With Russia entering the chaotic fray in Syria, you would be forgiven for thinking that there was only one story in the Middle East this week. Most of the top level delegates at this week’s United Nations General Assembly certainly thought so, with the annual set-piece speeches by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu taking place in front of mostly empty seats.
In fact, whilst the Palestinian President addressed the UN, announcing that the Palestinians would no longer be bound by the Oslo Accords due to Israeli violations—chiefly the building of illegal settlements—U.S Secretary of State John Kerry was pictured in an adjoining room at a Security Council Meeting, furiously rubbing his temples in frustration as news emerged of Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria.
There is a very good chance that Secretary Kerry’s Middle East headaches will soon be compounded. If he had been listening to President Abbas, he might have heard the feint sound of an era ending. The positive context of the signing of the Oslo Accords bears no resemblance to the violent reality of Israel/Palestine in 2015, and by any measure, things are deteriorating.
Abbas’ speech and his warning around not honouring the Oslo Accords, an agreement which includes measures related to security cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian forces, should be a wake up call.
The last thing the Middle East of 2015 needs is a flare-up of its most long-running and religiously loaded conflict. Palestinians are justifiably frustrated that over twenty years of diplomacy has not delivered statehood, only settlements and ever-greater infringements on basic freedoms. Israelis, looking at the region around them right now, are no doubt just as justifiably scared, and understandably risk averse.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has also seen his stock slide of late. His sound and fury against the Iran deal ultimately signified nothing, and whilst he glowered out from the podium on Thursday in a prolonged, uncomfortable silence, he too saw a sea of empty seats. One gets the sense of a world growing tired of his ceaseless negativity and cynicism.
Interestingly, another senior Israeli politician, Yair Lapid, the leader of the opposition Yesh Atid party , was also in New York this week. His party’s name means “there is a future” in Hebrew, and he was in Manhattan to meet with Prince Turki bin Faisal, discussing the possibility of a regional summit to consider 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.
The contrast with Netanyahu is striking. Brave Israeli leadership would negotiate a new reality in the region, using the Arab Peace Initiative as a starting point, holding out the promise of statehood and justice for the Palestinians; security and regional acceptance for Israel; and the prospect of a united Arab/Israeli front on some of the biggest challenges facing the region.
The Madrid conference of 1991, coming in the wake of similar instability in the form of the first Gulf War and the fall of communism, laid the foundations for Oslo. It’s time for something similar now, with all parties around a table to build an agreement that can satisfy Arab and Israeli key concerns.
The key variable is civil society, and organisations like OneVoice—working in parallel in Israel and Palestine to pressure leaders to make compromises - can play a role in mobilising people. It is ordinary citizens who will largely determine whether we spiral into another protracted round of violence. But the weakness of both leaders, and their inability to provide hope makes them susceptible to grassroots pressure, and so ordinary citizens could also be pivotal in building something much more profound.
John Lyndon is the European Director of OneVoice, a grassroots movement working for conflict resolution in Israel/Palestine