By Richard Gwyn
The Toronto Star
One way of describing the peace talks between Israel and Palestine that have just begun in Washington would be to categorize the event as an exercise in ego, of political advantage, of cynical opportunism, and of pipedreaming if not of outright fantasy.
Another way of describing the event would be to put a tick to all those assessments but to add that despite the long odds against success — almost impossible odds — it may be better to try and to fail than not to try at all.
Even that modest expression of optimism is couched in its conditional form, namely that it “may be better” for an attempt to be made to do something than for everyone to settle on doing nothing.
Objectively, the portents couldn’t be gloomier. Israeli politics have shifted well to the right.
In last year’s election, all the gains were made by right-wing and religious parties while the pro-peace Kadima party was decimated.
More troubling is the way many Israelis now think, or say they do.
According to a recent survey, one in three Israelis are now prepared to deny Arab citizens of Israel the right to vote, which would be a form of apartheid.
More troubling yet is the consequence of the unrestrained expansion of Jewish settlements on Palestinian land.
In 1991 about 94,000 settlers lived in the Palestinian homeland of the West Bank. Today, about 340,000 do. The “second state” that all the peace proposals call to be run by the Palestinians alongside Israel is very near to being a governmental and demographic impossibility. (As an additional complication, 200,000 Jews now live in East Jerusalem which the Palestinians claim as their capital.)
Not that the Palestinians haven’t made a string of blunders. Gaza is now run by the extremist Hamas, which denies Israel’s right to exist.
The failure of the pro-democratic Arab Spring and the murderous civil war going on in Syria give Israelis every right to assume that peace agreements with Arabs are an impossibility at this time, and for long into the future.
So why attempt a project that not only is almost certain to fail but that by failing will magnify the suspicions and rancours on both sides?
Some of the changes now going on are positive. Hamas’s hold on Gaza is weakening. Conversely, the far more moderate Fatah, which runs the West Bank, has shown an unexpected ability to work effectively with the Israelis on security issues. Its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of Palestine, has demonstrated considerable skill as negotiator.
Israel, for all its power and success, confronts an ever-growing challenge. This year, the population of Palestinians within Israel and the West Bank and Gaza edged ahead of that of Israelis for the first time. Each year on, that gap will widen. This is why “apartheid” solutions such as denying Palestinians the vote — even of reducing their numbers by ethnic cleansing — have gained public support.
There thus has to be some other change, some new trade-off that both sides might — just — accept, that has not yet been made public.
The Washington meetings are the result of a prolonged and extensive undertaking (six visits to Israel so far this year) by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
Beyond the least doubt, Kerry knows full well (U.S. President Barack Obama likewise) that the prospects for success are near infinitesimal. Surely, therefore, he has to have some new card to play, one that both sides already know about even if in no way yet prepared to agree to.
Failure remains virtually inevitable. Thereafter, the status quo, so deeply damaging to both sides, will probably continue for the best part of a century, or a lot longer. Let’s hope Kerry knows what he’s doing.
But also wish him the best, including the best of luck.
Richard Gwyn is national and international affairs columnist with The Toronto Star.
His email address is email@example.com.