Looking at the Middle East and North Africa region today, one cannot but be daunted by the colossal challenges facing its largely Arab inhabitants as they struggle to become full citizens in their own countries.
Syria, for instance, is bogged down in a low-intensity war that hapless UN monitors or spurious parliamentary elections will not resolve easily. In fact, the indescribably horrible explosions in the southern suburbs of the capital Damascus today are a sorry testimony to the implicit guilt and collective failure of the whole international community that has wantonly allowed the situation in Syria to run out of control and push the country into the spectre of a real civil war.
Egypt, on the other hand, is caught up in a tug-of-war between the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) and Parliament over the future presidential elections, the nature of governmental coalitions, the fair principles of constitution-drafting and the future of women’s rights. Bahrain, not entirely different from Syria in some of its dynamics, shuts out the lessons of other Arab countries as it tries to quell any challenge to the authority of its rulers - whether by prisoners on hunger strike, by human rights’ activists or demonstrators - with force and the ready help of Saudi Arabia or other Gulf countries.
Yemen and Libya are also experiencing their own fault-lines with increasing tribal tensions and geographical polarisations whilst Tunisia is grappling with its fundamental freedoms and dispelling the opinion that it was the model revolution that set off the ‘Arab Spring’. Iraq, victim of an ill-considered invasion in 2003, is embroiled in a legal / political battle pitting the Vice President Tariq Al-Hashimi against the Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, and Jordan is experimenting with a rapid succession of pro-reform or reform-unfriendly governments. The phase of revolutions and counter-revolutions has firmly gripped this vast landmass and the jury is still very much out in terms of the verdict.
In fact, those revolutions and counter-revolutions have also drawn out the alignments and re-alignments that we have seen regionally - with the potential power-rooted landmines being anything from oil to religion. However, those long months of uprisings have not altered my immutable belief that they were not initially about politics or religion per se but much more about a sense of dignity that comes naturally with citizenship as well as with social and economic justice.
But in the midst of all those hobbling - and frankly less-than-tectonic - changes, where is the big ‘elephant in the room’? And by that, I mean what has happened to Palestine, a virtual state clothed with a real idea, which had been at the forefront of the political imagination of the Arab masses for long decades?
It is quite clear that the multiple Middle East and North Africa (MENA) uprisings across the region, the increasingly introverted political attitude of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the mesmerising and perilous standoff with Iran over the [non]-nuclear issue, the hawkish let alone ‘I don’t-give-a-damn’ attitude of the present (and expanding) Israeli coalition government as it couples itself with a fragmented and negligent Palestinian Authority, have all slowly led to the gradual eroding of this reality of a Palestinian state and even diluted its virtual and emotional impact from the radars of many policy-makers or pundits.
However, much as we are all engaged in the different real uprisings in the region, I would also argue that pretending the elephant is not in the room is no more than an optical illusion, or an exercise at self-deception, that does not change the fact that this conflict which espouses one of the longest occupations in history, still remains a central hub for the peoples of this region. If it is not apparent today in the dust of so many 'revolutions', it will re-emerge with equal force soon.
So what can be said today about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? After all, the political inertia besetting this conflict remains steady despite all the dire warnings that the status quo is simply untenable. Even Tzipi Livni, the former leader of a once-hopeful Kadima party and deputy to former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, suggested in her recent resignation speech that Israel was sitting ‘on a volcano’, that "the international clock is ticking and the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state is in danger" and that "for years, Israeli leaders have been burying their heads in the sand, occupying themselves with political exercises and spin and in that time the threat to Israel has only grown."
To put things in perspective, and to render the situation slightly less unreal in existential terms of struggle and suffering, it might be useful to recall that 1600 Palestinian prisoners are on hunger strike today, with key names such as Thaer Halahleh, Bilal Diab or Jaffar Ezzedine grabbing our media headlines.
Also, new illegal outposts, units or settlements on Palestinian lands are being systematically approved by the Netanyahu government, olive trees are being uprooted in West Bank towns such as Salfit and the boundaries of Jerusalem are relentlessly expanding (from 7000 dunams / 1730 acres in 1967 to 75,000 dunams / 18,500 acres today) in order to accommodate further Israeli Jewish settlers.
The Israeli twin political and ideological behemoths continue almost unhindered, whilst the US Administration strains to remain irrelevant and focuses solely on Iran as it prepares for its forthcoming elections. The world watches with rancid apathy.
Mind you, all this is happening when an Arab Peace Initiative that was approved by twenty-two Arab League member states in Beirut ten years ago lies on the negotiating table gathering diplomatic dust. Let us recall that this breakthrough initiative offered a comprehensive resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the normalisation of relations between Israel and all its Arab neighbours and the possibility for a new dawn of regional stability and cooperation.
To illustrate my point, here is one paragraph from a recent article by Dr Alon Ben-Meir, an Iraqi-born professor at New York University and an astute expert as well as regular writer on the Middle East:
Whereas there is a constant stream of rhetoric about the desire to make peace with Palestinians, the Israeli government’s actions on the ground belie its words. Instead of moving toward a solution to the Palestinian problem, Israel is taking steps that will jeopardise any hope of a peaceful settlement. The Netanyahu government’s recent decision to retroactively legalise three West Bank settlements is nothing short of a shameless move that highlights the government’s willingness to surrender to the whims of the settlement movement. Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat, is promoting the establishment of a new settlement in East Jerusalem, a move that is bitterly antagonistic toward the Palestinians and threatens to diminish what little hope is left to forge a peace agreement which is sine qua non to Israel’s own existence as an independent Jewish state. Out of desperation, the Palestinians may opt for a one state solution, which will force Israel to choose between being a bi-national state with a Palestinian majority in control or becoming an apartheid state earning international condemnation, increasing isolation, and eventually, crippling sanctions. Is this how the Netanyahu government tries to realise the Jews’ millennium-old dream to live in security and peace?
With a reality that is almost unreachable and a virtual idea that is also becoming a smaller blip on our political screens, what can be done to ensure that this conflict is resolved so that Israelis and Palestinians live side-by-side in peace and security? One intuitive and disarming answer would suggest that we could have already been there if only Israel had agreed to pull out from the occupied territories in return for peace.
When one recalls the Madrid conference, the protracted Oslo Accords with its Clinton Parameters, the Taba discussions, the Arab Peace Initiative, the Geneva Initiative, or grassroots projects such as One Voice, the formula has consistently been clear and constant: withdrawal from occupied territories in return for the full recognition of Israel and consequential overall peace.
But this formula has been wanting. The roadmap that was endorsed and promoted by the Quartet has been an unmitigated disaster not only in terms of good will and good faith but also in terms of its dividends and results. Looking at the Palestinian and Israeli key protagonists, at the four constituent parties [the UN, the USA, the EU and the Russian Federation] or even at its peripatetic but largely inapt envoy Tony Blair, I maintain that this approach is sterile.
In fact, a recent report by International Crisis Group entitled The Emperor Has No Clothes: Palestinians and the End of the Peace Process examines the real shortcomings of a process that was born in Oslo in 1993. The report suggests alternatives to what is widely recognised as a redundant process but one that helps Washington manage its relations with the Arab world and compensate for close ties to Israel. It also provides Europeans, Russians and the UN Secretary-General with a voice at a prestigious diplomatic table without any substantive quid pro quo toward Palestinians.
In fact, all those sporadic peace talks that have been present by their sheer absence are simply meant to deflect international criticism and pressure from Israel. Besides, the Palestinians who suffer most from the status quo stand to lose if the comatose process finally were pronounced dead since the Palestinian Authority might well collapse and with it the economic and political benefits or favours it generates as well as the assistance it garners from different funders.
However, a lack of another irenic option does not justify the continuation of a doomed process that distinguishes itself with collective ineptitude and which also further marginalises the Palestinian grassroots’ dreams for a sovereign and contiguous state. After all, everyone is liable - from the Palestinians who at times appear less concerned by Israel than they are by Gaza (and vice versa) to the other parties striving to perpetuate an illusion of momentum minus any real traction. One part of the reason for such a stalemate is the parties’ vested interests as much as tactical / political considerations. Another part is due to the fractious weakness of one party (Palestinians) and the fractious strength of the other party (Israel) who never fail to exert their mammoth lobbying prowess.
Nonetheless, I would argue that it is still within the power of the parties to cobble together a just deal so long as all sides stop thinking about short-term gains but labour instead for long-term solutions. However, such a qualitative leap requires a firm vision that is alive and forward-looking, one that cannot, alas, be found today in the sort of political homunculi still clutching to power.
So what can the future hold for this small but hallowed plot of land that has been 'blessed' by prophets old and new?
In my opinion, there will be no quick ‘fix’ to this conflict since none of the actors are truly ready to endorse a painful deal. Yet, the elements of a ‘fix’ remain painstakingly constant: the principles of international legitimacy, non-violent resistance to occupation, mass mobilisation, compromise from absolutist positions, cooperation rather than polarisation amongst Palestinians, closer integration and less hypocrisy among Arab states that have often used ‘Palestine’ as a panacea for their own ills. But it is equally important for the West to conclude that its strategic interests point toward such a resolution and for the Israeli leaders to accept that the yoke of oppression they exercise with impunity upon Palestinians will eventually backfire and destroy the Jewish nature of the state and undermine its democratic values.
In a recent interview on Al-Jazeera, the celebrated artist Marcel Khalifé suggested that what is still lacking in the whole region is the sense of feeling free and then sharing that freedom with others. Are we not all very far off from that station of sharing freedoms, of dreaming, hoping and ultimately recognising the other in our own selves?
© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK), Ecumenical consultant to the Primate of Armenian Church in UK & Ireland, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net