Israel does not hold the key

By David Aaronovitch, June 2, 2013

When Israel was founded out of Jewry's near-destruction, it was at once a liberation for Jews and a disaster for Palestinian Arabs. What happened in the subsequent years - who did what to who and when - is not the subject of this column, but we need to agree that something that was good for one people was bad for another.

By the time most of us under the age of 60 came to adulthood, the basics had been settled. Israel was there but it was evident that the Palestinians were not going to go away, to be absorbed, like the Volksdeutsch of central Europe, into another land.

Over time and, in particular, following the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the first intifada, it became one of the deepest desires of many of us that there be justice for Palestinians, too, an end to occupation and the construction of a Palestinian state existing side-by-side with Israel. That, we thought (I still think) would make Israel more secure.

Given the centrality, in rhetoric at least, of the Palestinian issue in Arab and (to a much lesser extent) Muslim life, it seemed natural also to assume that such justice, if achieved, would "bring peace to the whole region".

The Arab countries could then drop their popular hostility to the West and we might get on with the business of encouraging democracy and friendship. That may be why the Israel-Palestinian embroglio was described as the "Middle East Peace Process".

It’s not even in the top three issues in the region

This thinking partly led to Tony Blair arguing in 2002 and 2003 that action over Iraq should be accompanied by an attempt to get us back to Oslo. It was thinking resisted by some of those in Israel and elsewhere who did not want to see such momentum resumed - who wanted peace but only without any sacrifice.

The trouble is that, in this one matter, people like me were wrong and they were right. Looking at the Middle East now it is all too obvious that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is not even in the top three of the biggest issues in the region.

To illustrate this, you only have to listen to what Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizbollah, had to say this week. He was appealing to Sunnis in Lebanon not to get nasty with his party of theocratic neo-fascists, just because it was pitting Lebanese Shi'ites in battle in Syria against Turkish and Qatari-backed Syrian rebels, who were mostly Sunni.

Though he used the usual arguments that Israel was behind the rebellion, it is doubtful that even he believes this, let alone those who he was arguing with. The Syrian civil war has - as those who urged early intervention always argued it would - burst its banks and is flooding its neighbours with blood.

But the war in Syria, now grinding through its 80th thousand in deaths, depends in no way on the old "Middle East Peace Process". Nor does the renewed insurgency in Iraq, which killed up to 500 last week. Nor does the threat posed by the Iranian atomic programme - as violently opposed by the Gulf states as by Israel - and nor does the difficult, precarious and essential business of creating a modern state out of crisis-ridden Egypt. Nor even does whatever happens in the huge, lawless margins of Mali, Libya, Chad and Algeria.

So if you were John Kerry, and you had to make a list for President Obama of the crisis points in the world and the order in which they had to be dealt, where would Israel come in your order of priorities? Would it even appear? Or is it the case now that the need for peace is far more about the peoples of Israel and the occupied territories than it is about the sensitivities of the rest of the world?

    Last updated: 9:45am, June 2 2013