28 December 2008
Like hundreds of millions around the world, I was horrified by the brutality of the airborne Israeli assault on Gaza on 27 December 2008 which left hundreds dead. As well as Hamas fighters, the dead included police trainees and countless other civilians. With many years of experience bombing Palestinians, Israel will not have been surprised by the numbers killed or the mix between civilians and Hamas fighters. One must regard the deaths as intended.
Sadly this looks like the first shot of the Israeli election campaign, as Tzipi Livni competes with Benjamin Netanyahu to show who can be toughest in dealing with the Palestinians. For the Israeli government, the death of one Israeli citizen appears enough to justify killing any number of Palestinians.
From its foundation, Israel's policy has been that "an eye for an eye" is not enough. Instead every provocation must be met with overwhelming force as otherwise the Arabs will only be "emboldened."
Regardless of its morality, this policy had a rational basis when Israel's foes comprised Arab states unwilling to suffer the material and personnel losses entailed by total war. However, from the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Israel's policy of disproportionate response has been shown to be increasingly futile. The Palestinians living in the prison camp that is Gaza feel they have no future to lose. The more brutally Israel attacks them, the more determined they are to hit back no matter what their own losses.
However, I believe that notwithstanding their tanks, combat aeroplanes and nuclear weapons, it is the Israelis who fear the future and not the Palestinians despite their having nothing but Kalashnikovs and home-made rockets.
Despite the bloodshed, I see more hope for peace than at any time since the Oslo Peace Accords were systematically sabotaged by Benjamin Netanyahu after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.
It is always easy to defer making peace; deferral allows both Israel and the Palestinians to put off facing up to difficult choices. For years, ardent Zionists who covet every square metre of Palestine have hoped that if they could put off peace for long enough, they could create enough "facts on the ground" in the form of illegal settlements that a Palestinian state would become impossible. However, time is not on Israel's side. With every year that passes, it has less allied countries. E.g. the change in South Africa's position after the fall of the apartheid regime. Meanwhile economic growth in the Muslim world and in countries with large Muslim minorities like China and India steadily shifts the geopolitics against Israel.
After ignoring the issue for President Bush's first seven years, the United States realised 12 months ago just how much the conflict in the Middle East damages its relations with large parts of world. Peace is in the interests of the USA, Britain, Europe, the surrounding Arab states and indeed the rest of the world. These countries do possess enough leverage on Israel and the Palestinians to impose a permanent peace.
Peace also cannot wait for an end to violence, as that makes peace a hostage to every gunman who wishes to stop the negotiations. Instead we need negotiations in 2009 leading to a final settlement.
Leaving to one side the maximum demands of the Israelis and Palestinians, it is clear to the rest of the world what a permanent peace agreement would look like. It would be based on the Saudi Arabian peace plan of 2002.
Israel needs to withdraw to its pre-1967 boundary, leaving Gaza and the West Bank for a Palestinian state which will be prohibited from possessing tanks or combat aircraft. The holy places in Jerusalem must be internationalised, and any territorial adjustments must involve equal exchanges of land.
Perhaps most painful, the Palestinians will have to give up any claim to a right of return to Israeli territory, instead receiving compensation in cash and the offer of citizenship in the countries where they live if they don't want to return to Gaza or the West Bank.
While the rest of the world can demand that Israel withdraws from the occupied territories, it cannot demand that Israel allows a return of the Palestinians which would quickly reduce the Jews to a minority within Israel. No Zionist who remembers how in 1939 Cuba, the United States and Britain sent Jewish refugees on the SS St. Louis back to Nazi Germany, where many were eventually murdered, will ever allow Israel's security to be imperilled by the influx of millions of Palestinians. The phrase "Never again" is not negotiable. The right of return cannot be imposed upon a nuclear armed Israel by either military or economic means; if necessary the Israelis will "Eat grass" in Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's memorable words.
Peace cannot rectify all past wrongs; it can only provide a basis for creating the future for both peoples. When the Palestinians have something to live for, Hamas and other rejectionists will be marginalised.
We need to speak up by writing to the press and to our elected politicians. The key points to make are:
Can people of goodwill around the world help the Israelis and Palestinians to make peace? Under the impending administration of President Obama, the only possible answer is "Yes we can!"
Each of us changes the world every day. We can choose to make it a better place.