Israel and Palestine: is optimism suddenly not so crazy after all?

Earlier this month I put a shortish paper on my website in which I summarised a stimulating discussion of the current Israel and Palestine situation over lunch at a London club between a group of retired diplomats and a leading analyst of middle east affairs then visiting Britain. The guardedly optimistic analysis by the middle east specialist (whom under the rules of our discussion I can’t name) was received with a fair amount of scepticism by others at the lunch who are far more knowledgeable than I about Israel generally and Ariel Sharon in particular, but I must say that Sharon’s speech in the Knesset debate on his Gaza withdrawal proposals on 25 October seems to lend it a good deal of startling credence. See e.g. Chris McGreal’s piece in the Guardian on 27 October and Jonathan Freedland in the same newspaper on the same day. The full text of Sharon’s speech to the Knesset is well worth reading.

Ariel Sharon’s speech certainly seemed to confirm the visiting analyst’s key and controversial points that (1) Sharon now recognises that Israel’s longer term problems can’t be solved by military force alone, contrary to his beliefs hitherto; (2) Sharon now accepts, also for the first time, that any solution must include Israeli acceptance and recognition of, and cooperation with, an independent Palestine state; (3) Sharon, and many other Israelis, have begun to acknowledge the implications of the demographic reality – i.e. that on present birth-rate trends, Arabs will outnumber Jews in Israel within a relatively few years; and (4), perhaps most controversially of all, Sharon has not abandoned the road map and realises that the future of the Israeli settlements on the West Bank and Israel’s eventual borders will have to be negotiated and agreed with the Palestinians, not imposed unilaterally: although unlike the other points, this was not apparent from the Knesset speech; but it was not contradicted either. Taking these points together with Sharon’s determination to evacuate Gaza in the teeth of ferocious opposition from the political and clerical forces to his right, the analyst concluded that (5) Sharon now occupies a relatively moderate position in the political spectrum, in some respects closer to the Labour Party than to elements in his own Likud party, with the threat to both his political leadership and also to his life coming from right-wing extremists (witness the intensive security with which he is now permanently surrounded, with its ominous and ironical echoes of the fate of Yitzhak Rabin).

Do we, as McGreal and Freedland implicitly suggest, need to revise our mental image of Ariel Sharon? With the removal from the political scene of Yasser Arafat now apparently imminent, a sea-change at the White House due within a few weeks (even if Bush is re-elected, which heaven forbid, he will no longer be a president always acting with one eye on the implications for his chances of re-election), Blair’s pledge to put Arab-Israel at the top of his agenda once the US elections are over, and the shifts in Sharon’s position described earlier, the whole scene seems incomparably more fluid now than it has done since Bush, with Blair’s immediate endorsement, appeared to abandon the roadmap, torpedoing it in the process. This must offer new opportunities, especially if a newly realistic Israeli leader and a post-Arafat Palestinian leadership have the imagination to grasp them. Perhaps our lunch-time analyst wasn’t so far off the mark as we thought at the time in taking that shockingly optimistic view.

29 October 2004

2 Responses

  1. Sharon’s speech, remarkably short and to the point, certainly seems to be that of a man facing difficult truths. He has quite a task ahead taking his own people with him and at the same time developing useful relations with the Palestinians and other Arabs. I wonder how far the Iraq business suggested to him that relying entirely on US support might be counter-productive. Did your analyst indicate any kind of time scale for the thaw? My own very amateur feeling is for a long process rather than a quick “breakthrough”.

  2. Brian says:


    >>Did your analyst indicate any kind of time scale for the thaw?<< Not that I remember, and anyway I’m not sure that he would have used the word ‘thaw’ for what is happening: he spoke of a ‘paradigm change’ in the attitudes of Sharon and many other Israelis who share his views, and stressed the extent of the common ground established in the track two talks and contacts that have been going on quietly and without fanfare between the Israelis and Palestinians, contrary perhaps to the general public perception. I fear that any tentative progress that might have been achieved in recent weeks will have suffered a severe set-back with the suicide car-bombing in Tel Aviv yesterday, and whatever tough response to it may be mounted by the Israelis. If Bush is re-elected today, that too will clearly be a set-back since he and his minders don’t seem to understand that any hope of a settlement, or even progress towards one, depends on the US being sufficiently even-handed to gain the trust of both sides. Jonathan Dimbleby’s late-night programme on ITV last night about the ‘next world war’ (on terrorism, poverty and global warming) demonstrated in some of the interviews with Palestinians just how deep the hatred of Israel runs and how attractive the idea of martyrdom by mass murder and suicide to kill Israelis along with oneself seems to be to some of these young Arabs. It’s hard to see how Arafat’s successor is going to deal with these ingrained attitudes, which will clearly obstruct a constructive response to more statesmanlike overtures from Sharon (if any). Hard to be optimistic, after all. Brian