Can the West make a difference?

As a British citizen and former British diplomat, I have often been asked whether Britain bears a special responsibility for the daily tragedy that constitutes the conflict of Palestine and Israel. My answer is an unhesitating: “Yes.”

Fromer British ambassador to Qatar Steven Day

That is the judgment of history, and, though I was not myself alive at the time of the great events that shaped the modern Middle East, I sincerely believe that the Britain of today should make special efforts to remain at the centre of diplomatic efforts to manage the crisis and make the daily life of people in the region more tolerable.

Though I am not a natural follower of any British political party and never voted for our current prime minister, I sense that Tony Blair shares that sense of responsibility. He is a religious man, with a strong moral sense, and I have little doubt that he is doing his level best to exert British political influence, especially in the councils of Europe and with Washington, to press for progress.

At the same time, one has to admit that the evidence of success would be hard to find, and, travelling as I do around the Middle East, it is impossible to ignore the widespread disillusion with Western efforts to achieve a breakthrough.

What’s so special?

One therefore has to ask – what is it about the Israel/Palestine conflict that is so special, that evades all attempts at resolution, and that has blighted the lives of millions of good, decent people and threatened the security of the world? For no other conflict, however bloody, has quite the same characteristics or the same resistance to mediation.

Looking back over my own 40 years’ exposure to this conflict, I draw one small crumb of comfort from the observation that the threat to world peace is now lower than it was in the 60s and early 70s.

It was a British foreign secretary, a man of unique experience of international affairs, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who stated bluntly that the Middle East crisis could bring the world to the brink of a nuclear war within 24 hours. That is no longer the case.

The end of the Cold war has not resolved the crisis, but it has made it less dangerous. Instead of a situation where two superpowers pulled in opposite directions and fuelled an arms race, there is now a high degree of international cooperation and agreement on the basic terms of a just and durable settlement. The importance of that should not be underestimated.

Where is the West?

To underline that point, let me ask: “Where is the West these days?” It now includes most of those countries that formed the Warsaw Pact and even Russia has shown interest in rejoining us. We may have differences of nuance, but the interest in a Middle East settlement far outweighs any differences between us.

The second conclusion is equally clear – violence, by whatever party, will always make a just settlement less likely, and the reason for this is clear.

No people will be bullied or threatened into compromising its national security. Spectacular acts of violence will capture headlines and force issues higher up the political agenda, but they will at the same time make concessions less likely.

The history of the Middle East conflict has demonstrated more clearly than anywhere else that violence, whether perpetrated by governments, individuals or factions, will always destroy prospects for peace and postpone diplomacy.

Side by side

There cannot be many who have immersed themselves in the background to this conflict and listened to the people directly concerned who do not reach the conclusion that an enduring settlement will necessarily require a Palestinian state side by side with the State of Israel; that such an outcome must be freely accepted by the Palestinian people; that international guarantees will underpin the agreements; and that massive international aid will be needed to assist a return to normalcy.

The reluctance of Israelis to come to this conclusion has never ceased to amaze observers. The Palestinian people were never to be suppressed or silenced; their essential demands were no more than the reasonable demands of any other people on earth – a land of their own, a chance to exercise democratic rights, an identity that would enable them to travel and enjoy justice.

It should have been equally clear to all Arabs that Israel would not disappear. The idea that Israel was somehow an American puppet, a relic of the age of imperialism, showed total ignorance of the Israeli people and their determination not simply to survive but to flourish in a vibrant democracy.

Given the characteristics of the two peoples, compromises are necessary on both sides if the downward spiral of violence is to be reversed.

Viable outcome

The central conclusion, therefore – and it is not simply a debating point – is that peace will only come when the people directly concerned come to appreciate that there is no other viable outcome.

Neither side can abolish or pummel the other into submission. That may seem obvious, but there have been many in earlier years who, through ignorance or malevolence, believed that the triumph of one side against the other was feasible. Few today hold such illusions, and the realists on both sides are in contact.

So what can Western governments do? Above all, I hope that they will stop playing with the issues, grandstanding to public opinions in their own countries with easy platitudes designed to appease lobbies and interest groups.

For too long, many Western politicians have got away with either blaming it all on Washington – calling on the United States to “pressure” Israel into a settlement – or adopting “pro-Arab” stances in the hope of securing more favourable treatment in commercial and arms negotiations. It is often said that the genuine friend will be prepared to state the unpopular truth.

Public opinion

The importance of public opinion in the West should not be underestimated. In the United Kingdom, as elsewhere, there has been a major shift in public attitudes towards the conflict over recent years.

There is real sympathy with the innocent victims on both sides, a greater realisation of the futility of violent acts against people who have no way of influencing events, and at the same time a willingness to express criticism of brutal Israeli tactics.

Britain is in a special position in this respect, since my country and ordinary British people around the world have suffered as much as anyone from acts of terrorism. We know from hard-won experience that revenge is counter-productive, that the imposition of harsh military measures will make a bad situation worse, and that moderation and discipline are required if military action is to assist civil order.

In one of the greatest speeches in the British parliament, made at the time of the war of American Independence, a British parliamentarian stated: “Violence subdues, but it does not remove the need to subdue again.”

He called then for conciliation with America, arguing that a great people could never be subdued by military force; whatever the immediate outcome, America would eventually be free. If that was true of the American people – at that time a small and scattered community – it is equally true of the Palestinian people today.

Show sensitivity

Above all, Western governments, therefore, should show sensitivity to the views and interests of ordinary people affected by the crisis; they should put aside the easy options that have never borne fruit and should work in harmony to bring the leaders on both sides into dialogue.

It is arguable that the process of current international diplomacy, and the efforts in particular of the EU/UN/US/Russia grouping are doing just that. Without in any way underestimating the value of such a united approach, it seems that more is needed and the following thoughts are offered:

– Governments are unwieldy instruments and never more so than when working through international organisations. The Oslo process occurred precisely because the normal channels were by-passed. While the stately progress of international teams of diplomats is a valuable back-drop, real progress will only be made through limited, strictly confidential, channels accepted by the leaders of the two sides. There is no lack of volunteers qualified for such roles.

– Western governments should not fall into the trap of dividing the world into “democratic” and non-democratic peoples, assuming that the former must be conciliated and the latter told what to do. The Palestinian people are as democratic as any on earth, with a rich diversity of non-governmental organisations, powerful political factions and a rugged determination on the part of individuals, whether men or women, to say what they think. Recognising this fact, Western governments should talk directly to the people of the region, encouraging hope without offering simplistic remedies, explaining why violence only breeds more violence, reasoning on the basis of their own experience, above all demonstrating that they care.

War of words

Language is peculiarly important, and the paramount concept is justice. For too long, human dignity has been denied, while European and other governments have left the politics to Washington.

Our governments should be prepared to speak out when injustices occur, to support human rights organisations and to condemn acts of brutality, especially when carried out by forces of the state. How many thousands of times has one heard the accusation of “double standards” – and so often, the label is justified.

There is also great scope for more immediate action to support economic development within the Palestinian territories. In the first instance, this should mean firm action by the European Union to stop Israeli protectionist policies that stifle Palestinian trade. The mean, narrow-minded, petty obstructions that face the hard-pressed Palestinian farmer or entrepreneur are an outrageous affront to universal principles of free trade.

As one courageous managing director of Marks and Spencer stated at a conference in London, when he discovered that a Palestinian farmer in Gaza was receiving 5% of the revenue from the sale of his strawberries while 95% went to the Israeli middleman – this is bad for peace and also bad for Zionism. There will never be stability in the region when the majority of the workforce is denied access to jobs.

The European Union

At the same time, the European Union should ensure that all EU funds devoted to the region are administered in the same rigorous, transparent manner as should be the case in Europe. Too much money has gone astray or been wasted.

Most benefit of all comes from education, both within the territories and in the way of scholarships. Educational schemes should be developed to encourage young Israeli and Palestinian students to meet, argue and above all listen. Numerous such efforts have demonstrated that the young can surmount barriers regarded by their leaders as insuperable.

We who live comfortably in the West can only imagine the depths of despair experienced by people who experience daily misery, isolation and oppression. Without offering naïve optimism, the West should keep hope alive.

History, including recent history, has shown that even apparently intractable problems can be tackled and progress made. Who would have dreamed that the Soviet Union would collapse, that religion would return to Russia and its hitherto subject peoples allowed to speak out, vote, travel and prosper? In Northern Ireland, that most bitter and deep-seated of conflicts, leaders are working for compromise and outlawing the gun.

Seismic shifts

Within the Middle East, there have been seismic shifts. Whatever one’s views of the military intervention in Iraq, it can surely not be disputed that an appallingly brutal and incompetent regime has been removed, and that the Iraqi people have been given the chance of a new start.

Success there in building a prosperous, democratic state – a state endowed with great natural wealth and a most talented and energetic people – will be a beacon across the region. It will require long-term resources of money and expertise.

How much more likely is it that the world will one day unite to support a just and lasting peace in the Holy Land? I pray that I will live to see that day.

As British Ambassador to Tunisia 1987 to 1992, Mr Day conducted negotiations with the PLO leadership. He was earlier ambassador to Qatar and head of the Middle East department of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is presently chairman of the educational trust the MBI Foundation.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

Source: Al Jazeera