There May Be the Will but Not Necessarily the Way

There May Be the Will but Not Necessarily the Way

By Greg Sheridan - February 5, 2009

Barack Obama will not bring peace to the Middle East. He will not end the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Though he may part the waves, cool the planet, stop the oceans from rising, this dispute will prove beyond him.

I guess that in eight years -- like everyone I assume Obama will be re-elected -- we will still be yearning vainly for two states living in peace.

But first, Israel's election next week. Benjamin Netanyahu will likely become prime minister, perhaps in coalition with Labor, perhaps with a Russian immigrants' party and religious parties.

Netanyahu will be demonised by the usual suspects but he will be no barrier to peace. Within Israel there is a broad consensus on what a peace agreement would look like. Palestine gets all the land of the West Bank and Gaza except for the large Jewish settlement blocks that are effectively suburbs of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. These house 80 per cent of the Jewish settlers on 5 per cent of the disputed land. The new Palestinian state would get land from Israel proper to make up for this 5 per cent.

But Israel cannot do that deal unless a credible Palestinian leadership can put an end to serious terrorism, especially cross-border rocket launches, and will accept that such a settlement is the end of Palestinian territorial claims, and unless the Arab world recognises Israel and makes peace with it as a Jewish state.

These conditions cannot be met. Israelis believe their recent operation in Gaza was necessary and successful. They are right. It has made peace more likely and it has greatly diminished the rocket fire from Gaza into Israel.

The cost in innocent Palestinian lives was heavy and tragic, and the fault for this rests entirely with Hamas, the terrorist death cult that rules Gaza. I do not believe a single story of Israeli war crimes or atrocities in Gaza. There is no evidence of any such story beyond Palestinian eye-witness accounts and on countless previous occasions these accounts have been fabricated. Remember the reports of the so-called massacre in the West Bank Palestinian town of Jenin in 2002, reports buttressed by eye-witness accounts? Did you know that it never took place, as later international investigations acknowledged?

Even in this recent Gaza operation, remember the outrage at the Israeli rocket fire on the school in the Jabaliya refugee camp? This dominated the news for days and now it turns out no Israeli munition ever hit the school. The Israelis are among the most disciplined troops in the world and go to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties.

The Gaza operation has advanced the possibility of peace in two ways. It has damaged the standing of Hamas and it has reassured the million people who live in southern Israel of their security. The Israeli population could not consider a peace agreement unless it was reassured about its security.

However, I still think the prospects for peace are almost nil. Hamas certainly wanted Israel to launch this action. Otherwise it would not have fired more than 6000 rockets at Israeli civilian targets since Israel withdrew all settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005. Hamas knew what the rockets would bring. This column predicted the Israeli action more than a year ago. If commentators in Australia knew it, Hamas certainly knew it too.

It may be that Hamas gravely miscalculated Israel's resolve, and its own ability to inflict casualties on Israeli soldiers. But why did Hamas want such an Israeli response in the first place?

The answer is to have Israel painted again as the international villain. It also wanted to inflame Islamic opinion. In this it has succeeded. Even in moderate Islamic majority states such as Indonesia and Malaysia, Israel has been demonised in recent weeks. In the Arab world it is much worse. It is true that the leaders of key Arab nations, such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, fear the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is a branch, and fear Iran, which sponsors Hamas, much more than they hate Israel. Therefore their response to Israel's action was moderate. But this was only possible because there is no democracy in the Arab Middle East. In democratic Turkey the Prime Minister had to engineer a public confrontation with Shimon Peres. A number of the smaller Gulf states have been awash with virulent anti-Israel hatred. This all has something like the effect Hamas wants.

Hamas's goals and motivation are theological and filled with sectarian hatred and anti-Semitism. If you doubt this just google the Hamas charter and read gems such as: "The prophet, prayer and peace be upon him, said: 'The (end of days) will not come until Muslims fight the Jews and kill them; until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: O Muslim, there is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him!"'

Hamas has engaged in countless atrocities against Palestinians it doesn't like. It has murdered many Fatah men, but the media subjects this behaviour to very little scrutiny. Hamas is somehow accepted as just a force of nature, not held morally responsible for its actions.

Even if Hamas has been partly discredited by this conflict, the wider ideology of Islamist jihad, under various brands, has currency in the Palestinian population, and among the Shiites of southern Lebanon.

So Hamas has absolutely no desire to negotiate a peaceful Palestinian state living in neighbourly quiet next to Israel. Hamas, and many Palestinians, have effectively abandoned the two-state solution. They instead have a long-term demographic strategy. In 1950, there were 240,000 Gazans, Now there are 1.5 million. By 2040 there will be three million. Eventually, they believe, they will swamp Israel with sheer numbers. And they will never let Israel be free of responsibility for them, either by an association with Egypt, which is what Israel tried to achieve by its withdrawal in 2005, or by becoming an independent state at peace.

At the other end of the spectrum, I believe many moderate Palestinians don't really want two states either. If you were an Arab East Jerusalemite, would you really want to leave Israel, with its modern economy, world class hospitals etc, to be ruled either by the corrupt kleptomaniacs of Fatah or the totalitarian Islamists of Hamas?

To all this, Obama can bring prestige, goodwill and new energy. It won't be enough. Bill Clinton brought all this to the situation in 2000, with a less Islamised and polarised Palestinian population, and a less bitter Israeli public opinion. Clinton failed. So will Obama. Instead of a solution, we should look for Israel to manage the situation at the lowest level of violence possible, while encouraging any normalisation that can take place. It's not much, but at least it's possible.

Greg Sheridan is foreign editor of The Australian.

Greg Sheridan

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