Photo by Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images
Artillery Row

The unholy conflict

The world has to face the bloodshed in the Middle East

There is a terrifying back and forth on the battlefield of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Israeli army goes into a town on the West Bank and shoots those it accuses of terrorism. A day later, a Palestinian gunman kills worshippers at a synagogue in Jerusalem, the city that is holy to so many. He chooses Holocaust Memorial day to do so.

Israeli politicians on the far-right then call (scream might be the better word) for the kind of action within Israel and on the West Bank that amounts to tearing up any hope of these two peoples living side by side. Their agenda proposes denying Israeli Arabs — some 20 per cent of the country’s population — the right to vote and the right to citizenship, as well as the eviction of Palestinians en masse. They want the Israeli army to have the authority to shoot without asking questions. Some are members of the new Israeli government, not outliers shouting from the stands.

On the other side, you hear voices of no holds barred Jihadist zealotry. One Palestinian contact from my days as a Jerusalem correspondent — and he was once a peace negotiator no less — told me with some pride that people took to the streets after the attack on the synagogue. “There was a big celebration, singing, dancing, handing out sweets as we do on our special, national and holy days.” So much for that Holocaust Memorial.

Both sides recognised they had to give if they were to get

My old boss, the late UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, worked overtime 20-odd years ago to create that global, annual remembrance day, to mark annually the genocide of Jews under Hitler’s tyranny. Memory says that it was a hard sell — first to the powerful Arab and Muslim bloc at the UN, then to the American Jewish community and the White House, too, all of which were deeply sceptical that the UN could ever be impartial on that conflict given the countless times the Arab/Muslim bloc condemned Israel at the UN. Kofi Annan won them all over to his cause, and across our world we now mark Holocaust Memorial Day. To see that day stained with such innocent blood in Jerusalem is a reminder of what the world at large needs to confront.

Two decades on, the key “outside” players in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — the United States, the European Union and the UN — seem trapped between loyalty to the imperative of a safe, Jewish homeland, and the desperate need to find safe haven for the millions of Palestinians who live under Israeli occupation, or in exile as eternal refugees in the likes of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

With a political landscape so clearly militant, indeed violent, on both sides, the time has surely come for Washington, Brussels and the UN, to intervene — to come up with a formula that speaks to the reality on the ground. We face a conflict that sees heavily armed soldiers killing Palestinians without restraint, whilst Palestinians randomly murder Jewish worshippers at a Jerusalem temple on Shabat.

“Enough of blood, and tears, enough!” These were the words of the late Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin, signing off on the Oslo peace accords at the White House in 1993 — a deal that raised the hope of a Palestinian state living alongside Israel in some peace. Yes, sir, exactly. Enough.

The key to the peace deal signed that day by Rabin, the lifelong warrior, was both sides recognising they had to give if they were to get. The years I spent working in the region as a journalist, sometimes inviting figures from both sides to sit in our dining-room and share their differences in the hope of finding common ground, taught me that the Israelis and the Palestinians are expert negotiators: tough and demanding, but so, so savvy about cutting a deal.

At the same time I diagnosed two parties with extremists — one side needing the other to perpetuate the conflict. A Bibi Netanyahu, leading Israel and content to survive with the support of zealots, needs on the other side a Mahmoud Abbas, the current Palestinian leader — authoritarian and unfortunately ineffectual — to maintain the state of conflict.

Tell-tale signs of the explosion to come are all too evident

As we watch the latest round of war on the ground in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Jenin, Nablus and Gaza, let those lead influencers in Washington, Brussels and New York think smart.

Tell the Israeli government, in no uncertain terms, that there will be serious consequences in terms of aid, trade and commerce, if the far Right turns speech-making into policy. If they cancel the rights of Israeli Arabs, if they mount large-scale evictions of Palestinians from the West Bank, if they attempt to formally annex that land, it will be in clear violation of international law.

At the same time, take the concept of a Palestinian state off the table for the foreseeable future. The very idea is unworkable given the conflict, not to mention the nature of the present Palestinian leadership: deeply corrupt, poorly managed and dismissive of the need for free and fair elections. Telling that leadership to shape up, or leave the stage, is not just imperative; it will deprive the Israeli zealots of a popular issue amongst those seeking to seize the West Bank. 

There’s no time to waste here. The tell-tale signs of the explosion to come are all too evident. Yitzhak Rabin was right: enough of blood and tears. Without the wider world’s intervention, these two peoples march together, one needing the other, on their long journey towards Armageddon.

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