Thursday 1 January 2009

The necessity and impossibility of Middle East peace

The international civil society campaign Avaaz are running a petition for international pressure for a comprehensive ceasefire in Gaza, which has collected over 180,000 signatures in no time at all, and at least 20,000 more since I signed it earlier today.

Petition to the UN Security Council, the European Union, the Arab League and the USA:
We urge you to act immediately to ensure a comprehensive ceasefire in the Gaza Strip, to protect civilians on all sides, and to address the growing humanitarian crisis. Only through robust international action and oversight can the bloodshed be stopped, the Gaza crossings safely re-opened and real progress made toward a wider peace in 2009.

Just a fortnight ago, I was arguing for the importance of a unfashionable, dogged insistence on the possibility of a just peace settlement in the Middle East. It is because that seems far too optimistic at the end of this week that I stand firmly by it.

There is a human tragedy unfolding in the civilian deaths, claustrophic fear and humanitarian emergency of Gaza under siege, while there is great fear and insecurity among Israelis under rocket attack too. There is also a recurring political tragedy here.

The only hope for the Middle East is politics. A political resolution would be one where each of the sides assert their own values, identities and interests - and recognise the values, identities and interests of their adversaries and neighbours.

This failure of politics is, at root, a failure of empathy. This has always been, as The Observer's David Astor wrote on the eve of the 1967 war, a tale of two wronged peoples which has developed, over four further decades, into an epic tale of two competing, incompatible histories too. The political tragedy proceeds in large part from the refusal of that central fact. Each side nurses and extends its historic and contemporary grievances, its mistrust and its fears and only hears when, in response, the competing grievances, fears and mistrust are rehearsed once again, the excuses, evasions and lies of a refusal to face the (other) facts.

It is well known that these competing claims about past, present and future are mutually incompatible; yet we have long known too the broad terms on which they can and must be reconciled if they are ever to be reconciled at all.

To be clear: this is not to argue that the rights and wrongs are always and everywhere of equal measure and magnitude. They will not be - in any particular episode, or indeed in the conflict as a whole. But this does mean recognising that this very human instinct to make a reckoning and keep the score (or rather, perhaps, to argue endlessly about not just the score but the absence of agreed rules or referees) is a large part of the tragedy of the Middle East.

It is this instinct which assists every conflagration in feeding this politics of mutual fear: an insular, partial politics defined by its refusal to countenance what a politics which recognised the interests of the other too would demand.

The particular tragic failure of Ehud Olmert's premiership is that he has recognised this so clearly - indeed, at times, talking with the urgency of a recent convert to the necessity of peace - and yet will be remembered by history as a war leader, and almost certainly a failed one at that. As Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post wrote this week of Olmert's final failure:

Israel's new battle with Hamas in Gaza means that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will be remembered for fighting two bloody and wasteful mini-wars in less than three years in power ... The saddest aspect of all this is that Olmert, a former hard-line believer in a "greater Israel," was more committed than any previous Israeli prime minister to ending the country's conflicts with Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians.

So too, as international diplomatic and public opinion hardens against the nature of the Israeli response, including among traditional staunch allies, Israeli opinion becomes more entrenched. Where is the Israeli peace movement? They are marginalised. Note how narrowly and tactically David Grossman puts the case for a cessation, combines an assertion of the rightness of Israel's actions with its enlightened interest in restraint.

Who gains? In Israel, electoral calculation hangs heavily over this conflict. Yet it is difficult to see that Tzipi Livni, Ehud Barak or Amir Peretz will gain most from the hardening of Israeli opinion. History suggests it will be the right - Binyamin Netanyahu - who can offer an authentic hardline politics. If this turns out to mean seeking a military solution to the question of Palestine, it is a task surely doomed to fail.

We can know rather less of what is happening inside Palestine. Hamas chose to provoke an escalation and got what it wanted: the fearful hypothesis must be that opinion will harden and polarise too, both towards Hamas, and towards the rejectionists within it. Hamas has deeply strained relationships with Arab states yet analysis in Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper and from the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz agree that the crisis has seen Hamas and other non-state actors win some key diplomatic battles by bringing Arab public opinion to bear on governments who would support a regional settlement with Israel.

These developments may change the role of outsiders in the conflict where both the mistrust and the disparity of power among the principal actors makes external engagement imperative in making a fair settlement possible. I recommend Daniel Levy's Prospects for Peace blog - a project aimed at informing a US audience, from The Century Foundation and the New America Foundation - for its analysis of the choices facing the incoming US administration. Levy notes, dissects and rejects, what he sees as an emerging consensus among US opinion formers about the necessity and impossibility of a peaceful resolution:

If the emerging Washington consensus is to be believed, then here is the Middle East peace conundrum waiting to greet the new Obama administration: Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more than ever a strategic priority for the United States, but it also seems more difficult to achieve now, perhaps even unattainable in the foreseeable future.

Levy argues that waiting for the conditions to improve will prove futile, and calls on the US to act with the Quartet and Arab League to "show tenacity and bold ideas – in framing the solution, bringing in previously excluded actors, creating mechanisms to implement a deal (such as international forces) and utilizing the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative".

The core principles - the support for Israel's right to exist and for Israelis to live in peace and mutual security with its neighbours, within the 1967 borders; the necessary support to make a viable Palestinian state a possibility and reality, so that it can hold and fulfil the rights and responsibilities of a full member of the international community; and the need to embed this in a regional agreement with broad international sponsorship - are clear. The most difficult questions - Jerusalem, equitable land swaps, refugees - are resolvable, given the will to settle them politically.

It should follow from this that civic outsiders who wish to play any constructive role should resist the temptation to become partisans in the conflict. Neither side is short of cheerleaders to offer vitriolic attacks on the claims of their enemies, or to engage in the politics of blame, boycott and ostracism, which is likely to prove counter-productive in this context if directed at any constituency whose engagement will be necessary for a settlement.

The only constructive external civic contribution likely to do more good than harm is to seek to offer solidarity to all of those seeking to develop the mutual empathy on which a settlement depends, particularly to citizens' efforts to keep open pressure for peace from below (of which the OneVoice movement is one example) at a time when this becomes more difficult.

Even as the chances of a political resolution diminish - and for how long, nobody can tell - the central truth put eloquently by
Daniel Barenboim
in The Guardian today is that the only resolution to the crisis will be a political one.

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