Jan 23rd 2009

Blind in Gaza and Jerusalem

by Chris Patten

Chris Patten is a former EU Commissioner for External Relations, Chairman of the British Conservative Party, and was the last British Governor of Hong Kong. He is currently Chancellor of Oxford University and a member of the British House of Lords.

LONDON - I spent the New Year in Sydney, watching the fireworks above the iconic bridge welcome in 2009. The explosions over Gaza that night were not intended to entertain, but rather to break Hamas and discredit it in the eyes of Palestinians.

It was the latest resort to terrible violence in order to resolve how to share in peace what Christians still like to call the Holy Land. Mahatma Gandhi criticized the biblical justification of retribution, "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." Followed through to its end, he argued, it would mean that all were blind. And so it has proved in Palestine and Israel. Blind in Gaza, blind in Jerusalem.

Much of what has happened was predictable, as well over 1,400 men, women, and children have died and more than 4,000 have been injured.

First, the United States justified the Israeli assault and blamed everything on Hamas, just as it used to pin all responsibility for whatever went wrong on Yasir Arafat and Fatah.

Second, despite French President Nicolas Sarkozy's welcome high-profile diplomacy, Europe has been irrelevant, if not quite invisible. As Israeli officials point out, Europeans are always there for the photo opportunity. The Quartet's peacemaker, Tony Blair, is as unctuously nugatory as ever. He appears on CNN, but has he actually visited Gaza since his appointment in the summer of 2007? No.

Third, as usual, Israel has accused of anti-Semitism those who have dared to criticize its disproportionate response to Hamas's indefensible rocket attacks and its collective punishment of Palestinians. An Italian cardinal, who admittedly spoke intemperately, was accused of using the language of Holocaust denial. By that standard, does my unqualified criticism of Hamas's rocket attacks make me an Islamophobe?

Coincidentally, the deadly attack on Gaza came at the same time that a clutch of America's most distinguished would-be Middle East peacemakers published books about how the task should properly be tackled. It all sounded a bit like a series of job applications - the war for President Barack Obama's ear.

One thing all these experts could agree on is that President George W. Bush was a disaster. American policy might as well have been made in Likud's headquarters. Even at the end, when the United Nations Security Council voted on Gaza, Bush was happy to humiliate Condoleezza Rice at Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's bidding.

These "wise men," advisers one and all to President Bill Clinton and other presidents, all seem to concede that the failure of the proposed Camp David accord in 2000 could not, after all, be laid solely at Arafat's door. Former Israeli premier Ehud Barak should carry his share of the blame. Moreover, they all criticize the Clinton-era practice of routinely clearing America's policy positions first with Israel, which is hardly likely to win Arab confidence or support.

The American diplomats' arguments about process did not on the whole carry over into disagreement about the content of a peace deal. All more or less agree on this. Two states. Security guarantees for Israel. A Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, adjusted by agreement through mutual land swaps. An end to most West Bank settlements. No "right of return" for Palestinian refugees, but financial compensation for them. Some system of joint or international sovereignty over Jerusalem's holy places and the division of the city so that it can become the capital of two states.

Of course, this is what should happen. And I suppose that it is conceivable that it could still happen with the help of welcome new mediators like Qatar and Turkey, whose prime minister called Israel's attack "a serious crime against humanity."

But I have begun to wonder whether it will really be possible to achieve peace on this basis. Fatah, and Palestinian moderates like President Mahmoud Abbas, have been totally discredited. Palestinians on the whole have been further radicalized.

Hamas, whose engagement and support is essential for any settlement, has sworn revenge. Every day, new Palestinian sorrows strike heaven in the face. The widows and the mothers of the dead weep and cry out for bloody justice. Should we be surprised? Had the British government pursued peace and the destruction of the IRA in Northern Ireland by bombing Catholic Derry, would that have alienated or won over Catholic opinion?

On the Israeli side, which political leaders really want a Palestinian state and are prepared to take the political risks associated with trying to establish one? Which of them are strong enough to deal with the West Bank settlers? There will be no peace settlement otherwise. Which leaders will teach the facts of life to the more extreme members of the Jewish diaspora in America? Who among Israel's leaders understands that reconciliation is more important that retribution and revenge?

However tough things looked in the past, I have never felt such a sense of despair about Palestine and Israel. Reason has been drowned in blood. It seems as though the politics of hope have given way to the politics of the cemetery. Poor Palestine. Poor Israel. Who is there now who can still light a candle in the dark?


Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.

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