In last week’s article we looked at how the Oslo process collapsed amid the rise of the Israeli right wing and the disintegration of unified Palestinian leadership.
In 2002, when the Palestinian cause appeared at its most hopeless, the Arab Peace Initiative — brainchild of late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia — was unveiled at the Arab League summit in Beirut. Seeking to kill it off, the then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon coerced the leaders of Egypt and Jordan to stay away, and told Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that if he went to Beirut, he would not be allowed to return to Ramallah.
The initiative was remarkably straightforward: Israel would withdraw from the lands it occupied in 1967, and the Arab world would establish normal relations with Israel. This would have transformed Israel from an isolated pariah to a fully integrated state, benefiting from open borders and lucrative trade with wealthy Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and other Arab states. Israel’s lurch toward the far right killed off serious debate over King Abdullah’s initiative, with public opinion divided between “those who have never heard of it and those who don’t believe a word.”
There has since been a bewildering array of other initiatives: The stillborn 2003 Geneva Accord; the useless Quartet Committee and its roadmap to nowhere; Sharm El-Sheikh (2005); Annapolis (2007); and John Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy, which was met with a masterclass in obstructionism by Benjamin Netanyahu. Then there were Tony Blair’s anachronistic attempts at peace. Not only was Blair hopelessly biased — and deeply unpopular across the Arab world — but he operated under the delusion that the Palestinian question could be addressed with a purely economic vision.
Circumstances were exacerbated by brutal Israeli military operations. Incursions into Gaza in late 2008 and 2014 resulted in the deaths of over 3,500 Palestinians. Meanwhile, 127 settlements and 100 outposts sought to make a contiguous Palestinian state an impossibility, as the settler population doubled between 2000 and 2017 to over 600,000.
Netanyahu believes that he benefits from the status quo, but demographic trends work against Israel. Recent tensions in Jerusalem are a reminder that Israel sits on a smoking volcano that could erupt at any moment. With corruption allegations closing in around Netanyahu, the Israeli media is speculating that this great survivor’s days are numbered. It seems too much to hope for that Netanyahu could follow his predecessor Ehud Olmert to prison — yet there was a time when Yasser Arafat too seemed a permanent feature of the political landscape.
Israeli intransigence destroyed the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002, but despite a bewildering array of proposals in the 15 years since, it remains the best hope to end the injustice that poisons the soul of the Middle East.
Israel’s peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan (1979 and 1994) did not result in peace at a grassroots popular level because they never resolved the fundamental injustices. To reap the benefits of a future deal, Israel must be seen to do the right thing. The Arab world’s young population mostly wasn’t born at the time of Oslo. If Israel takes brave steps toward peace now, it will soon be engaging with generations across the Middle East who see Israel as a potential ally — just as young people in Northern Ireland moved beyond the ingrained hatreds of their parents’ generations.
Future efforts must not replicate the mistakes of Oslo, with leaders coerced into uncomfortable compromises behind closed doors. Citizens on all sides must be engaged and consulted, not avoided. If concessions cannot be justified to the public, perhaps the problem lies with these concessions and not with the public.
With US President Donald Trump abandoning America’s commitment to two states, there is no longer even a clear roadmap for how a deal could be achieved.
Newcomers tend to assume that a deal can be achieved simply by wringing further concessions from both sides — but the Palestinians have nothing left to give. A demilitarized state — cobbled together from micro-cantons, squeezed between sprawling settlements; with a toehold remaining of their capital city; while Israel deploys its army throughout the Jordan valley; with ironclad restrictions on returning refugees and building homes; and no control over its own borders — is not a state at all. Palestinians will not meekly accept such a farcical solution.
Israeli hard-liners should not bet on the Arab world being distracted by unrest in Syria and elsewhere. Whether it takes 10 years or 10 decades, Palestinians know that history and justice are on their side. Global support for their cause has grown among educated Arabs in the West, well-read publics in Europe and other demographics.
Terrorist entities, such as Daesh, Hezbollah, Hamas, Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi and Al-Qaeda, all have their roots in the sickness emanating from the historic injustices done to the Palestinian nation. There will not be lasting solutions to other regional crises until peace is achieved for Palestine, the mother of all just causes.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and a foreign editor at Al-Hayat, and has interviewed numerous heads of state.