The talks are dead. Will the Mid­dle East ever find peace? Jonathan Freed­land

A new play re­calls the hopes of past ne­go­ti­a­tions. But in the re­gion, a new gen­er­a­tion has walked away

The Guardian - - OPINION -

If 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 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.

No one thinks that now. “The peace process as we knew it has ended,” the for­mer Is­raeli for­eign min­is­ter Shlomo Ben-Ami told me. “At the mo­ment, the peace process is dead,” echoed the for­mer Pales­tinian prime min­is­ter Ahmed Qurei, now im­mor­talised as one of the se­cret peace­mak­ers in Oslo (and still chain-smok­ing as in­tensely as his on­stage avatar). 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 set­tle­ment in the oc­cu­pied West Bank. “We are here to stay for­ever,” he said.

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”, Hus­sein Agha and Ah­mad Kha­lidi, both some­time ne­go­tia­tors, write that “the en­tire no­tion of peace ne­go­ti­a­tions has been dis­cred­ited among Pales­tini­ans.” Others have no­ticed a change in the next gen­er­a­tion of the West Bank elite, who are re­treat­ing into the in­ter­net or dance or rock­climb­ing – 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 a 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 has this come about? How have the dreams that an­i­mated those play­ers on stage in Oslo turned to dust? One ex­pla­na­tion is dif­fi­cult for cam­paign­ers against Is­rael’s 50-year-long oc­cu­pa­tion to stom­ach. They – we – al­ways warned that the oc­cu­pa­tion was “un­sus­tain­able”, and yet Is­rael is prov­ing it is very sus­tain­able in­deed. The econ­omy is thriv­ing, while a lull in vi­o­lence means that – for now – most Is­raelis feel se­cure.

In­ter­na­tion­ally, things have rarely been more com­fort­able. Sure, Ne­tanyahu faced loud street protests dur­ing his tour of South Amer­ica this week, but In­dia and China – once al­lies of the Pales­tinian cause – are do­ing plen­ti­ful trade with Is­rael. Even the sup­pos­edly left­ist Alexis Tsipras of Greece has em­braced Ne­tanyahu, seal­ing a ma­jor nat­u­ral gas deal be­tween the two coun­tries. If one rea­son for Is­rael to end the oc­cu­pa­tion and make peace was to im­prove its in­ter­na­tional stand­ing, that mo­tive has lost its ur­gency.

Though they don’t say so out loud, the lead­ing Sunni Arab states now re­gard Iran as a greater en­emy than Is­rael; their fo­cus is push­ing back Tehran and se­cur­ing their own regimes rather than help­ing the Pales­tini­ans. The Euro­pean Union has enough on its plate, while the US for­eign pol­icy es­tab­lish­ment has its hands full en­sur­ing Don­ald Trump does not set off a nu­clear war with North Korea. The peace process needs the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, says Ben-Ami: “Yet there is no such thing. The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity is in disarray.”

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.

Sunni Arab states re­gard Iran as a greater en­emy than Is­rael. Their fo­cus is push­ing back Tehran

Does that mean these two na­tions are doomed to stay stuck in the sta­tus quo, one that sen­tences the Pales­tini­ans to ap­par­ently eter­nal oc­cu­pa­tion? Tony Blair, still ac­tive in the re­gion, reck­ons the best prospect is a re­gional one, as those Sunni states al­ready en­joy­ing close, if furtive, mil­i­tary ties with Is­rael for­malise the new dis­pen­sa­tion with a peace ac­cord. Saudi Ara­bia and the Gulf states would join Jor­dan and Egypt, and pres­sure the Pales­tini­ans to sign on too. That, at least, is the the­ory. Ne­tanyahu talks of this “out­side-in” ap­proach too, but there’s pre­cious lit­tle ev­i­dence of it in prac­tice.

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 reckon 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 longestrun­ning of dra­mas is one story that re­fuses to have a happy end­ing. It re­mains a tragedy without end.

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