Tuesday 19 May 2009

Solving the unsolvable

The politics of the Middle East has never been something that I’ve been particularly engaged with. Not because I don’t think it’s important or because I don’t care about it; but because as long I’ve been conscious of things going on around me, it has been there - the most difficult political sore on earth and one that no-one can heal. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict always seems to have the word ‘intractable’ attached to it, which to me always says "don’t go there". It has always been thus; it will always be thus.

A couple of things have changed things for me recently. The first was reading Joe Sacco’s graphic novel ‘Palestine’, which is a beautiful book that in a sensistive way details the human costs on both sides and explains a lot of the context. This made the conflict much more real to me, as I think I had become slightly numb to the news reports over the years talking about new developments that I didn't particularly understand. I found last year’s film Waltz with Bashir had a similar effect to Sacco: made by an Israeli director, it uses a comic book style to look at an oft forgotten massacre in the 1982 Lebanese war, to extraordinary and moving effect.

The other barrier to get through with Israel-Palestine is that word ‘intractable’. This is now going to seem like a fairly long winded plug, but it happens to be true, so here goes: I read Tony Klug’s ‘How Peace Broke Out in the Middle East’ and realised, actually, the process of resolving the conflict isn’t that complicated at all. The mechanisms and moves are fairly well known on both sides. Some key moments of give and take, some courage and political will from both sets of leaders, some mutual trust and it could really happen.

And now we have the added Obama factor. In a short space of time we've become so used to President Obama changing things, it's easy to underestimate the seismic shake-up he could induce in the Middle East. We have a president who sees this as a priority and has huge stocks of political capital. He might just be powerful and popular enough to apply enough pressure for both sides to go out on a limb.

Tony Klug has just published a new Freethinking paper, ‘Visions of the Endgame’, which outlines a clear strategy for moving things forward from the increasingly difficult point we have got to, following Palestinian rockets, Israel's devastating military action in Gaza and the subsequent election in Israel of a right wing coalition. It sees Obama’s first term as pretty much the last chance to fix this, before ‘intractable’ becomes ‘irresolvable’. There is again a simple process, based on swift international action, with a strong role for the Quartet in mediating and then enforcing a workable settlement. We are hoping it makes it onto Obama's desk sooner rather than later.

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