Stephen Potter was a peculiarly English humourist. He flourished in the golden age of British radio (a period, say, between 1935 and 1965), and his wry, self-deprecating delivery of home truths delighted listeners for many years. In 1947 he published a book which he titled, tongue-in-cheek: "The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship (or the Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating)". It was filled with what he called "ploys" – subtle ways of disconcerting your opponent so that you gained an advantage and won the game, even if you didn't actually deserve to. He may have gained some of his ideas from watching world-class chess players, who seem to have turned these techniques into an art form.
Potter's book was so successful that, a few years later, he published a sequel, "Lifemanship" in which he expanded his original ideas from the area of sport to life itself. He followed this in 1952 with a volume he called: "One-upmanship". The book introduced a new word into the language. It is defined in the Oxford English dictionary as: "the art of maintaining a psychological advantage."
Which may be a somewhat roundabout way of approaching the current débacle in the Israel-Palestine situation.
After months of shuttle diplomacy aimed at bringing Israel and the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table, after the emergence of the idea of a first phase of talking at arms length – so-called "proximity talks", after the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, was persuaded by the USA and by the Arab League to abandon his previous conditions for re-opening talks – after all this, on Monday, just as the resumption of talks was announced by Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, Israel's defence minister Ehud Barak gave permission for the construction of 112 housing units in the West Bank settlement of Beitar Ilit.
The Palestinian side was up in arms, pointing out that if proof were needed that Israel was not serious about peace talks, this was it. They claimed it negated the assurance given by prime minister Netanyahu of a ten-month freeze on construction in the West Bank. The Israeli response was that this was an exception to the ban, made on the grounds of safety.
On Tuesday American Vice-President, Joe Biden, arrived in the Middle East to oversee the start of the renewed peace process. He had no sooner set foot in Israel than the Interior Ministry announced plans to build 1600 new housing units in Ramat Shlomo, an ultra-orthodox neighbourhood in north-eastern Jerusalem, near the Palestinian refugee camp of Shu'afat.
Outrage on the Palestinian side was immediate, and is by no means mollified yet. The announcement was also condemned on all sides, not least in unequivocal terms by Vice President Biden. Netanyahu is understood to have had no prior knowledge of the announcement, and he reportedly told Biden that this was only a final approval of a plan begun three years ago, that regional councils are responsible for planning decisions of this type, and that his government attempts not to interfere with their work. He also noted that actual construction is not set to begin for another two years. In any event, the ten-month freeze on construction that he had announced was specifically not extended to East Jerusalem.
What is going on? The only conclusion that an outside observer can come to is that we are witnessing the result of some internal Israeli show of one-upmanship. Last week it was Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, seeking to demonstrate his prowess, who came close to destroying dozens of Palestinian homes in Silwan. On Monday it was defence minister Ehud Barak flexing his muscles, with his permission for 112 new housing units in Beitar Ilit. Yesterday we had Interior Minister Eli Yishai using his construction decision in Ramat Shlomo as a means of bolstering his own standing within Shas. It can be taken as a signal of the party's opposition to all concessions in Jerusalem, and hang the consequences.
Or is it, as one commentator suggests today, that neither the Palestinian nor the Israeli sides really believe in the peace process at all? It is not, he opines, as though anyone in the Palestinian Authority really believed Netanyahu, Lieberman, Barak et al wanted peace, even before this latest stunt. Meanwhile, he suggests, the Israeli government is doing all it can to prove that it is not interested in a final status agreement based on the 1967 borders as demanded by the U.S. and the Palestinians. Another display of one-upmanship? But perhaps this is only the game to be expected as the two sides jockey for position.
For it does seem, at the moment at least, as though the proximity talks have not been derailed. George Mitchell is expected back in the region next week to conduct the second round, and the U.S. administration hopes that direct discussions might be resumed, even if only between junior-level Israeli and Palestinian officials, within a reasonably short time. The Arab League, the US initially following them, proposed that this first phase last only four months, but Mitchell has now said that his administration is not operating to a timetable, and that negotiations will proceed as long as necessary.
Let's hope so.