Monday, 22 April 2013

Israel and Palestine - that elusive peace

As the Obama administration sets out once again in pursuit of peace between Israel and the Palestinians − a prize that has eluded the grasp of generations of statesmen and politicians, including US President Obama himself in his first term − it is sobering to consider how close the parties have come in the past to concluding an agreement, only for it to fall at the last hurdle.

A plethora of dates are strewn across the recent history of the Middle East, marking the inauguration of well-intentioned efforts to reach a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To list only some, there were the Madrid Conference in 1991, the Oslo Accord signed on the White House lawn on 13 September 1993, the Wye River Memorandum in 1998, the Camp David Summit in 2000, the Taba summit in 2001, the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002, the Road Map for Peace promulgated by the Quartet, and the Geneva Accord, both in 2003, the Annapolis process in 2007, and the Obama administration’s direct peace talks of September 2010.

But all those initiatives, involving so much time and effort on all sides, could have been rendered superfluous. History could have taken a quite different turn, and a sovereign Palestine could have been up and running some twenty-five years ago. For preceding them was the top-secret accord reached between Israel and Jordan at a time when Jordan exercised sovereignty over the West Bank and was in a position to negotiate a binding peace agreement establishing a sovereign Palestine alongside Israel.

Top-secret at the time, today the deal is a matter of public record. A single typewritten sheet of paper dated 11 April 1987 and headed “Secret / Most Sensitive” sets out what is described as: “A three-part understanding between Jordan and Israel” − in essence an agreement to convene and attend an international conference, under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council, charged with reaching a peaceful solution of both the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian problem “in all its aspects”.

The accord specifies that the invitation to attend the conference, as well as the terms of its remit, are to be “treated as US proposals to which Jordan and Israel have agreed.”

Despite the deliberately concise nature of the document, it can be assumed with some confidence that by the time it was signed on behalf of Jordan and Israel, the terms of a comprehensive peace deal had been virtually agreed by both sides.

“The agreement with Hussein,” said Shimon Peres in 2008, during an interview to mark his election as President of Israel the previous year, “was the best and greatest agreement Israel ever had. Alas, we torpedoed it. It was the greatest mistake in our history.”

It was Shimon Peres, then Israel’s foreign affairs minister, who negotiated with King Hussein of Jordan what became known as the “London Agreement” − it was signed in London on 11 April 1987, during a secret meeting held at the residence of Lord Mishcon, a leading UK lawyer and a prominent member of the Jewish community. Also present were Jordanian Prime Minister Zaid al-Rifai and Director General of the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry, Yossi Beilin.

The sting was in the tail of the document. “The above understanding is subject to the approval of the respective governments of Israel and Jordan.” With the king as signatory, the approval of the Jordanian government was a foregone conclusion. The problem − and a major problem it turned out to be − was Israel.

In 1987 Israel was ruled by a fragile and uncertain “national unity government” in which ministers were attempting − often unsuccessfully − to suppress diametrically opposite political beliefs in the interests of providing the nation with effective government. The prime minister was Yitzhak Shamir of the right-wing Likud party; Shimon Peres represented the left-wing Labor party in the cabinet. Chalk and cheese. Although Shamir permitted his foreign minister to undertake the secret negotiations and travel to London, he did not approve of the outcome, fearing that an international conference would force Israel into a solution that would be unacceptable to his party, and would prove divisive in the country as a whole.

Consequently he opposed the agreement, and Peres failed to get the cabinet’s endorsement. The signatories had agreed that their accord would be presented to US Secretary of State George Shultz so that it could be promoted as an American initiative. Shamir sent Moshe Arens, his Minister Without Portfolio, to meet Shultz and block the concept of a UN-hosted peace conference.

King Hussein, disappointed by Peres’s failure to obtain Israel’s endorsement of the agreement, disengaged from the peace process. Yassir Arafat, then Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, launched the first intifada in December 1987, and in July 1988 Hussein withdrew Jordan’s claim to sovereignty over the West Bank. The London Agreement was dead − but the initiative was not without positive consequences. Peres developed and maintained a special and secret relationship with King Hussein of Jordan for many years, leading eventually to negotiations under Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, and the peace agreement with Jordan signed in 1994.

"King Hussein and Prime Minister Peres have played extraordinary roles, over many years, in pursuing peace and liberty in the Middle East,” ran the encomium, when both men were presented jointly with the Liberty Medal in Philadelphia in 1996. “The 1994 accord between Jordan and Israel is remarkable because it goes beyond the cessation of belligerency and focuses on the normalization of relations. It is a model for the Middle East and a stimulus for the world."

Shimon Peres is now President of Israel. His belief in the desirability of reaching a peaceful accord with the Palestinians remains as firm as ever.

“The peace process with the Palestinians already has an agreed beginning and an agreed solution,” he said, addressing the European Parliament on 12 March 2013. “Two states for two nations. An Arab state – Palestine; a Jewish state – Israel, living in peace, security and economic cooperation. The remaining disputed issues can and should be negotiated. Together with my partner Yitzhak Rabin, we laid down the foundations for peace with the Palestinians. Now it is time to continue − to renew the peace process.”

Hopeful and encouraging words with which to mark the start of yet another journey − long and tortuous as it will doubtless be − in search of that elusive peace.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 21 April 2013:

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