Circumstances change; so do the names of the leading players. Peace negotiators come and go; so do the details of their agreements. But in the end, one aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains the same: When all else has failed, you can be absolutely certain that someone, somewhere, will issue a statement calling for peace.
There has been no shortage of such declarations the past few days. In the wake of Israeli attacks on Gaza, Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary general, appealed “to all members of the international community to display the unity and commitment required to bring this escalating crisis to an end.” Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy spokesman, called for a halt to hostilities. “The cease-fire has to be a cease-fire complied [with] by everybody and be clearly maintained,” he proclaimed. “What we need,” echoed the British prime minister, Gordon Brown, “is an immediate cease-fire.”
As night follows day, these statements were accompanied by a mass migration of politicians to the Middle East. French President Nicolas Sarkozy set off for Israel. So did Karel Schwarzenberg, the foreign minister of the Czech Republic, the country now holding the rotating presidency of the European Union. There, both may encounter Solana, Tony Blair and who knows how many others. Even Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sent an envoy. Like having an Olympic team that wins lots of gold medals, having your own Middle East peace policy has become, it seems, a sign of international prestige.
But other than that prestige, it’s increasingly hard to see the point of such gestures. In the Middle East, the most significant and successful diplomatic initiatives have always been the quietest: The Oslo peace accord of 1993 was, at least in its initial phase, negotiated in absolute secrecy. By contrast, the diplomatic initiatives most clearly designed to serve the interests of the diplomats (or at least of their constituents back home) are the loudest and most public: Think of the Annapolis peace conference of autumn 2007, where toasts were drunk, cameras were plentiful and all kinds of marginal players were at the table. It would be giving that gathering too much credit to blame Annapolis for Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza this week. Still, it’s surely fair to say that that conference, for all of its pomp and circumstance, failed to prevent a new explosion of violence.
But it could not ever have done so. For the trouble with all of these peace efforts, peace conferences, peace initiatives and peace proposals is that none of them recognizes the most obvious fact about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: It’s not a peace process; it’s a war. At the moment, at least, both parties are still convinced that their central aims will be better obtained through weapons and military tactics than through negotiations of any kind. To be more explicit, Hamas and its followers believe that the continuing firing of rockets into southern Israel will, sooner or later, result in the dissolution of the Jewish state. The Israelis — both on the “peacenik” left and the more bellicose right — believe that the only way to prevent Hamas from firing rockets is to fight back. Intervention — whether by well-meaning Europeans, U.N. delegations, Russian envoys (or even Condoleezza Rice, who has wisely stayed home, so far) — can postpone the conflict but cannot halt the violence, at least not until one side or the other surrenders.
That brief, halcyon period of the Oslo peace process was possible because this is precisely what happened: a combination of Russian emigration into Israel, the end of Soviet support and general weariness led at least a part of the Palestinian leadership to conclude, after 30 years, that it would never push Israel into the sea. At least some of the equally weary Israeli leaders came to believe that their occupation policies were doing Israel more harm than good and that they would gain more from negotiating than from fighting. Further negotiations will make sense only when Hamas’s leaders — currently emboldened by a combination of popular indignation and Iranian support — finally arrive at the same conclusion as their secular counterparts, and a new generation of Israelis is persuaded to believe them.
Until then, there is no point in bemoaning the passivity of the Bush administration, the silence of Barack Obama, the powerlessness of Arab leaders or the weakness of Europe, as so many, predictably, have begun to do. It’s no outsider’s “fault” that the fighting continues, and pretending otherwise merely obscures the real issues. Diplomats might be able to slow its progress, but this war won’t be over until someone has won.