Circumstances change, and so do the names of the leading players. Peace negotiators come and go, and so do the details of their agreements. But in the end, there is one aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that always remains the same: When all else has failed, you can be absolutely sure that someone, somewhere, will issue a statement calling for peace.
The last few days have not been short of such declarations. In the wake of Israeli attacks on Gaza, Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary-general, appealed “to all members of the international community to display the unity and commitment required to bring this escalating crisis to an end.” Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign-policy spokesman, also called for a halt to hostilities. “The cease-fire has to be a cease-fire complied (with) by everybody and be clearly maintained,” he proclaimed. “What we need,” echoed British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, “is an immediate cease-fire.”
As night follows day, these statements were accompanied by a mass migration of politicians to the Middle East. French President Nicolas Sarkozy set off for Israel. So did Karel Schwarzenberg, the foreign minister of the Czech Republic, which now holds the rotating presidency of the European Union. There, both may encounter Tony Blair, Solana, and who knows how many others. Even Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sent an envoy to the region. Like having an Olympic team that wins lots of gold medals, having your own Middle East peace policy has, it seems, become a sign of international prestige.
But other than that prestige, it’s increasingly hard to see the point of such gestures. In the Middle East, the most significant and successful diplomatic initiatives have always been the quietest: The Oslo peace accords of 1993 were, at least in their initial phase, negotiated in absolute secrecy. By contrast, the diplomatic initiatives most clearly designed to serve the interests of the diplomats (or at least their constituents back home) are the loudest and most public. Think of the Annapolis peace conference of autumn 2007, at which toasts were drunk, cameras were plentiful, and all kinds of marginal players were at the table. It would be giving that gathering too much credit to blame Annapolis for Israel’s recent ground invasion of Gaza. Still, it’s surely fair to say that that conference, for all of its pomp and circumstance, failed to prevent a new explosion of violence.
Nor could it ever have done so. For the trouble with all of these peace efforts, peace conferences, peace initiatives, and peace proposals is that none of them recognize the most obvious fact about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: It’s not a peace process; it’s a war. At least at the moment, both parties are still convinced that their central aims will be better obtained through weapons and military tactics than through negotiations of any kind. To be more explicit, Hamas and its followers believe that the continuing firing of rockets at southern Israel will, sooner or later, result in the dissolution of the Israeli state. The Israelis—both on the “peacenik” left and the more bellicose right—believe that the only way to prevent Hamas from firing rockets is to fight back. Intervention—whether from well-meaning Europeans, U.N. delegations, Russian envoys (or even Condoleezza Rice, who has wisely stayed home, so far)—can postpone the conflict but cannot halt the violence, at least not until one side or the other waves a white flag and surrenders.
That brief, halcyon period of the Oslo peace process was possible because this is precisely what happened: A combination of Russian emigration into Israel, the end of Soviet support, and general weariness led at least a part of the Palestinian leadership to conclude, after 30 years, that it would never push Israel into the sea. At least a part of the equally weary Israeli leadership came to believe that their occupation policies were doing them more harm than good and that they would gain more from negotiating than from fighting. Further negotiations will make sense only when Hamas’ leadership—currently emboldened by a combination of popular indignation and Iranian support—finally arrives at the same conclusion as its secular counterparts, and a new generation of Israelis is again convinced to believe them.
Until then, there is no point in bemoaning the passivity of the Bush administration, the silence of Barack Obama, the powerlessness of Arab leaders, or the weakness of Europe as so many, predictably, have begun to do. It’s no outsider’s “fault” that the fighting continues, and it merely obscures the real issues when we pretend otherwise. Diplomats might be able to slow its progress, but this war won’t be over until someone has won it.