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Sam Sasan Shoamanesh Headshot

United We Stand, Divided We Fall

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On 13 December 2010, The Elders released a joint statement that is sure to strike a chord with anyone interested and genuinely concerned with cause of peace and progress in the Middle East (ME). Acknowledging that decades of peace-talks, US brokered or otherwise, focused on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have failed to yield tangible gains towards peace, the eminent members of The Elders called for a rights-based approach to the on-going negotiations. A renewed effort was urged:

"firmly based on international law and respect for human rights aimed at defining boundaries between Israel and a new Palestinian state and addressing security issues, without neglecting the other issues at the core of the conflict."

Reading through the statement, one could not help but notice that one theme figures prominently in almost all eight points enumerated by The Elders in their manifesto for peace, and that is the ubiquitous question of security.

Amidst the finger-pointing that so characterizes the Israel-Palestinian negotiations, the complexities and the multifaceted nature of the security question is in fact where one finds the Gordian Knot of this protracted conflict. Prominent amongst a whole host of issues at stake -- from the status of Jerusalem to the Palestinian right of return question --, both sides of the debate have a multitude of security concerns, including: anxieties over wars of aggression; cross-border attacks; territorial integrity; water security and fertile land and food security (a committed desire to be free from fear and free from want). The imbalance of power in the relationship aside most of these security trepidations are mutually shared.

It should therefore come as no surprise that much of the wrestling is done to claim or reclaim, enhance and maximize these needs on the confined mat where the long-drawn Israeli-Palestinian dual is fought. And we watch in frustration as peace-talks, one after the next, are foiled over each side's claim to these security essentials in a climate where years of hostility and feelings of resentment have eroded the last shred of trust between the two sides.

As if the situation was not difficult as is, in a region at odds, where seldom a conflict operates in vacuum, the Israel-Palestinian quandary also encompasses a regional security and geopolitical dimension. This lingering conflict is not only regionally divisive (for a most recent example of this phenomenon, think souring Turkish-Israeli relations), but also carries spillover effects for neighbouring states (think tensions and devastating conflicts in neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Syria for the past few decades), and arguably serves as a potent catalyst for radicalization throughout the ME.

No doubt cognisant of these realities, in point number two of their statement, The Elders have opined that the initial negotiations should aim at realizing "security arrangements in which both Israelis and Palestinians have confidence", and have called on the international community to assist both sides to arrive at an agreement.

One creative way to work towards solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict, normalize relations amongst regional states and ultimately achieve security, durable peace and prosperity in the ME is to concentrate on efforts directed at regional integration and pooling of sovereignty (a union of sorts), through first, negotiating a regional security pact, and establishing an all inclusive regional security organization: one which benefits from membership of Turkey, Iran, Israel, and all the Arab states to start with. The international community, aided by the critical support of the United Nations as a neutral arbitrator, can help governments in the region convene and organize a multi-lateral conference for this purpose (think the Helsinki Final Act). Negotiations over a security agreement and a regional syndicate to enforce it can and should in fact form part of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. This regional approach - which is in keeping with the spirit and purpose of both the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative and Turkey's "zero-problems" foreign policy - has real prospects of producing results.

Anyone who has observed Middle Eastern regional politics will know that ideological differences are not the source of the region's problems, but rather it is cold calculations based on national interests defined by the geopolitics of the region that are driving state behavior and the acrimonious relations amongst states in the ME (for a most recent proof of this assertion think WikiLeaks 'revelations' on interstate relations in the ME). This regional equation can be positively altered in favor of common security and prosperity if the interests of all regional stakeholders are finally fused, respected and collectively advanced.

Long before the European Coal and Steel Community, the Treaties of Rome, Maastricht and ultimately Lisbon worked to change Europe forever by shifting its historical axis towards supranationalism, Mikhail Bakunin, the 19th century political philosopher stated:

"[i]n order to achieve the triumph of liberty, justice and peace in the international relations of Europe, and to render war impossible among the various peoples which make up the European family, only a single course lies open: to constitute the United States of Europe."

Once highly divided and chaotic, after the horrors of the Second World War, the Old Continent skillfully crafted the course of its modern history by recognizing that enduring peace and progress can be successfully achieved in the collective.

While the ME certainly possesses its sui generis characteristics, there is no reason why regional integration in this volatile region cannot in time work to remedy its current challenges.

In 1948, in pondering the question of European integration, Churchill stated:

"[w]e are asking the nations of Europe between whom rivers of blood have flowed to forget the feuds of a thousand years."

A tall order indeed and yet the European integration--however imperfect--was achieved. The ME is no different, and with a bit of foresight, empathy and courage, the region's leaders can ensure a glorious future for their nations and their people, individually and in the collective. A future of peace and a rising status for the ME is to be found in a cosmopolitan and united regional political order, where there is no primus inter pares, but a regional alliance working in unison to serve this regional community. Europe experienced an all out regional war - indeed, precipitating a world war - to come to this conclusion. The ME must by-pass this destructive 'trial by error' process, and directly engage in intense diplomatic efforts focused on integration. In view of the intense political divisions, the nature of contemporary geopolitics in the ME and the region's immediate needs, regional cohesion would have a greater chance of succeeding if emphasis were placed on negotiating a regional security treaty and ultimately establishing a security organization as a sensible initial step - in effect, generating an embryonic "de facto solidarity" in the ME (one of Robert Schuman's criteria for successful regional integration).

Despite apparent differences that exist between states in the ME, grouping all of the region's states to collectively forge the proposed security framework and jointly work on shared interests is possible, Israel and Iran, included.

By and large, the ME today is a breeding ground for conflict, where vicious cycles of internecine wars and discord destroy economies, creates mass suffering and pit one people against another; and this, sadly, in a region inhabited by people who have long interconnected histories, and who have more in common among themselves than differences, from Tehran to Tel-Aviv. Increased regional integration would significantly improve this regional dynamic.

Mandela once said: "[o]ne effect of sustained conflict is to narrow our vision of what is possible." Talking of peace and progress in the ME through regional organization must become the Lingua franca of diplomacy in the region, leaving behind offensive realism and the existing realpolitik zero-sum discourse. Bref, regional integration will free the ME from its current entrapment to the Prisoner's dilemma.

I add my devoted voice to those of The Elders when they state in their concluding remarks: "[o]ur greatest wish is that the Middle East will achieve lasting peace, stability and prosperity for its people." United, these coveted goals become a reality, and the possibilities are endless. Divided; more of the same: pervasive misery and regional degradation.

It is based on what we do today that our children and history will judge us tomorrow. The question is: do we have, at present, the courage and the will to do what needs to be done?

The views expressed herein are those of the author alone and do not reflect the views of the International Criminal Court.