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Gaza Diplomacy: The War of Words
August 1, 2014, 4:36 pm

The diplomatic world seems to be lost for words. Because of this, many more civilians must lose their lives in the Middle East. That is, until diplomats working on a permanent ceasefire between the warring Israelis and Palestinians grasp the artistry to dot the i’s and cross the t’s.

So, that text of a future agreement reads endlessly like a sub-text.

Is the diplomatic world being economical with truth?

The same two or three hundred words that all world diplomats possess in their repository are reused and re-organised to say very little or nothing new.

Either an agreement, impasse, or truce is brokered, or the hostilities continue – as seems to be the case of the brutal war in Gaza, which has raged unabated for more than three weeks now.

But modern diplomats have the necessary resources (including public diplomacy) to succeed where their counterparts from the era of the World Wars failed.

They stress ‘soft power’, and mediate by widening the inventory of tools at their disposal to render politics the art of the possible.

They put this diplomacy working toward the advocacy of commonly beneficial, tolerant and peaceful coexistence.

Sporting, tourism, education, cultural exchange, science and technology, and trade are all used to facilitate global dialogue and collective interests and security, thereby rendering war between nations useless.


The Middle East may be the ‘exception’. Where Palestinians are concerned, the very limited ‘soft power’ used is deployed to make people cope with the status quo: living under occupation endlessly.

Yet, even the schools and the hospitals funded and run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) are not exempt from conflict. Civilians in schools and hospitals have been amongst the victims of the war in Gaza over the past week, further illustrating this point.

But as the death toll mounts, the words with which international diplomats cut up the world and construct power never fail to perplex, to say the least.

Whereas for the rest of the human race language is used to reveal, for diplomats words are put together to conceal.

So to stand tall like a Klemens von Metternich (famed Austrian diplomat of the 18th Century) of diplomacy, one must elevate to an art form the eloquence of lexical minimalism.

It is not that diplomats lie for their countries – as it has often been suggested; rather, seasoned envoys cannot help hiding behind words.

What they hide or how they go about hiding it is the devil in the details that makes the difference between an adroit diplomat and a clumsy one.

Diplomats need not be versed in the texts of such political scientists and thinkers like Thucydides, Carl von Clausewitz, Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan and Hedley Bull.

They simply need to approximate the craftsmanship of former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger or National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski.

That is, they should know how to string words to allocate value: determine blame, decide winners and losers – or at least hammer out agreements that give such impressions.

Linguistics and discourse analysis may today be desired in diplomacy, perhaps more so than even international relations or political science.

In current 'diplomacy-speak', Israelis are almost invariably accorded the right to self-defence, while 'concern' is expressed at the rising number of Palestinian civilian casualties [Xinhua]

In current ‘diplomacy-speak’, Israelis are almost invariably accorded the right to self-defence, while ‘concern’ is expressed at the rising number of Palestinian civilian casualties [Xinhua]

In current ‘diplomacy-speak’, Israelis are almost invariably accorded the right to self-defence, which is unquestionably considered ‘legitimate’.

This is the discourse of US diplomacy and its closest allies. US Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomacy-speak is reiterated verbatim by all White House spokespersons and politicians from US President Barack Obama to US representatives in the UN.

The question of whether Israeli occupation is also ‘legitimate’ is what is obfuscated in this particularly biased discourse of power.

By contrast, ‘concern’ is expressed at the rising number of Palestinian civilian casualties.

British MP and Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Philip Hammond, amongst others, uses this language. All he offers is a reminder to Israel of its obligations under international law to avoid civilian casualties.

That is, diplomats may feel ‘upset’, ‘worried’, ‘bothered’ and ‘disturbed’ by the violence perpetrated against Palestinian civilians but not enough to warrant condemning it head-on as unacceptable conduct that warrants legal prosecution under international law.

There are two problems: Firstly, who does qualify as a ‘civilian’ in Israel or Palestine? The house of Ismail Haniyyeh, the Hamas Prime Minister in Gaza, was bombed a few days ago. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, who most likely ordered the bombing, would not obviously think so.

Thus, Netanyahu’s own status as a ‘civilian’ may not be straightforward either.

Secondly, precautions demanded by international law cannot be taken seriously: Hamas is guilty of firing (‘stupid’) rockets indiscriminately; and Israel with its (‘smart’) bombs and jet fighters deploys its firepower as indiscriminately, but also disproportionately and systematically.

Note the courageous criticism against such misuse of force in the Occupied Territories voiced by former air force first lieutenant Yuli Novak, who heads the group ‘Breaking the Silence’, an organization of military veterans from the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) who seek to reveal the realities of life under a brutal occupation.

Novak and other former officers oppose systematic use of violence against heavily populated areas in the Palestinian Occupied Territories.

Machiavelli’s Justifiable End?

One major anomaly stands out in the ongoing war. It is being labelled as a war between Hamas and Israel. This is dangerous abstraction and reductionism. An entire occupied impoverished and besieged community in Gaza are part of this war – like the rest of the Palestinians who have been clinging to the fading hope of statehood since 1948.

Hamas is not Palestine.

Like in Jenin, Sabra and Shatila, Israel knows how to play the game of ‘high politics’, gaining immunity from all forms of international prosecution.

International warrants for arresting Israeli politicians and commanders who may be guilty of war crimes will not be tested again.

The UK temporarily tried such a tactic, including amongst others against Tzipi Livni, Israeli Foreign Minister during 2009’s ‘Operation Lead Cast’, but to no avail.

Israel’s current ‘Operation Protective Edge’ – which has now destroyed all power generation to Gaza, claimed the lives of hundreds, and maimed thousands – will draw no more than words of ‘concern’.

Even the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) had to use wording very cautiously, by simply raising the possibility that international humanitarian law might have been violated.

And for that to be confirmed an investigation has to take place to ascertain guilt of war crimes. In the 2009 precedent, no action was taken against Israel’s killing of more than 1000 civilians and massive destruction to Gaza’s infrastructure and housing despite a damning UN report.

In the international community’s diplomatic management of the war in Gaza, it seems ‘might makes right’.

One irony of diplomacy in the current context relates to the juggling of international double standards: the US and the EU are setting differences aside to coordinate sanctions against Russia. The reason given is its involvement in the Ukraine’s civil war.

Obviously, in the trade-off between coercion and accommodation, there is something that inhibits the Americans and the Europeans to apply the former to Russia and the latter to Israel.

The reason will remain a diplomatic puzzle. And this is one reason why the world’s international public opinion may be justified in viewing diplomats to be Machiavellian actors for whom the use of immoral means for some of the time justifies the end, an idealised permanent good that is never delivered in the future.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.

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