Shootings, bombers, slaughter, funerals; endless faces distorted by grief, rage and hate: every news broadcast appears to bring fresh reasons for despair, about the Middle East in particular and human affairs in general. Our natural tendency to recoil in incomprehension from all the savagery, yet most of the inhabitants of Israel and Palestine are rational and educated. They would wish higher goals from life than standing by impotently while children are butchered. Now, they see their wishes turned to mockery. Men of goodwill have never seemed more helpless; the prospect of peace more hopeless.
Yet this may not necessarily be so. Though it might sound like a blend of cynicism, Panglossianism and cold-heartedness, it is possible to argue that the killing was a necessary phase; that the road to peace in Israel/Palestine could only be discovered by wading through blood.
A few months ago, both sides appeared to believe that they could win. The Palestinians thought that if they could kill enough Jews, they would break Israel's will; the Israelis returned the compliment. Beyond all this lay deeper strategic errors. Whatever their leaders' occasional public statements for Western consumption, most Palestinians did not accept Israel's right to exist. Despite the Israeli state's strength, many Palestinians had convinced themselves that it was just another Crusader kingdom which would inevitably suffer the fate of its predecessors, and that if the Palestinians were prepared to endure and resist for long enough, the problem of Israel would go away.
A lot of Israelis made a parallel misjudgement. A few years ago, General Ariel Sharon declared that a Palestinian state already existed; its name was Jordan. He later said that he had changed his mind, without convincing everyone of his sincerity. But whatever Prime Minister Sharon claims to think, many Israelis have persuaded themselves that they could progressively take over the West Bank. Perhaps the Palestinians would leave; perhaps they would content themselves with ever-shrinking cantonments: either way, the problem would be manageable.
Both sides underrated the other, thinking events were on their side. As long as these illusions prevailed, a lasting settlement was not a prospect. And a terrible lesson is to be drawn from the history of such illusions – the only way to eradicate them is to drown them in blood.
We must now hope that enough blood has been spilt; that enough people on both sides are drawing back in horror, determined to force their respective leaders to break the cycle of retaliation. If that is so, the Americans could have a crucial role to play.
The Bush administration came to power with a justified reluctance to indulge in Middle Eastern grandstanding. It had observed the way in which president Bill Clinton had tried to exploit the region in order to enhance his place in history. By pressuring the two sides and forcing them to a premature conclusion, Mr Clinton had set back peace. The Bush team was determined not to imitate this irresponsibility.
That was well and good, but the new administration over-corrected. It did not seem to realise that without a peace process, an anti-peace process would emerge. There is no scope for a diplomatic vacuum.
That said, the President made the right decision when he recalled his special envoy, Anthony Zinni. A mediator who has nothing to mediate will rapidly lose credibility. But this is the right psychological moment for Mr Zinni to return. Horror must surely lend momentum to his efforts.
So might Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. The Abdullah plan – a proper Palestinian state in exchange for full Arab recognition of Israel – is the most hopeful development in recent years, especially given its provenance.
Saudi Arabia is riven by contradictions. It is ruled by proud, often arrogant, desert princes who are fearful of their own people and lack confidence in their own legitimacy; who are pro-Western Islamic fundamentalists; who are pleasure-loving upholders of sharia law. The usually results in a reluctance to take a leading role and an overmastering desire to keep in with everyone. In the front office, Saudis will assure the Americans of support; at the back door, they will be bribing Muslim extremists to divert their activities from the Kingdom. So it is surprising that Prince Abdullah found the courage to take an initiative which is bound to be controversial. He now deserves a proper response. The Abdullah plan – which is similar to the Oslo accords – is a sound basis for a peace deal, as is widely acknowledged in Washington. Even at the moments of his greatest anti-terrorist solidarity with the Israeli Government, President Bush has always argued that there must be a Palestinian state. The question is whether Mr Zinni can now find enough local support to make progress.
The immediate indications are not favourable. Yasser Arafat is long past his prime, such as that ever was. He was always more gifted in immobilism than in political imagination. Now that he is ageing and failing in health, this is unlikely to change.
His physical survival is important. God help the region were he to fall victim to a stray Israeli missile, let along a deliberate one. Even if he were to die in his bed from impeccably natural of causes, 90 per cent of the Arab world would hold the Israelis responsible. Assuming he lives, it is to be hoped that the Arab states and the Americans will find a way of minimising his obstructive qualities. But this might prove to be the triumph of hope over experience.
Israeli democracy makes it possible to remove failed leaders, and Mr Sharon looks like a one-term prime minister. Nothing in his previous record suggested that he would make a successful premier, and so it has proved. An outstanding tank commander, he is no good at problems which cannot be solved by tank warfare. General Sharon is a Patton, not an Eisenhower.
His likely successor is Benjamin Netanyahu, whose previous premiership ended in failure and discredit. In retrospect, however, his record is not as bad as it seemed at the time. He may have brought no improvement in diplomacy or security, but at least he oversaw no deterioration.
Mr Netanyahu is a man of the Right, which could help him to strike a deal. So will the exhaustion and the blood-letting. In the immediate aftermath of a Palestinian atrocity, many Israelis are ready to give way to emotion and call for further repression. But as the smoke clears, so does judgement. Israelis are growing more aware that they have to reach a modus vivendi with the Palestinians. That must mean major concessions on the settlements.
None of this will be easy. Whenever one considers the obstacles to peace in detail, they always seem insuperable. Yet a tide of blood can sweep away the most formidable of obstacles. But it is a melancholy comment on the inability of human beings to transcend their barbaric origins that the handshake which might eventually seal a peace settlement will have to be clasped across the graves of murdered children.Reuse content