Israel-Palestine: how peace broke out

Tony Klug
5 June 2007

Pessimism dominates discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet the idea that the time is not ripe for peace implies that some more auspicious moment will arise - at some future unspecified date. In reality, continuing on the well-trodden path of irredeemable despair simply postpones peace indefinitely and promises interminable ferment. The contours of the only equitable settlement are well known (see Fred Halliday, "Palestinians and Israelis: a political impasse", 4 June 2007). Whether the main actors seize the chance is primarily a question of political will.

The curious history of the Middle East is of both war and peace breaking out when least expected. When Anwar Sadat visited Jerusalem in 1977, another round of Egyptian-Israeli hostilities was widely anticipated. Few supposed that the sworn enemies Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) could agree the Oslo accords in 1993.

The deadlock can be broken again today. In a new Fabian Society paper,
How peace broke out in the Middle East: a short history of the future , I trace how an imagined but plausible series of unilateral gestures builds a potent momentum for peace.

Tony Klug is a longstanding writer on the Middle East, a senior consultant at the Middle East Policy Initiative Forum and a special advisor on the Middle East to the Oxford Research Group. He is the author of How peace broke out in the Middle East: a short history of the future (Fabian Society, 2007 )

The full text of Tony Klug's new report can be read at the website of the Fabian Society

Also by Tony Klug on openDemocracy: "The West Bank and Gaza Strip: an international protectorate?" (7 May 2003

One step, then another

Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, boxed in and struggling for his political future, has nothing to lose in making his bold affirmation that "in the hypothetical event" that a full and genuine peace with the Palestinians and the Arab states were obtainable, Israel would in principle be prepared to withdraw in full from the West Bank subject to agreed, equitable land exchanges. In the same hypothetical circumstances, the (demilitarised) Golan Heights would be returned to Syria.

An equally creative Palestinian response from the president of the Palestinian authority, Mahmoud Abbas, inviting the settlers to stay and help to build the new Palestinian state, defuses the inevitable protestations that it was heartless to evict them and injects a new dynamic into the politics of the settler movement.

The next momentous move sees Saudi monarch King Abdullah announce that he is willing to lead a high-level Arab League delegation to Jerusalem in the pursuit of peace. The visit decisively swings Israeli public opinion behind the 2002 Arab peace plan, which promises full peace and normalisation for full withdrawal.

An imaginative invitation by Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, to the Israeli prime minister to drive to Damascus for negotiations "to show how easy it would be for ordinary Israelis and Syrians to visit each other's countries in the future" - adds to the impetus.

Events now move swiftly at every level, taking in an Arab-Israeli summit in Riyadh that unanimously adopts seven "irrevocable declarations of principle", and culminating in direct Israeli-Palestinian "final-basket" negotiations, held under the joint auspices of the Quartet (European Union, Russia, United states, United Nations) and the "Arab Quartet" (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates).

Among openDemocracy's many articles on the Israel-Palestine conflict:

Stephen Howe, "The death of Arafat and the end of national liberation" (18 November 2004)

Khaled Hroub, "Hamas's path to reinvention" (10 October 2006)

Eyal Weizman, "The politics of verticality" (April-May 2002) - an eleven-part project mapping Israel's three-dimensional control of the West Bank

Eyal Weizman, "Ariel Sharon and the geometry of occupation" (September 2003) - a three-part series on the architecture of power embodied in the separation barrier

David Mepham, "Hamas and political reform in the middle east" (1 February 2006)

Jim Lederman, "Palestine and Israel: clan vs nation, tribe vs state" (11 July 2006)

Eyad Sarraj, "The campaign that should never stop" (13 November 2006)

Richard Youngs, "The European Union and Palestine: a new engagement" (29 March 2007)

Mary Kaldor & Mient Jan Faber, "Palestine's human insecurity: a Gaza report" (21 May 2007)

Fred Halliday, "Israel-Palestine: forty years on" (4 June 2007The imagined scenario ends as these final-basket talks get under way. The details of many thorny issues - not least Jerusalem and refugees - are still to be hammered out. Only the principal parties can do this. But the talks are now draped in a new expectancy. The definitive principles agreed at Riyadh set a clear framework, and problems that - in a climate of hostility - once seemed intractable become resolvable when the parties themselves are politically and psychologically ready to do a deal.

Momentum is the key. The timid approach that characterised previous initiatives - with super-cautious "incremental-steps" and hollow "confidence-building" measures - gives too much scope to the wreckers, who will always do their worst. To wrong-foot them, the peace-makers need to take a more dynamic approach. The initial sequence of declarations - plus a common vision of the destination - shape the context that makes other significant advances possible as the pace quickens, including a long-term ceasefire, a settlements freeze and an exchange of prisoners.

An opportunity found

Ehud Olmert's opening gambit is crucial. It puts security back at the heart of Israel's concern and acknowledges that the Palestinians had made their great historic compromise in agreeing to build their scaled-down state in the territories captured by Israel in June 1967, thereby relinquishing 78% of the land they had previously claimed. Any encroachment on the remaining 22% would be regarded as plunder, as a flagrant erosion of an unequivocal right. In taking his initiative, the Israeli leader - rather than stake everything on the last few per cent - prudently grasps the nettle of peace and acceptance based on the 1967 borders, with minor adjustments. As hope blossoms, so do his ratings.

Immutable red lines are to be found on the Israeli side too. For most Israelis, the predominantly Jewish character of the state is a fundamental, existential question, a matter of identity and of survival. The Jewish state is viewed as the embodiment of a proud nation reborn from the ashes of the Nazi holocaust, and becoming a minority once again in someone else's land is beyond contemplation. If the price of peace was a massive influx of Palestinian refugees and their descendants into Israel, there would be no peace. And without peace, there would be no solution of any type to the refugee problem.

Yet nor could the refugees realistically be expected to give up their rights and status of decades in exchange for vague promises of what an uncertain future may bring. While cognisant that the almost universal commitment to two states was incompatible with an extensive exercise of the right of return to what became Israel, they had no concrete incentive to acquiesce in a final settlement unless and until alternatives - at once minimally acceptable and imminent - were on offer, including return to their historical homeland (the area between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean).

The scenario is not a prediction. But the possibility is waiting to be grasped. Ultimately, a settlement generated along these lines offers the only prospect for lasting peace. When and whether it happens depends on the decisions that real people make. Despondency about whether it is possible simply allows an evasion of responsibility by those with the power to end the conflict. Equally, it is imperative that outside influences stop prevaricating and help urgently to shape and guide those decisions decisively towards a realistic path to peace. It is the only practical route out of the abyss.

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