The End of Purposeful Ambiguity

Henry Kissinger once described diplomacy as “purposeful ambiguity” – and he was either a brilliant diplomat or a war criminal – or maybe he was both. The two are not mutually exclusive, because diplomacy relies on agreements to keep things a bit murky, so his clever two-word definition of diplomacy seems useful. It’s best for each side to say it got exactly what it wanted, that it won in the negotiations, even if that’s not quite true, because inevitable odd compromises were made by each side. Just don’t say that. Say something ambiguous – but say it with conviction. Everything worked out just fine. Really, it did.

Henry Kissinger knew how to play that game. On January 27, 1973, both parties signed off on the Paris Peace Accords that ended our war in Vietnam. That was Henry Kissinger’s triumph, even if the process was messy. In 1968, Richard Nixon had promised “peace with honor” – because we really did have to get out of Vietnam. There was no point any longer. Even Richard Nixon knew that. The whole thing had been a bad idea, but then, Americans don’t cut and run. Hippies do, but not honorable Americans – but we did have to end that mess, and it couldn’t look as if we lost. That was unacceptable.

This was a situation that called for some serious ambiguity, and Kissinger provided that. The terms of the Paris accords had been agreed to the previous October, but we needed to bomb the crap out of North Vietnam for a few more months, to show that we could – we were bugging out, but everyone was supposed to see that we didn’t have to, because we were awesome. That added a nice touch of ambiguity to our agreeing to leave, and as for “honor” – well, that’s a rather ambiguous term. We said we were doing the honorable thing – we had met all our commitments – but we were saying that about ourselves. Anyone can say anything about themselves. That doesn’t make it true – and that war in Vietnam actually ended April 30, 1975, as the last of our helicopters lifted off from the roof of our embassy in Saigon, with the last of our folks. Peace, with honor, two years earlier, had been a bit of purposeful ambiguity.

It didn’t matter. Henry Kissinger and Lê Đức Thọ were awarded the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for those Paris Peace Accords. Lê Đức Thọ refused to accept the award. He knew better. Each side had agreed to present likely-sounding nonsense, to save face, but peace would come when the Americans were finally gone, and talk of honor is inherently empty. Diplomacy is deception. It was as if he was sorry he ever got involved in agreeing to say things he didn’t mean, to people who were saying things that they clearly didn’t mean. Who needs that crap? The point was to get the Americans out of there. There were other ways to do that. He found those ways. The folks in Oslo could keep their damned prize.

Perhaps it is best to say what you mean and mean what you say. To be diplomatic is to be dishonest, and being dishonest makes you a coward. Perhaps Kissinger is right and purposeful ambiguity keeps the world in something like peace, for a time, but then no one knows what’s really going on, and they certainly don’t know what you think really matters. Perhaps it’s better to let things blow up rather than bullshit everyone. Why not be honest? What’s the worst thing that could happen? What could go wrong?

Benjamin Netanyahu just made that calculation:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged on Wednesday to form a new governing coalition quickly after an upset election victory that was built on a shift to the right and drew an immediate rebuke from the White House.

In the final days of campaigning, Netanyahu abandoned a commitment to negotiate a Palestinian state – the basis of more than two decades of Middle East peacemaking – and promised to go on building settlements on occupied land. Such policies defy the core vision of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict embraced by President Barack Obama and his Republican and Democratic predecessors.

With nearly all votes counted, Netanyahu’s Likud had won 29 or 30 seats in the 120-member Knesset, comfortably defeating the center-left Zionist Union opposition on 24 seats. A united list of Israeli Arab parties came third.

The result was a dramatic and unexpected victory for Netanyahu – the last opinion polls four days before the vote had shown Likud trailing the Zionist Union by four seats.

Yes, everyone was surprised, even if things could go wrong:

The promises he made to ultranationalist voters in the final days of the campaign could have wide consequences, including deepening rifts with the United States and Europe and potentially emboldening Palestinians to take unilateral steps toward statehood in the absence of any prospect of talks.

The White House scolded Netanyahu for abandoning his commitment to negotiate for a Palestinian state and for what it called “divisive” campaign rhetoric toward Israel’s minority Arab voters.

Washington signaled that its deep disagreements with Netanyahu will persist on issues ranging from Middle East peacemaking to Iran nuclear diplomacy.

Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator in peace talks that collapsed last year, lamented “the success of a campaign based on settlements, racism, apartheid and the denial of the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people”.

The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman elaborates on that:

You cannot win that dirty and just walk away like nothing happened. In the days before Israelis went to the polls, Netanyahu was asked by the Israeli news site, NRG, if it was true that a Palestinian state would never be formed on his watch as prime minister, Netanyahu replied, “Indeed,” adding: “Anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state, anyone who is going to evacuate territories today, is simply giving a base for attacks to the radical Islam against Israel.”

This makes null and void his speech in June 2009 at Bar Ilan University, where Netanyahu had laid out a different “vision of peace,” saying: “In this small land of ours, two peoples live freely, side by side, in amity and mutual respect. Each will have its own flag, its own national anthem, its own government. Neither will threaten the security or survival of the other.” Provided the Palestinian state recognizes Israel’s Jewish character and accepts demilitarization, he added, “We will be ready in a future peace agreement to reach a solution where a demilitarized Palestinian state exists alongside the Jewish state.”

Now, if there are not going to be two states for two peoples in the area between the Jordan River and Mediterranean, then there is going to be only one state – and that one state will either be a Jewish democracy that systematically denies the voting rights of about one-third of its people or it will be a democracy and systematically erodes the Jewish character of Israel.

That’s the new problem:

If there is only one state, Israel cannot be Jewish and permit West Bank Palestinians to exercise any voting rights alongside Israeli Arabs. But if Israel is one state and wants to be democratic, how does it continue depriving West Bankers of the vote – when you can be sure they will make it their No. 1 demand?

I doubt, in the heat of the campaign, Netanyahu gave any of this much thought when he tossed the two-state solution out the window of his campaign bus in a successful 11th-hour grab for far-right voters. To be sure, he could disavow his two-state disavowal tomorrow. It would not surprise me. He is that cynical. But, if he doesn’t – if the official platform of his new government is that there is no more two-state solution – it will produce both a hostile global reaction and, in time, a Palestinian move in the West Bank for voting rights in Israel, combined with an attempt to put Israel in the docket in the International Criminal Court. How far is the Obama administration going to go in defending Israel after it officially rejects a two-state solution? I don’t know. But we’ll be in a new world.

But Netanyahu had made someone happy:

No one on the planet will enjoy watching Israel and America caught on the horns of this dilemma more than the clerical regime in Tehran. It is a godsend for them. Iran’s unstated position is that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem must be perpetuated forever. Because few things serve Iran’s interests more than having radical Jewish settlers in a never-ending grinding conflict with Palestinians – and the more bloodshed and squashing of any two-state diplomatic options the better – because, in that conflict, the Palestinians are almost always depicted as the underdogs and the Israelis as the bullies trying to deprive them of basic rights.

From Iran’s point of view, it makes fantastic TV on Al Jazeera, and all the European networks; it undermines Israel’s legitimacy with the young generation on college campuses around the globe; and it keeps the whole world much more focused on Israeli civil rights abuses against Palestinians rather than the massive civil rights abuses perpetrated by the Iranian regime against its own people.

Purposeful ambiguity would have served Netanyahu better, as Slate’s Fred Kaplan explains here:

Key here is Netanyahu’s declaration on the eve of the vote that there will never be a Palestinian state as long as he is prime minister – thus reversing his commitment, in 2009, to a peace process capped by a two-state solution.

This earlier commitment was widely seen as purely rhetorical. In fact, the whole notion of serious peace talks, or a peace-inducing formula for an Israeli-Palestinian border, has long devolved into a bit of convenient fiction. But the operative word here is convenient. As long as all sides say they support a two-state solution (or any commonly held formula for peace) as a goal, a lot of awkward issues can be swept under the rug – and in a region where one lit match can set off a conflagration, fire-dousing rugs aren’t such bad things.

Ambiguous likely-sounding nonsense keeps the peace – the Kissinger model. This guy will have none of it, but he’ll be sorry:

Netanyahu has now ripped away the rug, revealing that the floorboards had collapsed long ago: There’s no floor at all, only chasms and crumbling sheet rock overlooking a dark abyss.

What is the nature of the abyss, from Israel’s perspective? Above all, there is the real possibility of the loss of international legitimacy. This is not an abstract matter. In November 2012, the U.N. General Assembly voted, by an overwhelming margin (138–9, with 41 abstentions), to recognize Palestine as a “nonmember observer state.” This fell short of becoming a full-fledged “member state;” only the Security Council can bestow that status, and it isn’t likely to do so, since the United States, as a permanent member, holds veto power.

But the General Assembly vote wasn’t entirely symbolic. The International Criminal Court took the occasion to recognize Palestinian statehood, and here’s the thing: On April 1, Palestine’s membership at the ICC takes effect, and its delegation is expected to refer the status of Israel’s occupied territories to the court for investigation.

That’s when all hell could break loose:

The ICC, the European Union, and the U.S. State Department formally regard the West Bank and Gaza as “occupied territories.” The ICC and EU apply the same label to East Jerusalem. (The State Department takes an ambiguous stand on that issue, though it does not recognize the area to be part of Israel.) David Bosco, professor at American University… says that the ICC could conceivably condemn Israel’s settlements in the occupied territories and even indict Israeli leaders for war crimes. The ICC has no enforcement arm, but many European nations recognize its authority, so some Israelis officials may be barred from traveling to parts of Europe.

Even if things didn’t go that far, one can easily imagine a renewed effort in the United Nations to push Palestine statehood beyond that of a nonmember observer. Or some of the nations that supported, or stayed neutral, on the resolution could take tangible action: for instance, allowing Palestine to staff embassies on their soil.

The United States and Israel are quite alone in their opposition to the notion. Apart from Canada, the nations that joined them in voting “nay” in 2012 were not exactly powerhouses: the Czech Republic, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Panama, and Palau. American diplomats persuaded a few European allies – Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Poland – to abstain. They did so, arguing that statehood must be dangled as a bargaining chip to lure the Palestinians to the peace table; if it were granted unconditionally, they’d have no incentive to negotiate.

Now that Netanyahu has said he won’t ever recognize a Palestinian state, none of that pertains, so this wasn’t a brilliant win for the hero our Republicans admire:

This is another instance of Netanyahu’s parochial shortsightedness. The Palestinians, especially in Gaza, are at least as much to blame as Israel for the shuttering of peace talks. But Netanyahu’s brusque rejection gives them an excuse – which many nations and people will happily second – to pin all the blame on Israeli intransigence.

Netanyahu’s horrendous March 3 speech to Congress could have the same backfiring effect on the nuclear negotiations with Iran: President Obama had won some leverage in the talks by saying that if a deal falls through, he would step up sanctions and possibly pursue more aggressive actions, on the grounds that he’d given the Iranians a chance to prove their peaceful intentions, to no avail. Now, however, if the talks fail, Iran can blame Netanyahu and his lemmings in the U.S. Congress – and much of the world will accept that analysis, keen to lift sanctions and resume the profits of commerce.

And then there are internal matters where Netanyahu may have messed things up big time:

If he manages to assemble a governing coalition, it will be by capturing all the other right-wing and ultra-religious parties. As a result, his new government could be even less liberal, secular, and internationalist than his current government – and that means it will be less able, in its speedy trek toward self-isolation, to lean on the support of Jewish Americans, whose allegiance has already faded in recent years.

There’s a reason for that:

It is always a terrible thing when Netanyahu visits the United States. He flies home, chest out, head high, believing that the rapturous reception he received at the AIPAC convention and the joint session of Congress reflect American public opinion. A majority of Americans do support Israel, in part, I suspect, because the sorts of Americans who don’t care for Jews dislike Muslims and Arabs even more. American Jews, especially liberal and Democratic Jews, who still form a critical base of Israel’s support, were angered enough by Netanyahu’s cynical dagger toss at Obama during his last visit. His 11th-hour campaign remarks against a Palestinian state, compounded by his sheer racist gibe at Israeli Arabs (exhorting his right-wing base to counter the Arabs, who were turning out to the polls “in droves”), will make these Americans still less comfortable about supporting an Israel led by the likes of Netanyahu – and populated by the likes of his base.

No good will come of this:

For some time now, the Israeli ideal, as once envisioned by American Jews, has been the stuff of mythology. It’s not entirely Netanyahu’s fault; a few years of rocket attacks, bus bombings, “Death to Israel” parades, and the sheer geography of the region – such a small state, surrounded by armed enemies – can harden the most elegiac utopia, and Israel has never been that. Still, there are shrewd ways to play the survival game of shrimp-among-whales. Many past Israeli leaders knew how; there are many Israeli security officers, outspoken opponents of Netanyahu, who have ideas on how to revive the gamesmanship. Netanyahu isn’t playing it shrewdly and his reckless rhetoric in the campaign – designed to win a few more seats in the Knesset – may lose him, and his nation, much more in the end.

Ah, but he’s being honest! Henry Kissinger would nod sadly. What good is that? And Jonathan Alter adds this:

Bibi and Likud might be in for a rude shock at the United Nations. On Tuesday, moderate Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told CNN that it was “hard to imagine” there would be no consequences from Netanyahu’s new one-state views.

Bibi has placed all his chips on the Republican Congress, which has no say over how the US votes in the UN. Schiff – who often reflects the view of the White House – hinted that the Obama administration might consider selectively lifting the American veto in the Security Council that has protected Israel for more than six decades.

While the US will no doubt continue to veto the most obnoxious UN resolutions, others (like those based on comments of US officials about the need for a two-state solution) are now more likely to pass with the tacit support of the US – opening a new chapter in international pressure on Israel.

It won’t be like the old days:

Last November, the U.N. Security Council considered a draft resolution, pushed by the Palestinians and Arab countries, demanding an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank within three years. The U.S. quietly quashed the effort.

In February 2011, Obama exercised his first Security Council veto to strike down a resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity in Palestinian territory. Every other one of the Security Council’s 15 members supported the resolution.

Obama officials must now decide whether more international pressure on Israel can help bring a conservative Netanyahu-led government back to the negotiating table with the Palestinians – or whether such pressure would simply provoke a defiant reaction, as some fear.

Obama has other diplomatic options. He could expend less political capital to oppose growing momentum within the European Union to impose sanctions on Israel for its settlement activity.

More provocative to Israel would be any softening of Obama’s opposition to Palestinian efforts to join the International Criminal Court, which the Palestinian Authority will formally join on April 1. Under a law passed by Congress, any Palestinian bid to bring war crimes charges against Israel at the court will automatically sever America’s $400 million in annual aid to the Palestinian Authority, although some experts suggested Obama could find indirect ways to continue some funding – even if only to prevent a dangerous collapse of the Palestinian governing body.

So, who actually won this election? There seems to be a corollary to Kissinger’s definition of diplomacy as purposeful ambiguity. That would be this: In politics, and especially in governing, ambiguity is your friend. Of course, over here we have a political party that despises the whole concept of ambiguity, and they’re deliriously happy with Netanyahu’s upset win in Israel. This finally clarifies matters.

Indeed it does, and that’s the problem here. Ambiguity is what keeps us from tearing each other apart. Now it’s gone. Bring on endless war. That clarifies matters too, the hard way.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to The End of Purposeful Ambiguity

  1. Rick says:

    Okay, so now that Benjamin Netanyahu finally admits he doesn’t believe in the two-state solution, somebody should ask him what he does believe in.

    Does he see Israel’s future as a democratic nation that they will share equally with Palestinians? (I doubt it.) Or does he see it as it is now, a Jewish state that continues occupying Arab lands, indefinitely into the future? (Possibly.) Or does he think someone should deport all those Palestinians from “Judaea and Samaria” (a.k.a., the “West Bank”) and have Israel claim it all for itself? (Likely). Or maybe, following some principle of “purposeful ambiguity”, none of the above. (Even more likely, for a while anyway. After all, that’s worked this far.)

    But now that this issue is out in the open, we Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, need to ask ourselves what we believe about Israel and Palestine. I mean, it was one thing when everyone agreed on the idea that both Israelis and Palestinians have a right to their own respective states, but now that Israel’s leader has disavowed that whole business — and his people have given him their blessing — are we still standing solidly behind our “closest ally”?

    I’m sure there is, of course, a great temptation for the White House to punish Israel for reelecting Netanyahu and Likud — maybe by cutting back on or eliminating our foreign aid to them (totaling over $120-billion since 1949, including a little over $3-billion just last year) and backing off from covering Israel’s collective ass in all those U.N. votes — but even if they seriously considered doing that, I’m sure the Republicans wouldn’t, at this point, allow that. But I can also actually see a day when the American people might shout at the right, Enough is enough with the ingratitude from those people!

    Could all of this make Americans finally realize that the United States of America is the dog being wagged by a mere tail of a country with a population about equal to the size of New York City? And also that Israelis, in effect, “stole” the land that makes up their state from peoples they had been sharing it with? And that it’s okay to be conscious of these things without being an anti-semite?

    (Come to think of it, maybe no “religion” has a right to its own nation after all — other than Roman Catholics, I mean, and in fact, not even them, since I’m not even sure why we grant the Vatican statehood. And if you say every “people” should have a country, then why not the Kurds? At least in that case, a Kurdistan wouldn’t really be stealing the land from some other people.)

    Of course, this is not to say we Americans should all switch sides. After all, it’s still possible to hold the two non-mutually-exclusive opinions in one’s brain, that when it comes to solving their own problems, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians have ever passed up an opportunity to pass up an opportunity.

    Every time I hear someone suggest that “Someday, we need to have an honest talk about race in this country”, I hear myself thinking, “…and while we’re at it, maybe someday we can also have that honest talk about Israel.”

    But even after this latest development, I doubt we’re there yet.


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