Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008. Follow Garvan on Twitter.
Nobody, the old saw goes, was ever fired for predicting doom and gloom between Israelis and Palestinians. Seasoned veterans rush to pour scorn on any hope. Their arguments are many and strong. Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister has stayed in power by appeasing Israel’s right wing. Mahmoud Abbas, his Palestinian counterpart, is weak, his government disorganised and out of touch. Israel’s settlement movement, all too organised, is determined to keep on building on stolen land. Hamas will surely find a way to sabotage these talks, just as they did in 1994 and 2000.
The regional prospect calls forth more evidence of imminent disaster. Syria’s civil war gets more brutal and more complicated by the day, unravelling Lebanon’s delicate sectarian balance of power. Egypt’s revolution seems to have suffered its 18th brumaire, while jihadis make strides in the Sinai desert. King Abdullah of Jordan clings to his throne with a mite more grip than his octogenarian Saudi namesake does to life. And should these obstacles can be overcome, Tehran can always be relied upon to stir the pot.
Nevertheless, a little optimism shouldn’t be ruled out.
Many reasons why are strategic: with Morsi ousted, the Muslim Brotherhood is now very much on the defensive. Hizbullah has lost many men protecting Bashar al-Assad, in the process transforming itself from popular leader of resistance against the “Zionist entity” into handmaiden to the greatest murderer of Arabs since Saddam Hussein. And, just maybe, Iran may have been maneuvered into settling for a Japanese-style nuclear programme, which would allow Tehran to produce a bomb in a matter of months, but which the ayatollahs couldn’t use to threaten their enemies or extend a nuclear umbrella over Hizbullah’s newly banned military wing.
Everyday life also provides ground for cautious hope. Thanks to BICOM, I was fortunate enough to be in Israel and the West Bank as news of the latest peace talks emerged. The atmosphere in Israel and in Palestinian territory is considerably more relaxed than the previous times I’d visited. Israeli bars no longer employ security guards. Ramallah’s well-stocked market is bustling, and I observed its traffic cops (though not necessarily its security police) in friendly interaction with city dwellers. Jerusalem’s own police had to resort from an incident from 2008 to demonstrate the efficiency of their CCTV system. The conflict goes on of of course, but its temperature is a lot lower.
Some say this ‘normalises’ Israel’s occupation, and allows Israelis to live in a ‘bubble’ cut off from the daily hardships Palestinians suffer life under foreign rule. Perhaps it does. Nevertheless construction of that bubble is the effect of successful Israeli security policy. By building the barrier (if you must, argue about whether it’s a wall or a fence in the comments) that protects Israelis from suicide bombings, they performed the Israel’s government performed its first duty: to secure its citizens from attack. The second intifada is long over, and the Palestinians lost.
Fatah (Mahmoud Abbas’s movement) has adapted to this defeat rather better than Hamas, for whom suicide bombings were once such a potent weapon. They have done so in two ways. First, they now understand the need to get a Palestinian state ready before it comes into being: a stronger economy, more efficient and less corrupt security forces, better roads. Though extremists see these things as collaboration with Israelis, in reality they are structures that can channel Palestinian national power to achieve independence. Borrowing a term long beloved of Israeli strategists, Fatah officials now talk of “facts on the ground.”
Second, eschewing armed struggle, they have focused on a brilliant international campaign that at its most effective exploits Israeli politics to achieve its goals. Thus Palestine’s campaign to join the UN as a member state. Doubtless in deference to Israel’s right wing, the last Israeli government rejected the option of endorsing this entirely symbolic gesture and found itself embroiled in a diplomatic battle it could not win, its commitment to a two-state solution to the conflict in question. After all, argue Israel’s opponents, if you say you’re in favour of a two-state solution, and claim that you will accept one once the practical details of borders, Jerusalem and refugees have been addressed, what could be wrong with endorsing Palestine as an official state? We can expect this march through international institutions to continue.
Most important now is this campaign’s direction. It has been accepted doctrine in European diplomatic circles for some time that if Israel does not begin to dismantle settlements, it should have economic sanctions imposed upon it. American pressure, German reluctance to boycott the Jewish state and the €30 billion of trade between the recession-mired bloc and the ‘start-up nation’ have so far been enough to limit restrictions to EU grants to bodies linked to settlements. It may have suited both Israeli politicians and advocates of a boycott to play these things up, but the new guidelines mainly codify existing policy.
Nevertheless, many in Israel’s peace camp appear to have fallen under the sway of the Prophet Jeremiah, who thundered that “a conspiracy is found among the men of Judah, and among the inhabitants of Jerusalem. They are turned back to the iniquities of their forefathers.” (Jer 11:9-10) Despairing of their own country’s political system, they hope for external intervention to ‘hit the pockets’ of their fellow citizens and ‘burst the Tel Aviv bubble.’ They take heart when they read that “Israel’s brand identity” has become “occupation.” This despair is unjustified and the tactic they advocate counterproductive. Should these talks prove too much for Netanyahu’s current coalition partners, he can swap them for the more peace-minded parties currently in opposition (this is probably why, even though Israel’s housing minister is a settler, settlement building has quietly been frozen since the election).
Meanwhile, even in countries that don’t share the average Israeli’s attitude to the world (born of experience: “just because we’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean everyone isn’t out to get us,”) sanctions cause people to rally around their governments, not to oppose them. They would push centrist Israelis into the arms of the nationalist right wing. And though Palestinian negotiators hold no brief for Israelis’ material comfort, they will achieve independence by splitting Israel’s centre from the settlement movement, not by uniting them with their cousins against the world.