of North Vietnamese ports and destruction of dike systems as well as the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons and occupation of North Vietnam were part of this escalation strategy. It was argued that Nixon and Kissinger used this escalation strategy to pressure not only North Vietnam but its allies, the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union to move towards a peace settlement rather than risk Nixon escalating the conflict as a “madman” (LaFeber, 2008, p. 286; Dumbrell, 2012, p. 110-111).

In my opinion, the theory at its simplest level requires an actor to seek accommodation in the context of a crisis, making the other actor threaten disproportionate escalation that would result in the other side backing down as they would believe they were dealing with a “madman” and would not wish to call his/her bluff.

Could US President Donald Trump’s administration be utilising this theory of leadership against North Korea? Have we seen the coming of the Second “Madman”?

The Coming of the Second “Madman” In the Age of Digital Media

As a starting point lets make an assumption that there is a certain level of rationality within the functioning of the Trump Administration (that might appear difficult but run with it for a moment).

In my opinion, it would be fair to say, that Donald Trump’s Presidency has a reputation of unpredictability, apparent irrationality and an inclination to exceed reasonable and accepted norms of international behaviour (to put it one way) similar to that of Nixon. So, it would not be a stretch to imagine that the administration could utilise that reputation as a foreign policy tool. In the age of digital media and social media platforms like Twitter, it is far easier, I would argue, for the image of an unpredictable and irrational President to be spread across the world, applying pressure on multiple targets at once whilst carrying the weight of the President’s personal desires, particularly when that image is being communicated from the President’s own Twitter account.

Both before and after being elected President, Donald Trump widely utilised social media as a political tool both in terms of communicating domestic and foreign policy. Through the use of Twitter, Trump has made the Presidency far more personal than ever before, with Twitter becoming a “window not only into his thoughts and psyche, but into the kind of messages he wants to communicate” (Buncombe, 19th January 2018).

Trump joked about his “Nuclear button” being bigger, more powerful and more usable than that of North Korea’s Ki Jung-Un, having previously referred to the North Korean leader as a “little rocket man” and that the North Korean regime would not be “around much longer” (Gambino, 3rd January 2018: Allen, 24th September 2017). Such rhetoric I would argue has been used by Trump to communicate a message to the North Korean regime in terms not seen before: backdown because I’m prepared to go all the way.

In my opinion, such tweets in coordination with other speeches by Trump have been designed to demonstrate, in the context of the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear programme, that the President is unpredictable, irrational, inclined to exceed reasonable norms of international behaviour and happy to use any and all forms of military threat (in theory though with no practical examples on the ground) against North Korea. The options for the North Korean regime were simple: backdown and allow the situation to de-escalate or face the overwhelming power of the United States who is prepared to escalate the crisis, something which North Korea’s ally, the People’s Republic of China did not desire and would likely have advised the North Koreans against. Arguably North Korea chose the former and decided not to call Trump’s bluff quite possibly because they may have got the message (real or unreal) that there was no bluff.

So have we seen the resurrection of the “Madman” Theory of Leadership in US foreign policy? Maybe but the answer to that question really depends on whether you think Trump is a President pretending to be a “madman” or a “madman” pretending to be a President.

Bibliography

Allen, Julie, the Telegraph (24th September 2017), “Donald Trump warns Kim Jong-un ‘won’t be around much longer`” available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/09/24/donald-trump-warns-kim-jong-un-wont-around-much-longer/ [Accessed on the 19th January 2018]

Buncombe, Andrew, The Independent (18th January 2018) “Donald Trump one year on: How the Twitter President changed social media and the country’s top office” available at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/the-twitter-president-how-potus-changed-social-media-and-the-presidency-a8164161.html [Accessed on 19th January 2018)

deGrandpre, Andrew, The Washington Post (August 11th, 2017), “Guam Released Guidance to Prepare Residents for North Korean Nuclear Strike” available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/08/11/guam-releases-guidance-to-prepare-residents-for-north-korean-nuclear-strike/?utm_term=.ccfddcef5246 [Accessed on 9th January 2018]

Dumbrell, John (2012), Rethinking the Vietnam War (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke)

Gabino, Lauren, The Guardian (3rd January 2018), “Donald Trump boasts that his nuclear button is bigger than Kin Jong-uns” available at https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/jan/03/donald-trump-boasts-nuclear-button-bigger-kim-jong-un [Accessed on the 19th January 2018]

Jones, Caleb and Kelleher, Jennifer Sinco, The Independent (December 2nd 2017), “Hawaii sounds nuclear warning sirens for first time since 1980s” available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/hawaii-nuclear-warning-sirens-north-korea-nuclear-attack-a8088201.html [Accessed on 9th January 2018]

Kimball, Jeffery P., “Peace with Honor”, Richard Nixon and the Diplomacy of Threat and Symbolism”, in Anderson, David. (1993) ed. Shadow on the White House: Presidents and the Vietnam War, 1945-75 (University Press of Kansas: Lawerence) pp. 152-183

LaFeber, Walter, (2008), “A New Containment: The Rise and Fall of Détente” in America, Russia and the Cold War, 1945-2006, Tenth Edition (McGraw-Hill: New York), pp. 266-298.

McCurry, Justin, The Guardian (9th January 2018), “North Korea agrees to send athletes to Winter Olympics after talks with South” available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jan/09/north-south-korea-talks-winter-olympics-nuclear [Accessed 9th January 2018]

The BBC, (9th January 2018), “North Korea to send team to Winter Olympic Games” available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-42600550 [Accessed on 9th January 2018]

 

Is the Oslo Peace Process really, truly dead?

For anyone with an interest in the ebb and flow the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, December 2017 has proven to be an extremely intriguing and surprising month.

On 6th December, the world found that, true to his word, President of the United States of America, Donald Trump declared that the US would recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel (The Independent, 6th December 2017: The Guardian, 7th December 2017). In response, Palestinian President Mahmood Abbas declared in a speech to the Organisation of the Islamic Conference Summit in Istanbul, Turkey, that Jerusalem “is a Palestinian Arab Muslim Christian city, the eternal capital of the state of Palestine. There can be no Palestinian state without the city of Jerusalem as its capital” and that the Palestinians were “no longer committed to any agreement from Oslo until today” (Palestinian News and Info Agency, 13th December 2017; Jewish News Service, December 13th 2017). Furthermore, on Thursday 14th December, Abbas called for the recognition of East Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Palestine, a position taken and formally recognised by the OIC (The Guardian, 13th Dec 2017).

Though much has been said about in relation to the impact on the United States position in the Middle East and the world in general, what is the impact on the Oslo Peace Process between the Israelis and the Palestinians?

Have we seen the final, fatal wound to the Oslo Peace Process? Or is this a controversial first step in a fresh and unorthodox approach to revive a stalled peace process?

What is the Oslo Peace Process?

On 13th September 1993, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat, symbolically shook hands on the lawn of the White House, sealing the Oslo I Agreement negotiated between the two parties which offered the possibility of a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Booth and Wheeler, 2008, p. 245; Cronin, 2009, p. 50; Tessler, 2009, p. 763). Oslo I was a framework for negotiations rather than a content-based agreement that dealt with final terms (Gelvin, 2005, pp. 234-235).

According to Oslo I, the final settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians was to be based on UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. This effectively meant that in theory at least, the border between Israel and the Palestinian territories of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem would follow the 1949 Armistice lines originally drawn up between Israel and Egypt and Jordan. Under UNSC Resolution 242, Israel was to withdraw from territories it occupied in 1967 and UNSC Resolution 338 reinforced the importance of UNSC Resolution 242 and of peace negotiations (Tessler, 2009, p. 761; El-Atrash, 2016, p. 370).  Crucially the Oslo I agreement left the most difficult elements of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict such as borders, settlements, the status of Jerusalem, division of water resources and the Palestinian refugee issue until the final status negotiations which were originally to be concluded by May 1999 (Slater, 2001, p. 177).

Between 1993-2000, the Israelis and the Palestinians signed seven major agreements yet the subsequent Camp David Summit, which set out to resolve all final-status issues and result in a comprehensive and permanent settlement between the two sides, failed to bring about an agreement and was followed swiftly by the eruption of the Al-Aqsa Intifada on the 29th September 2000 (Rubenberg, 2003, pp. 61, 81; Tessler, 2009, p. 818). At the heart of much of the contestation has been what to do with Jerusalem.

Why does Jerusalem Matter?

As a result of the 1948 War, Jerusalem was divided into Jewish/Israeli West and Arab/Palestinian East Jerusalem until the 1967 war when the eastern part of the city was captured by Israel and the city was unified (El-Atrash, 2016, p. 370).

The status of Jerusalem is a sensitive issue for both sides due to Israeli and Palestinian desires for it to serve as their national capitals and their connection to holy sites namely the Temple Mount or Haram al-Sharif which is sacred to Jews as the site of the temple of worship and whilst it is seen as the third most important city in Islam after Mecca and Medina. Indeed, in the 2000 Camp David Summit, Jerusalem was recognised as the “one of the most difficult issues to resolve”. The Second Intifada by the Palestinians against Israel between 2000-2004 was triggered by the visit of Ariel Sharon to the  Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif to protest for the right of Jews to pray there (Caplan, 2010, pp. 207-208; Smith, 2017, p. 439).

Because of the connection between Jerusalem and the national identities of both Palestinians and Israelis, it has been at the heart of both the “protracted political conflict”, the peace negotiations and the existing stalemate (El-Atrash, 206, p. 373). Sooner or later, you’ve got to talk about Jerusalem and talk about it in a way that could offer a means to break the stalemate.

The Stalled Process

We have not got much further than that and indeed the current situation has been that the PLO/Palestinian Authorities have focused on a strategy of “internationalizing” the conflict through the United Nations. This has been done through the 2009 Palestine 194 Campaign which aimed to make Palestine the 194th state of the UN which resulted in the 2012 passing of General Assembly resolution 6719 which granted Palestine non-member observer status, In addition the Palestinians have looked to the International Criminal Court, through signing the Rome Statute and through other international bodies to put pressure on Israel as well as support from the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. There has been a decline in the domestic support and legitimacy of Mahmoud Abbas who has served as President of the Palestinian Authority for a decade or so whilst Hamas has continued to maintain control of Gaza Strip and continued its staunch rejection of the existence of Israel. Having won the 2015 Elections, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to support the continued construction of settlements in East Jerusalem as part of the vision of an “unified indivisible Jerusalem” and asserted that continued control over the Palestinian territory was necessary for Israel’s security given regional instability and Islamic extremism. At the same time there has been the continued growth and spread of Israeli settlers and settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem (Scheindlin and Waxman, 2016, p. 84; Turner and Hussein, 2015, pp. 416-417).

Despite all this we haven’t actually seen the complete demise of the Oslo Peace Process. It survives though effectively in a political coma; alive but not functioning yet it could pass away at any time or come back to life either as it was before or return changed with a new outlook, ideas and actors. What has been missing has a shift in the status quo to kick-start the process back into life and pull it out of its comatose state.

Could the recent US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital provide an opportunity?

If anyone was going to challenge the status quo it was only to be a wild-card individual new to the international political arena and it would be fair to say that US President Donald Trump is definitely a wild-card individual to use non-colourful language.

In his statement, President Trump argued that his declaration was “the beginning of a new approach” in which he sought to give “recognition of reality” that in practical terms, the city of Jerusalem was the de facto capital of Israel as the seat of its government saying;

It is the home of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, as well as the Israeli Supreme Court.  It is the location of the official residence of the Prime Minister and the President.  It is the headquarters of many government ministries

Trump argued that in recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the US was not “taking a position on any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders” (Whitehouse Press Release, 6th December 2017).  In a way Trump have point given that for the two-state solution to work Jerusalem (part of it) would have to be the capital of Israel at least.

Now I am a bit of an optimist but also I am acutely aware that in politics as in life, things are not always quite what they appear and that there is always something going on behind-the-scenes. Taking Trump’s two points together (and assuming that there is a coherent policy somewhere under pinning this) I believe the US administration may well be seeking to solidify support for Israel’s retention of West Jerusalem, captured in 1949 and declared by David Ben-Gurion as the capital of Israel and is the site of the Knesset, Yad Vashem (the memorial-museum to the Holocaust), the Israel Museum and its Shrine of the Book (which hold the Dead Sea scrolls) as well as important neighbourhoods like Rechavia and German Colony, without actually endorsing Benjamin Netanyahu’s vision of a “unified indivisible Jerusalem” (Turner and Hussein, 2015, p. 416; Sasley and Sucharow, 2011, p. 1008).

By doing so, the US administration could be trying to move the debate regarding the status of Jerusalem towards a division of the city, West and East, in which the city could serve as the capital of both Israel and Palestine. Indeed the basis of the two-state solution which Trump stated the US “would support…if agreed to by both sides” is based on the establishment of a independent Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with agreed mutual land exchanges and removal of settlements and with Jerusalem as some sort of shared capital for both Israel and an independent Palestine (White House Press Release, 6th December 2017: Bland, 2014, p. 183). It is a stretch I know and it assumes that behind recent US actions there is a rational and coherent political policy but only time will tell where this sits within the as of yet unrevealed Trump Middle East Peace Plan – the deal of the century or so he would no doubt hope.

As El-Atrash stated “the two-state solution is acknowledged as a political compromise…that basically does not require substantial changes to the situation on the ground” (2016, p. 375). Given that Trump has already claimed to be taking a pragmatic approach in recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel it seems fair to assume that he may also take a “recognition of reality” view to the establishment of two separate areas of the city, West and East Jerusalem, under Israelis and Palestinian control respectively or some model in between (White House Press Release, December 6th 2017). Trump did not state how much of Jerusalem would be considered part of Israel nor did he state that East Jerusalem could not be the capital of a future Palestinian state and he did not rule out a division of the city into parts (The Guardian, Thursday 7th December 2017). Though Israel has claimed the whole of Jerusalem, the Palestinians have been prepared to recognise West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as seen in the Beilin-Abu Mazen Accord of October 1995 whilst the Palestinian state capital would be on the outskirts of the municipal boundary of Jerusalem (Shlaim, 2015, p. 576).

The division of the city is seen as the most likely outcome to establish separate Israeli and Palestinian authorities due to the unacceptability of placing the whole city under the control of one of the conflict parties as well as the complexities of overlapping claims to religious sites and the presence of different identity groups (Hunter and Jones, 2004, p. 208).

It remains to be seen whether the US’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is the first step in a yet unrevealed scheme to provoke the renewal of the Oslo Peace Process by challenging the status quo regarding Jerusalem or a single political act of a controversial US president. We will have to wait and see as it is still unclear what the Israelis offered in return and why this move was made before a return to substantial Israeli-Palestinian talks (The Guardian, 7th December 2017).

In my opinion I don’t think the Oslo Peace Process is dead nor do I think that Trump’s recent move has inflicted a fatal wound rather it is a controversial first step in a fresh and unorthodox approach which could revive the stalled peace process by radically challenging the status quo. It was provocative and broke with long-standing international approaches to resolving the process, and in doing so has provoked a reaction from all sides. The question remains where this sits within the as yet unrevealed US Middle East Peace Plan and I hope (optimistically) that it isn’t a one off domestic political move but part of a broader (and unorthodox) plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Only time will tell if I was naïve but I going to keep my eyes peeled and I encourage the reader to do the same!

Bibliography

Booth, Ken and Wheeler, Nicholas, J., (2008), The Security Dilemma: Fear Cooperation and Trust in World Politics (Palgrave Macmillan: London)

Byron Bland (2014), “Searching for Mandela: Finding a way beyond the Israeli–Palestinian impasse”, Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict, 7:2-3, pp. 183-197.

Caplan, N, (2010) The Israel-Palestine Conflict: Contesting Histories (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester).

Cronin, Audrey Kurth (2009), “Negotiations: Transition Toward a Legitimate Political Process” in How Terrorism End: Understanding the Decline of Terrorist Campaigns, (Princeton University Press: Princeton), pp. 35-72.

El-Atrash, Ahmad, (2016) “Implications of the Segregation Wall on the Two-state Solution”, Journal of Borderlands Studies, 31:3, pp. 365-380.

Fraser, T. G, (2004), The Arab-Israeli Conflict: Studies in Contemporary History, (Second Edition; Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke)

Gelvin, James, L. (2005), “The Rise and Fall of the Oslo Accord” in Israel-Palestine Conflict: One Hundred Years of War (Cambridge University Press: New York), pp. 228-251.

Hunter, Robert and Jones, Seth. (2004), “An independent Palestine: the security dimension”, International Affairs, 80: 2, pp. 204-219.

Jewish News Service, [Online], “Abbas announces withdrawal from all peace agreements with Israel since Oslo” , available at http://www.jns.org/news-briefs/2017/12/13/abbas-announces-withdrawal-from-all-peace-agreements-with-israel-since-oslo#.WjaBRt9l9PY= [Accessed 1st January 2018]

Palestinian News and Information Agency, [Online] “Abbas at the OIC: Israel’s violations absolve us from our commitments”, available at: http://english.wafa.ps/page.aspx?id=KPHwCta95597878332aKPHwCt [Accessed 1st January 2018]

Rubenberg, Cheryl A. (2003), The Palestinians: In Search of a Just Peace (Lynne Reinner Publishers: Boulder, Colarado).

Sasley, Brent. E and Sucharov, Mira, (2011) “Resetting of West Bank Settlers”, International Journal, pp. 999-1017.

Scheindlin Dahlia & Waxman Dov, (2016) “Confederalism: A Third Way for Israel–Palestine,” The Washington Quarterly, 39:1, pp. 83-94.

Slater, Jerome, (2001), “What went wrong? The Collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process” Political Science Quarterly, 116: 2, pp. 171-199.

Tessler, Mark, (2009), “The Oslo Peace Process” in A History of the Israeli Palestinian Conflict (2nd Edition, Indiana University Press: Bloomington), pp. 755-818.

The Guardian [Online], “Defiant Donald Trump Confirms US will recognise Jerusalem as capital of Israel” (7th December, 2017) available at: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/dec/06/donald-trump-us-jerusalem-israel-capital [Accessed on 1st January 2018]

The Guardian [Online], “Palestinians no longer accept US as mediator, Abbas tells summit”, (13th December 2017), available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/dec/13/recep-tayyip-erdogan-unite-muslim-world-trump-east-jerusalem  [Accessed on 1st January 2018]

The Independent [Online], “Donald Trump official recognises Jerusalem as Israel’s capital despite threats of violence across Middle East”  (6th December, 2017), available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/jerusalem-trump-israel-capital-us-latest-news-updates-embassy-decision-violence-unrest-threat-a8095736.html [Accessed on 1st January 2018]

Turner, Mandy and Hussein, Cherine (2015) “Israel-Palestine after Oslo: mapping transformations and alternatives in a time of deepening crisis”, Conflict, Security & Development, 15:5, pp. 415-424.

Whitehouse Press Release [Online], “Statement by President Trump on Jerusalem” (6th December 2017), available at: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/statement-president-trump-jerusalem/ [Accessed on 1st January 2018]

Mediation or Facilitation? What next for the Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations

On Wednesday 13th December, in response to United States President Donald Trump recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stated that he and the Palestinians would no longer accept the US playing the role of third-party mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process. This was followed by an statement from the Organisation of Islamic States calling the move as a declaration of the “US administration’s withdrawal from its role as sponsor of peace” (The Guardian, 13th December 2017).

Despite being a shock to many, is the potential exodus of the US from its role as mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian process truly a bad thing or could it offer an opportunity for a different style of third-party invention to breath life into a peace process which has largely become stalled.

Is the US being removed from mediation a bad thing?

If one thinks about the last major breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process, that of the Oslo Talks of 1993, the answer would be a definitive no.

Following the 1991 Gulf War, the United States organised the Madrid Summit in October of that year to attempt to open new phases of negotiation to bring about a conclusion to the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, kick starting almost three-years of negotiation which resulted in the 1993 Oslo Agreement (Maoz, 2004, p. 565; Cronin, 2009, p. 50: Rabinovich, 2004, pp. 2, 32). As part of the Madrid Summit and negotiations it established, the Palestinians had no formal representation and were only part of the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation though they were able to act with a level of independence (Rabinovich, 2004, p. 35; Tessler, 2009, p. 756).

Bilateral contact between the Israeli and Palestinian representatives as part of the Madrid Summit took place for the first time on 30th October 1991, breaking a long-held “taboo” that neither side would ever appear “in the same room or at the same negotiating table” (Caplan, 2010, p. 202).  Yet in following years the negotiations seemed to get no where under US mediation as the First Intifada continued to rage, having broken out in 1987 and despite the revival of the process in February 1993 by Yitzhak Rabin and the close coordination and personal relationship between the US and Israel, the talks failed to produce any results. The breakthrough, when it came in August 1993, was not through US-sponsored negotiations but from the “unorthodox methods” of secret bilateral negotiations in Norway (Rabinovich, 2004, pp. 49-51; Tessler, 2009, p. 757).

The Norwegian Way

The 1993 Oslo I Agreement, which kick-started the Oslo Peace Process was reached between the Israelis and the Palestinians on “their own without any help” with Norwegian Foreign Minister Holst, his wife Marianne Heiberg, and social scientist Terge Larson and his wife, Mona Juul, acting as “generous hosts and facilitators” and “midwifed the entire process” (Shlaim, 2014, pp. 531, 534; Tessler, 2009, p. 758; Rogers, 2016). The Oslo talks were significant because they involved direct face-to-face negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians which set the future direction of talks by establishing that the “fate of the peace process lay in the hands of the protagonists rather than in the hands of the intermediaries” (Gelvin, 2005, p. 228; Shlaim, 2014, p. 534).

The secrecy of the talks in Norway were crucial for their fruitfulness as it allowed the Israelis and Palestinians to discuss highly sensitive issues in a manner that was not possible in Washington (Fraser, 2004, pp. 138).

Is the loss of US mediation actually an opportunity in disguise?

One of the biggest problems with recent attempts to kick-start the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process, I believe has been that the process has moved away from being centred on the protagonists towards being focused on intermediaries particularly the US. In my opinion, third party mediation like that of the US brings its own troubles and complications such as making a two-way relationship a three-way relationship in which the conflict parties can become more concerned about their relationship with the third-party mediator than with each other.

For example a summit held in Washington in October 1996 by US President Bill Clinton’s administration between Yasser Arafat and Benjamin Netanyahu to revive the peace negotiations and defuse the crisis caused by the Hasmonean tunnel opening had failed to produce any agreement with Netanyahu largely agreeing to the summit to tactically avoid a diplomatic crisis with the US rather than to resolve the crisis with the Palestinians (Rabinovich, 2004, pp. 99-101; Rubenberg, 2003, pp. 71-72; Shlaim, 2014, pp. 598-599). Likewise, when negotiating the Hebron Protocol of 1998, Arafat’s main motivation was to cultivate a relationship with Clinton (Rabinovich, 2004, pp. 109-110).

Third-party mediators can also bring their own interest into play which can be detrimental for peace negotiations. From 1996, the US increasingly took over the role of intermediary not merely facilitating but acting as “mediator” and “guarantor” in both the Hebron Protocol and Wye I Agreement and continued to be involved in Camp David 2000 upon which Clinton staked his own personal desire to see an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement as part of his presidential legacy (Gelvin, 2005, p. 238; Rabinovich, 2004, pp. 101-105; Tessler, 2009, pp. 789, 800-803; Swisher, 2004, pp. 147-148).

During the Camp David Summit of 2000, Clinton had invited Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat to attempt to break an impasse reached in the Oslo Peace Process. Arafat had believed that the summit in July 2000 was too early for an agreement, and looked to September or November 2000, preferring discreet negotiations such as those at Oslo, which could produce a “joint document leaving only a few open issues for the leaders’ decision” which could then be dealt with in a series of summits. Arafat had requested a series of summits to enable support to be gathered amongst both the Palestinian political elites and the population however this was not accepted by Israel or the US in the lead-up to Camp David (Cronin, 2009, p. 54: Gelvin, 2005, pp. 239-240; Pundak, 2001, pp. 41-42). One of Arafat’s main fears was that he or the Palestinians would be blamed for the failure of the summit, yet Clinton managed to persuade Arafat to attend on the understanding neither he nor the Palestinians would be blamed, only to go back on this promise when the summit failed.  As the end to Bill Clinton’s second term in office as US president was approaching in July 2000 with US election preparations due to start properly in November, his aspirations for the agreement to be part of his legacy were dashed (Shlaim, 2014, p. 676-687; Swisher, 2004, pp. 225-226; Tessler, 2009, p. 800; Rabinovich, 2004, pp. 145-146).

In comparison during the talks which led to Oslo I, Norwegian Foreign Minister Holst and social scientist Larson had acted as facilitators to enable the Israelis and Palestinians to create a bilateral agreement on their own (Shlaim, 2014, pp. 531, 534). Throughout the fourteen sessions held during the secret Oslo talks, the Israeli and Palestinian delegations resided in close proximity to one another with meetings often taking place in informal settings enabling the building of confidence between the Israelis and Palestinians with the isolated and intensive nature of their discussion enabling the breakthrough that had been possible during the public negotiations at Washington (Morag, 2002, p. 205; Tessler, 2009, p. 758).

In my opinion, the questioning of the US role as a third-party mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process could actually provide an opportunity to alter the way the peace process has been governed in recent years, namely the role of third-party mediators. In the absence of trust and the presence of distrust, conflict parties such as the Israelis and Palestinians have looked to third-party mediation to overcome their distrust (Saari, 2011, pp. 220-221). However, I believe, trust in a third-party mediator can become an easy replacement for the more challenging task of overcoming distrust and building trust with your opponent and can result in the loss of opportunities to build personal relationships which can enable both sides to develop mutually beneficial agreements which actors have ownership over as they developed them together.

This can be seen in the Oslo talks where, facilitated by Holst and Larsen, Israel’s representatives Dr. Yair Hirschfeld and Dr. Ron Pundak and the PLO, represented by Abu Ala and two advisers, Hassan Asfour and Maher el-Kurd met and were able recognise that there existed a closeness between the Palestinian and Israeli position on economic co-operation and joint industries in the work of Abu Ala, Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin, as well as the shared gains that could be secured by an agreement between the two sides. Though talks were initially focused on economic cooperation it developed into dialogue about a joint declaration of principles for wider Israeli-Palestinian negotiations (Shlaim, 2014, p. 531; Behrendt, 2007, pp. 47-49).

As both sides developed a “mutual interest in making the Oslo channel a success”, the Oslo talks moved an unofficial to an official channel (Behrendt, 2007, pp. 50-53, 57-59) In formalising the Oslo talks, Israel had recognised Abu Ala to be a “trustworthy negotiating partner” and sent Foreign Minister Uri Savir as well as Joel Singer, a retired lawyer with the IDF, to continue to work alongside the PLO delegation including Abu Ala and Abu Mazen. Crucial for success of the talks and the subsequent Oslo I agreement which would provide the basis for subsequent agreements between the Israelis and Palestinians, was the “warm, trusting personal relationship” between Abu Alaa and Uri Savir (Behrendt, 2007, pp. 2-3, 57-61; Rubenberg, 2003, pp. 51-52. 86; Shulz, 2004, p. 93; Rabinovich, 2004, pp. 52-53).

With the US’s position as a third-party mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process in question if not gone, perhaps now is an opportune time to awaken the original spirit of Oslo 1993 and encourage both sides to return to intimate, direct face-to-face in secret provided by simple hotels rather than the high-pressure contexts of summits in which outsiders, whether the UN or nation-states who like Norway, act merely as facilitators, allowing both sides to work through and develop answers to the sensitive issues that stand before them.

 

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