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.