By SM Farid Mirbagheri
Amidst the carnage that has tragically afflicted Syria and the uncertainty over the future of Iran’s nuclear deal, the Arab-Israeli dispute has taken the back seat. It is not for its lack of significance that the longest lingering conflict in the world, increasingly viewed as the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, is receiving less international attention. In part, at-least, it is symptomatic of the frustration of many who for more than half a century have tried and failed to introduce a lasting settlement.
The territorial trait of this dispute with Jerusalem at its heart is the focal point. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians refer to it as their capital. A land that is sacred to all the Abrahamic religions has inevitably drawn other countries into the long-standing conflict. Arguably the hottest piece of real estate in the world, Jerusalem has a value no country can ignore and a political price tag few can afford.
The moving of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem appears to have pleased the Israeli side but seemingly without any reciprocal concessions from Tel Aviv for the Palestinians. One wonders if the US president did not act prematurely in that regard. He could have announced instead that Washington recognised Israel’s capital to be in West Jerusalem and that the capital city of Palestine would be in East Jerusalem. Pending a settlement, both peoples would be able to fulfill their long-term ambitions.
During times of turmoil, like now, usually the less compromising leaders take the centre stage. They are typically more recalcitrant and adopt more confrontational policies. Ironically enough, however, all the deals struck with the Arabs and the Palestinians have been negotiated and arrived at by conservative Israeli leaders. The Camp David of 1979, The Oslo Accords of 1993 and the establishment of diplomatic ties with Jordan in 1994 were all achieved during the premiership of Menachim Begin and Yitzak Rabin. Even today’s warming of relations with Saudi Arabia is taking place under the government of Benjamin Netanyahu.
President Trump’s ‘ultimate deal’ announced last year does not seem to have achieved much in the way of a settlement. His attention is now diverted to Syria and the looming prospects of an escalation into a wider regional conflict whilst the Palestinian issue is relegated on the White House’s agenda.
Yasser Arafat reportedly refused to accept a settlement in the last year of Bill Clinton’s presidency in the belief that crediting the incoming US president, George Bush, with a solution would be more prudent than rewarding the outgoing one. That was bad politics indeed. Referred to as one of the biggest mistakes of the Palestinians ever, that opportunity may not readily present itself again in the foreseeable future. Leaders can play a vital role in the lives of their people.
Yet it remains an open question whether or not a top-down approach by international and local statesmen can in itself deliver a settlement. The level of anguish and mistrust between the two peoples may perceivably stand in the way of any agreement reached between their leaders. Therefore confidence-building measures may also have to be put in place to generate a minimum degree of trust.
To get a settlement you need visionary and courageous leaders on both sides, who can inspire their people to take difficult steps for the sake of peace. Israel must accede to the fact that there cannot be a military solution to this protracted problem. The occupied lands of the Palestinians must be returned to them and the settlers should be relocated and compensated by the Israeli government.
Palestinians must heal their internal divisions and negotiate on a united front with conviction. Fractured leadership only hurts their cause and brings doubt on the durability of any agreement reached with Israel.
Professor SM Farid Mirbagheri is professor of international relations and holds the Dialogue Chair in Middle Eastern studies at the University of Nicosia