Adrian Hamilton: The path to Middle East peace

The lesson of the Cold War is that wars have consequences for a generation or more
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There are four iron laws of the Middle East: that the Palestinians will always end up at the bottom of the heap and that they will always be let down by their Arab bretheren; that Israel will act unilaterally whenever it sees it in its interest to do so and that the international community will do nothing to stop them, only intervening once the battle is drawn and they can help bring a messy end to the bloody proceedings.

It was true when the Israeli tanks went into the West Bank during the two intifadas. It was true the last time Israeli forces went into Gaza. It was true of both invasions of Lebanon and it is true of Gaza today. After relentless bombardment and days of invasion, war, war seems to be giving way to jaw, jaw as the French and Egyptians push their ceasefire plan and Israel calculates whether the military gain of going on bashing Gaza is outweighed by the loss of public sympathy.

A stop to the fighting may come quickly or sputteringly. But the end result will be the same. Gaza will have been reduced to rubble. All the symbols of its civil society, police stations, municipal buildings and offices, will have been shattered. A people will have been subjugated by sheer force of superior arms.

Israel, of course, insists that it was never its aim to punish a people, only to defang an enemy in Hamas. It may even believe that. But in a sense it doesn't really matter what its war aim was – to cripple Hamas, effect regime change or re-establish its reputation for military dominance after the blow to its pride in Lebanon. Whatever the purpose, the means was the crushing of a people through a demonstration of pure force.

The tanks went into Gaza as an exemplar of what Israel could do when it felt its security was threatened. What it visited on the inhabitants – their lives, their children, their future – was entirely secondary. To debate now whether Israel was right in its actions, whether its response was proportionate, whether it will achieve the emasculation of Hamas or strengthen it over the future is to accept Jerusalem's terms of reference – that war is a ready and acceptable instrument of policy whenever a society feels threatened.

No it is not. It cannot be repeated often or loudly enough that war can only be justified as an act of last resort. The armies that go to war do so for one purpose: to kill their fellow human beings. The high technology of precision bombing, drone rockets, night-sights and body armour doesn't alter that fact. All it does is reduce the casualties of those with the wealth and science to arm themselves. Westernised countries can undertake invasions, of Iraq or Gaza, because the risk of body bags is relatively low. They can cause most of the damage from on high, without ever meeting the enemy.

Keep the cameras out, as Israel did so effectively in the first week of this war, and the world can see it as just a picture of bright lights and loud bangs. And when they do see the human cost, the damage is already done. Then when you declare a ceasefire, the international community can sigh with relief, the subject can go off the newscasts and everyone can pretend that war can be waged without consequences.

It can't. Wars always have conseq-uences, for a generation or more. That was the single lesson of the end of the Cold War. When the ice thawed, what it revealed was a whole morass of local grievances and tribal hatreds unreconciled below. Of course the crushing of Gaza will have consequences in the desire for vengeance among the young, in the ruin of Palestinian hopes for unity or a flourishing society, in the resentment of the Arab street and the gyrations of western policy as it twists and turns over what to do about Hamas.

The tragedy of Gaza is that war was not necessary. By all the accounts of those involved, it should have been possible to have negotiated a renewal of the ceasefire. Hamas may have made it more difficult by ending the previous agreement and resorting to rocket fire, but it hadn't ruled out a new one; indeed, it kept saying it wanted one.

But the tragedy is also that Palestine need not be part of the remorseless pattern of provocation, military response and greater hatred that has been the pattern of the Middle East. In the immediate urgency of ceasefire negotiations, talk will be concentrated on the difficulties of ensuring an end to rocket fire, forcing Hamas to accept Israel, restoring Fatah's authority to Gaza and all the intricacies of inter-Palestinian politics. Israel's sense of success, it seems, can only be bought at the expense of the humbling of Hamas and that in turn can only be achieved by humiliating the Palestinians, and with them the Arabs.

There will never be peace this way. Negotiations will always get bogged down on the almost insuperable obstacle of trust. The Palestinians believe Israel's real purpose is to keep them divided and unable to operate as an independent state, and they see in the Gaza war proof of the fact. Israel sees the Palestinians driven by a desire to see Israel driven into the sea, and see in the rocket launches proof of that fact. If the trust isn't there, no amount of outside fiddling with controls on Hamas and pushing for Fatah's return to Gaza will succeed in restoring it. Indeed, it will almost certainly achieve the opposite by further humiliating the Palestinians with outside interference.

But then there's an offer on the table that could overarch and even subsume the basic Palestinian-Israeli discord and that is the Arab League proposal to offer Israel recognition by the whole Arab world in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders.

First authored by Saudi Arabia in 2002 and revived last year, the Arab peace Initiative has the support of all 22 members of the Arab League and the tacit acceptance of both Hamas and Iran. It would mean the dismantlement of the settlements and the destruction of the security fence. It would involve sharing Jerusalem. There would still be problems of the right to return. But it would finally force Israel and Hamas, Hizbollah and Iran, to put up or shut up over their intentions for peace.

There it is, in black and white, a deal that could break the pattern of Middle East conflict and satisfy Israel's every concern for security if only someone was brave enough to pick it up.