Korea Is Not a Likely Precedent for Israeli-Palestinian Peacemaking

Op-eds / The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process

On 27 April 2018, the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. It was the first time that a North Korean leader had crossed the border to the south since the two Koreas were founded in 1948. For the Israeli reader, this encounter seemed as dramatic as Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem. The secret American mediation in this conflict, led by President Trump, has played an important role in the process of historic reconciliation. Trump’s success inspires many observers to believe that what he managed to achieve there (Korea) will work also here (Israel/Palestine). However, this reflects a false hope based on wishful thinking rather than a fact-based analysis. The differences between the two conflicts are many, but it is worth focusing on three: the personalities of the leaders involved in the conflict, the role of the mediator, and the issues in dispute.

The leaders played a significant role in the process. The president of South Korea, as opposed to his predecessors who supported tough policies and the enforcement of sanctions, adhered to his policy of dialogue with the neighbor to the north. He took advantage of the hosting of the Winter Olympics to invite a delegation from North Korea. Indeed, the participation of Kim’s sister in the opening ceremony was the harbinger of the change in North Korea’s position. On the other hand, North Korea’s president, Kim, has shown that his rigid and threatening image was wrong. Whether the economic sanctions and the fear of an American attack played a role, or whether in Kim’s view the last ballistic experiment has deterred the US, the result has been a change in his position. There are obviously those who fear that this is merely a tactical change designed to maximize profits within the international community, but in any case, the leadership has proven that it is capable of changing positions and initiating a “game-changing” course.

In comparison, the leaders on both sides of our “conflict” – Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas – have not yet proved that they are capable and willing to promote a real solution to the conflict. Netanyahu’s hands are tied by his right-wing coalition that is ideologically committed to the vision of a greater Israel. He is also engaged in internal political struggles and is troubled by his legal issues of corruption. His policies and behavior convey that he has neither motivation nor determination to resolve the conflict. On the other hand, Abbas has so far escaped two rounds of negotiations, one with Olmert in 2008 and the second with Netanyahu in 2014, and it does not seem that he is inclined – now that he is approaching the end of his political career – to sign the deal of his life. Moreover, Abbas does not enjoy Palestinian legitimacy in the PA, while Hamas challenges his authority. There are two conditions that need to be met in order to promote a solution, legitimacy and determination. Both leaders do not meet these conditions, partially or fully.

The second element concerns the role of the mediator. Trump tried to give a feel of neutrality to his mediation, when he was secretly negotiating with North Korea, during which he also sent the head of the CIA, Pompeo (who in the meanwhile had been appointed Secretary of State) for a visit. He also wisely used “sticks” and “carrots”: on the one hand, he increased the economic pressure on North Korea and also threatened to take military action; On the other hand, he proposed to hold a summit with Kim soon, which previous presidents were not willing to do, thereby granting American legitimacy to the isolated president. Unfortunately, with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Trump has so far made almost every possible mistake, the last of which is the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The decision, which was meant to be part of the “carrots” that Israel would receive in exchange for its concessions in the negotiations, eliminated Trump’s pretense of becoming a neutral mediator. He can still correct this by making a counter-decision “in favor of” the Palestinians, but it does not appear that he intends to do so.

Finally, the outstanding issues in the two conflicts are completely different; The main issue in the Korean conflict is the unification of the two parts of the nation, which was arbitrarily separated during the Cold War: the north is afraid of losing power; while the south fears the economic costs of unifying a strong and progressive economy with the backward economy of the north. The importance of this issue should not be underestimated, but it has already been solved elsewhere, when East and West Germany united even though the conditions were different. More importantly, the Korean conflict does not include some of the explosive components of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, such as the question of borders, the question of Palestine’s independence, and notably the status of Jerusalem and the refugee question. The fact that the religious aspect does not play a role in the Korean conflict makes it less complicated and more manageable.

Beyond that, the history of “our” conflict does not work in Trump’s favor; external mediation alone has never been able to solve it. Peace with Egypt was initiated by Sadat; the Oslo Accords were initiated by Israeli and Palestinian civil society players; while peace with Jordan was led mainly by Hussein and Rabin. It follows, therefore, that unlike the Korean story, Trump’s chances of breaking the impasse in our conflict are not great. If he wishes to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Korean arena seems more promising.

Prof. Elie Podeh is a Board Member at the Mitvim Institute, and teaches Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Dr. Alon Levkowitz is an expert on Korea, teaches at Beit Berl College and is a researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.

(originally published in the Jerusalem Post)

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