It has long been considered axiomatic, at least on Europe’s political left, that Palestine lies at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict and that lasting peace in the Middle East depends, first and foremost, on resolution of this decades-old struggle. In recent years, such thinking has been overtaken by events. The problem has been sidelined. Yet as the region approaches the 50th anniversary of the six-day war that left Palestinian land under permanent occupation, and as hundreds of Palestinian prisoners begin their third week on hunger strike in Israeli jails, fears of a new intifada are growing. It is time to refocus attention on this dangerous stalemate before it again explodes into open, violent confrontation.
It is not as though the plight of the Palestinians has been forgotten or that the threats Israelis face have suddenly diminished. It is that, in the total absence of progress towards a settlement, other events have taken precedence. One is the spread of Islamist fundamentalism, principally in the form of al-Qaida and Isis. After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the US redirected energy and resources towards Iraq and Afghanistan. The Arab spring revolts of 2011 also shifted the spotlight away from Palestine and on to the grievances of Arab citizens towards their own governments. Shaky Arab regimes discovered shared interests with Israel that outweighed old loyalties to the Palestinians.
Syria’s civil war has encompassed all these noxious elements – jihadi extremism, popular insurrection, governmental repression, military atrocities and social breakdown, leading to massive refugee outflows and humanitarian emergencies. Set against this enormous conflict, drawing in Russia, Iran and religious fanatics from both sides of the Sunni-Shia divide, the Palestinian problem has paled by comparison. The west’s chronic indecision over Syria, highlighted last week by Boris Johnson’s irresponsible and foolish remarks about British military action, underscores how little faith should be placed in its determination to secure a Palestinian deal.
It would be wrong to suggest the US and others have stopped trying. John Kerry, former secretary of state, pushed hard to revive the moribund peace process. The French hosted an international conference in January to promote a two-state solution, still the only workable way forward. The meeting’s final statement called on Israel to withdraw to its 1967 borders and relinquish control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as required by UN resolutions, and appealed to both parties to “abstain from unilateral actions” that could jeopardise future negotiations.
Such self-evidently sensible appeals, heard so many times before, are futile unless backed by active measures to persuade and coerce the main players. These are currently lacking. In Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel has a confrontational prime minister whose narrow, inflexible vision of what best assures Israel’s security is itself a danger to the country he serves. In Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinians have a weak, ineffective leader whose authority is undermined by Hamas. Neither man is a credible partner for peace. Neither seems to have a viable plan for ending the impasse. When Abbas meets Donald Trump in Washington this week, perhaps he will surprise us. Perhaps Trump will have something constructive to say. Or not.
Trump is correct about one thing. Speaking last week, he declared there was “no reason” why Israelis and Palestinians should not live in peace. And, in plain terms, if both sides are prepared to compromise – and possible compromises on land, borders, security, refugees and Jerusalem have been rehearsed – Trump is right. What is needed, and is lacking, is brave, imaginative leadership.
Despite his violent history, Marwan Barghouti, organiser of the prison hunger strike, is regarded by many Palestinians as one of their most able leaders. Many outsiders who wish Israel well also share that opinion and would like to see him take a more active public role, freed from his prison shackles. Barghouti’s recent op-ed in the New York Times likened the Palestinian struggle to independence movements in South Africa and elsewhere. One thing they all shared, he suggested, was the inevitability of ultimate victory. Palestinians, he wrote, were engaged in “a long walk to freedom”.
Barghouti is no Nelson Mandela. But neither can his claims and those of his people be indefinitely deferred. Trying to do so risks another explosion – another nakba – that, for all the wrong reasons, would again place Palestine at the forefront of Middle East woes.
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