Monster Mash: Vanquishing a Generation-Defining Conflict, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 Nov

Godzilla

At the heart of all anger, all grudges, and all resentment, you’ll always find a fear that hopes to stay anonymous.  Donald L. Hicks

Hiding from the monsters only made them stronger.  C.L. Wilson

May we find the language that takes us to the only home there is –one another’s hearts.   Ibtisam Barakat

We need an immunization program, one that injects people with respect, dignity, and equality, one that inoculates them against hatred.  Izzeldin Abuelaish

Occupation exposes us very young to the extremes of our emotions, until we cannot feel except in the extreme.  Susan Abulhawa

Why don’t they want to let others in? Well, sometimes because they’re shy, and sometimes because they’re convinced of their own superiority. But those aren’t the only reasons. Sometimes it’s because they have something to hide.  Lauren Myracle

This was one of those weeks at the UN when there was so much to reflect upon and write about:  the role of special procedures in the upholding of human rights; the conditions of prisons that inflame the extremism we must do more to suppress; the carnage in Syria made even more complex by Turkish forces, Russian targets and US oil grabs; the street protests from Hong Kong and Iraq to Bolivia and Lebanon that are exposing once again the trust deficits that define so much of modern governance.

One of our interns is now preparing a piece on the protest movements that will soon appear in this space.  I am instead going to dive into a space that is both raw and crowded, a space that has resisted policy correction for as long as I have been alive, a space full of hundreds of policy wonks and many thousands of oft-muted voices who can now only “feel in the extreme;” these along with others who make a living highlighting abuses and offering policy alternatives to this wound that simply will not heal and, indeed, that too many of the rest of us will not allow to heal.

I’m speaking of course of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I am fully aware of the pitfalls of wading into this space.  Our twitter and email accounts are already filled with people struggling (often-legitimately) over land, over rights, over governance, over control of a narrative that has too often been appropriated by people like me.  From Myanmar to Cameroon, we are often – and legitimately – chided for our incomplete understandings, for our erstwhile failures of courage and conviction, for the gaps we minimize between our allegedly bloated access and our generally deficient experiences.   We plead “no contest” to all of that.

And yet we do have a responsibility to reflect as we sit in rooms (such as with the General Assembly Fourth Committee this week) where diplomats take up the “Palestinian cause” with both intermittent vigor and a narrative that heralds few, if any breakthroughs.  We do have a responsibility to comment (as do others) on discussions that are mostly about, as Senegal noted earlier this week, indulging a “longstanding UN habit of passing resolutions designed to improve the lot of the Palestinians, and then failing to implement them,” the consequence of which is to leave the youth of Palestine (and many other regional youth) “forever marked.”

Indeed, one by one, delegations take the floor in these settings to highlight and condemn abuses in well-worn formulas.  Surely there is little news here, aside from the “news” that, session after session and year after year, we are failing in our responsibility to put an end to a conflict that attracts significant diplomatic energy but little diplomatic resolve.  And every year that we fail in our duty, the “political horizon” embedded in so many GA statements recedes further and further behind the clouds.

Indeed, having sat through literally hundreds of sessions like those this week, there is a sameness of perspective and approach that is as likely to deaden resolve as inflame its potential.  As South Africa noted this week referencing its own path to freedom, “we were able to liberate ourselves,” in part because of the “indignation that is largely absent” in the instance of the Palestinians.  Indeed, the statements read out during these sessions, often by younger diplomats who are not responsible for their content and who are commenting on a conflict that long predates them, often share too much text “condemning” the occupying power without taking a longer view on a responsibility that is also shared, the “monsters” that are also about us and from which we continue to hide.

Some of the things that strike my interns when they sit through these discussions are, I think, germane to this current discussion.  They note, for instance, the frequency with which Israel is admonished (and rightly so) for its practices but by states guilty of some of the very same practices.  For instance, the statement delivered this week in the 4th Committee by Saudi Arabia on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement rejecting the practices of “torture and assassination” by Israel was the right call but the wrong look.

Our interns often and rightly highlight the lack of concrete suggestions, let alone commitments, on the part of most of the delegations which take the floor.  And they also have come to recognize that “condemnation” is not in any way a valid commitment.  Indeed, it is an indulgence that has little to no practical impact aside from driving a deeper wedge of distrust between the parties, lengthening the distance to language that “takes us to the home of one-another’s hearts.”  Moreover, while condemnation might evoke some acknowledgment of guilt in the short term, its impact decreases as its use increases.  This is true with individuals and even more so with states.

Indeed, such condemnation could be viewed (and we would do so) as a “substitute” for meaningful engagement.  One thing that observers to these discussions become aware of quickly is their utter lack of practicality. We are reminded of the old adage that “everyone complains about the weather but nobody does anything about it.”  There is a deep suspicion among those of us who follow the dialogue regularly, both in the GA and in the Security Council, that the desire to actually resolve this conflict, to actually move beyond settlements and blockades and rocket launches and generations forsaken, that desire, that “indignation” against the perpetuation of the long stalemate, is simply lacking.  We hear the reports of fresh violence, fresh settlements, fresh assaults on human dignity by UN Special Coordinator Mladenov and others, and we will do so again in the Security Council this week; but the stories largely fail to nourish our categorical condemnations or push us to try differently on political settlement; to move beyond our well-worn statements, even beyond the welcome support for Palestinian relief, to find just and durable solutions that genuine indignation would insist upon.

And our interns are discouraged (as should we all) that an organization with so much attention focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been able to make only intermittent progress (much of it sadly reversible) within a time-span that is longer than their own lifespans.   Indeed, one of the most moving aspects of this week’s discussions on Palestine were the honest frustrations shared by both ASG Gilmour and the Deputy PR of Palestine, both of whom reflected on what for both has been a “professional lifetime” of engagement on this tragedy. Gilmour lamented the “”unremitting injustices” that have accompanied his entire career inside the UN, injustices that have done much to drive worldwide the “extremism” we presume to reject.  As for the Ambassador, she expressed frustration that she must come to these discussions highlighting the violent oppression that we all recognize “year after year, speech after speech,” without a viable political horizon.

As Iraq noted this week amidst its own protests and repressive responses back in capital, it is important to maintain services for the Palestinians “until a final status solution can be reached.”  And we are grateful for those who donate to UNRWA relief as well as those working to address its recently-highlighted managerial issues. But surely it is at least as important to re-invest in the search for creative political solutions, to confess the many conspirators that covertly impede political progress of a sort that could permit a conflict that serves far too many politicized interests to focus once and for all on the only “interests” that matter – the security and dignity of the parties.

As the UN prepares tomorrow to take up a long-deferred promise on a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone for the Middle East, it will soon become apparent, if it isn’t already, that the “monster” we have co-authored in this region will not easily agree to occupy a seat at this negotiating table. The wounds now are both too deep and too fresh. And in the absence of a viable “immunization program” against hatred and mistrust, we are left only to ourselves and our capacities.  Regardless, it is long past time for states and the rest of us to stop feeding this beast, to bring the motives we so skillfully hide into the diplomatic light, to expose our still-largely “anonymous” fears, and to bring a viable horizon for dignified peacemaking back into view.

Frighteningly enough, the vast misery suffered by Palestinians is not the worst conflict-related humanitarian disaster now facing the world.  But it has clearly been one of the defining tragedies of my generation.  It must not be allowed to define another.

One Response to “Monster Mash: Vanquishing a Generation-Defining Conflict, Dr. Robert Zuber”

  1. Grove Harris November 17, 2019 at 2:53 pm #

    Thanks for this writing. You lay out clearly how empty “condemnation” is without accompanying action towards security and dignity. And the politicized interests defy any progress or creativity, and keep concern for the suffering and human rights of the real people directly involved from rising to a level where change can (must) occur. I only disagree in that I fear devastations from climate change will be the defining horror for the next decade.

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