Old and New Peacemakers take their shots at Middle East peace
[Jerusalem] – Tony Blair surfaced in Jerusalem last week for, by his reckoning, the 147th time. Having recently stepped down from his role as the point man for the Quartet – the international entity that has taken on the mission of making peace between the Israelis and Palestinians and includes the United Nations, United States, European Union and Russia – the former British prime minister tried to explain to an array of senior journalists exactly why he feels that now, as an unattached actor, he can succeed where he failed as the envoy of the Western world. His response was less enlightening for its substance than what it represents: the latest wave of peace plans – new, re-made or simply copied – that are flooding the region in lieu of traction between the parties.
While Blair clearly has his work cut out for him, he appeared both realistic about his chances and hopeful that someone on each side will listen to ideas he says he is in better position to offer more candidly in private conversation than he was while saddled with the responsibility of representing governments and world bodies.
Blair’s is not the only peace plan being proffered at the moment. Hilik Bar, the Israeli opposition Labor Party’s Secretary General and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset (Parliament), has also thrown an offering into the ring. Bar is somewhat of an enigma in his penchant for embracing the Palestinians in ways his political rivals would not countenance while nevertheless remaining unapologetically firm on matters of defense and security. He was the force behind bringing more than 100 young Israelis to the “Muqata” – the seat of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah – to meet PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Yet, perhaps most telling about his party seniors’ reaction to his peace plan is the fact that although Labor chairman Isaac Herzog and former peace negotiator Tzippi Livni were effusive in praising Bar’s initiative, neither said anything that could be even remotely construed as an endorsement.
Blair and Bar share at least part of a premise: that the “traditional approach” typified by the failure-ridden negotiation process will never bear fruit; and the idea that underlying the spiraling tension between Israelis and Palestinians that has now escalated to the point where many refer to the “third intifada” – or uprising – is in large part the feeling of despair by young Palestinians whom Blair describes as watching and juxtaposing Israeli prosperity against their own inferior economy and dependence upon “the occupation” for necessities.
But Blair’s game changer is to shift the world-view of the talks from bilateral to regional, accomplished by adopting the 2002 Arab Peace Plan as his magnet for regional support and involvement. Asked by The Media Line why, 13-years later, that might happen, Blair explained that, “the political position in Israel and Palestine is not strong enough” to support a deal. He posits that the regional focus inherent in coalescing around the Arab Initiative will provide the “political ballast” necessary to fill the vacuum left by the failures.
Blair’s reading is, in effect, supported by Elias Zananiri, a senior Palestinian official who has been at the epicenter of virtually all negotiating efforts since the early 1990s. Zananiri told The Media Line that the Arab Initiative “continues to be the front line for every leader, not only in Palestine, but in the Arab world and the Islamic states.”
Both the Blair and Bar plans also call for the parties to understand up-front, going into the process, that the end result will necessarily include a return to 1967 borders (with land swaps as determined). For Bar, the ice-breaker will be that the ensuing talks begin, not result, in recognition of a Palestinian state with the option for Israelis living on post-1967 lands not part of the land swap to remain as citizens of “Palestine.”
Blair’s second point – perhaps the easiest to accomplish — is the need to build peace “from the ground up” at the same time leaders hash out the details of the “top-down” agreement. This entails offering improvements in the quality of life, many of which require “only” the political decision to do so. In fact, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu reportedly carried such a list with him when he visited President Obama in the White House last week.
Ironically, the element Blair tags as his third principle — Palestinian unity – is a lofty goal by any accounting but not one addressed by Bar. It’s also at once the element most essential to making Blair’s engine run but impervious to Israeli influence.
What Blair did not say but is inherent within any realistic reading of his plan is that core issues will have to be agreed-upon before formal peace talks resume. This, in large part because the plan’s reliance upon the Arab Initiative which, when unveiled, included an absolute prohibition against altering its terms as presented; a caveat which was never rescinded.
But apparently to Bar, that’s a good thing. He told The Media Line that, “It will turn around when leaders on both sides acknowledge [certain points] before there will be another round of negotiations.” By way of example, Bar used the core issue of the Palestinian right of return, explaining that the “Palestinians will understand that the right of return will not happen in the borders of Israel but will be solved in the borders of the newly created Palestinian state [in which] they will be able to govern and fight incitement. And they will understand that Israel, although having a large Arab minority, is the nation-state of the Jewish people. This is what they have to acknowledge and understand before renewing negotiations.”
Recent research has suggested that the primary reason for the failure of talks to resume is the overwhelming disbelief by the Israeli population that negotiations can succeed. This pessimism is being further exacerbated as much of Israel’s population looks toward Abbas in with seemingly little hope that he will condemn the growing violence or at least the specific murders of Israeli civilians as Netanyahu did when Jewish terrorists murdered a Palestinian family. Blair addressed the issue along with the matter of reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas by encouraging a change in attitude on the part of President Abbas, suggesting that “He cannot say he wants reconciliation but have no policy to pursue it…He needs a strategy for statehood, not a strategy for sympathy.”
Bar and Blair are not alone in their decisions to pursue the peace that has eluded many before them. But while the pessimists argue both plans rely on actions that are simply “not in the cards,” others are looking at the spate of new plans as containing fresh ideas; and hoping some have value.