Apartheid Arab-Israeli conflict George Mitchell Israel South Africa

Guest Column: A new “grand bargain” in the Middle East

What follows is a column by Thomas Mitchell, lightly edited. We often read and hear comparisons between Israel and South Africa under apartheid. Mitchell finds lessons to be learned from South Africa, but not the most familiar ones. Instead, he focuses on diplomatic efforts to end South Africa’s occupation of Namibia and its confrontation with the Cubans in Angola.

By Thomas Mitchell

Obama is facing a number of policy challenges in the Middle East and the rest of South Asia. He appears to be losing the war at the moment in Afghanistan, with his general saying he needs more troops and most Americans having turned against the war. Iraq is relatively peaceful right now, but no one knows how long that will last before the various factions start stirring up trouble again.The United States has just caught Tehran telling lies about its nuclear effort for the third time in a decade. Netanyahu has refused to implement a housing freeze on the West Bank and the Hilltop Youth are continuing to settle illegally in terms of Israeli law, not to mention international law. Meanwhile Mahmoud Abbas has declared that he will not even negotiate with Israel until it implements the freeze that Obama demanded. Partisans of Israel denounce Obama for calling for the freeze in the first place and the Arabs demand sterner medicine.

In a similarly complex world, from the seventeenth century to the Potsdam Conference at the end of World War II, the Great Powers conducted business among themselves the way senators and congressmen sometimes conduct business in Congress. Issues were tied together and a party that made a concession in one area was compensated in another. This was the concept of “the grand bargain.” This way no one was a complete loser nor a complete winner and everyone was relatively content.

U.S. diplomats should be familiar with the notion of the “grand bargain.” When it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, Senator George Mitchell –Obama’s point man in the region– might want to consult with Chester Crocker, Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, about what to do. Crocker faced a similar situation in Southern Africa and Namibia.

In 1968, the UN had revoked Pretoria’s League of Nations mandate for Namibia/South West Africa because apartheid was considered to be incompatible with the trusteeship system. The Africans were all demanding that Pretoria end the occupation of Namibia and stay out of Angola. American conservatives wanted Reagan to back Pretoria against the Cubans and Soviets in Angola. And the European powers were kibbitzing from the sidelines.

In 1977, a Contact Group of five Western powers had been formed to negotiate with Pretoria over Namibia on behalf of the West. Crocker, a specialist on South Africa, decided that it would be better to accommodate Pretoria’s security needs and negotiate a mutual withdrawal of Cubans from Angola and South Africans from Namibia. He had to first convince his fellow Western powers and then the Africans that this was the best way to get Pretoria out. And he had to convince Pretoria that it was better off trying to seek a diplomatic solution than a military one.

It took Crocker from 1981 to December 1988 before a deal was finally signed in Brazzaville, Congo. It took so long because Havana and Pretoria had to exhaust each other fighting for control over Angola, and because the anti-South African sanctions campaign in 1985-86 complicated the diplomacy. From 1984 to 1988 South Africa was engulfed in internal unrest directed against apartheid. Pretoria was reluctant to appear weak in Angola and Namibia while it faced unrest at home. Crocker shuttled back and forth across Africa until he finally got the South Africans into direct negotiations with the Cubans in 1988. Major fighting in the summer of 1987 had cost both sides dearly and both were wary of escalating.

If Mitchell and Clinton can together fashion a similar “grand bargain” involving Israel, Syria, the Palestinians, and Iran they might be able to achieve what they could not by dealing with the issues separately.

Tehran seeks both security for its regime and influence in the Arab Middle East. To the latter end, it is backing Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine. Israel’s occupation of the West Bank vis a vis the international community is similar to Pretoria’s occupation of Namibia. Both occurred as the result of defensive wars but the readiness of the world to tolerate a decades-old occupation has soured. If Washington can deliver a deal on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that satisfied the Arab powers they might convince Tehran to give up its nuclear program and support for Hezbollah and Hamas. If Tehran turns down a generous deal, it will be that much easier to implement international economic sanctions against the regime. A deal that ended the Iranian nuclear threat would give Netanyahu political cover to make major concessions to the Palestinians. Abbas would feel much more secure about making concessions on the right of return if Iranian aid was cut off to his Islamist opponents. The big challenge for Mitchell and Clinton is to find out what would induce Tehran to make a deal. This might require tightening the initial sanctions against Iran by the West. The internal unrest in Iran caused by a stolen election complicates diplomacy as did the unrest in South Africa in the 1980s.

This is why Mitchell should read Crocker’s memoir, High Noon in Southern Africa.

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