At one stage during the high point of the peace process, I too made a trip to Israel. Having expected at least some token good feelings, I was surprised by the immense amount of pent-up anger. Contrary to reports in the international media, there was no consensus for peace on either side. In Israel, even the left-wingers were hardly optimistic about the prospects for permanent change—while right-wing Israelis could talk about nothing but Arik Sharon, and how Arik Sharon would put an end to all this nonsense if only he were in power again. A similar phenomenon was observable on the Palestinian side. I had the distinct impression that the peace talks were being carried out by a small elite, with only the barest, most lukewarm support from the rest of the population.
This observation proved to be correct. In fact, that small elite agreed long ago on what a peaceful Middle East will look like—something very close to the deal that Ehud Barak produced 18 months ago. Yet neither Barak, nor Yasser Arafat, was able, in the end, to bring their respective populations along. Arafat, knowing his constituents in Palestine and the Arab world would never accept the arrangement, backed out and declared a new intifada, hoping that more violence would persuade the Israelis to come up with a proposal more favorable to Palestinian interests. Barak was voted out of office and replaced by Sharon, who also had a mandate to use violence to make the Palestinians accept a proposal more favorable to Israeli interests.
In these circumstances, the outside intervention—from President Clinton—was an utter disaster. He forced everyone to play their cards too soon, before either the Israeli or the Palestinian general public were ready to give up on violence. I can’t see how Colin Powell or Javier Solana could, at the moment, do much better: Negotiations could perhaps calm the situation, but until one or both sides has come to the conclusion that talking will produce a better deal than fighting, negotiations have little chance of long-term success. Northern Ireland is different. Even if the IRA still hasn’t quite given up its battle, there is at least a popular consensus for peace.
As for the Saudi proposal—I find it ludicrous. There is no evidence that the Arab world is ready to recognize the Israeli right to exist, and certainly no evidence that the Arab world is ready to give up the Palestinian refugees’ “right of return” to Israel. Since the Israelis will never accept the refugees—and their many millions of descendants—it is hard to imagine how we get around this one. Ha’aretz, which is very pro-peace, as Israeli newspapers go, ran an article yesterday describing the attacks on the Saudi plan that are already coming from all quarters of the Arab world: The article concludes that the plan’s critics prefer to wait for a “more accommodating” Israeli government, presumably produced by Palestinian violence. I can’t imagine the Israeli Right—which isn’t, for that matter, ready to retreat to the 1967 borders, either—is taking the plan seriously at all.
True, the military imposition of peace from the outside might work. A U.S. occupation of Israel and the West Bank, followed by the forced redrawing of borders and heavily monitored elections, could probably end the conflict for good. Barring that rather unlikely scenario, I just don’t see that outsiders are of much use in the Middle East, at least until the Israelis and Palestinians themselves are ready to give up fighting.