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Politics

Mirage of Peace

6 January 2005

The Mirage of a Middle East Peace

By Gwynne Dyer

You have to admire the dauntless optimism of the diplomats and commentators who are talking up the chances of progress on an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal after Sunday’s election confirms Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen) as the new Palestinian leader. It’s harder to admire their realism.

It was easy to believe in the possibility of peace ten years ago. Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, two men who had spent their whole lives fighting and who had the full trust of their own peoples, knew what they had to do to make peace happen, and if Rabin had not been assassinated by a Jewish extremist there probably would have been a final peace deal by 1996. (Certainly Rabin’s assassin believed so; that’s why he killed him.)

It was still just possible to believe in a Palestinian-Israeli peace five years ago, although by 1999 the scene had grown much darker. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak could not command the same unquestioning trust as Yitzhak Rabin, and Arafat’s influence over his own people had been severely undermined by the rise of militants, mostly Islamists, who rejected a compromise peace with Israel. But except for an outbreak of bombing by Palestinian rejectionists during the 1996 Israeli election after Rabin’s death, there had still been very little killing by either side.

But now? Close to four thousand Palestinians have been killed since the “second intifada” started in late 2000, and almost a thousand Israelis. Ariel Sharon, who bears a huge responsibility for provoking the violence, avoided all negotiations with the Palestinians during his past four years in power on the pretext that Arafat was not an acceptable negotiating partner. But Arafat’s death changes nothing: the Palestinians are so filled with rage and despair that even Mahmoud Abbas, the classic grey “man in a suit,” ends up letting gunmen hoist him on their shoulders and talking of “the Zionist enemy.”

Israelis get upset when he talks like that, but he has to; otherwise his own people wouldn’t vote for him. Many Palestinians are so exhausted by the years of constant violence that they would welcome a ceasefire, but the Palestinian street doesn’t really believes in the possibility of peace any more — and Israelis no longer believe in it either.

The myth that Israel offered Arafat a peace deal only a madman would refuse at Camp David in 2000, and that he walked away from it and returned to his old terrorist ways because he never really wanted a compromise peace at all, is now almost universally accepted by Israelis. It has been discredited by people who were actually at Camp David (including American observers), but that matters less than the fact that most Israelis believe it — and have by now generalised it to embrace all Palestinians.

People need a high level of hope and trust in order to accept painful sacrifices for a lasting peace: for the Israelis; giving up the occupied territories and the (illusory) security they bring; for the Palestinians, giving up the “right of return” to the lost lands within Israel. Eleven years after the Oslo accords, neither side has that much hope or trust any more, and so the hard-liners and the extremists on both sides win most of the arguments.

Why do the leaders even pretend to be working on a final peace settlement? Israeli governments are constrained by political realities in the United States, their greatest ally, to talk always in terms of peace even if they do not for a moment believe that it is possible. Palestinian leaders are forced by the harsher reality of American hostility and Israeli military power to go along with the charade, too. As Mahmoud Abbas said on Wednesday: “Resistance is a Palestinian right, but here the balance of power is broken, so we have to use peaceful means because it is more useful.”

There are even uglier calculations beneath the surface. Many Palestinians, convinced that the American adventure in Iraq will fail, and in failing will precipitate a collapse of Western influence in the region and a steep rise in Arab nationalism, begin to dream again that final victory against Israel is a possibility. That is folly, for Israel’s nuclear weapons mean that it would destroy the entire Middle East before going under, but desperate people entertain desperate dreams.

And in Israel, many people begin to believe once again that the Palestinians can be battered into submission, carved up into cantons, and kept under control without any need to hand back their land or give them a state. It could be true, too, at least for five or ten years: evacuating the few thousand Israeli settlers in the Gaza Strip will ease the diplomatic pressure to remove the vastly larger settlements in the West Bank, the “security fence” really does keep most attackers out, and the Palestinians are all alone in their struggle.

After Mahmoud Abbas’s election there will be lots of talk of peace, and maybe even “peace talks,” to keep the powerful outsiders happy, and the level of violence may subside considerably, but there will be no peace deal. Perhaps, somewhere down the road, there will be another opportunity for a peace settlement like the one that arose in the early 90s, but for now it’s over. They’re just going through the motions.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8. (“It was still…eitherside”; and “Why…useful”)