Leading article: When `defeat' is a victory for peace

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The Independent Online
THERE HAS BEEN a clear pattern in recent years: only those who do not wish to change too much are in a position eventually to deliver revolutionary change.

The Oslo accords that seemed to pave the way for peace in the Middle East were agreed by Yitzhak Rabin, an Israeli prime minister who had never been known for dovishness. His assassination removed, in the short term at least, the possibility of change: Shimon Peres, more obviously committed to a peaceful solution, could not carry the country with him in the way that Mr Rabin had briefly seemed able to do. In Northern Ireland, the traditional intransigence of Gerry Adams and of David Trimble has seemed in previous years to be a problem. More obviously, however, it has recently come to seem a bonus, in the sense that neither of them can easily be portrayed as a sell-out.

Both in Oslo and in the case of earlier Middle East talks - most notably the Camp David agreement, brokered by the United States between Israel and Egypt - the deal came only after it seemed certain that it would founder. As in Belfast in the days before the Good Friday agreement, this was more than just brinkmanship. Both sides cared passionately about what they thought they might lose. Both sides knew that it would be almost impossible to change the terms, after the deal had been struck.

Theoretically, one could make the same case with the Israeli-Palestinian indirect talks in London this week - where Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State, shuttled between two London hotels. Tony Blair said that there was neither breakthrough nor breakdown. Mrs Albright announced that the United States is ready to invite the participants for further meetings in Washington next week, if further progress is made. For the moment, however, the chances of an outbreak of sanity look woefully slim. None of the participants has staked their political life on the outcome.

The Ulster deadline set by the US mediator George Mitchell was, on the face of it, quite artificial. In theory, it did not matter a jot whether a peace deal was agreed before the Easter weekend or a few days or weeks or later. In practice, however, the setting of an unmissable deadline was crucial. All parties at Stormont, whatever their differences on politics, shared the view that this was their last chance. If they did not manage to hammer something out through the long night (and then another night, and then another), then everything else would be lost, for the foreseeable future.

In London this week, by contrast, there has been a strong sense of merely walking through the part. The Israeli leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has repeatedly made clear his contempt for the spirit of the Oslo accords, may eventually come to accept the inevitability of change. For the moment, however, he still seems locked into the positions held by both sides in Northern Ireland just a few years ago, where any backdown was seen as a defeat, not as a potential victory for both sides.

Mr Netanyahu talked yesterday of the need to "close all the gaps" and of "resolving outstanding issues". But he also emphasised "a very simple point: we cannot compromise on Israel's security". This includes a blunt refusal to give up 13 per cent of the West Bank, as proposed by the Americans, as part of the redeployment agreed in the Oslo accords.

Even the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat - who had more reason than most to be pessimistic - appeared almost upbeat. He noted "some progress", and said that "time is needed in order to achieve an agreement". Following his 50-minute meeting with Mr Blair at Downing Street, Mr Arafat rejected the suggestion that the talks had failed.

Despite attempts to put a brave face on the progress of the talks there seems, however, little chance of real change while Mr Netanyahu is so obviously wedded to the win-or-lose scenario - for his own domestic electoral reasons. Hawkishness is good for votes. And yet, as Cyril Ramaphosa, senior negotiator in South Africa's transition from apartheid, emphasised on a visit to Northern Ireland last week, agreements only become possible when both sides recognise that they must lose something, in order to win. It is a message Mr Arafat has long since learnt - even while the radical pressures on him continue. If Mr Netanyahu fails to learn that basic lesson, then Israelis and Palestinians alike will have little reason to remember him fondly. What seems like a retreat can easily come to seem an advance. Standing firm, meanwhile, can come to seem the greatest defeat of all.