The hawks, doves and lame ducks of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the standoff between hawks and doves has long rendered the quest for peace a lame duck.
Ever since Ehud Olmert announced his resignation, there has been speculation about what his status as an outgoing leader will mean for the peace process. Not very much, I suspect, as this lame duck prime minister has done little more than engage in politically expedient dead duck initiatives.
Olmert – who can best be described as a scavenging hawk with a dovish song – lacks the vision, courage and ideological inclination to take the steps necessary to reach a workable resolution, despite the Annapolis platitudes and its 12-month deadline.
At the time, I saw the gathering as an “elaborate way of reiterating the current status quo”. And so it is hardly surprising that some nine months on from Annapolis, the status quo remains unchanged.
The only glimmer of hope is on the Syrian front, where both Olmert and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are making strong peace overtures, but this could easily be derailed by the next elections, especially if Binyamin Netanyahu takes over, or Syria fails to distance itself sufficiently from Tehran.
In fact, the fractured and divided nature of the Israeli political landscape is one of the main obstacles to peace because it prevents the government taking the bold steps needed to achieve peace, and enables the hawks to take the doves hostage.
Perhaps the most striking example of this uneven contest was the clash in perceptions between Israel's first and second prime ministers David Ben-Gurion (Israel's “founding father”), and Moshe Sharett. Although both were committed Zionists, Sharett was in favour of diplomacy and a negotiated settlement with the Arabs.
Unlike Ben-Gurion, who knew little about Arab society and culture and distrusted Arabs intensely, Sharett was an accomplished Arabist and had many Arab friends. At a Mapai party meeting, he once declared: “There is a wall between us and [the Arabs] … If this wall can be prevented from getting taller, it is a sacred duty to do so.”
Sharett's most spectacular attempt to dismantle the “wall” was the secret talks he initiated with the new Egyptian regime led by the revolutionary Free Officers' Movement. Despite his later anti-Israel reputation, Gamal Abdel Nasser saw, at the time, that compromise and accommodation were the only way to resolve the conflict.
Before he became president, but as de facto leader of the revolution, Nasser assured Sharett, in a secret correspondence in May 1953, that Egypt harboured no belligerent feeling towards Israel and signalled his willingness to build bridges.
Even the Lavon Affair in 1954 did not weaken his resolve. Nasser decided not to blame Sharett – who was in fact not aware of the plot – and agreed to resume the clandestine contacts. Between October 1954 and January 1955, the two men discussed indirectly Israeli-Egyptian relations, border issues, solutions to the Palestinian refugee crisis, Israeli shipping rights and avenues for economic co-operation.
Nasser even agreed to high-level secret talks between Egyptian and Israeli diplomats, but Sharett got cold feet due to domestic anger surrounding the trial of the Israeli spies behind the Lavon terror campaign.
Alarmed at Sharett's dovish overtures, Ben-Gurion came out of retirement and replaced him as prime minister again in 1955. Almost at once, Ben-Gurion launched a major raid on Gaza, sparking a downward spiral to war and effectively burying prospects for peace for almost a quarter of a century.
Had Sharett succeeded and managed to translate his backroom talks into an actual peace that covered all the aspects he and Nasser discussed, the Middle East today could have been a very different place. But he lacked the popular appeal and charisma to counter the populism of his opponents.
Militants getting the upper hand over moderates is not just an Israeli malaise. The Palestinians have also suffered their fair share of that. A Palestinian parallel of the Sharett-Ben-Gurion standoff was the confrontation between the mufti and mayor of Jerusalem.
Haj Amin el-Husseini, the notorious mufti of Jerusalem, was a complete rejectionist of the Zionist presence in Palestine. While the Palestinians had the right to feel irked that the British had promised their land to another people without consulting them, a realist and humanist would've tried to find an accommodation that would allow Palestinians to realise their national aspirations and enable Jews to flee persecution, either by agreeing to a bi-national state or partition – both of which were on the cards. In fact, just before the outbreak of the second world war, the British offered the Palestinians a state with an Arab majority within a decade. He rejected that, too.
Raghib el-Nashashibi, who was mayor Jerusalem between 1920 and 1934, opposed the unbending and uncompromising stance of Haj Amin. Nashashibi was in favour of a negotiated settlement with the British and the Zionists and, as head of the National Defence Party, he was willing to accept partition so long as the Palestinians got sufficient land and could merge with Transjordan to form a viable political entity.
But the mufti, a master populist, managed both to get the upper hand against Nashashibi and other moderates, setting back the Palestinian quest for nationhood, and to tarnish the Palestinian struggle by moving to Europe and collaborating with the Nazis.
Again, one cannot help but speculate how different reality would have been had moderates like Nashashibi gained the advantage during the British mandate and managed to find moderate Zionists with whom to reach an accommodation.
In order to avoid total despair, it is important to realise that moderates may lose many battles, but they can eventually win the war. After all, a quarter of a century after the Sharett-Nasser talks, Egypt and Israel made peace.
Likewise, trailblazers such as Israel's veteran peacenik Uri Avnery and moderate PLO members, such as the late Issam Sartawi, met together in the Israel-Palestine Peace Council in the mid-1970s to discuss a two-state resolution to the conflict. Said Hammami (whose name means pigeon or dove in Arabic), the PLO's London representative, was a vocal advocate of a two-state solution which, he believed, would eventually merge into a single, democratic, multi-ethnic state. Both Sartawi and Hammami paid for their convictions with their lives.
Today, hope for the future does not lie with the mainstream players, but with the brave, principled and sensible advocates currently on the political fringe. On the Palestinian side, a strong candidate is Mustafa Barghouti, the founder of the Palestinian National Initiative and the runner-up in the last presidential election. On the Israeli side, there is Adam Keller, the spokesman of the peace group Gush Shalom. More in the mainstream, there are Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabo, two Oslo negotiators who went on to forge the informal Geneva Accord.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 6 August 2008.