Palestine, Part II

The time may have come for another lunge at peace. Bill Clinton as a special envoy may yet achieve what he almost did in 2000.

The Palestinian issue has resurfaced with the UN General Assembly voting to grant Palestine non-member status. What shocked Israel was the thin opposition to the resolution as principal European countries either voted for it (France, Italy, Switzerland etc) or abstained (UK, Germany etc). Only nine countries opposed the motion, led by the US and Israel but followed out of the major nations only by Canada. The vote boosted the image of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. In Israel, with parliamentary elections weeks away, the incumbent Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, retaliated by announcing the construction of 3,000 houses in a sensitive West Bank area, east of Jerusalem, further fragmenting the connectivity between Palestinian enclaves. Since 1977, when President Anwar Sadat of Egypt flew to Jerusalem to clasp Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s hand, sowing the seeds of expected final resolution of the Arab-Israel stand-off, the script has followed promise seen and then lost. The Indian romance with this subject radiated from the experience of colonial exploitation and freedom, as Israel was created a mere year after Indian Independence. While India recognised Israel, it abjured diplomatic relations until 1991 when, the Cold War having ended, the Madrid Peace Conference witnessed the open engagement of Arab countries with Israel to negotiate peace. The Narasimha Rao government was coerced by changing circumstances and US pressure to finally establish diplomatic relations with Israel, as otherwise India was to be excluded from even observing the peace process. India had reached the limits of an agitation-based approach to international dispute resolution. As a director in the ministry of external affairs, I led the Indian delegation to the political leg of the peace dialogue in Washington in December 1991, a precursor to the Oslo Accords in 1993. The handmaiden of this complex passion play was then President Bill Clinton, who is being mentioned afresh as a possible
special envoy to restart the West Asian peace process.
This earlier inflexion point was reached with the end of the Cold War and the retreat of Russia. The seven years from 1993 to 2000 saw persistent US efforts to lead the ageing dramatis personae of West Asia to comprehensive peace. It ended for President Clinton with a disappointing outcome of the final attempt in 2000 at Camp David when Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, taking over from the assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, could not marry their political convenience to historical necessity. Taylor Branch in his biographical Clinton Tapes recounts President Clinton telling him that “their timing had been consistently out of phase. Barak missed chances. Also, Arafat romanticised the memory of Yitzhak Rabin into an excuse for inaction…” Even humour could not retrieve success, with a joke regaling all that Arafat, on death meeting God, sought divine support for the map of Palestine or, alternatively, the looks of Brad Pitt. God immediately reached for the map.
Another such juncture has been reached now. The force of Arab Spring manifesting as popular uprising for representative governance encounters the whiplash of Islamic consciousness, ranging from mere piety to a radical and Wahhabi version of the faith. The locus of the conflict between the West and the East had shifted in 2001 to Afghanistan and then Iraq, Iran and now Syria. Israel could not imagine that a security paradigm it had carefully built through peace settlements with Egypt and Jordan would be undermined by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in both nations, now holding power in the former and undermining the ruler in the other.
Palestinians, divided since the 2006 elections in which the resurgent Hamas beat the dominant Fatah, have also begun re-positioning themselves. Hamas distanced itself from the Syrian Assad regime, and thus by association from Iran, by articulating support for the Sunni-led Opposition in Syria. Hezbollah in Lebanon, another Syrian-Iranian ally, is also watching the developments in Syria with concern as Sunni ascendancy there can feed a backlash against them in Lebanon, as the Assad regime’s muscle would no longer cover their flank. Western priority being to roll back the influence of Iran beyond its borders, as a prerequisite to ratcheting up pressure on Iran on the nuclear issue, suddenly makes the Palestinians useful pawns in the larger game. The disinterring of Arafat’s body to test for possible poisoning may yet make him as potent dead as when alive if the finger of assassination points at Israel. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi offers cooperation in the region to the US and Israel for a free hand at home. The plot has thickened.
The UN General Assembly resolution on Palestinian membership may have hurt Israeli sentiments, but it restores Palestinian self-confidence, a prerequisite for peace negotiation. It reiterates a Palestinian state having pre-1967 boundaries and its capital in East Jerusalem, thus implicitly conceding the pre-1967 boundaries of Israel. It now remains to be seen how the Israeli people vote.
The UN has signalled that unbridled expansion of settlements in West Bank are unacceptable. US President Barack Obama’s re-election offers Israel the choice to either vote for those alienating its key ally or opt for moderate voices. The time may have come for another lunge at peace. Mr Clinton as a special envoy may yet achieve what he almost did in 2000. It is said that he has in his memory the details of each disputed village or road. A Nobel Peace Prize may follow, celebrating in the process the contributions of two Nobel peace laureates, Anwar Sadat and Yitzhak Rabin, who died for the cause.

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry

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