Israelis and Palestinians have conflicting views on the role of international intervention in the conflict. This should not be surprising since, left to their own designs, the relationship of Palestinians and Israelis will always be to the advantage of the more powerful (i.e., Israel), whether that relationship is one of peaceful negotiations or confrontation. When the international community is involved, is usually comes bearing specific agreed-upon terms of reference that the parties must adhere to, a fact that reduces the influence of the imbalance of power.
Palestinians also prefer international intervention because during the seventies, they made strategic adjustments to their political position, in which they dropped their demand for the reinstatement of their historical rights and decided instead to stick to those legitimate rights that are consistent with international legality. For that reason Palestinians encourage international intervention, in the hopes that it will be based on international legality and consistent with international law. In other words, Palestinians have always tried to compensate for their weakness by trying to inspire international intervention that will call for international legality and force Israeli compliance.
The problem with this approach has always been that the lone superpower dominating the United Nations and the Security Council always protects Israel from international intervention and from the need to implement or enforce relevant international law.
The recent history of the conflict demonstrates that the United States only interferes or allows international involvement when the conflict extends beyond the Palestinian-Israeli arena and affects either regional or international interests. The most obvious example of this was the Madrid Conference, which was a major historical intervention by the international community led by the United States. At that point, the Arabs who participated in the attack on Iraq needed that intervention badly, as their publics were increasingly accusing the United States of double standards between Israel and Iraq. The resulting foment was affecting American credibility in the Arab world and consequently weakening United States regional allies.
It now appears that the significance of the last 18 months of confrontations is that the conflict is now beginning to spill out into the region, strengthening fundamentalists in the Islamic world, embarrassing the Arab regimes and demonstrating the impotence of Arab leaders. The gist of the demonstrations in the Arab streets was directed at the United States and those Arab regimes. The result has been a feeling of international urgency and now calls–especially in Washington–for an international conference on the Middle East.
There has been a lot of distortion over the nature of the current conflict, a distortion that is preventing intervention. Israel has succeeded, especially in the United States, to create the false impression that this conflict is about terrorism and the means of countering terrorism. The discussion has turned into one over how to combat terrorism, whether Arafat can do that himself or whether Israel must do it for him. The whole world is now waiting to see the results of this fight: how many have been arrested, how many have been killed, and will it all work?
That’s too bad, because this conflict can only be solved if there is serious international intervention on the basis of international law, backed up by some powerful incentives to influence the parties and force them to adhere to that legality. This conflict is one of de-colonization, a conflict that will never end no matter how many Palestinians are killed and arrested, and unless there is an end to the Israeli occupation. The problem does not come from a handful of individuals that might be arrested or killed, but out of the genuine desire of a people to achieve independence and freedom like every other nation in the world.
Mr. Ghassan Khatib is a Palestinian political analyst and director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.