There is a curious paradox at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict. Peace, it is widely held, is further away than ever.
Never before has there been such a fierce deadlock and as deep a
sense of foreboding. As bad as things already were, the latest
events in Gaza go to show that there is always room for them to get
Yet we find that the official policies of nearly all the principal
parties are more closely in alignment than at any time in the
history of the Arab-Israeli dispute, centered on a comprehensive
regional settlement with full normalization of relations based on
two viable states.
Two states is not only the essence of the Arab Peace Initiative,
but also the declared position of the Israeli government today and
has been the PLO's official policy since 1988. Even Hamas has
signaled a readiness to make a deal broadly on this basis. In
addition, polls show that most Israelis and Palestinians have
consistently supported a peace arrangement along these lines.
However the struggle in Gaza plays out, it is vital that we keep in
mind this bigger, prevailing picture. By contrast, in the early
1970s, when I authored a Fabian pamphlet entitled "A Tale of Two
Peoples," advocating two states as the framework for a solution -
not necessarily the solution itself - there was very little support
for such an idea.
The international consensus at the time was reflected in the United
Nations Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967, which viewed the
Palestinian people essentially as homeless refugees rather than as
a stateless nation. To this extent, it was always inadequate as a
basis for solving the conflict. Today the situation is different.
We know - and generally agree - how to solve it. The solution is
there, waiting to be grasped. So why can't we have peace now?
An Imagined Scenario
The simple answer - the one that lies at the core of my more recent
paper, "How Peace Broke Out in the Middle East,"* which looks at
the peace process retrospectively, as if peace has already happened
- is that, even assuming good intentions, any serious progress in
the existing climate is virtually impossible. The principal parties
are too caught up in a paralysis of mistrust and a vortex of
Therefore, the key is to find a way to transform the climate, by
generating a new momentum. What I suggest is that, to spark it off,
the leading political figures simply be true to their own public
statements, and then take the next logical steps in the form of a
series of unilateral declarations of principle or conditional
intent. This sequence, in combination, could unlock the process and
move it forward. In my scenario, each declaration nourishes and
feeds off the others in a dynamic interplay.
In brief, the first move is made by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud
Olmert, who is frantic to escape political oblivion. He does not go
beyond his government's official policy on two states in publicly
avowing that, "in the hypothetical event" of a full peace with the
Palestinians and the Arab states genuinely being obtainable, Israel
would "of course," in principle, be prepared to withdraw fully from
the West Bank, subject to agreed, equitable land exchanges - a
formula that would allow Israel to hold on to the large settlement
blocs in close proximity to the old "Green Line."
Similarly, Olmert confirms that, under the same hypothetical
circumstances, the Golan Heights (demilitarized) could be returned
This opening gambit is crucial in that it puts security back at the
heart of Israel's concern and acknowledges that the Palestinians
made their great historic compromise in agreeing to relinquish 78%
of the land they had once claimed. This was agreed at the Algiers
Palestinian National Council in 1988 and reaffirmed with the PLO
recognition of Israel in the Oslo Accords in 1993. Any encroachment
on the remaining 22% would be regarded by them as plunder.
By putting back on the table a viable and wholesome Palestinian
state, centered initially on the West Bank - the primary focus of
Palestinian national aspirations - the Israeli prime minister
revives the vital missing ingredient of hope and becomes the
trigger for everything that follows.
A creative response by Palestinian Authority President and PLO
Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), the authorized negotiator on
behalf of the Palestinians, inviting the settlers to stay and help
build the new Palestinian state instantly defuses the mounting
protestations that it would be heartless to evict them from their
homes. By pointedly distinguishing between unwelcome Israeli
occupiers and welcome Jewish residents, he takes the wind out of
the protestors' sails.
The next move sees a canny Saudi King Abdullah, author of the Arab
Peace Initiative, announcing that he is prepared to lead a
delegation to Jerusalem in pursuit of the peace he had publicly
been promoting for more than five years. The visit itself, soon
afterwards, swings Israeli public opinion behind the Arab peace
plan - reminiscent of the Sadat effect 30 years earlier - and also
boosts the authority of the previously unloved Olmert to do the
An imaginative invitation by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who
had been calling for peace talks with Israel since the end of the
2006 Israel-Lebanon war, 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.
An additional attraction to Israelis of a Syria-Israel deal is that
if Syria could be drawn away from its alliance with Iran and
Hizbullah, the supply of weaponry to the militant group would all
but dry up. In one move, Syria could be converted from an enemy to
a peace partner, the menace of Hizbullah blunted, the external wing
of Hamas neutralized and the influence of Iran within the region
As the momentum reaches critical mass, events move swiftly at every
level, taking in an Arab-Israeli summit in Riyadh, which
unanimously adopts seven "irrevocable declarations of principle,"
and culminating in direct Israeli-Palestinian "final-basket"
negotiations held under the joint auspices of the Quartet and the
"Arab Quartet." The developing mood leads to a long-term ceasefire,
an exchange of prisoners and a settlements' freeze. Even the
beginnings of a settlements' contraction may be detected.
Determined not to repeat the failure of the Oslo Accords, which
were characterized by the relative lack of involvement at
non-official levels, the EU-funded "Palestinian-Israeli Peace NGO
Forum" - an alliance comprising more than 100 Israeli and
Palestinian organizations, established in November 2005 - devises a
strategy to engage both civil societies in the push for peace and
reconciliation among the two peoples.
As the permanent status talks get under way, the imagined scenario
fades from the picture. Only the parties themselves can resolve the
outstanding issues, but they now enter the talks with a new
expectancy. Problems that once seemed intractable - in a climate of
hostility - look far more resolvable once the parties are
politically and psychologically ready to make a deal.
A Matter of Political Will
Strangely, the recent split between Hamas and Fateh, as regrettable
as it is in some ways, could hasten the developments described if
each faction abides by the new status quo in Gaza and the West Bank
for the time being, and Israel behaves pragmatically towards both
territories. Once a Palestinian state has been established on the
West Bank, following an eventual agreement between Abbas and the
Israeli government, the task of extending it to incorporate the
Gaza Strip as well - a preeminently desirable outcome from almost
every point of view - becomes essentially an internal Palestinian
The scenario is not a prediction. Nor is it an exercise in
unbridled optimism. It is unlikely to be realized. But it could
happen. The curious history of the Middle East has seen both war
and peace breaking out when least expected. When then-Egyptian
President Anwar Sadat visited Jerusalem in 1977, another round of
Egyptian-Israeli hostilities had been widely anticipated. Few
supposed that Israel and the PLO, sworn enemies, could reach the
Oslo Accords in 1993. Outside the region, the collapse of apartheid
in South Africa, the crumbling of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet
Union and the recent settlement in Northern Ireland were all
far-fetched developments - until they happened.
Ultimately, now as then, it is a matter of political will - at the
local, regional and international levels. The alternative of
perpetual conflict looms menacingly before us. The abyss beckons.
What on earth are we waiting for?
*The full text of the pamphlet "How Peace Broke Out in the Middle
East: A Short History of the Future" can be found at:
http://fabians.org.uk/fsblob/173.pdf. This shortened version is
based on a presentation given at the "Promoting Peace through
Dialogue" conference, co-organized by the Palestine-Israel Journal
and Global Majority at the United Nations University in Amman,
Jordan, June 22-24, 2007.