If you found yourself skipping reports from Israel-Palestine this week to read about something less wearying (and who could blame you?), here’s a roundup: the fatal stabbing of an Israeli in the West Bank, a wave of settler reprisal attacks, the assassination of a militant in Gaza. The usual, in other words. For a part of the world that generates so much news, it often seems that Israel-Palestine offers little that is, well, new.
But buried beneath reports of the latest violence, something happened this week that’s worth your attention – because it offers the glimmer of a possibility of a different future for the Middle East. After talks in Washington on Monday, leaders from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Morocco made an offer which Israel’s last prime minister Ehud Olmert said marked a ‘historic opportunity’.
What they told Israel on behalf of the 22-country Arab League, in effect, was this: if you are prepared to end the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, and allow the Palestinians to build their own state, the Arab world will recognise your existence and establish normal relations with you. Israel will be able to swap ambassadors and trade with all its neighbours, becoming just another country in the Middle East. And we will consider the century-long Arab-Israeli conflict over. Done. Finished.
A similar proposal was turned down in 2002, because the Arab League had demanded Israel withdraw from all the territories it captured in 1967. This time, to show they were serious, the Arabs sweetened the deal, stating that a peace settlement could include modifications to the 1967 lines. This is significant, because it means Israel could keep hold of many of its West Bank settlements – considered illegal by the International Court of Justice – leaving the majority of Israeli settlers in their homes. The Palestinians would be compensated with land from the Israeli side of the border.
Make no mistake about the magnitude of this offer. Israeli and Arab soldiers first met on the battlefield in 1948. Since then the Berlin Wall has been built and pulled down, and the Cold War has melted away. Protestants and Catholics have found a way to live alongside each other in Northern Ireland, as have a medley of ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia. Europe has gone from being a continent racked by bloodshed and chaos to one that squabbles peacefully over bank loans and farm subsidies. But in Israel-Palestine, the wounds never seem to heal; each year simply adds another scar tissue layer of resentment.
How has Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu responded to the Arab League’s overture? So far, he has refused to answer – even after all 52 members of Israel’s opposition called on him to do so. Netanyahu's stance since he was elected prime minister in 2008 mirrors the Arabs' stonewalling in the early decades of the conflict when, as one Israeli politician quipped, they never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity for peace. The Arabs moderated their hostility towards Israel, quite simply, because over time they realised they could never defeat it on the battlefield, and that a Jewish state in the Middle East was a reality they must learn to live with.
I have no time for accounts of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle that label one side as angels and the other as devils. But this much is clear: today, the key to ending the conflict is a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. There is a plan on the table that sets out how to realise this, and it is backed by the UN, the US, the EU and Israeli-Palestinian civil society.
And now that the Arab League and the Palestinian Authority have endorsed it, there is just one group that rejects the global consensus on how to solve the issue: Israel’s government.
Partisans of Israel respond with a common argument: the Arabs don’t mean it when they talk about peace. They say that if the two sides signed a peace deal, the Palestinian people wouldn’t accept it. (Never mind that a majority still tell pollsters they would). They say any agreement would be scuppered by Hamas. (Never mind that it is the ongoing lack of agreement that fuels Hamas support). They say that giving up the West Bank would leave Israel vulnerable to attack. (Never mind that Martin van Creveld, the patriotic Israeli military expert, points out that the West Bank has almost no strategic value to his country). Some, particularly among below-the-line internet commenters, claim that the obstacle to peace is Islam. (Never mind that two Muslim countries – Egypt and Jordan – have signed durable peace treaties with Israel.)
There is a simple way for Israel to test if the Arabs are serious: sign up to their peace initiative and pledge to work tirelessly to make it a reality. The alternative is for Israelis and Palestinians to continue to accept the drip-drip of violence that is driving them and the world insane like Chinese water torture. At present Benjamin Netanyahu believes he can ignore peace and seek peace-and-quiet instead. But in attempting to do so, he will end up with neither.