Will time run out for the Middle East?

August 8, 2013 11:33 am

One MP was recently suspended from his Party for sending out inappropriate messages about Israel through social media. Others have been vociferous in their criticisms of the state in Parliamentary debates. This seems odd when the current Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has not only committed to re-engage with peace talks being brokered by US Secretary of State, John Kerry, with the support of our own Foreign Secretary, William Hague, but also started his current term of office in 2009 with one of the most courageous volte-faces that the Middle East has seen in decades.

In his book, A Durable Peace, published in 1993, Mr Netanyahu set out his implacable opposition to the proposal of a Palestinian State on the West Bank of the River Jordan arguing that the Palestinians already had their own state in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. He feared that such a new Palestinian state would make Israel’s borders indefensible and leave the country vulnerable to invasion. This was a longstanding and deeply held view which informed all Netanyahu’s political thinking and underpinned his career.

Yet, in a hugely important speech in 2009 that same hardliner specifically accepted the possibility of a Palestinian State existing alongside Israel – the very two-state system that will inevitably be on the agenda as part of the new round of talks for which William Hague pressed so strongly in February this year. Indeed, when John Kerry then visited this country, it was Mr Hague who seized the headlines with the warning that the world had “only one or two years” to resolve the problem and that the Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem could scupper entirely any prospect for a resolution in the future.

I don’t claim to be an expert on these issues which have rumbled on throughout my whole life, but I think I can now see why Kerry, Hague and Netanyahu have, for the first time perhaps, realised that the powerful forces of demography (population profiles) and psephology (analysis of voting patterns) have taken the politics of the region to a point of no return. Sort it out now, or time has run out, is the clear message and is the reason for hope that progress may finally be made.

What remains an implacable and non-negotiable principle for Mr Netanyahu is that Israel should continue as an independent, sovereign, democratic, Jewish State. The fear that is driving the new negotiations is that this is now in doubt simply because of a disparity in birth-rates between the Palestinian and Israeli communities. If the West Bank and East Jerusalem Palestinians continue to be considered as part of Israel, a situation risks being created in which the Israelis cease to be the majority group.

By permitting a separate Palestinian State on the West Bank, Israel could divest itself of some 4 million Palestinians and thereby secure its own more homogenous cultural identity as a Jewish democracy.

Yet, whilst this is relatively clear and provides a real incentive to get to the negotiating table quickly, a second Israeli strategy, the growth in the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem (over half a million in total) makes it increasingly difficult to deliver since those settlers will not wish to be part of such a Palestinian State.

In short, Israeli policy is pulling in two completely different and irreconcilable directions. Netanyahu must address this urgently, and he knows it. That is why he, John Kerry and William Hague are willing to invest so much political capital in seeking to make early progress.

We are teetering on the brink of a historic chasm. Will Israel survive as a Jewish democracy? The populations at present in the area as a whole are estimated as 6 million Jews and 5.66 million Arabs. The arithmetic is getting very close.

The West simply cannot afford further instability in this region, nor can natural justice permit a continuing failure to grasp the nettle of reform. So, on the grounds of human rights, religious freedom, international stability, economic and above all moral grounds, this is one occasion when readers might perhaps want to drop their local Member of Parliament a note welcoming the latest peace initiative and asking that both the Foreign Secretary and the Israeli Prime Minister be praised for their constructive engagement and John Kerry for his global lead.

 

Chris Whitehouse

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