Hopes for peace between Israel and the Palestinians exist in a world that is stuck between the darkest hours of the night and a bright and false dawn. Mostly it’s night. Beware whenever you hear references to a renewal of a “peace process”. It has been hard to bring dead initiatives back to life.
Perhaps President Donald Trump, unpredictably as ever, will spring a big diplomatic surprise.
But if recent leaks are correct, the US president seems to be preparing to announce a deal that suits his supporters and Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
President Trump may believe, truly and without doubt, that he is offering the “deal of the century”. It might be for Mr Netanyahu. Israel may be given the green light to annex large parts of the occupied West Bank based on the areas in which it has settled Jews.
The Palestinians will be told that it is in their best interests to accept reality, concentrate on economic sweeteners instead of defeated national aspirations and realise fast that they would be making a grave mistake to turn the deal down.
But they are already boycotting the Trump Administration because of its overtly pro-Israeli agenda, and they are planning a “day of rage”.
Bitterness and blame
President Trump’s deal may look more like a surrender document than anything else, a chance for Israel to seal its victory over the Palestinians once and for all, seven decades after its own independence and more than a century since Zionist settlement in Palestine began.
Most Israelis would say that Zionism and the creation of their state marked the legitimate return of a persecuted people to their historic and religious homeland. Most Palestinians would say that Zionism is responsible for the catastrophic colonisation and theft of their land.
Whichever way you look at it, the conflict that resulted is in its second century. It has always smouldered and often blazed.
Through all the years of mediation in peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, the top US priorities have always been Israel’s wishes, constraints and most of all its security. But successive US presidents accepted that peace required a Palestinian state alongside Israel, even if they were not prepared to allow it equal sovereignty.
Israel argues the Palestinians turned down a series of good offers. The Palestinian negotiators say they made huge concessions, not least accepting Israel’s existence in about 78% of their historic homeland.
A negotiated peace did seem possible once, almost 30 years ago. A series of secret talks in Norway became the Oslo peace process, forever symbolised by a ceremony on the White House lawn in 1993 presided over by a beaming President Bill Clinton.
Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s greatest war leader, and Yasser Arafat, the human embodiment of Palestinian hopes for freedom, signed documents promising to negotiate the future, not fight for it. The two bitter enemies even shook hands. Rabin, Arafat, and Israel’s foreign minister, Shimon Peres, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Oslo was an historic moment. The Palestinians recognised the State of Israel. The Israelis accepted that the Palestine Liberation Organisation represented the Palestinian people.
Cracks soon appeared in the Oslo edifice. Benjamin Netanyahu called it a mortal threat to Israel. Some Palestinians, like the academic Edward Said, condemned it as a surrender. The Palestinian militants of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, sent suicide bombers to kill Jews and wreck the chances of a deal.
The atmosphere in Israel turned ugly. Yitzhak Rabin was demonised by some of his fellow Israelis as no better than a Nazi, and portrayed at demonstrations as an officer of the SS. Months of incitement culminated in his assassination by a Jewish extremist on 4 November 1995.
Rabin’s killer wanted to wreck the peace process, and he believed the best way to do that was to eliminate the Israeli best equipped to make it a reality. He was right.
Even if Rabin had lived, Oslo might still have failed, defeated by small details as well as huge issues like the future of Jerusalem, by leaders on both sides who preferred conflict to compromise, and by the violent reality of a continued Israeli occupation and Palestinian opposition to it.
Oslo took years to fade away. Some diplomats and leaders tried to save it. But it was a false dawn, followed by cynicism, distrust, betrayal and violence.
Israel accelerated its project to settle hundreds of thousands of Jews on land it captured in the 1967 Middle East war on the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the territory the Palestinians still want for a state.
Israel insists what is doing is legal. Most of the rest of the world believes that the Israelis are breaking international law, which forbids the settlement of an occupying power’s citizens on the land it occupies.
The timing of the announcement may have as much to do with the political and legal needs of Messrs Trump and Netanyahu as it has with the chances of a diplomatic breakthrough.
Both men face elections, and prosecution. Mr Trump is being impeached, on trial in the US Senate for high crimes and misdemeanours. Mr Netanyahu faces criminal charges of corruption, bribery and breach of trust.
Failed attempts at peace can be dangerous. The collapse of the Camp David peace summit in 2000 was followed by a violent Palestinian uprising. The stakes are high, and the chances of success are low.