The neglected roots of conflict are buried in combustible land


Financial Times

Published: August 5 2006

President George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice, his secretary of state, repeatedly justified their unwillingness to demand an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon over the past three weeks by the need to deal with what they keep calling "the roots of the problem". Let us take them at their word. Let us clear away the dust, dig out the earth and carefully examine those roots.

What that will show is that the US and its allies in the Middle East have demonstrated a steadily diminishing ability to acknowledge the root causes of conflict in the region, let alone the will or ability to deal with them.

It needs to be stressed, first of all, as Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to President George H.W. Bush put it in The Washington Post last Sunday, that: "Hizbollah is not the source of the problem; it is a derivative of the cause, which is the tragic conflict over Palestine that began in 1948."

Hizbollah was, in fact, incubated as a result of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which was intended to destroy the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Its midwives may have been Iran and Syria - Hizbollah was born in the Iranian embassy in Damascus - but the parents were Israel and a US that declined to restrain its ally until it had nearly razed Muslim west Beirut.

Repeated attempts by Israel since then to crush Hizbollah have failed. Indeed, the present onslaught has barely dented the operational capability of the Shia Islamist group. Rather, it has raised it to the peak of its prestige, in Lebanon, in the Arab world and, miraculously, among Sunni Muslims who regard the Shia as idolators and Iranian agents.

Hizbollah is an organisation brought to life by unresolved conflict, as are Hamas and its militant allies on Israel's other front. The root cause of that conflict is land: principally the battle between Arab and Jew over how (or whether) to share the cramped and combustible Holy Land.

The political and diplomatic failure to pursue and prosecute a resolution to this conf`lict is an astonishing abdication of responsibility, especially towards future generations who will have to deal with steadily more vicious attempts to settle it once and for all. There is no mystery, moreover, as to what the outlines of such a settlement would have to be.

The solution lies in the parameters set by President Bill Clinton and in more than two dozen sets of talks between Israelis and Palestinians at Taba in Egypt after the collapse of the Camp David negotiations in 2000; in the subsequent but informal Geneva accord based on these and in the adoption of their essentials by the Arab League at Beirut in 2002.

The now poignantly named Beirut peace initiative calls for an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict, with full Arab recognition of - and relations with - Israel in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from all land occupied in the 1967 six-day war. That, above all, means a Palestinian state on almost all of the occupied West Bank and Gaza, with Arab east Jerusalem as its capital, and what the Arab peace plan calls "a just solution" that inevitably means compensation rather than right of return for most Palestinian refugees.

As a formula to end the conflict at the heart of the Middle East's chronic instability this has not really been tried. The 1993-95 Oslo accords pointed hesitantly but hopefully in that direction. They expired, however, long before being pronounced dead. They were killed principally by Israel's belief that it could continue to build settlements on Arab land without any reaction from the Palestinians.

The biggest expansion of these illegal settlements, moreover, occurred during the heyday of the peace process. Under Labour governments in 1992-96, led by Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, the number of settlers in the West Bank grew by 50 per cent, four times the rate of population increase inside Israel proper. East Jerusalem has been encircled and enclosed by four big blocs of settlements, with every government since Oslo able to claim a rampart in the wall. Housing and zoning restrictions inside the city helped ensure a Jewish majority. As Ariel Sharon, Israel's now stricken leader and settlers' champion, boasted: "In Jerusalem we built and created facts that can no longer be changed."

The other villain of Oslo, of course, is Yassir Arafat. So anxious was the PLO leader to assume the trappings of statehood and so incompetent at statecraft that Israel's main tactic during the Oslo negotiations, an Israeli participant once told me, was to get him alone. Subsequently, Arafat felt swindled, one reason why he kept the "armed struggle" option dangerously in play.

Arab leaders, whether formally at peace with Israel like Egypt and Jordan, or not, like Saudi Arabia and Syria, usually rather favoured that situation of "no war, no peace". It justifies the emergency powers through which they exercise their despotism and monopolise resources.

The US, meanwhile, the only power with the influence to end this stalemate, has regressively declined to do so. A decade ago, warning that expanding settlements would kill peace, former secretary of state James Baker lamented that: "We have gone from calling the settlements illegal in the Carter administration, to calling them an obstacle to peace in the Reagan and [George H.W.] Bush administrations, and now [under President Clinton] we are saying they are complicating and troubling."

The present President Bush has gone much further, licensing Mr Sharon's 2002 recapture of Palestinian territory, backing a so-called security barrier well inside the West Bank and, in 2004, endorsing Israel's aim of annexing the wall of settlements separating east Jerusalem from its hinterland. Everything is now in place for Ehud Olmert, the current prime minister, to set Israel's borders where Mr Sharon decided they should be on a map he drew in 1982. The idea is to keep the geography without the demography, leaving the Palestinians about a tenth of what was Palestine, in three discontiguous Bantustans.

It was never going to work. Now it may not even be tried. No Arab or Muslim would accept it. But many Israelis who supported it no longer do. Being attacked from land Israel left, they reason, means this conflict is no longer about land but is existential: Hamas and Hizbollah want to destroy us. Possibly. But certainly what has given these organisations power and prestige well beyond their natural constituency is a catalogue of failure in the Middle East that has, at its heart, the failure honestly to seek a comprehensive settlement based on land-for-peace.