Hugh Reilly says Middle East peace talks cannot move forward while Israel is supported in its tactics to block meaningful negotiations
THE world waits with somewhat unabated breath for a positive outcome in the latest round of stage-managed Middle East peace talks; a fractious breakdown would only succeed in fulfilling expectations. To be sure, it’s a matter of time before the duration of the conflict makes The Hundred Years War seem something of a skirmish. The roll of venues for past faux negotiations is longer than a food shopping list for someone who has featured in Channel 4’s Embarrassing Fat Bodies: Madrid (1991-93), Oslo (1993), Camp David (2000), Taba (2001), and of course, the cul-de-sac that was The Road Map (2003).
Blame for the impasse is apportioned equally to Israelis and Palestinians by much of the press and political commentators. I find this bizarre, given the asymmetrical nature of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute (David versus Goliath was less of mismatch). Objective evidence clearly demonstrates that only one side gains by merely continuing to talk about talks: Israel.
Essentially, Israel is conducting a colonial war, empire-building in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, contrary to international law and a flagrant breach of the Road Map signed by Ariel Sharon. Just a fortnight ago, politely postponing the touchy announcement while John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, was in the country, Israel stated that 1,400 homes would be added to its already burgeoning housing stock portfolio constructed on Palestinian land. Predictably, the US government and the European Union tut-tutted in the strongest diplomatic terms possible, but effectively did nothing concrete to prevent yet more brick obstacles appearing in the pathway of peace. Under Benjamin Netanyahu’s gaze, the dream of a Greater Israel continues.
Ostensibly, Israel’s hawkish prime minister is in favour of Palestinian emancipation. He has mouthed support for a two-state solution, even if his lips moved with the enthusiasm of a dummy operated by a ventriloquist with acute osteoarthritis of the hand. However, to use the epitaph of the suffragette martyr Emily Davison, observers would like to see “deeds not words”. Call me picky but, in my view, it is difficult to square his alleged desire for peace with the following statement he defiantly uttered at the recent Davos Conference: “I have no intention of evacuating any settlement or uprooting any Israelis.”
Worse, Netanyahu, alone of his office-holding predecessors, has conjured up the notion that the other side must recognise Israel as a Jewish state, despite one-fifth of his country’s population being Arab citizens. How patriotic an Israeli-Arab voter must feel on hearing his PM openly call for only one section of society, albeit the majority, to be afforded higher status? Can you imagine David Cameron demanding Britain be recognised as a Christian state? Under Oslo, the Palestine Liberation Organisation recognised Israel on condition that it returned to its 1967 borders; inventing a demand that the Palestinian leader, Mahmood Abbas, accepts Israel to be a monotheistic, monoracial entity is patently putting up another roadblock to peace.
If you don’t believe me, listen to Shimon Peres, Israel’s president: “The stubbornness of the prime minister [on insisting the Palestinian Authority recognises Israel as a Jewish state] is unnecessary and liable to make the peace talks fail.” (Source: Israel National News).
It puzzles me why we are constantly informed that Israel’s security needs are of paramount importance when even a cursory glance at the conflict’s casualty figures suggests that the Palestinians’ need for security is somewhat more pressing. According to B’Tselem (an Israeli peace organisation), almost 1,400 Palestinians died – more than 400 of whom were women and children – during Israel’s assault on Gaza a few years ago. Some 13 Israelis died, three by so-called friendly fire. In 2013, six Israelis were killed by Palestinians while 36 Palestinians died at the hands of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF).
In the unlikely event of Palestinians achieving a viable, independent state, Netanyahu is, under the guise of security, stipulating that an IDF presence must remain in the Jordan Valley. Using the monstrous 400 miles long West Bank barrier and IDF troops in the Jordan to hermetically seal in the Palestinian population is hardly a recipe for a durable peace and future reconciliation.
Supporters of Israel’s West Bank squatting never tire of repeating the canard that Israel departed Gaza in 2006. By any measure, including international law, Gaza is still occupied as Israel controls that finger of land’s borders, airspace and coast. The blockade of Gaza persists. This “economic warfare” (the words of the Israeli government) is a collective punishment designed to topple the Hamas government.
For years, Israel fed the line that there was no humanitarian crisis in Gaza, that only dangerous or dual-purpose materials were prohibited. However, as the Huffington Post revealed in 2010, the list of banned imports to that enclave proved to be a riveting read: A4 paper; books; pasta; crisps; shampoo and musical instruments – to name just six of the 81 prohibited items.
Thankfully, the world is showing signs that it will no longer tolerate Israel’s occupation. In 2012, the United Nations belatedly granted non-member observer status to Palestine, a step supported by 138 countries but opposed by nine (Israel and the US joined forces with, among others, Micronesia, Nauru and Palau). The BDS grassroots movement (Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions) is gaining traction in many countries, crippling export production located in Israeli settlements. As with South Africa, in the absence of concerted action by powerful governments, perhaps people-power will succeed in bringing about a political solution.
It is an unfortunate fact that any writer who dares to criticise the Israeli government’s actions in the occupied territories invariably excites cries of anti-Semitism from some quarters. High-profile Jewish individuals, such as Noam Chomsky, who have spoken out against Israel’s abuse of power are deemed to be self-hating Jews. Shooting the messenger, or even just smearing him, helps maintain the Middle-East problem as something of a taboo subject. Scottish schoolchildren receive no education regarding what is unarguably the most important international conflict – the topic was dropped from the Higher Modern Studies syllabus in the Nineties.
Let’s cut to the chaos. If Israel wishes to be regarded as a western-style democracy, it must decide to give up Arab land conquered through war. Should it choose to stick to the status quo and deny basic human rights to four million Palestinians, the US should not add to the some 40 or so vetoes it has already exercised in the UN Security Council to protect Israel from sanctions. Israel’s filibustering tactics at peace talks must not continue to be rewarded.
• Hugh Reilly is a former member of the Scottish Friends of Palestine