How Peace Broke Out in the Middle East: A Short History of the Future
There is a curious paradox at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Peace, it is widely held, is further away than ever. Never before has there been such a fierce deadlock and as deep a sense of foreboding. As bad as things already were, the latest events in Gaza go to show that there is always room for them to get worse.
Yet we find that the official policies of nearly all the principal parties are more closely in alignment than at any time in the history of the Arab-Israeli dispute, centered on a comprehensive regional settlement with full normalization of relations based on two viable states.
Two states is not only the essence of the Arab Peace Initiative, but also the declared position of the Israeli government today and has been the PLO's official policy since 1988. Even Hamas has signaled a readiness to make a deal broadly on this basis. In addition, polls show that most Israelis and Palestinians have consistently supported a peace arrangement along these lines.
However the struggle in Gaza plays out, it is vital that we keep in mind this bigger, prevailing picture. By contrast, in the early 1970s, when I authored a Fabian pamphlet entitled "A Tale of Two Peoples," advocating two states as the framework for a solution - not necessarily the solution itself - there was very little support for such an idea.
The international consensus at the time was reflected in the United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967, which viewed the Palestinian people essentially as homeless refugees rather than as a stateless nation. To this extent, it was always inadequate as a basis for solving the conflict. Today the situation is different. We know - and generally agree - how to solve it. The solution is there, waiting to be grasped. So why can't we have peace now?

An Imagined Scenario

The simple answer - the one that lies at the core of my more recent paper, "How Peace Broke Out in the Middle East,"* which looks at the peace process retrospectively, as if peace has already happened - is that, even assuming good intentions, any serious progress in the existing climate is virtually impossible. The principal parties are too caught up in a paralysis of mistrust and a vortex of violence.
Therefore, the key is to find a way to transform the climate, by generating a new momentum. What I suggest is that, to spark it off, the leading political figures simply be true to their own public statements, and then take the next logical steps in the form of a series of unilateral declarations of principle or conditional intent. This sequence, in combination, could unlock the process and move it forward. In my scenario, each declaration nourishes and feeds off the others in a dynamic interplay.
In brief, the first move is made by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is frantic to escape political oblivion. He does not go beyond his government's official policy on two states in publicly avowing that, "in the hypothetical event" of a full peace with the Palestinians and the Arab states genuinely being obtainable, Israel would "of course," in principle, be prepared to withdraw fully from the West Bank, subject to agreed, equitable land exchanges - a formula that would allow Israel to hold on to the large settlement blocs in close proximity to the old "Green Line."
Similarly, Olmert confirms that, under the same hypothetical circumstances, the Golan Heights (demilitarized) could be returned to Syria.
This opening gambit is crucial in that it puts security back at the heart of Israel's concern and acknowledges that the Palestinians made their great historic compromise in agreeing to relinquish 78% of the land they had once claimed. This was agreed at the Algiers Palestinian National Council in 1988 and reaffirmed with the PLO recognition of Israel in the Oslo Accords in 1993. Any encroachment on the remaining 22% would be regarded by them as plunder.
By putting back on the table a viable and wholesome Palestinian state, centered initially on the West Bank - the primary focus of Palestinian national aspirations - the Israeli prime minister revives the vital missing ingredient of hope and becomes the trigger for everything that follows.
A creative response by Palestinian Authority President and PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), the authorized negotiator on behalf of the Palestinians, inviting the settlers to stay and help build the new Palestinian state instantly defuses the mounting protestations that it would be heartless to evict them from their homes. By pointedly distinguishing between unwelcome Israeli occupiers and welcome Jewish residents, he takes the wind out of the protestors' sails.
The next move sees a canny Saudi King Abdullah, author of the Arab Peace Initiative, announcing that he is prepared to lead a delegation to Jerusalem in pursuit of the peace he had publicly been promoting for more than five years. The visit itself, soon afterwards, swings Israeli public opinion behind the Arab peace plan - reminiscent of the Sadat effect 30 years earlier - and also boosts the authority of the previously unloved Olmert to do the necessary deals.
An imaginative invitation by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who had been calling for peace talks with Israel since the end of the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war, to the Israeli prime minister to drive to Damascus for negotiations "to show how easy it would be for ordinary Israelis and Syrians to visit each other's countries in the future" adds to the impetus.
An additional attraction to Israelis of a Syria-Israel deal is that if Syria could be drawn away from its alliance with Iran and Hizbullah, the supply of weaponry to the militant group would all but dry up. In one move, Syria could be converted from an enemy to a peace partner, the menace of Hizbullah blunted, the external wing of Hamas neutralized and the influence of Iran within the region diminished.
As the momentum reaches critical mass, events move swiftly at every level, taking in an Arab-Israeli summit in Riyadh, which unanimously adopts seven "irrevocable declarations of principle," and culminating in direct Israeli-Palestinian "final-basket" negotiations held under the joint auspices of the Quartet and the "Arab Quartet." The developing mood leads to a long-term ceasefire, an exchange of prisoners and a settlements' freeze. Even the beginnings of a settlements' contraction may be detected.
Determined not to repeat the failure of the Oslo Accords, which were characterized by the relative lack of involvement at non-official levels, the EU-funded "Palestinian-Israeli Peace NGO Forum" - an alliance comprising more than 100 Israeli and Palestinian organizations, established in November 2005 - devises a strategy to engage both civil societies in the push for peace and reconciliation among the two peoples.
As the permanent status talks get under way, the imagined scenario fades from the picture. Only the parties themselves can resolve the outstanding issues, but they now enter the talks with a new expectancy. Problems that once seemed intractable - in a climate of hostility - look far more resolvable once the parties are politically and psychologically ready to make a deal.

A Matter of Political Will

Strangely, the recent split between Hamas and Fateh, as regrettable as it is in some ways, could hasten the developments described if each faction abides by the new status quo in Gaza and the West Bank for the time being, and Israel behaves pragmatically towards both territories. Once a Palestinian state has been established on the West Bank, following an eventual agreement between Abbas and the Israeli government, the task of extending it to incorporate the Gaza Strip as well - a preeminently desirable outcome from almost every point of view - becomes essentially an internal Palestinian matter.
The scenario is not a prediction. Nor is it an exercise in unbridled optimism. It is unlikely to be realized. But it could happen. The curious history of the Middle East has seen both war and peace breaking out when least expected. When then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat visited Jerusalem in 1977, another round of Egyptian-Israeli hostilities had been widely anticipated. Few supposed that Israel and the PLO, sworn enemies, could reach the Oslo Accords in 1993. Outside the region, the collapse of apartheid in South Africa, the crumbling of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union and the recent settlement in Northern Ireland were all far-fetched developments - until they happened.
Ultimately, now as then, it is a matter of political will - at the local, regional and international levels. The alternative of perpetual conflict looms menacingly before us. The abyss beckons. What on earth are we waiting for?

*The full text of the pamphlet "How Peace Broke Out in the Middle East: A Short History of the Future" can be found at: This shortened version is based on a presentation given at the "Promoting Peace through Dialogue" conference, co-organized by the Palestine-Israel Journal and Global Majority at the United Nations University in Amman, Jordan, June 22-24, 2007.