Back to square one


It’s just possible – but only just – that it was Ariel Sharon who initiated the handshake across the table at the most recent Arab-Israeli peace summit. I certainly noticed the Israeli prime minister making a concerted effort to heave his corpulent torso out of his chair to grasp the hand of the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.

Unless my eyes were deceiving me, this is a marked – and, in this particular case, an extremely surprising – improvement on the tentative handshake on the White House lawn back in 1993 between the martyred Yitzak Rabin and the late Yasir Arafat, when Bill Clinton had to literally shove the two men together, with a well-placed hand on the small of Rabin’s back.

Days of hope, we thought, or at least prayed, back then, until two years later when a right-wing Jewish zealot, Yigal Amir, snuffed out the life of Rabin. Israelis, having lost the one man – a hitherto uncompromising warrior – they felt they could trust to negotiate a peace with the Palestinians, turned in 1996 to the sophistry, and veiled racism, of Binyamin Netanyahu and the Likud party fanatics, who embarked on a frenzy of illegal Jewish settlement-building on the West Bank.

At about three o’clock one morning in May 1999, I was in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, standing only a few metres from the place where Rabin was sacrificed, when the new Labour leader, Ehud Barak, appeared to claim victory in the general election. After three wasted years we thought the spiritual son of Rabin had arrived to restore hope. A few hours earlier, as Israelis – Jew and Arab – were voting in the election that would give Barak a majority of 58 per cent, I had driven to the nominally Palestinian-ruled towns of Hebron and Ramallah. The Palestinians were weary of promises and wary of Barak but at least he was prepared to negotiate with their leaders.

Within eighteen months of Barak’s victory, the taste of a lasting peace had turned to ashes in our mouths.

The talks between Israel and the Palestinians were halting and fitful but always pregnant with the possibility of peace, until that day in October 2000 when the great vandal of Israeli politics strode onto the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Just as he had declared that Palestinians forced from their homes during the 1948 war to establish Israel should never have the right to return, he decreed that no part of Eretz Yisrael, (the code for an Israel permanently incorporating the West Bank) should be off-limits to Jews. In principle, he is right, as no part of the world should be off limits to any ethnic group, but this man knew he would ignite a conflagration. He was, of course, Sharon.

In mid 1995, I sat in a conference room in Chicago with members of the editorial board of The Chicago Tribune (I was on a sponsored study tour, not the staff) as Sharon promised to smash Rabin’s peace project. Five years later, he was consummating that pledge.

Now it has come to this. The peace camp is marching in Tel Aviv for the survival of Sharon’s government, now propped up by the ragged remnants of Israel’s mainstream Left in the person of Shimon Peres and his Labour Party. My friends in Peace Now – for twenty seven years the voice of a citizens’ peace – tell me they’re even waving signs saying ‘Sharon Now’, in support of his modest but crucial plan to withdraw Israeli settlers, and the troops that guard them, from the Gaza Strip. They do so through gritted teeth, and hate themselves for it, but ask themselves, ‘What else is left?’ What else, indeed.

Sharon is anything but a man of peace but he appears to be a pragmatist and his promise to withdraw from Gaza, while hardly a step towards the foundation of a viable Palestinian state, is the first sign of concrete compromise from the Israeli right in almost thirty years, since Menachim Begin quit the Sinai peninsula taking the obstinate settlers of Yamit with him. If Sharon is willing to concede Gaza, even if it is a sliver of densely populated refugee camps, the hope for real compromise under a future Labour government still flickers. It also suggests that Sharon has finally abandoned his core belief that Israel’s security lies in a perpetual war with the Palestinians.

My progressive friends in Israel, including long-time activists who led parties of Jews into Palestinian refugee camps on citizens’ peace missions, hate being listed in the same telephone book as Ariel Sharon, let alone being on the same side as him. But they were badly let down by Arafat and large sections of the international left, which effectively abandoned them.

I know – they know – the peace deal offered by Barak at Camp David in late 2000 was flawed; that it denied Palestinians some basic rights to control their own borders, airspace and, even worse, the water that flowed beneath their lands; that, to accommodate sixty nine illegal West Bank settlements, populated by often hateful zealots, it created a series of barely connected bantustans that would have forced Palestinians to zig zag around their lands turning five kilometre journeys into fifty kilometre expeditions; and that it did not properly recognise, even in principle, the dispossession of historical Palestine. But it was the best deal the Palestinians had ever received and, even with the imperfections, was an enormously courageous move by Barak.

But instead of seizing the chance, establishing a state and working to improve the deal by showing – peacefully – the limits that the ludicrous borders were placing on Palestinian national development, Arafat fumbled. He proved that, like Che Guevara, he was a brillant revolutionary, putting the plight of his people centre-stage, but he was no statesman. He would never live to see his promised land. The average Israeli – neither hawk nor dove but feeling increasingly confused and isolated – saw in Arafat’s rejection, a demonstration of the words, ironically, of Jesus the Jew: Ehud Barak had cast pearls before swine.

So now we are back to square one. A handshake across a table, the promise of endless talks hanging by the frail thread of a ceasefire, while Islamic militants warn of more suicide bombings and right-wing rabbis, led by former chief rabbi Mordechai Elihyau gather to pray that negotiations will fail.

A few years ago, over a Friday night dinner at an outdoor restaurant in the defiantly secular neighbourhood of northern Tel Aviv, Ruth Sinai, a liberal columnist with the Ha’aretz newspaper, would occasionally interrupt our conversation to study an oddly parked car on the pavement. She was just being wary, she said. You have to be. As we left the restaurant, she said she had gotten through another night without a car bomb. This is a neat parable for the story of the Israel-Palestine peace talks. Day by day, step by step. Not much, I know, but you tell me: What else is left?

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