Gaza War Is Exactly What Leaders Want

Don't expect the leaders of Israel or Palestine to give an inch over the latest crisis - they know that war strengthens their hold on power rather than weakens it. Only popular protest can bring about a change.
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Don't expect the leaders of Israel or Palestine to give an inch over the latest crisis - they know that war strengthens their hold on power rather than weakens it. Only popular protest can bring about a change.

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Once again, the Israelis are bombing the Palestinian enclave of the Gaza Strip whilst Palestinian rockets fly towards nearby Israeli towns. At least twenty Palestinians, including three children and three Israelis are dead so far. The air is also thick with the usual “he started it”, “no, he started it” recriminations from leaders on both sides.

Some of the people suffering on the ground are less focused than their leaders on apportioning blame for each outbreak of violence. This viewpoint was articulated with remarkable grace under fire by  young Palestinian Mohammed Sulaiman, on CNN yesterday. Whilst Israeli bombs rattled and shook his home terrifyingly around him, Mr Sulaiman said that he was no longer interested in being seen as a victim and just wanted a peaceful solution to the overarching conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Unfortunately for him and many others, incidents such as the current sickening bombardment will keep recurring until that long-term end to the dispute arrives.

It's been clear for a long time what the only realistic solution to the dispute looks like: Two states based roughly on the internationally recognised 1967 borders between Israel and the Palestinian Territories. As Amos Oz, the great Israeli novelist, has remarked, the Israelis and Palestinians dispute is not due to a lack of mutual understanding. Both sides understand each other all too well. They both want all the land of the 1947 British Mandate Palestine. But neither can have that and peace as well, so ultimately they will have to accept a compromise that will delight no-one but benefit almost everyone.

A common refrain from those professing to want peace is that it would happen if only they could get rid of the extremists on both sides. This is a cop-out and won't materialise as long as the conflict persists. Hardliners prosper in times of conflict and have an interest in keeping it going. Arguably, the extremists are already in government in Israel and Gaza and have enough support to keep it that way for the immediate future. If enough people want a genuine and viable peace agreement, then they must demand it from their leaders. Most leaders who want to stay in power will, in the end, bow to public demand. They may even end up administering the peace as the former intransigents of Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party have done in Northern Ireland. A hardcore minority on both sides will never accept compromise and have to be tackled by joint security cooperation between the two new states. Pretending that no deal is possible until the nihilist diehards have somehow been wished away gives them a veto over the peace that most Israelis and Palestinians say they want.

Having said that, leadership is still a big part of the problem. The Palestinian leaders are variously mired in weakness, incompetence, corruption and fundamentalist unreason. But all of the indications are that enough of them would be willing to make a peace agreement based on the two state solution.

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The Israelis are by far the stronger party, militarily, economically and politically. The military imbalance means that they are able to inflict more death and damage than the Palestinians whenever violence flares up. But their relative strength also places a greater onus on them to revive the moribund peace process. Sadly, there is little sign that the current Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, wants to achieve a viable agreement with the Palestinians or has the courage, possessed by some of his predecessors such as the decorated warrior Yitzhak Rabin, necessary to make a “Peace of the Brave”.

Instead, Netanyahu seems determined to keep Israel set on a mission to forfeit all of the historic goodwill that his remarkable country built up in the decades following its foundation. Israel’s building of ever more illegal settlements on occupied land and its abominable treatment of the Palestinians means that it is increasingly perceived around the world as a brutal bully, rather than the brave and innovative country it was long seen as.

Netanyahu is probably right to calculate that Israel currently has the strength to stay on its present course and to dominate the Palestinians without any support beyond a mainly right-wing segment of the US electorate. But the frightening prospect for friends of Israel, and many Israelis, is that such an approach assumes that it will remain more powerful than its neighbours, and retain US support, indefinitely.

In an unpredictable world, that is a much greater gamble and a lot less secure than making a peace deal with the Palestinians.

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