Power Corrupts

by Jamie Stern-Weiner | published June 18, 2013 – 2:40pm

Secretary of State John Kerry has staked his credibility on reviving the Middle East peace process. Supporting this effort on the world stage will be high on Samantha Power’s agenda, should her nomination as US ambassador to the United Nations be confirmed. But though she will urge Israelis, Palestinians, Western journalists and European officials to put aside their cynicism over yet another round of Israeli-Palestinian talks, her own record justifies it tenfold.

A prominent academic advocate of humanitarian intervention and a key Obama adviser, Power has long criticized “peace processors” whose “diplomatic prejudice” toward “avoiding confrontation” leads them to prioritize negotiations even where mutual agreement on a settlement is impossible. Her widely praised account of American failures to prevent genocide, A Problem from Hell, condemned US administrations’ “shocking” tendency to respond to escalating atrocities by “trust[ing] in negotiation” rather than applying material pressure. In Bosnia, she wrote, “the ‘peace process’ became a handy stalling device,” and while the US issued rote condemnations of Milosevic’s support for Bosnian Serbs, these were “not backed by meaningful threats” and so were “ignored.”

A Problem from Hell quotes favorably a US official denouncing reliance on “mere negotiations” in Bosnia:

If the conflict reflected legal and constitutional differences over the breakup of Yugoslavia, creative diplomacy and split-the-difference negotiations would offer promise…. But the conflict is driven by a Serb bid for racial and national supremacy. As such, it can be halted, reversed and defeated only by military force.

In other words, where parties to a conflict agree on the broad outlines but differ on the details of a settlement, a peace process may yield fruit. Where their respective objectives are fundamentally irreconcilable, external pressure mobilized behind an internationally accepted framework is required to bridge the gaps if the conflict is not to continue in perpetuity or be resolved by sheer force of arms.

Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have dragged over two decades, delivering negative progress toward a peace settlement in the face of deep divides in the parties’ respective demands. While Palestinian and Arab leaders have for decades been prepared to accept peace in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-June 1967 borders, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and some resolution of the refugee question, no Israeli government has been prepared to withdraw from enough of the occupied Palestinian territories to make a Palestinian state viable or to acknowledge any responsibility for the refugee question, let alone to make amends. That isn’t to say the Oslo process has had no effects. Since it began in the early 1990s, says the World Bank, the “structure of the Palestinian economy has substantially deteriorated.” And Israel’s ceaseless construction of settlements and related infrastructure in Palestinian territory has crystallized into “an entrenched multi-layered system of obstacles and restrictions” that, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported five years ago, is “transforming the geographical reality of the West Bank and Jerusalem towards a more permanent territorial fragmentation.”

It is doubtful that Oslo’s violent collapse in the early 2000s will have surprised Samantha Power, who, as we saw, has been critical of the notion that bilateral negotiations alone can bridge fundamental antagonisms. Indeed in 2002, at the height of the second intifada, Power suggested that since Israeli and Palestinian leaders had proven unable to reach an agreement, a settlement would have to be imposed through “external intervention.” It is “essential,” she declared, that “some set of principles becomes the benchmark” for efforts to achieve an Israel-Palestine peace settlement, rather than mere “deference” to the parties’ respective demands.

We have such a benchmark in the form of the two-state settlement, whose parameters are backed by an overwhelming and enduring international political and legal consensus. Yet throughout Obama’s first term, Power reportedly led the administration’s campaign to thwart Palestinian attempts to seek legal redress and political recognition through international institutions on the basis of this consensus. In 2003 Power mocked John Bolton for his hostility to the UN and international law; yet US and Israeli officials report that Power assisted American efforts to sink a 2009 UN inquiry into Israeli war crimes in Gaza and was “instrumental” in moves to shield Israel from legal accountability following its 2010 attack on the Mavi Marmara. (The inquiry was chaired by Judge Richard Goldstone, who in 2000 had contributed a chapter to Power’s co-edited volume Realizing Human Rights.)

In 2004 Power managed to agree with Noam Chomsky that the US should be less “selective” in applying its principles abroad, and observed that, “with Israeli settlements unchallenged by Washington’s elites,” it is “well past time to sound the alarm.” Yet in 2011, faced with a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction, Power argued in favor of a US veto.

In fact, the US and Israel have consistently rejected international law and opinion as a basis for resolving the conflict, with good reason: As former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak explained, “on the matter of borders, the entire world is with the Palestinians and not with us.” When Palestinian negotiators at Camp David insisted that Israel accept the internationally recognized pre-June 1967 border as a baseline for negotiations, President Bill Clinton was furious. “This isn’t the Security Council here,” he raged. “This isn’t the UN General Assembly…. I’m the president of the United States.” “I am a lawyer,” then-Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told Palestinian negotiators in 2007, “but I am against law — international law in particular.”

On June 13, reporters challenged the State Department to explain why another round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will yield more than its predecessors, if Israel faces no material consequences for its rejectionism. “Our focus right now,” came the response, “is not [on] consequences.” That’s not to say renewed peace negotiations will achieve nothing, however. A US official recalls Power, working under Barack Obama at the National Security Council, suggesting “in a gentle manner” to her Israeli counterparts that they do more to advance the peace process, because it “could make our work” easier at the UN.