Friday, September 21, 2007

Middle ground missing in Middle East?

by Clara Marina O'Donnell

Over the last few weeks,Tony Blair, Javier Solana and Bernard Kouchner have been there; this week Condoleezza Rice has done so – as, for that matter, has Madonna. If you like motorcades, Israel is the place to go. Ever since the US said it would sponsor a peace conference in November, the Middle East has been a hive of activity.

But is all the high-level diplomacy having any impact on the ground? Certainly the comings and goings of the great and the good keep the up-market hotels in business. But the reality at grass-roots level, as judged by this writer’s recent visit, seems far removed from the glitzy political meetings.

Settlements in the West Bank continue to grow (and new ones are created) at a rapid rate - so much so that the growth rate of the Israeli population in the West Bank is higher than in the rest of Israel. Construction work continues on the ‘wall’, eating into territory beyond the Green Line, the internationally recognised border, sometimes going far into the West Bank and separating Arab farmers from their lands. Roadblocks remain firmly in place, despite a promise by Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, to reduce them. The official explanation for the delay is implementation difficulties. Yet an Israeli government plan has existed for a year on how to safely reduce internal checkpoints, so far to no effect.

Gaza remains completely isolated. The private sector has collapsed, the public sector is barely ticking over, and unemployment is soaring, as this week's UK government report (The Economic Aspects of peace in the Middle East) confirms. Hamas is still firmly in control and Quassam rockets are being fired into Israel virtually every day. The plight of Gaza’s 1.4 million inhabitants is widely ignored – including by the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. During this author’s stay, the only real attention paid to Gaza was an Israeli cabinet debate on stopping Israeli supplies of water and electricity to Gaza as collective punishment for the firing of Quassam rockets. The likelihood of such a move has increased since then, with Israel having declared Gaza an “enemy entity”.

The measured, almost friendly banter between Israeli and Ramallah-based Palestinian leaders (Olmert and Abbas were shown smoking cigarettes together during one of their latest rounds of talks) says nothing about the mood in the streets. In private, there are people on both sides who take a blunt and uncompromising view of the conflict, shrouded in religious, ethnic and existential terms. The memory of the terror of the second intifada is still vivid in many Israelis’ minds. Palestinian schoolbooks incite hatred towards Israel. And some Israelis step over the line between legitimate security concerns and xenophobia: during a conference in Tel Aviv the Israeli ambassador to the UN argued that all of Islam had its hands covered in blood.

The complexity of the Middle East can never be over-estimated. But the all-too-evident disconnects between political rhetoric and practical action, between public discourse and private sentiment, and between leaders and led, suggests that some of the challenges may currently be under-estimated. And it might explain why nearly no one this writer spoke to had any hopes in the November conference.

Clara Marina O'Donnell is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.


Jeff said...

I have friends, both Palestinian and Israeli, that wish only for peace in the Middle East. I truly feel that the everyday person only wants peace. However, whenever I see that politicians and those who are in power try to make progress towards a peaceful resolution, they are stopped by the extremist that are on their side.

After signing the Olso Accords, the first true agreement between both sides, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli.
Meanwhile, Yasser Arafat, was considered a traitor by the extremist in Palestine.

The conflicts continue because those who are in command refuse to back that to the other.

Unfortunately, due to their stubbornness, it is the innocent people in Israeli markets and buses and the people in the Palestinian refuge camps that pay the price with their blood.

Anonymous said...

Well, this is a depressing read. Intractable conflicts in the Middle East! Heaven forbid...

We think that the good GB of GB might actually have some good ideas up his sleeve, when he says we need to start thinking about dealing with this region and problem in the same way that the Brits dealt with Ireland. A vvv slow process of economic rehabilitation that will lead to a more general reconciliation. We cannot pretend to be a Middle East expert, but would be very interested in hearing reactions to some of the ideas put out by the Portland Trust (Sir Ronald Cohen's group) who are very active in this area and who also has the benefit of having Gordo's ear.