The Middle East ‘Last Chance’ Dance

By Tim Collins

If the recent flurry of Mideast diplomatic activity is any indication, a new chapter in Israeli-Palestinian relations may soon unfold. En route to London to meet with the Middle East Peace Quartet on Friday, Secretary Rice said, ‘I do believe that the window for the two-state solution will not be forever open.’ The rush is on.

As usual, much rides on this latest round of the seemingly interminable peace process. But is it – as Jordan’s King Abdullah II warned recently – the last chance for peace between Israel and the Palestinians? King Abdullah is concerned that the growth in extremism in the Middle East will threaten the region’s moderates – a group inclined toward peace.

But notwithstanding the burgeoning predilection for intolerance and ideology in parts of the Arab world, there have been countless ‘last chances’ for the Israelis and Palestinians to achieve peace. In fact, Abba Eban’s famous remark – "Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity" – should have perhaps begun, "Israelis and Palestinians…" such has been the pairs’ shared habit of baulking at crucial junctures. 

Yet, whenever there seems to be progress on the peace front – however infinitesimal – that point in time takes on a sense of urgency otherwise absent from the decades long process. Consider the following abridged chronology of ‘last chances’.

In April 1971, United Nations Secretary General U Thant responded to the announcement of plans to unite Egypt, Syria and Libya – the union that from 1972-75 was known as the Federation of Arab Republics – by declaring that "now is the last chance for peace in the Middle East." 

Twenty years later, an April 25 1991 editorial in The New York Times bemoaned the ‘all-too-familiar rigidities on both sides of the Arab-Israeli divide [that] threaten to scuttle this best chance yet for comprehensive Middle East peace.’

In October that year, the Madrid Conference seemed to offer great promise, seeing as it afforded the Palestinians an opportunity to speak on their own behalf, albeit as part of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. But the imperatives of the 1992 election cycles in Israel and America – among other factors – took their toll on that theretofore-unprecedented opportunity.

In 2000, Israel’s Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh wrote in a July 13 Washington Post editorial that the Camp David summit was ‘the last chance for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.’ Of course, the summit failed. The subsequent eruption in September 2000 of the second intifada, which as of today, has not officially ended, continues to obstruct the peace process.

Fast-forward eight years and not much has changed, not even the preferred officialesce. On Friday, the Quartet met in London where a statement was issued commending the parties ‘for their continuous and intensive negotiations’. Calling on both parties to ‘fulfil their obligations under the Road Map’, the Quartet ‘expressed its deep concern’ at Israel’s continued ‘settlement activity’, and called on the Palestinian Authority to ‘fight terrorism and to accelerate steps to rebuild and refocus its security apparatus.’

In London, Secretary Rice said, "I believe that they do have a chance to get an agreement by the end of the year, and that’s what we’re going to work for everyday." But it is difficult to conceive of an administration that has for seven years practiced what former Ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, has called "decided disengagement", achieving anything whatsoever before the close of business next January.

Indeed, the pattern of US behavior post-Annapolis is instructive. Only six months after the landmark conference, not nearly enough has been done by the US to capitalize on the demonstrated commitment of the Israeli and Palestinian leaders. If the joint statement issued at Annapolis augured well for substantive progress, the process came unstuck only a month later when in December 2007 Israel erected some 300 hundred new homes on occupied territory. No amount of ‘deep concern’ expressed over the coming days and weeks will alter that concrete reality.

It is difficult, therefore, to appreciate what possesses Israeli and Palestinian politicians to saddle-up for protracted debates, cartographical experiments and trying negotiations. On the one hand, their commitment to the peace process – as distinct from peace itself – is commendable. On the other, is it not just a massive waste of time and money that will likely amount to little more than dashed hopes? Ali Abunimah, author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse and advocate of the one-state solution, calls the two-state solution a "placebo." More and more observers, both in Israel and Palestine are coming around to this point of view.

So, if indeed this is the last chance for anything, this latest round of shuttle diplomacy may prove to be one of the last times that people take the peace process seriously. Many people in the Middle East already regard the process with deep skepticism. Another lull in the proceedings following President Bush’s upcoming visit to the region would only confirm their beliefs.

Finally, how times have changed. It is acceptable today for heads of state, diplomats, and expert commentators to speak earnestly about the next seven months representing a last chance for the Israelis and Palestinians to achieve peace. We were not always so accommodating, as a July 11, 1971 New York Times article by David Holden reveals: ‘Like the little boy who cried "Wolf" once too often, anyone who talks about a last chance for peace in the Middle East nowadays runs the risk of being ignored as an alarmist. So many "last chances" have come and gone there that it is tempting to think there are always more around the corner.’

Of course, none of those so-called chances were really chances at all. Until the occupation is ended, and policies and patterns of behavior change in Israel, the US and the occupied territories, it will be some time yet before the first true chance for peace between Israelis and Palestinians presents itself.

-Tim Collins is a freelance writer; his articles have been published in the New Statesman and other publications. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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