Up until 10 years ago, it was almost a cliché to assert that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lay at the core of all the problems in the Middle East. This reasoning, already unpersuasive, has today lost any bearing on the issue, amid the very deadly and complicated confrontations – national, ethnic, religious and sectarian – unfolding throughout the region.
While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict loses its privileged status on the front pages of international newspapers when things are quiet, it is neither frozen nor forgotten – as the current round of violence clearly shows. Even before the terror attacks of the past few weeks, people from both sides were suffering on a daily basis from various repercussions of the problem.
Unfortunately, while coverage of the conflict may be sporadic, the very concept of a “Middle East peace process” is vanishing before our eyes. Over so many years of negotiations, there were rare moments of hope, along with a lot of disappointment and many missed opportunities. Yet, even in the aftermath of the most discouraging developments, a majority of observers did not give up on the idea of achieving peace. Attempts to get talks going fell apart a number of times; still, despite the ups and downs of the process over the last three decades, the basic parameters of peace were always there. We all blamed unfortunate conjunctures of events, timing or the leaders in charge to explain the failures.
Today, however, lack of faith in the basic principles of the peace process is being voiced more frequently than ever, on both sides and at every level. In addition, the helping hand of the international community has never been weaker. Washington is no longer a game-changer, and “the Middle East Quartet” hardly sounds like music to one’s ears.
As an eyewitness to most of the turning points in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I believe it is time to question whether the will to achieve a peaceful solution actually exists on both sides.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has never been an ideal partner for concluding the process that began when Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn 22 years ago. He has somehow dominated the Israeli political scene for the last decade and become a prisoner of his own choices. His cooperation with the extreme right pushed him into a corner from which he can never extend his hand to the Palestinians.
The left side of the political spectrum lost its appeal and its center of gravity, as in so many other countries, when it accepted the discourse of the right-wing parties. Along with the weakening of the Israeli left, prospects of developing a more constructive approach to the peace process were diminished. In parallel, the pro-peace figures of Israel’s ever-vivid and pluralistic civil society became less and less vocal. Intolerant nationalism seems to be the only option for a considerable portion of young Israelis.
On the Palestinian side, the picture is no more promising. Attempts to integrate Hamas into the legitimate playing field have failed for a number of reasons, some of which are inherent in the group’s ideology and some related to tactical mistakes on both sides. At the same time, missteps by Hamas alienated moderate circles of Israeli society. The Palestinian Authority and President Mahmoud Abbas have made their share of errors in their relations with fellow Palestinians, with Israel and with the international community. Lack of vision on the Palestinian side turned the option of violence into a legitimate choice for a number of groups.
Faced with this grim picture, we need to be honest with ourselves; it is useless to play the blame game. People on both sides must decide if they really want to achieve a solution. From now on, every election will be a referendum for peace. Continuing a fight might have its own logic, if you believe you will win in the end. But the experience of the last six decades confirms that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be a winner-takes-all confrontation.
The writer was ambassador of the Republic of Turkey to Israel (2007-2009) and to the United States (2010-2014).
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