Originally published at iPolitics.ca
When I was posted to the Middle East about a dozen years ago, there was a truism about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that went like this: “We all know the solution; it’s just a matter of getting there.”
The self-evident “solution” followed the outlines of the Camp David talks led by Bill Clinton, which seemed to point towards a separate Palestinian state at peace with Israel in the West Bank and Gaza. This was all supposed to be negotiated between the government of Israel and the quasi-government of the Palestinian Authority.
Since Camp David, though, in the neighbourhood of 7,500 people have died in the conflict in the Palestinian territories, and more than 600 in Israel.
Except for a brief period when Ehud Olmert was prime minister, the Israeli government has been uninterested in negotiations with the Palestinians (though the pretence has been maintained with various degrees of obvious insincerity). In the meantime, Israeli settlements have grown like blots of battery acid on the map of the West Bank and Jerusalem, corroding the territorial basis for a settlement.
In 2005, the Palestinians elected a new president, Mahmoud Abbas, who is deeply committed to a negotiated peace. However, he had an uncertain grip on the Fatah party he inherited from Yasser Arafat, which was itself riddled with corruption. A year later, the militant Islamist group Hamas won parliamentary elections and soon the Gaza Strip drifted off into its orbit.
There is simply no one left on either side with the desire, legitimacy and power to negotiate the solution which once seemed so obvious.
It is not unusual in a long and bitter conflict to see despair grip both sides. Look at Northern Ireland. It was outsiders in America and in Britain who kept the flame of peace alive and eventually led the parties back to the table.
But with the Israelis and the Palestinians, we can now see outsiders increasingly inclined to leave them to their doom.
A couple of weeks ago Alan Dershowitz, the American academic who has been a vituperative defender of Israel, was himself jeered by an audience of Jews in New York when he suggested that Abbas might be a willing partner for peace.
Then last week, Stephen Hawking, the Cambridge physicist who is arguably the world’s most eminent scientist, cancelled a schedule appearance at a conference in Israel, embracing an academic boycott organized by Palestinians.
Human decency has been so far lost in this conflict that Hawking’s shrivelled body — the result of Lou Gehrig’s disease — was relentlessly mocked on Twitter by supporters of Israel. For his part, Dershowitz basically called Hawking an anti-Semite.
In the past, entertainers such as Stevie Wonder and Elvis Costello have declined invitations to Israel as part of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement — or BDS, as it is known. But Hawking’s decision made headlines because, whatever their views of Israel, many scholars feel a boycott conflicts with the academic principle of openness and free dialogue.
BDS was started by Palestinians who had given up on peace negotiations and were searching for another non-violent path to promote their cause. But it is not at all clear from its formal documents, and certainly not from the declarations of some supporters, that BDS acknowledges Israel’s right to exist.
For those of us who do not see what alternative there could be for Jews living in the Middle East other than the state of Israel, that is a problem. Israel is unlikely to freely negotiate its extinction.
There is a strange parallel between the despair embodied in BDS and the recent visit to Israel of Canada’s foreign minister, John Baird.
Baird met an Israeli minister in her office in East Jerusalem. This is something that other governments, including that of the United States, do not permit — nor have previous Canadian governments.
The reason is that East Jersualem is occupied territory taken by force of arms by Israel in 1967. Treating it as Israeli says, in effect, that the issue of the city regarded as holy by both Jews and Muslims was settled by war and will not be revised by negotiations.
Baird’s claim that the location of his meeting was “irrelevant” and had no significance in policy is dishonest and unserious. He knew precisely what he was doing.
What Baird’s little adventure represented was a ratification of Israel’s policy of creeping predation on Palestinian land.
Today, the Gaza Strip can be said to resemble a vast outdoor prison established by Israel, in which a prisoners’ gang, the Islamist Hamas, has the run of the joint.
Meanwhile, the West Bank and East Jerusalem — as much as Israel’s defenders hate to hear this — increasingly resemble features of South Africa under apartheid. A disfranchised ethnic minority is crowded onto the least desirable land, is subject to different laws, is not permitted to travel on major roads, and faces stunted life prospects punctuated by violence and indignity.
It really isn’t clear right now what the friends of peace outside the region can do to advance the revival of negotiations and the prospects for a dignified mutually agreed resolution. The least we can do, though, is avoid giving comfort to its enemies.
Follow Paul Adams on Twitter @padams29