What is really going on with the Middle East peace process? Nothing is ever quite as it seems. The press is deafeningly repeating the messages from both sides about breakdown and its unsurprising causes. But are these messages an accurate description of events, or are they a cry for help from two sides who keep seeing the finish line in the distance but cannot quite will themselves to step over it?
Look at some interesting facts. First, the peace process was kick-started again by US Secretary of State John Kerry when it need not have been. It is no secret that the White House was less enthusiastic than the State Department. But it is also no secret that Kerry himself has a true passion for the peoples of the Middle East, and genuinely longs to see the end of the conflict—that his will prevailed says much.
Second, not many details of the talks have leaked out. Kerry was keen to keep a tight lid on things. Even good friends such as the UK were given little information about how things were going, though we knew enough about the progress to believe that, despite low expectations, there was enough response from both sides to give it a try.
Third, provocations were expected—settlement announcements and an attempted rapprochement with Hamas, for example—and both sides knew they would have to overcome them. They succeeded in doing so until very recently. While the horrors of Syria reminded everyone that Israel/Palestine was not the only issue affecting the region, both sets of negotiators kept going—until now.
The heartbreak for friends of both states is that we despair of failure and are truly fearful of its consequences. We are not angry with either; we know what is at stake. The UK stands unequivocally by Israel’s right to exist, and at the same time it has contributed hugely to the efforts for an independent Palestine and a two-state solution. We don’t believe that the status quo will hold, and the longer-term outlook, without a concluded agreement in a region torn asunder by new issues, is darker than ever.
Friends have played their part: we have kept out of things. We have all been quietly approached as always, to make a case to the other side, but I think we have resisted. It is for the parties to make the deal themselves. We all know the parameters, so it’s tiem to get on with it.
But at this crucial stage, perhaps we need to be even more encouraging. There are warning signs. The US is talking about Israel with a new skepticism, and Jewish opinion in the US is no longer resolutely “Israel’s Government, right or wrong.” They want this settled. Among Arab states, pressing the Palestinian case is no longer the first item of business in any bilateral conversation, or, I’m afraid, the second either. They want this settled too.
We can’t continue like this. There is now too much going on in the area that threatens Israel, moderate Palestinians and other states for this issue to remain the center of attention. The fallout of failure is unlikely to affect only the parties themselves. Both sides should recognize the bravery of the other at different stages of this round. For Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to release prisoners guilty of some of the worst atrocities against Israel was a serious peace gesture. For Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to describe the Holocaust as a “heinous crime” recently was not an insignificant gesture, either. Friends of both should encourage the parties to keep going with the talks and building on these important changes.
Trust us, we know the likely justification for failure from both sides. We know all the arguments and truly understand their frustrations with the other. But who really stands to lose if they don’t make it? By contrast, the outlook for a recognized Israel and an independent Palestine is hugely positive. The EU and the world are waiting for the boost that would come from that. There are extensive economic and security gains to be had. The possible full integration of a dynamic Israeli economy into an Arab world which needs some 40 million new jobs over the next decade to cope with a rising young population, who if they are not employed will soon find other, less helpful things to do, speaks for itself.
Abbas and Netanyahu are facing the most difficult decisions of their political lives. All their friends should urge them over that line, one way or another. You will always have a good reason to say “no,” and some around you will always pat you on the back for it. But I hope every government around the world will send messages this week urging the contrary—at last, you have much better reasons to say “yes.”