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November 27, 2014
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‘There must be an international mediator’

A Bahraini boy participates in a protest in Karrana, Bahrain, yesterday, in support of Gaza. A Palestinian official says more than 1,000 Palestinians have been killed in the ongoing Gaza war as Israel battles Hamas militants.
By Mariano Parada López
For The Herald
Middle East expert Juan José Vagni talks to the Herald about domestic policies, assymetries and the US

In one word: pessimism. The ongoing death toll in the Gaza Strip has brought into the foreground the historical struggle between Israelis and Palestinians for the disputed territories. Meanwhile, the international community works toward a ceasefire — other analysts do not think it will happen.

This is the case of Juan José Vagni, director of the Middle East Studies Programme of the Córdoba National University and a CONICET investigator. Vagni, on a short trip to Buenos Aires to hold a conference about foreign relations, talked to the Herald to analyze causes and consequences of this bloody conflict.

Do you think the main reason for this war was the killing of the three Israeli teenagers? Is there a deeper cause?

That killing was the final spark which unchained the conflict. The fragile balance can be broken by any incident. The strangest thing of all was the fact that it happened when both the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and Hamas were together. They split up after the assault and thus the Israeli response was so violent. We have to take into account politics on both sides. Before the assault, there was an optimal situation for restarting a peace process.

How does domestic policy play in Israel and Palestine?

In the Palestinian case, there was an agenda in favour of unity (between the PNA and Hamas) and the chances for beginning peace talks were appropriate. Israel would have been faced with a unified counterpart. In Israel, right-wing sectors are pressuring the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to respond as Israel has done. Domestic agendas always influence this conflict and, sometimes, make it become even dirtier.

Are there sectors on both sides pushing for a permanent conflict?

Yes, and this is a clue.

What could make it stop?

The United States is the only party with enough capability to pressure and force Israel to moderate itself and reach out, via a third party, like Qatar, to agree on a ceasefire. But the conditions are not there to make it possible. The balance inside the Israeli government tends to lean toward more drastic actions. Netanyahu’s stability in the administration is supported by radicalizing his position and attacking the Gaza Strip. This is what the voters and his allies demand. The scenario is rather complex.

What do you observe, in terms of the Palestinian domestic issues?

The problem with the Palestinians was that previous peace talks did not involve a sovereign state but rather two micro-states with little sovereignty, both under Israel control. Since the 1993 peace talks until now, it has brought forth hopelessness and frustration among Palestinians. Their expectations were never accomplished because Israel continued with colonization. It stressed the imbalance.

Is it a negotiation between equals?

We cannot avoid the asymmetry between them. The Palestinian side is absolutely weak. This is the reason why it is necessary to have a mediator. The US is the only one that can push Israel but they are not ready to do it. If there is not a shift in foreign policy, with more sensitivity toward the Palestinians, and unless the international community unites together, there will not be a solution, because the Palestinians are so much smaller, diplomatically and militarily.

Do you think the US is not able, or does not want to, reach a ceasefire in Gaza Strip?

Policy decisions in the US are not like in Latin America, where strong presidents can be the main determining factor. The forces involved in foreign policies are varied: Congress, the lobbyists, etc. They made the continuation of policies difficult. We cannot say there is only one US interest, it varies.

Besides, the pro-Israeli US stance makes such mediation ineffective. I do not want to justify the extremist violence from Hamas, but it explains, in some way, the loneliness felt by the Palestinian community, which has faced rapprochement from the some of the rest of the Arab world.

Do you think we are living in a “multipolar world”? If so, how does it affect the situation in Middle East?

We are living in a more complex world; it is not the same as it used to be after the end of the Cold War. Regarding the Palestinian issue, the world can live with it without being too affected by it. The conflict does not affect the international order; this is the reason why the international community is insensitive. It is not the same with Iran, for example.

Despite the increasing media coverage (of Gaza Strip), it does not alter the regional balance, unlike the situation in Syria or Egypt, where any little movement can prompt a more complex process.

US Secretary of State John Kerry hinted that it may be like South African apartheid — do you agree?

Those things, like apartheid or Auschwitz, are such symbolic issues that we can’t make a comparison with them. The Palestinian population suffers from permanent controls, the wall, houses takedowns and there is a legal system to justify it. All of them are extraordinary security measures that affect the everyday lives of the Palestinian community.

Gaza has faced a blockade and a lack of food for such an overpopulated, small territory. The Gaza Strip lives on humanitarian help, although it could export to Europe, but it is not possible because it has to do it through Israel. They live off worldwide charity and this is humiliating. Besides, I understand Israeli civilians, who are forced to endure attacks from Hamas. It does not mean I am unable to recognize their vulnerability.

Do you think that this conflict may have reawoken some anti-Semitic opinions which seemed once to have disappeared?

One thing is the State of Israel, the other is the Jewish community around the world. I do not believe all of them agree with the government coalition and what it is carrying out. Indeed, I consider it harmful to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust. They are two separate facts. It may prompt some (anti-Semitic) behaviour in some countries, perhaps.

Some days ago, an Israeli lawmaker suggested killing of all Palestinian mothers. To what extent have fundamentalist stances gained a consensus, on both sides?

Extremist positions have become more popular since 1993 peace talks. The ongoing exacerbation of the struggle has reduced the possibility of peace and the capability of those sectors looking for the peace in Israel and Palestine. Pro-security speech has penetrated into the moderate areas of Israeli society. The balance is in favour of those who agree with an offensive/defensive policy, instead of those who support negotiation and agreement. More than 600 casualties is something a society will not forget easily. Let’s think of the small society (like Gaza Strip).

Do you consider the creation of a Palestinian country possible?

The solution is there must be an international actor working as a mediator, and a willingness, a pro-dialogue Israel position. Besides, it may be a unification process of all the political forces in Palestine, creating a unique actor which may be the future basis for a state. However, there must be some external conditions present which are not present nowadays. Unless a regional and worldwide change happens, prompting new directions, it is far from possible. I am rather pessimistic.

@mparadalopez
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