Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University Op-Ed Service
Tracie Sweeney, Editor
Distributed November 1998
Copyright ©1998 by Stuart Gottlieb

Paper Peace and Intractable Conflicts

By Stuart Gottlieb
Stuart Gottlieb is a visiting international relations scholar at Brown University.

"The unspoken truth is that eventual Palestinian statehood, the status of Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, the fate of Palestinian refugees, and the future of Jerusalem may not be resolvable via peaceful compromise."

What do the recent peace agreements in the Middle East, Northern Ireland and Kosovo have in common? Each was signed with enormous international fanfare and promises of paving the way for peace between historic enemies. But what the agreements have most in common is that each does little to ensure lasting peace, and only temporarily camouflages irreconcilable differences in long-term goals held by the opposing parties. Because steadfast differences involving nationalism and sovereignty rights are inadequately addressed, conflict, not peace, is the likely long-term result.

The Wye Memorandum, agreed to last month by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, was a modest effort to breathe life into the faltering peace process which began in 1993 and is supposed to culminate with the settlement of "final status" issues next year. Thus Wye, which calls for further Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank, and stepped-up efforts by the Palestinian Authority to combat terrorism, was really just, as U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, "a way station on the path toward peace."

But there are, however, devastating threats to peace along this path: Immediate obstacles - especially continued terrorism against Israel, which provides the Israeli government with a "national security" rationale for scuttling the peace process - may prove fatal; the underlying differences regarding statehood and sovereignty are more problematic. The unspoken truth is that eventual Palestinian statehood, the status of Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, the fate of Palestinian refugees, and the future of Jerusalem may not be resolvable via peaceful compromise.

Israeli and Palestinian understandings of what a future Palestinian state will look like could not be more different: Israel will never accept anything close to a fully functioning Arab-state on the pre-1967 borders of the West Bank, and will never allow East Jerusalem to be the capital of Palestine. Yet it is unfathomable that a patchwork state under continued Israeli dominance will satisfy the long-term goals of Palestinian nationalism. Future negotiations will only make Israel's stance more clear, and bring Yasir Arafat closer to making good on threats to unilaterally declare statehood.

Last spring's Northern Ireland Peace Agreement lacks a similar underlying consensus for lasting peace. The accord's popularity is due to the agreement's careful wording that gives equal weight to two opposing and indivisible long-term goals: the Catholic desire in the North to pursue unity with Ireland, and the Protestant desire to remain part of Great Britain. Though real short-term glitches exist - terrorism by even fringe groups will militate mainstream Protestants against the agreement, as will the Irish Republican Army's current unwillingness to begin dismantling its 100-ton arsenal - the true obstacle to peace remains vast differences in expectations of what the agreement means long term.

Protestants support the agreement because it calls for IRA disarmament and maintains that Northern Ireland alone will decide whether to remain part of Great Britain; they view it as final codification of Northern Ireland's sovereignty. Catholics support the agreement because it provides for a new Northern Ireland Assembly with proportional Catholic representation and creates a North-South Ministerial Council linking the governments in Dublin and Belfast. However, Catholics in general, and Sinn Fein in particular, regard the cross-border Council as an agent to bring about their long-term goal of unity with Ireland. That is an unacceptable outcome for the vast majority Protestants, who make up the vast majority of Northern Ireland. The accord does nothing to ameliorate this underlying conflict of interest.

The conflict in the Serbian province of Kosovo between Serbs and ethnic Albanians consists of similarly passionate commitments to similarly intractable goals. The recent agreement between Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosovic and NATO representatives threatening military strikes, which calls for the reduction of Serbian military personnel in Kosovo, the return of some 250,000 people displaced by recent fighting, and movement toward some form of autonomy for the province, avoids the core issues.

Although ethnic Albanians make up 90 percent of Kosovo's population, the region is historically part of Serbia and a primary component of Serb identity: the 1389 Battle of Kosovo against Turk invaders is a central narrative behind modern Serb nationalism. The Serbs will never part with Kosovo without a fight. However, after six months of Serb brutality, even moderate Albanian Kosovars see full independence from Serbia as the only acceptable long-term goal. These contradictions have not been addressed by NATO's recent intervention. Indeed, the current standoff will last only as long as the world's most powerful military alliance focuses its primary attention on the region.

Negotiated peace between enemies is always laudable, and attempts at peaceful solutions should certainly be exhausted. But peace agreements which gloss over fundamental conflicts of interest are destined to fail. For some form of negotiated settlement to have any chance of succeeding in the Middle East, Northern Ireland, and Kosovo, the first step needs to be an open airing of long-term goals held by the parties. Though finding peaceful solutions may then become even more difficult, at least the real issues will be truthfully addressed, and new approaches may be brought to light.