Terrorist violence is too cheap a price to squander peace
We touched heaven with the tips of our fingers, but we failed to grab it, is how Shlomo Ben-Ami, former foreign minister of Israel, described the aborted Palestine-Israel peace process. He was one of the Israeli negotiators along with Prime Minister Ehud Barak during the Camp David summit with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Subsequently, he led the Israeli team in all the various phases of negotiations with the Palestinians including the Clinton Parameters, which signalled the beginning of the end. Ben-Ami, a much-published historian, was recently in India as fires raged in Lebanon.
He believes that they touched heaven because during those negotiations they had come very, very close to an agreement. “There was a consensus in Israel on withdrawal from Gaza Strip, because nobody wanted Gaza. The sticking point was West Bank, where the settlements were. During Camp David we also offered to withdraw from 91 per cent of the West Bank area,” he said during a talk in Delhi. “But Arafat did not agree. Because Clinton was determined to see the peace process through, he came up with something called the Clinton Parameters, whereby we offered nearly 96 per cent of the West Bank as per the 1967 borders to Palestinians. Despite giving the impression of agreeing to it, when Arafat came to the White House, he refused to accept it.”
One of the reasons for his refusal was the question of nearly five million Palestinian refugees, whose return was left to the future. Besides, from Palestinian point of view, the Parameters were laying the foundation of a non-viable Palestinian state as travel between the two separated blocks of Gaza and West Bank needed Israeli guarantees.
Ben-Ami looks at that moment as a lost opportunity because after the negotiations broke down completely in January 2001 at Taba, the peace process died a quick death. The second Intifada had already begun in September 2000 and once Ariel Sharon, to whom goes the credit of building maximum settlements in West Bank, despite vociferous protests, often violent, became Prime Minister in February 2001, it was clear that the ground that the negotiations had covered and the possibility of a consensus among both Israelis and Palestinians would come to a naught. After that, it was downhill all the way. Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush assumed a hands-off policy and Sharon, ably supported by his hard-line reputation, proceeded to make Arafat as irrelevant to the Palestine-Israel conflict as possible without giving space for his successor to emerge. After Arafat’s death, Mahmud Abbas became Prime Minister, and though both Israel and the US hailed him as a new hope for the peace process, Abbas could not fill the vacuum, nor meet the expectations of all Palestinians. As a result, in that vacuum came Hamas riding the democratic wave, and peace in the Middle East became something of a heavenly fruit: extremely desirable but painfully unattainable. So, Ben-Ami looks back with a tinge of regret, so close yet so far. Ironically, he says, now they both seek what they spurned then. Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert withdrew from Gaza as proposed then. But even before something could happen in the West Bank, first Hamas and later Hezbollah kidnapped Israeli soldiers and the region plunged into a spiral of terrible violence. With both Israel and Hezbollah claiming victory after a conflict that killed nearly 1,300 civilians and Israel refusing to sit at the same table as Hamas, it is unlikely that peace talks will be the phrase heard in that neighbourhood anytime soon. And unless there is a solution acceptable to both Israel and Palestine, it is unlikely that situation in Iraq would stabilise or a new Middle East would be born, notwithstanding the birth pangs, a term Condoleezza Rice used to describe Israel-Hezbollah conflict.
Some kind of an agreement was still possible as long as Israel perceived itself in a position of strength. But now with its deterrence seriously blunted, at least in the eyes of its neighbours, it is unlikely that Israel would come to the negotiating table. The bigger fear is that, buoyed by what they see as the success of the weak or the victory of David over Goliath, countries like Syria would become tough negotiators, with Hezbollah playing a bigger role even if indirectly. And despite the best efforts of Abbas to get Hamas to agree to the Palestinian Prisoners’ Plan, which urges Fatah and Hamas to cooperate with one another and start negotiations with Israel, respect all agreements signed between Fatah and Israel, respect all the UN resolutions so far and accept Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 position, there is little hope that anything would come out of his efforts now; especially when Israeli troops are bent upon choking Gaza. Already there are voices, in Israel saying that the idea of withdrawal from West Bank was foolish, and in Palestine saying that the 1967 position is no longer acceptable.
Yet, no matter how terrible the mess may be in the Middle East, now more than ever, there is a need to work more seriously towards a solution because the danger is so much greater. The Middle East has been the centre of the world; it should not degenerate into a black hole.