Geneva Initiative: The Art of the Possible


"Politics is the art of the possible" is a famous quotation attributed to the Prussian Otto Von Bismarck. Instead of standing steadfast on one's position, politicians are supposed to make deals which include compromises; they are supposed to be experts at getting things done instead of just arguing or shouting at those who hold different positions.

The other evening at the University of Geneva a large audience was privileged to listen to several speakers who demonstrated what politics should be. Yossi Belin from Israel and Yasser Abed Rabbo from Palestine, the driving forces behind the Geneva Initiative, spoke as one voice of what a future peace might look like in the Middle East.

Eight years after the original launching of the Initiative, they had arrived at a comprehensive document which describes in detail solutions to such thorny issues as refugee return and Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and an eventual Palestinian state. Rather than the self-serving rhetoric of Bernard-Henry Levy, Belin and Rabbo calmly and realistically presented what they thought should be acceptable to both sides. They empathized with the other, showing both knowledge and understanding of what was possible for the other side to accept, a real lesson in political realism.

But, unfortunately, they are not the final deciders. Belin and Rabbo are now part of civil society; they are not Prime Minister Netanyahu or the leader of Hamas or the Palestinian Authority. While democracy is supposed to be the rule of the people, there are no serious official negotiations taking place today between Israelis and Palestinians because the leaders refuse to budge from their positions. While the evening was a demonstration of the outstanding work by the two delegations, the possibility of a peaceful resolution of the 60 year conflict remains beyond their powers and efforts. Neither had a definitive answer as to how to get the powers that be to use their roadmap. The roadmap remains a roadmap with no driver in the car; we don't know who will implement the Initiative.

Listening to the wisdom of the two in full admiration of their empathetic capacities, I thought of the United States Congress and the stalemate over some form of debt reduction. The Republicans refuse to move on any form of tax increase while the Democrats are reluctant to cut back on certain entitlements. The supercommittee failed, opening the way for draconian cuts which could reduce defense spending in half threatening national security. Neither party would move; neither party would budge.

Finally, many speakers at the University praised Geneva with its tradition of neutrality and role in peace negotiations. The Israelis and Palestinians recognized the importance of the efforts of Micheline Calmy-Rey and the Swiss Foreign Ministry in supporting the Initiative. Perhaps there were also lessons to be learned from the speakers for local politicians about the art of the possible and how negotiations should take place. Listening to political debates in Geneva and Bern convinces me that from time to time all politicians should be reminded of what the art of the possible means. Self-serving rhetoric is demagogy, not politics, and the audience understood the difference by warmly applauding Belin and Rabbo and booing BHL.


November 23, 2011


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