David Aaronovitch: The Middle East tragedy is that a solution is so obvious

'The rhetoric can change. The voices can be lowered. Stupidity does not have to be answered by stupidity'
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The girl in Jenin haunts my young e-mail correspondent's days. She was killed in school during one of the Israeli incursions into the Palestinian authority's territory (probably by a tank shell), and he can't get her fate out of his mind. Any article or argument on the war that doesn't include something about the situation of the Palestinians seems to him to miss the point. The Prime Minister obviously agrees, touring Syria, the Palestinian territory and Israel in an attempt to get some more plates spinning. And so the tail of Cana'an wags the dog of the world.

There is – as there was for a quarter of a century in Northern Ireland – something pantomime and maddening about the rhetoric from Jerusalem and Jericho. He's a terrorist, I'm a preventer of terrorism. No, I'm a protector of the innocent and he's the real terrorist. Wham! An Israeli settler is shot driving his car. Bam! The girl from Jenin gets it. More funerals, more chances to play "He's the Murderer", a game that some of my most vociferous e-mail senders enjoy more than any other.

Maddening too, because the eventual solution, short of genocidal war, is pretty obvious now, as it has been for 30 years. On 23 December 2000, with a few days left in office, President Clinton set what have been called the "Clinton parameters". We know what these were from Robert Malley, special assistant to Bill Clinton for Arab-Israeli Affairs and the Palestinian go-between, Hussein Agha writing in the New York Review of Books in August, and from the then Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami, interviewed in Ha'aretz recently.

The parameters were the creation of a Palestinian state based on 94-96 per cent of the West Bank and Gaza, and a 1-3 per cent equivalent slice of Israeli territory. In Jerusalem, that which was Arab would go to Palestine, that which was Jewish to Israel. Palestine would have sovereignty over the Temple Mount, and Israel over the Western Wall. Palestinian refugees would have the automatic right to return to Palestine, but only subject to agreement within Israel. The Palestinian land would be contiguous (At Taba in Egypt in January this year, according to Ben Ami, Mubarak looked at the maps and asked the Palestinians what the problem of contiguity was in these proposals, because he couldn't see one.)

"Taboos were shattered, the unspoken got spoken", wrote Massey and Agha. Ben Ami "informed the Americans that Israel's answer was yes." But, by now, the new intifada was well under way, Labour Prime Minister Ehud Barak's days were numbered, and Arafat apparently said no. The Israelis were now convinced that they had "no partner for peace", and a dismal fatalism settled over many erstwhile Jewish supporters of the peace process. Even so, Ben Ami's continuing belief in the nature of the ultimate settlement bears repeating, particularly as we live today in the wide shadow cast by Ariel Sharon.

"I still believe," said Ben Ami, "that we cannot rule another people. That hasn't worked anywhere, and it will not work here, either. Nor have I changed my mind about the settlements. It was a brazen act to invest our national energies in a hopeless settlement project in the heart of an Arab population. And I continue to believe that the establishment of a Palestinian state is a moral and political necessity."

After the Oslo agreement in 1993, the PLO recognised Israel's right to exist within secure boundaries, and the Palestinian authority was set up. So what went so wrong in the second half of 2000, that we moved from talking about the Palestinian state to the daily killings, assassinations, shellings, mortarings and funerals that have helped a small, small geographical entity become the casus belli between entire civilisations?

Personalities, fear and mistrust. Before and during the Camp David talks of July 2000, say Massey and Agha, Ehud Barak wanted to get one big, bold agreement. By proposing such an agreement he would have all his trouble with Israeli public opinion at once, put the issue to a referendum and win it. To do this he completely neglected the "interim" measures that the Israelis were bound to take under the terms of Oslo and subsequent agreements. Troops were not pulled back from key villages, and houses in settlements were built at a faster rate under him than under his predecessor, Binyamin Netanyahu.

But these were classic confidence building measures. As Peter Mandelson wrote in these pages yesterday, the Northern Ireland experience points in the opposite direction, in the direction of accumulating small trusts, without which you will not have the conditions for the long-term settlement. This open-endedness was also the essence of what Clinton called the "peculiar genius of Oslo". By the time Sharon mounted the Rock and screwed the peace process, Palestinian trust of Israeli practical intentions had evaporated. The Palestinian intelligentsia had withdrawn their belief in the process and have never since been won back.

Meanwhile, Ben Ami wondered at Arafat's stubbornness. Sure, Barak was charmless and dislikeable. But couldn't you interpret Arafat's refusal ever to issue a proposal of his own, and his strange relationship with organisations like Hamas, as a Machiavellian belief in the value of the intifada? Was he not switching popular rebellion (rebellion which attracted support from round the world) on and off as an instrument of policy?

I don't know for sure, but I doubt whether this is true. Democracies gauge public opinion by polls and in elections. Letters are written to newspapers and people organise peaceful protests. Mild autocracies, such as Arafat's, have no such mechanisms, and must live in fear of suddenly realising – as they are led out to the place of popular execution – that they have got it wrong.

More worryingly Ben Ami asserts that Arafat himself (of whom it was once said that "he never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity) is the problem. "Arafat is not an earthly leader," said Ben Ami, "He sees himself as a mythological figure ... At the end of the process, you suddenly understand that you are not moving ahead in the negotiations because you are, in fact, negotiating with a myth."

Once again, I do not know how fair this is. Arafat and Sharon, however, are what we have. And it is hard, for the moment, to see how we can return to the Clinton parameters with such leadership and with both communities slumped into fatalism. But what the international community can demand of both sides is that - completely independent of what the other does - they begin the snail's progress of accumulating trusts. The rhetoric can change. The voices can be lowered. The troops can be removed. Barriers can be placed in the way of some of those who seek martyrdom. Stupidity does not have to be answered by stupidity.

Bit by painful bit we can move back towards the eventual solution and this requirement, hopefully, will throw up the leadership necessary to see it through. There still must be constituencies for peace on both sides. But if these are not powerful enough, then the international community may have to ask whether something like the Clinton parameters should not be imposed by the United Nations. Time for the tail to be docked; the dog has other problems to attend to.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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