Article first published in the Arab News 4th February 2020 https://arab.news/vxt2f
There is an old British joke, which I assume has a parallel in many a local idiom, where, in desperation, a puzzled and lost traveller asks a local how to reach a particular destination. After a moment’s reflection, the local says: “Well, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.”
I found it hard not to have this running through my mind as I watched US President Donald Trump present the “deal of the century” to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and an invited audience in Washington last week. If the latest instalment of a negotiation was to begin, it was hard to reconcile with what looked like a one-sided affair; offering as an answer to the most difficult and long-running conundrum in world politics a solution that appeared to give virtually everything to one party in the equation.
The Trump administration took on the mantle of its predecessors as the “broker” in the Middle East peace process. Low expectations in Whitehall were initially raised as, unlike others who largely waited until a second term, Trump offered his deal as a first-term opportunity. The legacy of the past is a difficult one, littered with missed opportunities on both sides. It is a wretched, grinding dispute, sapping the energy from any who sought to end it, with a stalemate for some on the ground countered by relentless activity from others, with violence and death never too far away, via bomb, rocket or bullet. Trump’s envoys have worked at their task and, despite much pressure to share key elements of it, resisted until last Tuesday. Would they themselves have chosen this timing?
I had a number of meetings with a courteous and genuinely engaged Jason Greenblatt while he was Trump’s special envoy for Middle East peace. As a UK minister, I offered persistently, from 2017 onwards, three pieces of advice: Do not humiliate the Palestinians, particularly those who recognized the state of Israel and were working with it on security issues; do not assume that economics outweighs all other issues; and, if your ultimate proposal favors Israel in a number of aspects, ensure there is enough for the rest of us to work with, so that it is not dead on arrival.
I was travelling in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza the week before the announcement. When word came through that Netanyahu and Benny Gantz were to go to Washington, the reaction from all sides was the same: That this could only mean something of benefit to Israel, to a prime minister in the middle of an uncertain election process. The timing and content of the announcement confirmed the obvious.
But, like the reality behind the punchline of the old joke, we do now have to start from here. The announcement cannot be undone, or forgotten. It takes its place in the history of the peace process. We are where we are, so what do we do now?
While it is not the solution, the audacity of the proposal, rather than its detail, and its timing give it a momentum of its own and this should not be lost. And if the proposal undoubtedly took Israel’s side, the reaction to it has, to a degree, redressed the balance. It stimulated a meeting between Fatah and Hamas, who must realize that their inability to reconcile their differences and provide a unified leadership, based on the reality of Israel’s existence, is a handicap only they can overcome. Some Arab states attended Washington, making a brutal point that, over the years, other risks had arisen in the region beyond that of this unresolved problem, and not everything could be permanently on hold because of it. The Arab League met quickly, however, to make a strong and unified statement, rejecting the deal as the answer and reminding all that some international parameters could not simply be ignored. The EU did not endorse Trump’s plan, the UK gave a warning against immediate annexation, which had appeared likely, while Benny Gantz and Jared Kushner also recognized the danger of this, not least to a crucial ally like Jordan.
After fears of precipitate action and crisis, perhaps a slight pause allows for reflection on next steps.
We should not let this chance pass. If this is not the way forward, what is? What is the counter-offer? A unilateral solution, based on facts established on the ground, where international law no longer holds sway, is an uncomfortable precedent, noted carefully by others who would wish to apply similar logic to disputes — another cut in the slow death of multilateralism. For the give and take of real negotiations to triumph, ensuring the all-party acceptance that is the true guarantee of peace, a more inclusive process, with serious Palestinian engagement, must speedily emerge. I suspect many will share UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash’s perception that a “realistic stance” and “positive strategy” was required from Arab states, heeding his balanced warning that support and faith in the Palestinian cause should not be dismissed, while that was not in itself enough to change the balance of influence and power.
The neutral “broker” finally disappeared last week, but the US will remain key. Swift action by others — neighbours and other powers — must work with the central characters, whose acceptance alone has to provide the base of peace. There is no time to lose.
- Alistair Burt is a former UK Member of Parliament who has twice held ministerial positions in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State from 2010 to 2013 and as Minister of State for the Middle East from 2017 to 2019. Twitter: @AlistairBurtUK