Colombia’s Omen for Israel: When the People Don’t Give Peace a Chance

Op-eds / The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process

A fraction of a percentage point in a referendum struck down the historic government-FARC peace deal. Israel’s pro-peace deal left must learn the lessons of a cautionary tale from Colombia. On Sunday, Colombians struck down a historic peace deal between the government and the violent Marxist rebel group known as the FARC. After 50 years, a quarter of a million dead and six million uprooted, Colombia was poised to put the past behind and begin the rest of its life. But 50.2% said no.

Why? What can the failure mean for the future of negotiations, public participation, peacemaking? These are troubling questions. But the breathless developments in Colombia also yield valuable lessons for Israelis and Palestinians, and other protracted conflicts in the world.

The referendum failed in part because it became a proxy vote on Colombia’s unpopular President Juan Manuel Santos. The danger of weak leadership in a peace process isn’t limited to plebiscites. In Israel, Ehud Barak’s plummeting support and hobbled coalition on the eve of the Camp David negotiations in 2000 weakened his bargaining position at the table. In 2008, Palestinians worried that Ehud Olmert, corruption charges swirling around him, would not have the authority to uphold a deal, and the process floundered.

What can be done? It’s not too useful to advise leaders to collect great poll numbers before setting off to forge highly sensitive peace agreements. But we can conclude the converse: that leaders who enjoy greater public legitimacy have extra responsibility to advance conflict resolution. This logic is an indictment of four-time elected Benjamin Netanyahu, for failing to leverage his long shadow in Israel to advance peace.

Another reason for Colombia’s rejection was weak “yes” campaigning due to wrong assumptions. Professor Shlomo Ben Ami, former Israeli foreign minister and peace negotiator under Ehud Barak, advised the Colombia negotiations. In a phone interview, he observed that the Colombian government was sure the agreement would win a majority, and barely invested in the campaign. The political opposition went populist, insisting that the agreement was unjust and a better deal was possible. Much of the Western press cited only optimistic polling despite some clearly ominous numbers, as I noted when the agreement was announced.

This a cautionary tale for the Israeli left, since Israel has a constitutional-level referendum law concerning certain future land concessions. The right wing already knows the lesson: a plebiscite could fail despite the common wisdom that Israelis support two states and yearn for peace. If a deal ever reaches a vote, supporters absolutely cannot be complacent, no matter what surveys say. Public rejection is a gigantic setback. Colombia may yet toil ahead on negotiations, but look at divided Cyprus: 12 years after a failed reunification referendum, and despite some recent negotiation progress, there is still no breakthrough for peace.

Colombia – along with Brexit – is raising deep concerns about whether the conflicted public should vote directly on these issues at all. Global referendum expert Matt Qvortrup advised leaders in a Foreign Policy piece to “think twice” before holding them. Analysts in The New York Times took a dim view, observing among other reasons that such votes are vulnerable to arbitrary elements like the hurricane that hit pro-agreement areas of Colombia. Ben Ami feels they are more suitable to dictatorships than democracies. Israel’s legislation will be hard to change – other countries seeking an end to their conflicts may want to choose a different route.

But it’s not just the mechanism. Colombians rejected the agreement itself, largely based on the painful “transitional justice” aspect of leniency for the FARC in exchange for disarmament and peace. Transitional justice is an approach that seeks forgiveness for the future rather than vengeance for the past. One model is the “pacto del olvido” – the “pact of forgetting” that helped Spain leave Franco behind, Ben Ami noted, and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation commission is another.

Over half of Colombians could not tolerate that FARC fighters who had terrorized them for decades would be re-integrated into society and their party given 10 seats in parliament; legitimized or even rewarded, they felt, rather than punished. For those voters forgiving or forgetting was unjust; they clung to their understanding of justice over peace.

Israelis commonly accuse Palestinians of preferring justice for the past to peace in the future, because Palestinians demand recognition of their suffering since 1948. Israelis feel the obsession with historic justice is proof that Palestinians choose pride over life. Now we know this is neither accurate nor unique. Colombia’s vote indicates that for peace in this region, Israelis will have to accept the Palestinian need for perceived justice; while the latter cannot advance peace by forgetting Israeli insecurities, so deeply rooted in modern Jewish experience. Ben Ami called emotional factors a “human given,” and said that neglecting them undermines peacemaking.

The Colombia experience raises still more questions with no clear answers. Why did many areas least affected by the conflict vote against the deal? Why didn’t a FARC cease-fire from a year earlier calm nerves sufficiently to generate enough good will? The answers will be considered in years to come. For now, peace remains elusive in both regions. If Colombia’s misfortune can contribute to a better process in Israel-Palestine, or anywhere else, the failure won’t have been entirely in vain.

(originally published in Haaretz)

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