Sunday 5 September 2010

Is Peace Really Achievable?

The Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams have finally arrived in Washington and already held their first meetings in the process of direct peace talks. Newspaper reports are filled with stories about how little Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas had to say to each other during the official dinner held on Wednesday evening. But the more pressing question is whether the process can deliver a real peace for the two nations, or whether the teams are simply going through the motions to satisfy those who have been exerting significant political pressure on the two leaders.

It is true that, until now, I have been extremely sceptical about the value of the process of direct talks. The Palestinian Authority president has been dragged kicking and screaming, and wholly against his will to the negotiating table. Netanyahu was not elected on a platform of peace-making, and is not regarded as Israel's most likely peace-maker. The Obama administration took more than a year until it even got around to showing any interest in Middle East peace-making. When adding these factors to the lack of success in the past of reaching any meaningful progress towards an agreement, there is little surprise that the prospects for peace look remote.

There is a well-known phrase that is often used to convince sceptics that peace may well come from an impossible situation - "you make peace with your enemies, not your friends". This is, of course, very true and serves to remind us that peace only comes out of extreme situations, and not out of circumstances where the parties are close to each other. We have seen the seemingly impossible when Israel signed peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan. These examples, and others involving other countries, serve to prove that peace can be achieved when it appears most unlikely. On this basis, we should feel optimistic that there is at least a dialogue taking place. While there is dialogue, there is hope. Without the channels being open, there is no prospect of peace.

When looking back on the peace agreements that were reached with Egypt and Jordan, there seems to be one common factor which allowed these agreements to be reached. In both cases, the countries capitulated in their rigid position of refusing to recognise Israel. Their willingness to recognise Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state was surely the turning point in facilitating a peace agreement. For me, this is the most fundamental requirement without which a peace agreement can never be achieved. Up to now, the Palestinians have not agreed to recognise Israel, and this has been the most significant obstacle to peace. Although Hamas has made it clear that they have no intention to recognise Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, even Fatah has not done enough to make this acknowledgement clear. When Yassir Arafat agreed to recognise Israel and to change the charter of the PLO to remove the clause which denies Israel's right to exist, he reneged on this commitment. The offending clause still remains part of the PLO charter. It is hardly surprising that, under these circumstances, peace between the two nations has been out of reach.

Despite the fact that I have been doubtful about the prospects for a real and long-term peace, I feel more optimistic about the fact that dialogue is currently underway. This gives at least a chance, no matter how remote, for peace to be reached. My new-found hope is predicated on the assumption that the Palestinians will be prepared to give public acknowledgement to Israel's right, and to make statements internally to their own people and to the world to recognise this right. Netanyahu has demanded this of Abbas as a pre-condition, and I anticipate that this acknowledgement will be forthcoming. Once both parties have established the basic tenet that the other has a right to exist, the peace negotiation has some basis. It shows the most basic respect for the other party, no matter how distant their respective positions may be. It seems ridiculous to be negotiating with somebody who does not recognise your right to be there, as much as this has been the strange situation until now.

Announcements have been made from Washington stating that one year has been allocated to reach an agreement. For an agreement to be reached, and in this time frame, the path is long and difficult, but not impossible. Both sides will be forced to make significant concessions, but these will need to be made in the spirit of honest negotiations and mutual respect. In the event that this is not achieved, severe damage could be done. It may serve to reinforce the fact that this peace may just be too difficult to conclude.

It is my hope and my prayer for the new year that some significant progress is made. Even to the sceptics like me, the prospect of this not happening is too painful to contemplate.

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