This threatens to return the conflict to a stage in which direct, and possibly even indirect, negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians become irrelevant and maybe even impossible.
The some 20 years of peace process, that started once it became clear that Israel’s attempt to destroy the PLO by driving it from Beirut had failed, has more or less erased memories of the pre-peace period era.
This is unfortunate, for that era lasted for almost 40 years from the creation of the state of Israel – a period in which neither side accepted the legitimacy of the other, and hence the precondition for negotiations even to begin.
Thus what now is at stake are the efforts of a whole generation of Israelis, Palestinians and others to find a solution to a problem which the two preceding generations had failed to crystallise into pragmatic bargaining encounters.
The breakdown of the peace process has disempowered all the key actors, leaving all of them too weak to achieve their objectives, but strong enough to veto the objectives of their antagonists.
A full hand
Washington may hold 99% of the cards in the Middle East, as President Anwar al-Sadat observed, but President George Bush himself does not hold all of those. He has, in any case, played the cards he does have very poorly.
The resources of the pro-Israeli lobby, magnified in the year leading up to the 2004 presidential elections, are too vital to Bush’s political future for him to discard, as his father did with disastrous results.
Moreover, Bush’s “war on terror” has licensed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to launch an all-out campaign to eradicate organised forms of Palestinian nationalism. Well aware of Bush’s political weakness because of the economy and Iraq, Sharon believes that his “licence to kill” cannot easily be revoked by a president whose claim for a second term is based primarily on an “anti-terror” campaign. So kill he does in ever-increasing spasms of violence.
But the Bush administration’s ineptitude has also empowered Sharon’s nemesis, Palestinian President Yasir Arafat.
Crude US attempts to remove the very symbol of Palestinian nationalism in the name of political reform have helped save the political lives of Arafat and his cronies, while undermining reformers such as Mahmud Abbas and the cause of reform itself.
Ludicrously accused of “not doing enough to stop terror” while he is himself imprisoned by Israeli troops in the rubble of his Ram Allah compound, Arafat has managed to trump Bush’s ineptly played cards by once again identifying his person with the fate of Palestine.
Strong enough to prevent his own removal at the hands of the US, Israel or the Palestinians themselves, Arafat is nevertheless too weak to unify the Palestinians, confront the Israelis, or persuade the US that he is still the right peace broker.
While Sharon appears to be the strongest of the key actors, as he can pummel the Palestinians at will, in reality he is also playing a losing hand.
The window of opportunity provided by Bush’s weakness and reliance on the “war against terror” to prop up his increasingly unpopular administration, will not last long enough for Sharon to beat the Palestinians into absolute submission and surrender – “long enough” basically meaning forever.
No more secure than they were when Sharon initiated his war on the Palestinians, Israelis will take the first opportunity to change course that US policy provides them.
So Sharon is in a holding action, unable to grasp victory and unable to backtrack toward real negotiations. He is yesterday’s man, seeking to achieve the Zionist dream of his youth in today’s decolonised world, one in which Palestinians are unwilling to be treated as subject, colonised peoples.
An effigy of Ariel Sharon paraded
But his tenacity and escalation of violence have succeeded in marginalising the Israeli left, so like Arafat, Sharon has managed to veto the emergence of an alternative Israeli leadership.
The Arab states, fragmented by innumerable issues and led by governments frightened of the mobilisational consequences of the Palestinian struggle, have run for cover.
Unwilling to press Washington separately or jointly to sit on Sharon, they are strong enough to prevent the intensely anti-Israeli, anti-US feelings on their streets from boiling over into concrete actions.
They are too weak, however, to channel those feelings effectively or use other means to reverse the ever-narrowing parameters which gradually erode their standings vis-a-vis their own populations, Washington, and the world as a whole.
The European states, separately and jointly in the form of the EU, and the other “Quartet” partners – Russia and the UN – are also too weak to induce the other Quartet member, the US, to rein in Israel, or to do so themselves.
But their very membership in the diplomatic fig leaf that is the Quartet, serves to legitimise the US approach and head off alternatives, at least those from normal, diplomatic quarters.
Moreover, while acquiescence to the US and Israel is increasingly unpopular among European publics, it is not such a salient issue that the various governments concerned feel under real domestic pressure to do something to help the Palestinians.
When pushed, those governments refer to their participation in the Quartet-led peace process, as if that exonerated them of further responsibility.
In sum, none of the key actors is both willing and able to take the steps that could at least restart the negotiating process, but each has the capacity to veto alternatives.
It is for precisely this reason that the initiative known as the Geneva Accord was taken by Israeli and Palestinian citizens, who have come to believe that the peace process has ground to an irrevocable halt because none of those presently leading it has sufficient will and capacity to restart it.
While it is highly improbable that this “people to people” diplomacy can by itself achieve success, it might contribute to such by demonstrating a path out of the present quagmire, which other actors would then chose to take.
Moreover, it serves to maintain contacts between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, even if they are in their respective civil societies rather than their “states”.
But the Geneva Accord is a long shot and the very fact that diplomatic initiatives have passed into the hands of unofficial actors suggests how badly broken down the peace process now is.
It might be argued – and probably key participants in the peace process so believe – that just as that process has been restarted numerous times during the past 20 years, so it can be recommenced in the future when conditions once again change.
Such complacency demonstrates not only callous disregard for the fate of peoples who presently are being destroyed by violence, but it risks being wrong.
As the casualties mount and anger turns to implacable hostility and virtual race hatred, then the possibilities for diplomacy inevitably narrow. It is unfortunately quite possible that the peace process generation could pass into history, turning the field over once again to those who want to eradicate their opponents rather than negotiate with them.
Professor Robert Springborg is director of the London Middle East Institute and MBI al Jaber Chair in Middle East Studies at
the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.