Can a negotiatior for a Middle East settlement be both objective and produce results? Can a national negotiator ever be completely objective? How much does it matter? Dag Hammarskjöld, the UN’s famously principled second secretary-general, wrote personal guidelines for his task that included the following: “If, while pleading another’s cause, you are at the same time seeking something for yourself, you cannot hope to succeed.” A corollary for the Middle East might read: “And if you do not have materially substantial means of persuasion, you cannot hope to succeed either.”
In the early postwar years, disinterested international mediators were considered, especially by the United States, to provide the best hope for a settlement in the Middle East, and, in those relatively innocent days, they made considerable, if not decisive, contributions. Before he was assassinated in September 1948, the UN mediator in Palestine, Folke Bernadotte, was able to submit to the UN General Assembly a detailed proposal for a two-state solution that has now, sixty-one years later, reemerged as the basic objective of Middle East negotiations. His successor, Ralph Bunche, negotiated armistice agreements that ended the first Arab–Israeli war and provided a practical arrangement for an interim peace in the region, pending the conclusion of a permanent settlement. The conduct of both these mediators was generally recognized as living up to Hammarskjöld’s rigorous standards.
As the situation in the Middle East became more complicated over the years, it was increasingly clear that even the ablest and most objective international mediator lacked the necessary political, financial, and military backing to move the various parties toward a settlement. In the late 1960s the last of this breed, the highly respected Gunnar Jarring of Sweden, was unable, after intensive negotiations, to get simultaneous agreement by Egypt and Israel on peace between the two countries and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Egyptian territory. That was finally achieved by President Jimmy Carter in 1978 in the Camp David Accords.
Since the Jarring mission, governments, and specifically the United States government, have become the preferred intermediaries for a Middle East settlement. The primary responsibility of a government is, naturally, the interest and well-being of its own country and people. This priority will inevitably be a major influence on the conduct of negotiations in a region that is critically important to the United States. Even disinterested expert proposals like the recommendations submitted to President Obama by the US/Middle East Project
As Patrick Tyler puts it:
If history has revealed anything, it is that it takes American leadership, robust leadership that galvanizes the Congress and world opinion, to bring the two sides—Arab and Israeli—into a position where they have a chance to solve [their conflict].
That is one of the many great challenges that face President Obama. America’s conduct of Middle …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.