This is a hard time to talk about pursuing peace in the Middle East, only days after the horrendous war in the Gaza Strip, and with the possibility of further fighting and deaths and destruction. On the one side, Palestinian bitterness about the heavy toll suffered in Israel’s onslaught will not quickly be assuaged or forgiven. On the other side, Israeli mistrust about Palestinian intentions, exemplified by Hamas’s indiscriminate firing of thousands of missiles at civilians and its dedication to destroy Israel, will not easily be stilled.
Yet President Obama has moved swiftly and has appointed George Mitchell as his special peace envoy. It remains to be seen how far the United States will be willing to go in ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: whether it will rely on words and persuasion, or use muscle in applying pressure. And the extent to which it stays the course will depend on success in dealing with US priorities – the economy, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran.
Mitchell flies in on Wednesday and starts with the advantage that the end goal is known and widely accepted: a two-state solution, with Israel and Palestine as friendly neighbours, and Israel accepted by all or most Arab states. The framework is also known: the end of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the opening of the Gaza Strip; agreement on borders and withdrawal of all or some settlements, or compensatory land swaps; resolution of the refugee issue; Jerusalem as a shared capital; shared control of the Holy Basin.
Much discussion has gone into these issues, at Camp David, in the Clinton Parameters, at Taba and the Wye Plantation, in the Road Map, at Annapolis. Inasmuch as details are known, agreement between Israelis and Palestinians has been reached to varying extents.
How will Mitchell approach his task? Will he bring Israelis and Palestinians into discussions in the hope that they will negotiate a final accord?
Another way is to go to the basics and satisfy the question: what does each side need?
Israel is the strong party in the conflict. But even with its military might and economic power, it has a deep-rooted existential fear that must be met. It is also supposed to have morality, springing out of the Judaism that underpins the existence of the Jewish state. Plus Jewish sensitivity to persecution, derived from centuries of terrible historical experience, magnified by the Holocaust, and brought into the present by unceasing Arab hostility since the state was founded in 1948.
The historically created anxiety about continued existence is not always a force for good: Israeli destructiveness hurts others and contradicts the state’s sense of moral purpose. The drive for survival pushed Israel into a pre-emptive strike against Arab neighbours in 1967. Unexpected victory led to hubris and later the growth of religious messianism. That was aided and abetted by the declaration by Arab states in Khartoum in September that year: no peace with Israel, no recognition, no negotiations. That hardened Israeli attitudes.
The consequences of 1967 are seen today in the continuing occupation of the West Bank, with nearly 300,000 Israelis in settlements and another 200,000 in suburbs built to extend Jerusalem. The settlers have permeated government, in the civil service and the army, and enjoy influence out of proportion to their numbers. The deceptions and illegal channelling of government funds for their cause are well-documented. The Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, promised to curb settler expansion, but did very, very little. There has been no action even towards the more modest goal of evacuating the 80,000 settlers in 80 settlements beyond the new security barrier.
So much land has now been seized from the intended Palestinian state, so many settlements and roads have been built, that the possibility of two states is being questioned. Some say that the point of no return has already been passed. Others argue that it must be possible because it must be.
(On the face of it, a one-state solution is the natural goal. Jews and Arabs live in the same tiny part of the world, and universal values point to a single, shared state where people will live happily together. Unfortunately, it does not stand up to scrutiny: first, the vast majority of Israel’s 6 million Jews will not agree to it now or in the foreseeable future. Who will force them to enter into an arrangement that they see as the death-knell of their existence? Second, a single state is not remotely a practical possibility for the foreseeable future given the intense fear, hatred and prejudice that divide the two peoples. It is fantasy to believe that they can be persuaded to live together. A loose confederation between Israel and Palestine, based on shared economic interests, with Jordan joining in, is a possibility. With time, if trust develops, it could grow deeper. But that’s another story.)
Tell Israelis that there must be a Palestinian state on the West Bank and, while opinion polls show majority agreement, many will worriedly say that Palestinians cannot be trusted and it would be foolhardy to allow them within missile range of Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion airport. In evidence, they will point to Gaza, which Israel quit in 2005 only to be pursued by thousands of missiles. Respond that Israel did not really quit but kept Gazans locked inside and you will be told that Palestinians had the chance of creating something – as with the prosperous greenhouses and the buildings they took over from settlers, but chose instead to plunder them and give violent vent to their hatred of Jews.
Trust is impossible in this cycle of accusation and counter-accusation. Yet trust is needed for Israel to end the occupation of the West Bank and allow Gaza to breathe. The end of occupation will not in itself bring peace, but it is the crucial first step to make all else possible.
How to get Israel to take the first step? Palestinians have to convince them that mass murder does not await them and that their Jewish state is secure. The Palestine Liberation Organisation, representing the mainstream, has already made a mighty and painful compromise in acknowledging the reality of Israel inside the 1967 borders. It has also turned away from suicide bombings, which did so much during the second intifada to drive most Israelis to the right and reject any notion of achieving peace with Palestinians.
The world has to be intelligent and understanding in persuading or pushing Israel to change its ways. If it commits human rights abuses, it must be as subject to international condemnation as any other nation; but singling it out as the singular source of evil is so bizarre and contrary to truth that it achieves nothing except anger and derision. The yelling and accusing and boycotts are counterproductive because they only entrench Israeli beliefs that they are the victims of prejudice and hypocrisy; rather try to pledge security and safety.
For Palestinians, the imperative need is the end of occupation so that they can have freedom, the right to govern themselves, the right to a life of dignity, security and economic empowerment. The Palestinian Authority must have continued support in developing effective and corruption-free government, so that it can show its people that it can produce peace dividends for them.
Palestinians also have to reach accord among themselves to bring both Fatah and Hamas into government. As matters stand at present, Israel, the US and the EU demand that Hamas accept Israel’s existence, that it forswears violence and endorse previous treaties agreed by the Palestinian Authority. Is it able to do this? Will its Islamist ideology, bedded on hatred of Jews and the Jewish state, permit it? Will Iran, its patron and arms supplier, intent on its own power-seeking agenda in the region, allow it?
If these anxious questions cannot be resolved, uncertainty and instability will continue, with the ever-present danger of missile attacks by Hamas and the inevitability of Israeli counter-attacks. The civilians on both sides of the border will continue to be victims of violence.
Some argue, however, for another approach: the reality of Hamas cannot be denied and it must be part of the solution; further, that Hamas cannot be forced into meeting the recognition and other demands; instead, Israel must seek to make contact, however informally, to achieve at least a de facto relationship, in the hope that, over time, Hamas will be nudged into accepting the reality of the Jewish state. Contact, invaluable in itself, will also help to overcome Sharon’s blunder in 2005 in withdrawing unilaterally from Gaza and ignoring the common-sense need to deal with Palestinians as partners on shared practicalities such as border access and health control.
Whether the hardliners inside Hamas will agree to any contact with Israel is unknown. But the only way to find out is to try it, is the argument. As for worry that giving Hamas status will undermine Fatah, that can be met by Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and ensuring that Fatah is enabled to run a genuine government.
These are the strands that George Mitchell will be picking up. He can also turn to the Arab Peace Initiative: Sharon brushed it aside when the “land for peace” offer was first announced in 2002. Olmert has been more encouraging, but, astonishingly, it seems that no practical steps have yet been taken to talk to the Arab states to find out what devil might lie in the details or what compromises might be possible.
Whatever President Obama, via Mitchell, does or doesn’t do, he cannot impose a whole new order. Ultimately, the solutions are in the hands of Israelis and Palestinians. Both sides need leaders whose vision of the future, and fear of sliding into catastrophe, will cause them to lead their people towards mutual acceptance and peace. For Israel, might such a leader possibly emerge from the general election on February 10?
This piece, by Benjamin Pogrund, is from The Guardian.