Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Why Middle East peace is (still) possible

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been meeting Gordon Brown at Downing Street today.

The British government want to work for a fair peace settlement, and there are promising signs that the new US administration does too. But the most important decisions must come from the principal parties. The conundrum is that all of those involved know what would need to be done but need to find sufficient will, and mutual trust, to do it.

Olmert is now a lame duck premier, minding the shop before elections next year. I recently caught up - thanks to the New York Review of Books - with the important "soul searching" interview which Olmert gave, hours after handing in his resignation, to Israel's most popular paper, Yedioth Ahronoth, in which he stated that "what I'm saying here has never been said by a leader of Israel. But the time has come to say these things. The time has come to put them on the table":

Ehud Olmert: We have a window of opportunity—a short amount of time before we enter an extremely dangerous situation — in which to take a historic step in our relations with the Palestinians and a historic step in our relations with the Syrians.

In both instances, the decision we have to make is the decision we've spent forty years refusing to look at with our eyes open.
We must make these decisions, and yet we are not prepared to say to ourselves, "Yes, this is what we must do."

We must reach an agreement with the Palestinians, meaning a withdrawal from nearly all, if not all, of the [occupied] territories. Some percentage of these territories would remain in our hands, but we must give the Palestinians the same percentage [of territory elsewhere]—without this, there will be no peace.

Yedioth Ahronoth: Including Jerusalem?

Ehud Olmert: Including Jerusalem—with, I'd imagine, special arrangements made for the Temple Mount and the holy/historical sites.

Ehud Olmert: I think we're very close to reaching agreements.

Yedioth Ahronoth: With both the Palestinians and the Syrians?

Ehud Olmert: Yes, also with the Syrians. What we need first and foremost is to make a decision. I'd like to know if there's a serious person in the State of Israel who believes that we can make peace with the Syrians without, in the end, giving up the Golan Heights ...

I was struck by how uncannily close Olmert's interview was to the peace-making script imagined for him by Tony Klug's brilliant and much acclaimed 'How peace broke out in the Middle East' - an imagined 'future history' of how peace finally came to the Middle East, which the Fabian Society was proud to publish in the Spring of 2007.

Here is Klug's fictional Olmert, while he still had time to save his political career:

The comment that sparked it all off, during a flying visit to London, followed a run-of-the-mill, on-the-record lecture at the prestigious Chatham House, ... In response to a question from the floor - which some commentators believe was planted - Olmert casually affirmed that in the hypothetical event that a full and genuine peace with the Palestinians and the Arab states were obtainable, Israel would “of course” be willing to withdraw fully from the West Bank subject to agreed minor land
exchanges – a formula that would allow Israel to hold on to the large settlement blocs in close proximity to the old green line while relinquishing the more distant settlements. “This has always been Israel’s position”, he went on, “didn’t we withdraw from Gaza - and Lebanon too? But we have constantly been forced to defend ourselves in the face of the other side’s murderous attacks and their intention to destroy us”.

The chair of the meeting, visibly perplexed, tentatively asked if Israel’s preparedness to withdraw in exchange for full peace applied to all territories captured in 1967, “including on the Syrian front?” “Why not?” came the instant reply. “Of course we would insist on the demilitarization of the evacuated area, monitored by an international force, similar to the arrangement in Sinai which has stood the test of time. But if the Syrians and the other Arabs are serious at last about full peace and they stop attacking us, threatening us and bad-mouthing us, then we too are ready in principle for full peace.

Hassan Naafa has an interesting commentary in Al-Ahram arguing that (the real) Olmert's statement still matters, particularly given his history as among the strongest advocates of Greater Israel.

For the first time an Israeli prime minister dared to ask his fellow citizens, openly and in Hebrew, in a message directed more to local than for foreign consumption, to let go of their dreams of a "greater Israel" with Jerusalem as its eternal capital. It was now time to seriously contemplate the setting of final, internationally recognised borders for the state of Israel so that the international community could deal with it as an ordinary state. Olmert also seems to have realised that Israel must accept the pre-June 1967 borders as the final boundaries or, in the event that it annexes portions of Palestinian land upon which major Israeli settlements have been constructed, it must give the Palestinians an amount of territory elsewhere.

Naafa argues too that, in several respects, Arab countries are not yet ready for what Israeli acceptance of the plan would entail. This again reflects a central part of Tony Klug's thesis about a strategy for peace. Nothing is possible if the shared assumption is that the 'other side' will act in bad faith paralyses action. Yet it is striking just how far an exercise in reciprocal bluff-calling could carry.

Tony Klug argued in a new Comment is Free piece yesterday, responding to a critique from the Israeli Ambassador to London, that the Arab Peace Initiative is a potentially significant and often underestimated opening for the negotations and compromises that all sides now would be needed.

For all of the pessimism about the prospects for Middle East peace, the shape of a just settlement offering peace and security to Israelis and Palestinians and a normalisation of the region's politics is clearer than ever.

It could still be done. The conundrum, choices and strategic logic facing the next Israeli premier will be the same again. And yet the danger is that next year's Israeli's elections could seal this as among the most important - and perhaps the last - of the many missed opportunities for a shared peace settlement in the Middle East.

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