Several years ago, I happened to be in Israel on the eve of an election. In that particular campaign, Ariel Sharon was not a candidate. Not only was he not a candidate, in fact, he appeared to be terminally out of fashion.
Back then, the Oslo peace process was at its height, and Sharon was a relic of the bad old days. This did not stop people from giving me his telephone number. “Go and see Arik,” a hawkish journalist or an unfashionable Likud politician would counsel me. “Arik will explain to you what is wrong with the negotiations. Arik will tell you what we should be doing instead.”
At the time, I thought the underground myth of “Arik” – the man who would come out of his self-imposed retirement to defeat the Palestinians and put an end to the lily-livered peace process – no more than an oddity. In retrospect, it reflected a truth about Israel that many of its leaders were not willing to acknowledge: even then, a significant portion of the Israeli population still believed, deep down, that only guns and tanks could keep Israel safe from terrorism, and that treaties with Arab leaders of any kind were not worth the paper they were written on.
Their doubts were not entirely misplaced – for if anything, there were even more Palestinians who also maintained their belief in the efficacy of violence. That is, they believed that only terrorism, in the end, would win them the kind of deal they wanted: “Just one last wave of suicide bombers, and then the Israelis will cave in.” This, at any rate, appears to have been the thinking behind Yasser Arafat’s declaration of a second intifada 18 months ago.
Although his own negotiators had accepted the basic terms long ago, he couldn’t persuade either his reluctant population or his Arab benefactors to accept Yehud Barak’s final version of the peace plan – so he scuttled it, hoping to get an even more favourable peace plan after another round of violence. And so the Israelis chose “Arik”.
Since then, more than 1,000 Palestinians and more than 350 Israelis have died in fighting that has reached an apocalyptic peak this Easter and Passover weekend, a round of violence that seems particularly pointless even by the standards of these episodes. Israeli tanks rolled into the Palestinian city of Ramallah, occupying Arafat’s compound – towards what end? Palestinian bombs killed two dozen people in Israeli hotels and shopping centers, one of them strapped to a 16-year-old girl suicide bomber – to achieve what?
Nevertheless, neither side has yet renounced violence as a means to a solution, and no wonder. This is a war. Until someone has won – or someone has decided they can’t win using violence – then it won’t be over.
More to the point, until one side, or preferably both, decides that it can’t gain any more advantage through fighting, no outsider – not Kofi Annan, not Colin Powell, and not the Saudi leader, Crown Prince Abdullah – will be able to stop the war either.
Short of total US occupation of the entire territory, in fact, I can’t think of anything outside negotiators can achieve at all, except postpone the inevitable. That is the lesson of the past decade: by leaving all of the hard decisions until the very end, by forcing the Palestinians to live in an unviable non-state in the meantime, and by misleading much of the Israeli public (and the rest of the world) into thinking the problem solved, the Oslo process now looks like a terrible blunder.
Prince Abdullah’s much-touted peace plan hardly looks better. It continues the use of deliberately ambiguous language, speaking of a “just solution” to the Palestinian refugee problem (which means what?) and “normal relations” (but not “diplomatic relations”) between Israel and the Arab world.
The ambiguity was necessary, of course, in order to get countries such as Syria and Iraq to sign on – which they probably wouldn’t have done anyway, if there seemed even the remotest chance that the Israelis would sign on too. But the ambiguity is also dangerous. What happens when, once again, the hard decisions have to be taken (such as what should happen to the refugees)? Will Arafat decide at the last minute that a better deal can be reached after another bombing campaign?
True, the Northern Irish peace process, which was conducted on similar principles as the Oslo negotiations and has run into similar problems, nevertheless has not broken down into the bloody chaos that we’ve seen over the past few days in the Middle East.
I would suggest, however, that this is because the public, in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, was far more unified in its opposition to violence from the beginning. The IRA (or a major part of the IRA) turned to negotiations because they were losing their constituents, who no longer approved of terror, and because they thought they would get a better deal that way.
Yasser Arafat and his followers have not yet reached the same conclusions. Nor have Ariel Sharon’s supporters. As I say, a small group of Palestinians and a larger group of Israelis have been prepared to make peace for some years now, on terms both sides agreed upon long ago. But until they bring the rest of their populations with them, all negotiations are guaranteed to fail.
There was, and there is, an alternative. I can’t think of a delicate way to describe it, so I’ll put it bluntly: let them fight. That is, let the outside world stand back and let the two sides mutually decide that they have reached the limits of what violence can achieve. Let the Israelis conclude that their guns and tanks cannot stop 16-year-old girls from exploding bombs in supermarkets. Let the Palestinians conclude that terror campaigns only create more hatred and anger in Israel, and ultimately do their cause no good.
Although the situation itself imposes some limitations to the conflict – you can’t nuke your next-door neighbours – I recognise that this is an extremely dangerous piece of advice. A continuation of the war will not only kill more people, but could have unexpected side effects and ramifications in the Arab world and beyond.
One can see the rift between the Americans and the Saudis coming already, as well as the end to the relatively amicable Israeli relationships with Jordan and Egypt. But I see no alternative: renewed fighting, which has lasted 18 months,has not created the scale of revulsion against violence that one would expect – on either side. Until it does, peace is impossible.