Mid­dle East peace process is dead

The award-win­ning play ‘Oslo’ de­picts the high drama of ne­go­ti­a­tions, but the ground re­al­ity is much bleaker

Gulf News - - The Views -

f you want to see Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans at­tempt to make peace, you should head for the Na­tional Theatre in Lon­don — be­cause you cer­tainly won’t see them do­ing it any­where else, least of all in the land they both call home. On stage, it’s all there. The sweat, the tears, the angst are laid bare in Oslo, the Tony-award win­ning play whose Lon­don trans­fer is just be­gin­ning. It tells the im­prob­a­ble story of the se­cret back-chan­nel opened up by two Nor­we­gian diplo­mats in the early 1990s, which ul­ti­mately led to the White House lawn, where Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin shook hands, watched by a smil­ing Bill Clin­ton, 24 years ago.

I saw the play just be­fore I headed to the re­gion, where I’ve spent the last week criss-cross­ing be­tween oc­cu­pied Jerusalem and Ra­mal­lah, Tel Aviv and Jeri­cho. In light of the con­ver­sa­tions I’ve had with of­fi­cials, cur­rent and for­mer, on both sides, I’m afraid Oslo looks more and more like a pe­riod piece – a nos­tal­gic re­minder of a time when peace be­tween th­ese two peo­ples ap­peared to be just within reach.

Those whose days were once con­sumed with po­si­tion pa­pers and maps, se­cu­rity plans and phased im­ple­men­ta­tion pe­ri­ods now sit idle in of­fices hushed with in­ac­tiv­ity. Is­raeli politics is fo­cused else­where, whether it’s the cor­rup­tion al­le­ga­tions that threaten to top­ple Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu or a na­tional de­bate that’s shift­ing ever right­ward: Ne­tanyahu re­cently promised that Is­rael will never dis­man­tle or evac­u­ate an­other Jewish colony in the oc­cu­pied West Bank.

Mean­while, many Pales­tini­ans, es­pe­cially younger ones, have walked away from politics as it was con­ven­tion­ally un­der­stood. In a pow­er­ful, if gloomy, es­say in the New Yorker, head­lined “The de­cline of the Pales­tinian na­tional move­ment”, Hus­sain Agha and Ah­mad Kha­lidi, both some­time ne­go­tia­tors, write that “the en­tire no­tion of peace ne­go­ti­a­tions has been dis­cred­ited and con­signed to out­right con­dem­na­tion, deep dis­be­lief and pro­found apathy among Pales­tini­ans.”

Oth­ers have no­ticed a change in the next gen­er­a­tion of the West Bank elite, who are re­treat­ing into the in­ter­net or rock-climb­ing — any­thing to es­cape the fu­til­ity of peren­nial con­flict. The peace­mak­ers now com­prise a le­gion of old men, look­ing back on their mis­takes.

The re­sult is that even some of those most ded­i­cated to the two-state so­lu­tion — the defin­ing goal of peace­mak­ing ef­forts over three decades — are look­ing else­where. I watched the vet­eran Is­raeli nov­el­ist AB Ye­hoshua tell an oc­cu­pied Jerusalem au­di­ence that he has wanted to see two states, Is­raeli and Pales­tinian, side by side for 50 years, but he has to ac­cept that it’s just not hap­pen­ing. “It’s time to think of some­thing else.”

How have the dreams that an­i­mated those play­ers on stage in Oslo turned to dust?

The stale­mate en­dures

Those who might once have ex­erted pres­sure — push­ing Is­rael to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble — have got other things on their mind. Diplo­mats re­port that th­ese days when Is­raeli min­is­ters meet their for­eign coun­ter­parts, the Pales­tinian is­sue scarcely gets men­tioned: It used to be the first item on the agenda. The Euro­pean Union has enough on its plate, while the United States for­eign pol­icy es­tab­lish­ment has its hands full, en­sur­ing Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump does not set off a nu­clear war with North Korea.

More deeply, there is the gap be­tween the two sides. When the last se­ri­ous talks ended, it was be­cause the max­i­mum Is­rael was pre­pared to of­fer fell short of the min­i­mum the Pales­tini­ans were pre­pared to ac­cept. That stale­mate en­dures. If any­thing, the gap is wider now, as Is­raeli po­si­tions in par­tic­u­lar have hard­ened.

Many reckon that th­ese two na­tions are doomed to stay stuck in the sta­tus quo, one that sen­tences the Pales­tini­ans to ap­par­ently eter­nal oc­cu­pa­tion? For­mer Bri­tish prime min­is­ter Tony Blair, still ac­tive in the re­gion, reck­ons the best prospect is a re­gional one, as those states al­ready en­joy­ing mil­i­tary ties with Is­rael for­malise the new dis­pen­sa­tion with a peace ac­cord. That, at least, is the the­ory.

Or there could be a change of par­a­digm, a shift away from the two-state ideal to a civil rights strug­gle in­side the sin­gle state re­al­ity that exists on the ground — with, per­haps, a lead role for those Pales­tini­ans who don’t live in the West Bank but are cit­i­zens of Is­rael, liv­ing in­side the state’s pre-1967 borders.

Still oth­ers be­lieve that some gamechang­ing event may come along and shake every­thing up once more, tak­ing ad­van­tage of the pres­ence of the oc­to­ge­nar­ian Mah­moud Ab­bas as per­haps the last Pales­tinian leader with enough na­tional le­git­i­macy to sign a deal be­fore it’s too late. After all, they say, the peace process has been pro­nounced dead be­fore — yet has shown an un­canny knack for res­ur­rec­tion.

That would be quite a twist. But as au­di­ences at the Na­tional Theatre are about to dis­cover anew, this most long-run­ning of dra­mas is one story that re­fuses to have a happy end­ing. It re­mains a tragedy with­out end. Jonathan Freed­land is a weekly colum­nist and writer for the Guardian.

Luis Vazquez/©Gulf News

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