Thursday, 10 January 2008

Israel: Bush calls for an end to occupation

George W Bush has called for an end to Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza strip, as part of a comprehensive peace settlement with the Palestinians.

Three times in the past, I've looked at the news and been absolutely bowled over. First was 9/11 - the last major turning point in world history. Second was the destruction of Space Shuttle Columbia, which I'd visited on the launchpad before its final flight. Third was the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, whom I'd seen at the Oxford Union the year before.

This evening I am even more bowled over, as for the first time in my life, I find myself agreeing with the President.

The settlement would involve Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, alongside the establishment of a Palestinian state. It would get around the controversial issue of a Palestinian right of return by creating a system of financial compensation. It would also likely involve diplomatic recognition of Israel by the Arab states. Bush believes the deal could be done by the time he leaves office, this time next year. It all sounds like the biggest dose of common sense I've heard on the issue in quite a while.

And it won't work. The idealist inside me is willing it to work, but my realist side knows it can't happen.

The last time there was a realistic proposal for peace on the table, it was cut short because of the US electoral cycle. There are a huge number of political reasons why the 2000 Camp David summit failed, but Clinton's desire to rush things through before he left office is arguably one of them. The peace process has to be conducted at its own pace - not at a pace based on the US President's terms of office.

Beside that, the main obstacles which sunk Camp David still haven't been dealt with properly. The right of return is the biggest issue; no Israeli government could realistically allow Palestinian refugees to return to all parts of the pre-1948 Mandate, because it would be demographic suicide, and Israeli voters wouldn't accept it. Financial compensation in lieu seems to be the most likely compromise - but would Palestinians see it that way?

The issue of settlements and borders will also get in the way significantly. The most sensible solution, to my mind, is the one proposed in the unofficial Geneva Accord, where Israel is allowed to annexe settlements in the West Bank that are close to the pre-1967 border, in return for donating land bordering the Gaza Strip, which is desperately hemmed-in and needs room for expansion. The majority of currently illegal settlements could be regularised in this way. It wouldn't entirely solve the issue, but it would make the problem a lot more manageable. Bush hints at something like this in his proposals, and I really hope this idea is followed up.

Still a major problem is the status of Jerusalem. The Camp David talks in 2000 hit a brick wall at this point. Giving up the claim to Jerusalem is a line which the leaders of both sides cannot cross; both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships would be utterly pilloried by their own people if they did. The entire peace process will hinge on this issue, and I have yet to see a constructive and workable solution that would be palatable to both Israelis and Palestinians. Without one, the whole project is a non-starter.

But the fundamental issue is this: all three individuals involved cannot carry the support of their own nations. Bush is hated by his own people and the Republican candidates for his job are openly distancing themselves from him. Olmert has approval ratings that make Bush look like the Archangel Gabriel, and Mahmoud Abbas has lost control of a large chunk of his own territory, let alone his popular support. It doesn't matter if the leaders can come to a fair compromise if they can't take their respective nations with them.

The surpsising change of rhetoric is good, and some of the proposals on the table are eminently sensible. Today's development is very welcome. But somehow, I can't quite contain my pessimism.


friendofisrael said...

any one who cares about israel should watch this movie

Sam said...

I'm interested on your take on "demographic suicide" Jonny. Are you saying you have to be Jewish to be a good Israeli? Would you recommend a similar ethnic requirement (white european in this case) for entry to the United Kingdom?

Allan said...

I have two points to make:

1. Sam: The UK does not define itself as a national homeland for a particular ethnic group; Israel does. While Israel does not prevent members of other ethnic groups from becoming citizens, it gives priority to Jews because otherwise Israel would lose this special status. (How can you be a national homeland for one ethnic group with a majority of the population belonging to another?) Also, I don't hear many similar complaints about Arab countries that refuse Jews citizenship on ethnic/religious grounds.

2. Jonny, I like your article, particularly your thoughts on Abbas. I don't see how Israel can usefully negotiate with anyone at the moment. Abbas only controls the West Bank, and only tenuously at that, and Hamas don't seem to want to talk to anyone - certainly not Israel or Abbas. (Ironically, I think Hamas would be more willing to talk to Israel than Abbas!)

Allan said...

Jonny, just noticed the quote from Indymedia! (If it's been there a while, I apologise for not noticing because I normally read your articles through Google Reader.)
Anyway, congrats! I look forward to some lucrative Government contracts in 10 years' time :D
(Not that you'd do such a thing...)

Sam said...

Allan, whether other people do worse things or not is not the point, and I'd rather not have to rattle off my grievances with every tin-pot Arab/Berber/Persian dictatorship before pointing out an inconsistency.

If Israel is allowed to act with the specific motive of perpetuating the dominance of one ethnic group, then why shouldn't other countries? Why did we condemn South Africa for a policy designed merely to ensure the continued dominance of the Anglo/Afrikaaner community? What was wrong with the actions of the Protestant Assembly in Northern Ireland who sought to continue their hedgemony by any means necessary? That was declared after all, "A Protestant country for a Protestant people."

The links are there, and freely admitted by many involved. "Israel and South Africa have one thing above all else in common: they are both situated in a predominantly hostile world inhabited by dark peoples." -- South African Governmental Yearbook, 1976, following Vorster's state visit.

The identification of Ulster Unionism with Israel is well known, just as the camaraderie of the IRA with the Palestinian cause is.

Now I am not making any judgement, just pointing out the company Israel has kept. The average lifespan and literacy of a black South African Resident prior to 1994 was the highest in Africa. No Catholic was persecuted to the extent in Ulster that he would have been in China or Pakistan or Sudan. Did this make it right, or beyond criticism?

What level of suffering by those who choose to identify as Palestinians is acceptable to maintain the ethnic integrity of Israel? If the Arab population increases to a size which threatens Jewish hedgemony will it, or should it be evicted? Pharoah had the same concerns if I remember correctly. They are important questions Israel will have to face. I don't envy them the answers.

Allan said...


With hindsight, my comments came on the wrong side of the "ethnic line", for want of a better phrase. However, I maintain that Israel receives mountains of criticism from almost every country and NGO under the Sun while little attention is paid to far more serious problems elsewhere. I am not saying that this excuses Israel for its human rights, and other, violations but I do think that Israel is too often singled out as a pariah. And all this when its northern neighbour, Lebanon, hasn't even had a proper government in months/years. (Delete as appropriate depending on your definition of "government".) Meanwhile, China is carrying out evictions in a scale far exceeding Israel's house demolitions, in "preparation" for the Olympics. Again, I must emphasise that the actions of others do not excuse Israel, but they do put its actions into context.

As for Northern Ireland, I accept everything you said about the Protestant Assembly etc., but comparisons with contemporaneous situations in third world countries are always futile as the first world will always care about itself more than "tin pot little African countries", as it were (cf. "Yes, Minister").

Finally, I think I should explain further a point I made in my earlier comment. When I said, "[Israel] gives priority to Jews because otherwise Israel would lose this special status [as a Jewish state]," I was simply reflecting the current situation and the policy of successive Israeli Governments. The parenthesised question that followed was merely an explanation of the current Government's argument. Personally, I do not see the point of Israel being a Jewish State; I would prefer to see it become a modern, democratic state, friendly to all religions. However, that is unlikely to happen in the current climate, i.e. with the Israeli religious right holding such significant influence as "kingmakers" in successive Governments. Until Israeli politics becomes a religion-free zone (feel free to laugh at that suggestion - I do), progress will be slow.

Anyway, despite our disagreements, I do appreciate your point(s), and please let me know if you ever get a job with the Guardian or the Independent ;)
(Seriously, you're a very eloquent writer!)

James Schneider said...

1. The "demographic crisis" is greatly overstated.
2. Bush's supposedly out of character comments were part of a larger trading game with the Arab states over Iran. It just goes to show how realist Bush has been in his second term.
I think this has something to do with all of it.