Peace in a divided land?

After a year in which the Middle East peace process has all but ground to a halt, Tony Blair will visit Ramallah today in an attempt to kick-start talks. Donald Macintyre reports on a historic opportunity to break the deadlock
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The timing could hardly be neater. Tony Blair will arrive in Ramallah today, the most senior foreign politician to do so since the Palestinian intifada began four years ago, on the day after the end of 40 days of mourning for Yasser Arafat. Any earlier, and he would have faced an unpalatable choice between irritating the Israelis by laying a wreath at the tomb in the Muqata, or offending the Palestinians by not doing so. Now he can avoid doing either.

British officials insist this little diplomatic detail was accidental. But, if so, it appears a good omen, a symbol of what seems on many levels to be an auspiciously timed trip to the region for a Prime Minister who has publicly made progress in the Middle East his number one foreign policy priority. Three factors, above all, make it seem so, at least to those around Mr Blair.

The first, if paradoxically, was the election of President George Bush. First, Mr Bush is trusted by Israel as a more reliable friend than perhaps any president in recent times, and certainly much more than so his father. The relationship does not have to be tested and probed over many months, even years, as the Israelis would have insisted on doing had John Kerry won. Second, folklore has it that only second-term presidents, freed of electoral constraints, risk entering the treacherous quagmire that is Middle East peacemaking.

The second is that the first real initiative launched by Israel in four years, the plan to withdraw more than 7,000 Jewish settlers from Gaza in the first half of 2005, in the first and only reverse of relentless settlement growth in the occupied Palestinian territories since the late 1970s, looks much likelier to happen than at many times during the past year. It faces formidable difficulties, underlined by this week's call by settlers' leaders to mount a campaign of civil disobedience to stop it. But Ariel Sharon, finding himself in the wholly unaccustomed role of promoting a policy supported by a spectrum of Israeli opinion embracing the Labour Party, Peace Now, and the left-wing Oslo veteran, Yossi Beilin, the Israeli Prime Minister has humbled much of his far-right political opposition. The abject climbdown by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Finance Minister, from his portentous October threat to resign from the cabinet if the withdrawal plan was not put to a referendum, was one of the more entertaining spectacles in Israeli politics.

And the third is the death of Yasser Arafat - the one man who for four long, bloody years Mr Sharon has maintained was the principal obstacle to peace - and his probable replacement by Mahmoud Abbas, a leader who has openly and repeatedly criticised the armed uprising because it has undermined rather than advanced the Palestinian cause, especially with the attacks on Israeli civilians. Whether you think Mr Arafat was a reason or an excuse, he has been removed, and with him, the personalised argument that there was no "partner" for negotiations.

So it is reasonable to see the timing of the Blair visit as more auspicious than it would have been at any other time in the past four years. But it is much less so - at least so far - to assume that, with a little international good will, a just and lasting peace deal is somehow there for the taking.

If Mr Blair had more time than will be available for his meeting with Mr Sharon in Jerusalem today he might do worse than ask for a masterclass from his Israeli counterpart in how another close friend of the US administration manages so spectacularly to maximise the gains from the relationship. For Mr Blair, frequently criticised at home for the perceived failure to extract measurable benefits from his own unswerving loyalty to the President over Iraq, can only envy the success of Mr Sharon's meeting with Mr Bush in Washington in April.

Whether - as widely reported in Israel - Mr Sharon actually called Condoleezza Rice as his aircraft was about to leave Tel Aviv and threatened to call off his trip unless the agreement he planned to take home with him was further modified in his favour, he was certainly able to return in triumph. Famously, the President accepted that "in the light of new realities on the ground" it was "unrealistic" to expect any final agreement between Israelis and the Palestinians would mean a "full and complete" return to Israel's borders which lasted from 1949 until her military conquests of the West Bank and Gaza together with East Jerusalem and the Old City in 1967 and which successive UN resolutions have identified as the basis for a fair settlement. The "new realities on the ground" were the biggest settlement blocs which cut deep into the occupied West Bank and help to divide it into a series of what Dror Etkes, the Israeli settlement specialist at Peace Now and no extremist, routinely describes as Palestinian "Bantustans".

This was no different in principle from what Bill Clinton had endorsed at the Camp David talks in 2000 when he proposed that - with land swaps to the Palestinians envisaged as partial compensation - 80 per cent of the settler population should remain inside Israel. But since then, settlement growth has continued apace; in 2004 alone, building started on an estimated 1,500-plus housing units in the West Bank with some 3,700 in all under construction at the end of the summer.

Phase 1 of the road-map which Mr Blair will today make a concerted and valiant effort to advance, requires the Palestinians to "declare an unequivocal end to violence and terrorism and undertake visible efforts on the ground to arrest, disrupt and restrain [those] conducting and planning violent attacks on Israelis everywhere".

This was something Mr Arafat had shown no sign of doing in the past four years. The purpose of the international conference with the Palestinians which Mr Blair is planning, probably for early March, is partly to shore up with the promise of international funding and offer practical help to Mr Abbas's evident intention to try to implement that clause. But the road-map's phase I also requires Israel to "dismantle settlement outposts erected since March 2001" and to "freeze all settlement activity", neither of which it has done.

But what the April promise by Mr Bush to Mr Sharon - setting new parameters for the beginning of future negotiations on the creation of a viable Palestinian state and therefore arguably depriving the Palestinians of some of its key bargaining chips - also did was to reinforce the impression, particularly among Palestinians, that the planned disengagement from Gaza was not the beginning of a return to the road-map. They saw it as the means of sacrificing one part of Palestinian territory - the part least important and most irksome for Israel - to consolidate its grip on the other part, the West Bank.

As such, it was at one with the separation barrier, itself winding deep into occupied territory, in many cases at immeasurable cost to the economic and social lives of Palestinians, de facto annexing the swaths of cultivated land between the old 1949-67 border and the barrier, and being roundly condemned by the International Court of Justice for doing so.

And lest this interpretation seemed melodramatic, decisive evidence proved it. For in a remarkable interview with the newspaper Haaretz in October, Dov Weisglass, Mr Sharon's most-trusted lieutenant and a principal architect of the disengagement proposal, said the plan was the "formaldehyde" in which the peace process and prospects of a Palestinian state would be "frozen" and that the Jewish settlers in the West Bank should actually congratulate Mr Sharon because the withdrawal of 7,000 settlers from Gaza would preserve the homes of 190,000 elsewhere.

Strangely, when Mr Blair was asked about this interview nearly a month later in the House of Commons by the Labour MP, Richard Burden, he affected no knowledge of it. Given that it was a seminal text and that for months Mr Blair has been bombarding his efficient diplomats in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv for detailed information, this was either an inexplicable communications breakdown or a case of the Prime Minister's diplomatic forgetfulness.

The Weisglass interview was given before Mr Arafat's final illness. Yet even allowing for the new circumstances, the further doubt is how far Mr Sharon's declarations, now echoed by President Bush, that 2005 provides a great opportunity for peace, indicates a willingness to proceed in the foreseeable future to the "final status" talks envisaged in Phase III of the road-map.

One or two of Mr Sharon's advisers have been suggesting one possible scenario is an end to militant Palestinian violence, coupled with, presumably, a pullback of the Israeli army to positions occupied before the outbreak of the second intifada of September 2000, an improvement in the economic life of exhausted and impoverished Palestinian civilians and the postponement of resolution of the "ideological" issues at the heart of the conflict until, supposedly, they matter less.

This raises the prospect of no more than temporary calm before a third intifada, and it greatly reinforces the fear of Palestinians that "realities on the ground" will, in the meantime, quietly multiply in ways that will make a just settlement more difficult to accomplish.

But this is not how Mr Blair sees it, or believes that Mr Bush sees it. That all these factors caution against excessive optimism is hardly in doubt. But Mr Blair does want the process to go all the way. He is said to believe that, despite its relatively modest aims, the planned London conference should inject new momentum into the search for a lasting peace, one that should be directed at one paramount goal, the "final status" talks that could really end the conflict.

Some diplomats hope, for example, justifiably or not, that if the Palestinians can be shown to be fulfilling their part of the road-map, Washington will not be able to escape the moral obligation to press Israel to do so as well.

Which is why Mr Blair will, no doubt, be doing his best to probe Mr Sharon's inner thinking today. On the one hand, the old warrior against the Palestinians since 1948, the minister blamed for the massacre of Sabra and Chatila, the supreme architect of the settlements, is the unlikeliest of all possible candidates to turn into a De Gaulle and make a real peace, rather than simply seek to maintain a status quo which leaves Gaza a bleak prison without control of its borders, water supply or air space and maintains Israeli hegemony in the West Bank.

But the death of Arafat, does create an unpredictable dynamic which Mr Sharon had not planned for and which will put his statesmanship to the test. And he has adapted to changing circumstances before. The man who said only two years ago that the Gaza settlement of Netzarim was as much part of Israel as Tel Aviv is now determined to vacate it of its Jewish inhabitants, by force if necessary. This sets a historic precedent even if Mr Sharon is not himself the man to follow it.

Yet having realised, however belatedly, that demographics mean the Jewish state cannot indefinitely be preserved if it stretches from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, Mr Sharon cannot be immune to warnings from his foreign ministry that Israel increasingly risks international comparisons with apartheid South Africa if it indefinitely baulks the international will, however feebly expressed it often is.

Mr Blair, to play his part in helping to coax him down the road to a real peace, may have to beat him from time to time in the struggle for the ear of President Bush, a prospect which requires a heroic triumph of hope over experience to believe in. But that is not a reason not to try. The task is Herculean but if it is to be attempted, this is surely as good a time as any.