Argument

Programmed for Failure

The latest round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations never had a chance -- and unless the United States asks itself some tough questions, its days as peace broker are numbered.

The Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, once again, are on the verge of collapse. This places the Middle East peace process back on familiar ground: The blame game is already being played energetically by officials in Washington and Jerusalem. The question to be asking, however, is not why the process appears to have failed -- but why anyone thought it could succeed.

Indeed, the process was effectively pre-programmed to fail. More than eight months of U.S.-led negotiations came to an abrupt end last week after Israel decided to cancel a pre-scheduled Palestinian prisoner release and the Palestinian leadership decided to join various international treaties. As a result, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been forced to shift his focus from brokering a "framework" that would have allowed negotiations to move forward, to merely keeping the process from spiraling out of control.

As some analysts pointed out at the start of negotiations last July, however, the problem has never been getting the parties into the negotiating room -- but getting them out with a substantive agreement. This latest round of talks drove that point home, as eight months of negotiations have produced very little by way of substantive progress. Several reported leaks suggest that the two sides made little if any headway on the core issues of the conflict like final borders, Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

While there is currently speculation about a potential deal -- possibly involving the release of convicted U.S. spy Jonathan Pollard, among other incentives -- to bring the parties back to the talks, more time sitting at the negotiating table is unlikely to produce a different outcome. While Kerry's desire to "keep the process moving" is understandable, there is no reason to believe that another six or 12 months of negotiations would have allowed the process to succeed where the last nine months -- or for that matter, the last 20 years -- had failed. If there is one thing the Middle East peace process has not lacked over all these many years, it is time. 

The problem is even more basic and straightforward than any of the proximate causes for the breakdown of the talks. The latest negotiations failed because what was being discussed inside the negotiating room was utterly disconnected from the realities that exist on the ground, both physically and politically.  

Nowhere is this more evident than with Israel's vast and ever-expanding settlement enterprise. While U.S. officials may believe they are doing much to restrain Israeli settlements, the reality is that the settlement project is thriving like never before. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government has advanced plans for another 10,500 settler homes in the last eight months alone -- on top of the well over half a million Israeli settlers already living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Indeed, the rate of Israeli settlement construction in 2013 was more than double that of 2012. Despite occasional expressions of displeasure, U.S. President Barack Obama's administration continues to treat Israeli settlement expansion as though it were a meteorological phenomenon rather than a conscious Israeli policy decision that is demolishing chances for a two-state solution -- both by pre-determining facts on the ground and destroying Palestinian confidence in the process.

The tremendous success of the Israeli settlement project, along with the absence of any cost to maintaining the status quo, has left Israel with little to no incentive to take the kinds of steps that are needed for a genuine two-state solution, such as dividing Jerusalem or evacuating tens of thousands of settlers from the West Bank. It has also led to a sense of triumphalism within the current Israeli government, some of whose members openly oppose the creation of a Palestinian state or feel emboldened enough to actively sabotage the negotiations. 

The Obama administration is no less blind to the realities of the Palestinian side. The Palestinian leadership suffers from exactly the reverse problem as Israel: It has the will to conclude a deal but lacks the capacity to deliver on one. The Palestinian Authority is virtually bankrupt, has no functioning parliament, and continues to suffer from a debilitating split between the Fatah-dominated West Bank and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

The notion that such a divided and dysfunctional leadership, which lacks electoral and consensual legitimacy, would have a mandate to negotiate the sort of compromises that a peace deal with Israel would require is fanciful at best. Meanwhile, the Obama administration remains opposed to internal Palestinian reconciliation or to a lifting of the Gaza siege -- as though Hamas and Gaza were somehow separate from the peace process.

The source of Israeli impunity and Palestinian weakness, of course, is the substantial and growing power imbalance between the two sides. But any serious attempt to level the playing field -- by putting pressure on Israel to impose a genuine settlement freeze, for example, or allowing the Palestinians to enhance their leverage either through internationalization or national reconciliation with Hamas -- would necessarily entail a political cost for the United States. That's something both Obama and Kerry, like most of their predecessors, have assiduously sought to avoid. Until this paradox can be resolved, the United States will continue to be both the only party that can broker Middle East peace -- and the only party that refuses to make the tough decisions to get the job done.

As long as the United States refuses to deal with realities like Israel's settlement enterprise and the vast power imbalance between the two sides, any negotiation process is destined to fail. In this case, it may become necessary to begin considering alternatives to American stewardship of the peace process or a two-state solution, or both.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Whipping Votes and Protecting Lives

The Obama administration has won a significant human rights triumph in Geneva. But it has gone unheralded amid strident criticisms about spying, drones, and detainees.

With killing fields in Syria, perpetual detainees in Guantanamo, and the NSA snooping on all of our cell phones and emails, the Obama administration's human rights record looks short on bright spots. But the administration can claim at least one major, if unglamorous, victory: the reinvigoration of the United Nations' Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

In late March, rights advocates kvelled as three major resolutions were adopted by big majorities at the Geneva-based body, targeting Iran, Sri Lanka, and North Korea. These hard-fought wins signify that the Obama administration's four-year push to reform the UNHRC has gained lasting momentum, helping the U.N. finally fulfill the most neglected and controversial plank of its original purpose.

The U.N. was founded with three major parts of its mandate: peace and security; socioeconomic development; and the protection and promotion of human rights. The last of these has always been the weakest. Peace and security is the domain of the Security Council, with its momentous debates and the power to authorize force. The U.N.'s development arms -- the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and dozens of other programs -- have billions in funding and sprawling international operations. But when it comes to human rights, the organization's history has been tortured.

The U.N. Commission on Human Rights, created in 1946, got off to a good start. It passed the seminal Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a guiding star for freedom-seeking peoples in the tradition of the Magna Carta and Declaration of Independence. Over the years, though, as the U.N.'s membership diversified, the commission became badly politicized. It was notorious for welcoming some of the world's worst human rights abusers, including Sudan at the height of the Darfur crisis and Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe. The commission became a favorite venue for the Palestinians to press their cause and was criticized for showing a disproportionate focus on Israel while turning a blind eye to other countries' abuses. In 2005, Secretary-General Kofi Annan concluded that the commission's shredded credibility had "cast a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a whole." Saying that the body was beyond repair, he vowed to replace it with a new entity.

After a fractious negotiation over the UNHRC's composition and powers, the new forum was launched in 2006. The Bush administration, which failed to win support during the negotiation for certain proposals, including stiffened human rights criteria countries would have to meet to become members, vowed to boycott the body. They were not alone in their disdain: The New York Times editorial board called the new body's rules an "ugly sham" and "shameful charade" that would merely offer "cover for an unacceptable status quo." Meet the new boss, same as the old boss, in other words.

The UNHRC's early track record seemed to prove the naysayers right. Between 2006 and 2009, four of the six special sessions called by the council focused on Israel. Human rights flashpoints, including the Russian incursion into South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008 and the crackdown on Iran's Green Revolution in 2009, were all but ignored. Country investigators for Belarus and Cuba were summarily terminated at the urging of those governments. In May 2009, when the council did address crimes committed during Sri Lanka's suppression of the Tamil rebellion, the Sri Lankans themselves hijacked the proceedings: They pushed through a resolution that praised the government for its violent resolve, which Human Rights Watch said "undermined the very purpose of the Council."

But then, four months later, the newly installed Obama administration -- which came in touting a new commitment to human rights and international cooperation -- did an about-face from the Bush stance, and the United States joined the council for the first time. The president and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saw the problem as chicken-and-egg: They thought the United States should show up to improve the UNHRC, rather than waiting for a better council before showing up.

But fixing a U.N. political body isn't easy. For many countries, human rights principles have long taken a backseat to regional loyalties, political ties, and trade relationships. Many capitals preferred to shield violators from scrutiny, lest they someday get caught in the spotlight themselves. The State Department's own bureaucracy was dubious about whether the UNHRC could be trusted and leery of having sensitive topics like Iran debated there.

The United States started slowly, advancing resolutions on human rights situations, such as the 2010 violence in Kyrgyzstan and Cote d'Ivoire, which were lower stakes for Washington, and on thematic issues like women's rights and freedom of association that won support more easily. Knowing that made-in-Washington drafts pointing fingers at abusive governments wouldn't fly, the State Department quietly recruited other countries as co-sponsors and amassed coalitions long before resolution texts were introduced in Geneva. With its network of embassies worldwide, the United States became the master of polite yet relentless value-based vote-whipping that gradually brought nations like Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Botswana, Gabon, and Sierra Leone to vote with it on key issues.

Session by session, the U.S. built momentum. It helped broker a compromise to end a 10-year stand-off over whether insults to religion should be banned in international law. It catalyzed passage of the U.N.'s first LGBT rights resolution, sponsored by South Africa. Washington gradually fostered agreement among a majority of council members that outbreaks of violent repression in hotspots around the world should not be met with silence. Since 2011, the council has appointed individual, standing independent monitors and investigators to spotlight abuses in Belarus, Central African Republic, Cote d'Ivoire, Eritrea, Iran, Mali, and Syria, all with strong U.S. support.

March's session pushed this progress further. On Iran, the council extended the term of a human rights monitor who has enraged Tehran by documenting 687 executions -- 57 of them public hangings -- in 2013, which belie President Hassan Rouhani's promises to ease the climate of repression. On North Korea, the body called directly on the Security Council to begin a judicial process to hold perpetrators of crimes against humanity accountable. A Human Rights Watch representative declared that "you couldn't expect a stronger resolution" and called the outcome "unprecedented." The North Korean ambassador balked, chiding the council to "mind your own business" and rejecting cooperation with the council's monitors. "No person on earth," he said, "would be so stupid as to keep the door open to a gangster who is attacking with a sword."

The sweetest victory of all was on Sri Lanka, where the council redeemed its 2009 humiliation by launching an independent investigation into the abuses it had once willfully ignored. The Sri Lankan ambassador decried what he called "a grave threat to the sovereignty of U.N. member states."

A more energetic and credible UNHRC is having ripple effects beyond Geneva. Council-sponsored reports are being presented in New York at the U.N.'s General Assembly and the Security Council. More human rights-friendly country voting patterns in Geneva are, at least on some issues such as Syria, influencing the votes of these governments in the U.N. General Assembly and when they hold non-permanent Security Council seats. Geneva tends to be a posting for foreign ministries' rising stars, and having these influential ambassadors delve into human rights and join together in taking firm stands may carry over as they ascend in the ranks.

To be sure, the council is far from perfect. It still includes notorious human rights abusers including, at the moment, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Cuba. But on many of the most important resolutions, these countries end up outvoted. The spate of anti-Israel resolutions are still introduced and passed session after session under a separate agenda item devoted only to Israel (whereas all other countries are discussed under two common agenda items), reflecting the council's structural bias. But they've become so routine that they take little time and draw only modest venom. Non-governmental organizations and advocates are deliberately marginalized from council debates. And some countries remain essentially off-limits: China, Russia, and Egypt, to name a few.  

Even where the council has the will to act, its power is also finite. It was the first U.N. body to address the carnage in Syria back in April 2011. It deserves credit for tallying the grim tolls of death and displacement that have dominated international headlines for more than three years, and for creating a documentary record that may someday aid war crimes prosecutor. But for all their earnestness, these resolutions have done nothing to stop President Bashar al-Assad's killing.

What's more, a body that probes into countries' most charged behaviors against their own citizens and others will probably always be home to hypocrisy -- including on the part of the United States. During its latest session, alongside resolutions on Iran and North Korea, Pakistan and Yemen spearheaded the launch of a council probe into whether the U.S. government's use of drones complies with international law. Washington huffed that the council lacked the "expertise" to investigate drone use, claiming that it wasn't the "right forum" for action. The council's legitimacy, in other words, remains in the eyes of the beholder, and the United States, like every other country, has its glaring blind spots.

That said, over time, if the council continues to strengthen, the United States may eventually find it harder to exempt itself from the rules applied to others. It may one day even concede that the merits of a universal system are greater than the value of claiming an exception.

The Obama administration, for all its own shortcomings in the realm of human rights, has demonstrated that, with energy and strategy, the U.N.'s elusive third pillar can rise again. As the governments of Iran, North Korea, and Sri Lanka have now learned, an active UNHRC is bad news for abusers -- and a shot in the arm for those calling them to account.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images