About Arjan van Houwelingen

Arjan van Houwelingen is a policy consultant and occasional researcher and writer, focusing on issues related to peace, politics and development. In the 90s he spend most of his time in Central and Eastern Europe researching aid effectiveness for organisations such as the EU, OECD, World Bank and USAID. Subsequently, he joined the UN where he worked on UN reform and the Middle East peace process. Currently, Arjan is based in the UK and, from time-to-time, the Netherlands.

Tahrir Square equals Potsdamer Platz; or maybe not just yet

As the once so secure Arab regimes appeared to be falling like dominoes in the face of popular demands for regime change (read: freedom and democracy), the abundant commentary in the Western media often used analogous revolutionary moments in time to outline the importance of events, or offer guidance to US and European leaders on ways to resolve their foreign policy conundrum (how to support democracy and human rights without threatening the stability needed for security and economic growth).  From the fall of apartheid to the violent suppression of student protests at Tiananmen Square and the ousting of South-American generals, most recent ‘liberation events’ have featured in numerous articles but none more so than the 1989 fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe. 

At first glance, the analogy seems apt.  Then and now we see populations rising up against autocratic regimes propped up by vast security forces and the financial, military and political tutelage of a superpower.  At closer inspection however, the differences are significant enough to suggest that the smooth trajectory from Warsaw Pact to Lisbon Treaty will not be afforded to the current batch of freedom seeking populations.  Three main differences stand out.

One, these days there is no Mikhail Gorbachev.  Gorbachev’s policies of Glasnost and Perestroika were not so much informed by popular demands for reform but rather proved to be the loosening of reigns necessary for people to  believe that change was possible and that the risks involved in protesting and demanding change were manageable.  Of course, for Gorbachev,  demokratizatsiya did not necessarily mean free elections and a multi-party system but once change was happening, Mikhail did not stand in its way.  In fact, in no uncertain terms did he make it clear to the leaders of Central and East European countries that violence against their own populations would not (or no longer) be accepted.   

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The Palestine Papers: deal breaker or deal maker?

It’s over.  The peace process that never really was a true effort to find peace has now been exposed to have died a slow death. The two-state solution has been dealt a final blow and is, as John Cleese would say, an ex-solution.

This is the main, somewhat knee-jerk, thrust of reactions in the Middle East to the publication of the so-called Palestine Papers by Al Jazeera and the Guardian.  Most Israeli and Palestinian commentators seem to agree:  Israel never really wanted a deal (or was politically capable of it); the Americans sided with Israel, the status quo continuing to be its preferred political option; and the Palestinian leadership grew so frustrated and disinterested that they proved willing to betray the trust of the people they were supposed to represent.

As we move further away from Jerusalem though, reactions appear to be more upbeat.  The cynical views is that ‘these Palestine Papers reveal nothing that we didn’t already know’, while the optimists cheer that now that the truth is out, real action must follow.  Typically, the US State department spokesman dismissed the leaked documents as “not conducive to bringing the parties back to the  negotiating table”. William Hague, meanwhile, apparently missed the leaks altogether as he met with his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman and noted that settlement building is illegal (an argument that, given Lieberman’s political views, is probably about as futile as telling a pyromaniac that fire is bad while giving him a box of matches).

The Guardian’s editors seem to have difficulty making up their minds.  Yesterday, they appeared apologetic – suggesting that it would require Panglossian optimism to believe that the negotiations could one day be resurrected. Today, they are patting themselves on the back, claiming that by exposing “how and where this deal fell short, is not to undermine the goal. It is the only way left of rescuing it.

Having worked for eight years as a small cog in the vast diplomatic machine that is the Middle East peace  process, I cannot help but smile at the hoopla that these leaks have caused. But in my heart of hearts, I’d have to agree with the cynics.  The Palestine Papers may provide great detail and indeed shock even some of those closely involved in the process as to the extent of the concessions Palestinian negotiators were willing to make, but in essence they don’t really tell us anything new.  There may, at some stages, have been a genuine desire for peace on all sides but it should be clear to most of us now that there has never been the political need. Continue reading