From the June 2002 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 49, No. 6)

The Interests of the West Have Been Jeopardized

A Raging Mideast Civil War

Wolf Lepenius, Süddeutsche Zeitung (centrist), Munich, Germany, April 6, 2002

'The continuation of diplomacy through other means:' A Palestinian boy looks out at Ramallah, April 21, 2002 (Photo: AFP). 
Enough is enough. George W. Bush has spoken. America is reporting back to the Middle East. The president is sending his secretary of state, Colin Powell, to the region to bring Israel and the Palestinians to a cease-fire. Now everything must change, now everything will change.

France’s President Jacques Chirac hopes that after ending the hostilities, the hour of diplomacy will return. Precisely this is to be feared: the return to a policy that is partly responsible for the military and moral disaster in which the Middle East is trapped. Unless there is a complete change in the political thinking and actions, the cease-fire that everyone hopes for will remain just an episode and will not bring peace.

Of course there is presently no alternative to American intervention. In this war between a people humiliated for half a century and a people threatened from the beginning of time with destruction, only a strong arm can silence the weapons. But what then?

Diplomacy has had its chances. Next week, Powell will take his place in the large group of frequent travelers, who in the past decades have turned the Middle East into a stronghold of political tourism. It has become a ritual to travel to the Middle East. One can no longer discern a purpose to that.

Diplomacy is considered to be the classic trade of civil conduct between people—especially in times of crisis and conflict. It is also a means of maintaining minimum standards of human coexistence, under any circumstances.

The diplomats in the Middle East appear paralyzed as they face an angry rejection of civil conduct. Suicide attacks that are nothing other than murder, and state-protected repression that declares executions without trials to be legal, are being set off against each other. Ill-treatment of human beings is the order of the day. This is a step backward to atavistic behavior, beyond our comprehension. The fact that on both sides religious motives accompany this falling away from civilization just increases the horror.

The extent to which the Western world allowed itself to be carried away by the diplomatic progress that led to the Oslo agreement between Israel and the Palestinians was seen in 1994 with the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Yasser Arafat.

This prize was a check made out to the future and not just payment for past deeds. Rabin paid for his courage with his life. Arafat and Peres did not cash their check. Both became accomplices: Arafat an accomplice of Hamas and other terrorist groups, and Peres an accomplice of Ariel Sharon’s aggressive policies. The Nobel Prize Committee ought to take the Nobel Prize away from Arafat and Peres.

The awarding of the Nobel Prize to Rabin, Peres, and Arafat was the result of a policy that is still more oriented toward persons than structures. This, too, is a characteristic of classic diplomacy, which believes that one can draw conclusions about institutions from the individual.

The Mideast conflict is not the only case, however, in which dazed diplomats pursue the dismissal of a [misguided] civic consensus. The conflict in the Middle East is just particularly visible, because the interests of the West are in jeopardy here.

In contrast, the rest of the world is barely involved in the genocides taking place in Africa, and we would still be shrugging off the deeds of the Taliban in Afghanistan if it weren’t for Sept. 11.

Diplomacy is an achievement of civilization. It works at its core; but it loses effectiveness on the edges, and it is helpless without civic consensus. That was made evident by the reactions to Sept. 11: Even the U.S. president has a hard time explaining exactly what is meant by a “war against terrorism.” One way out is to announce attacks against rogue states. After all, states are the preferred target of military clashes and the classic objects of diplomacy. But the Mideast conflict is not a war between states or nations. The hatred there is so intense because it is not aimed against enemies but against neighbors. It is a war between the inhabitants of a region—it is a civil war. 

Certainly it is also a civil war that directly affects its neighbors. The American policy of waiting has failed. President Bush has decided to intervene now, because, in the event of Arafat’s death, the probability of an all-out Arab attack on Israel can no longer be ruled out.

What the region urgently needs now is a first step on the way to a long-term policy. A lasting peace cannot be achieved without giving up most of the settlements. Exactly because this is a civil war, people on both sides, Palestinians and Israelis, have over the years been striving to work together in a sensible way. They have received far less support than was needed. The diplomats hardly noticed them.

But without the people directly involved, there won’t be a secure and peaceful future for Palestinians and Israelis. Peace in the Middle East depends on the continued existence and growth of the players on the ground, rather than on reconciliatory gestures by high-level policies that have already shown in the past to be of no consequence.

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