How Hague’s visit can help keep peace process on track

May 24, 2013 09:30

'A friend is someone who knows all about you and still loves you" - Elbert Hubbard.

Israel and the UK are friends. William Hague has described the UK's relationship with Israel as going "far beyond the realm of diplomatic relations… It is based on bonds between families and communities as well as shared values and common interests. Israel is a friend and a strategic partner of this country." Therefore, his visit to Israel is important and welcome.

The UK-Israel partnership is based on shared values, an understanding that those values are challenged by common threats, and a determination to tackle those threats together.

The threats include Iran's nuclear ambitions, Syria's deteriorating civil war and the rise of Islamism across the Middle East. These issues will no doubt form a significant part of Hague's busy agenda. However, as he recently declared at a joint press conference with US Secretary of State John Kerry, "there is no more urgent foreign policy priority in 2013 than restarting negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians".

Clearly the UK and US share a similar perspective on this issue. President Obama's recent visit to Israel was widely seen as a success. I remember watching his speech to the packed hall of students in Jerusalem and getting goose bumps. It was the most cogent, passionate and clear-sighted articulation of the case for a two-state solution that I have heard, ever.

He must take a leaf out of Obama’s book

So what can Hague do this week, as a friend of Israel and supporter of two states for two peoples? First, he should take a leaf out of President Obama's book by investing personal capital in the bilateral relationship with Israel. The Foreign Secretary should show that he has a clear sight of Israel's legitimate concerns and interests and therefore demonstrably distance himself, and the wider British government, from the wholly retrograde campaign to boycott Israel.

He should also ensure Britain's position (and the EU's) is well co-ordinated with the US. To give Kerry's efforts the best chance of success, other international players need to send a consistent message to the parties that they will back them if they engage in the US-led process, and will not support alternatives.

This is a particularly important message for the Palestinians to hear. Certainly, Israel should be encouraged to act constructively: to continue its current quiet restraint on new settlement construction and demonstrate that diplomacy delivers improvements for Palestinians on the ground. But the Palestinians must reciprocate by not confronting Israel at the International Criminal Court or in other international forums.

Hague will be aware that there is currently little enthusiasm in the PA for negotiations with Israel. That being so, it is important to be realistic about what to expect at this stage. The priority is to secure a framework of reduced tensions, avoiding another negative spiral like the one set off by the UN resolution in November, and creating a political space where Abbas and Netanyahu can develop trust and explore what kind of bilateral progress might be possible.

In that context, Hague should also get behind Kerry's efforts to stabilise the Palestinian economy and breathe new life into the bottom-up development West Bank programme - a programme to which Britain has made a very positive contribution up to now.

Thirdly, he should choose his words carefully about the future. Both Hague and Kerry have recently warned that time is running out for a two-state solution - no doubt aiming to push those who want this to get on with it. But they may inadvertently be encouraging opponents by creating the impression that some alternative is around the corner. Palestinian rejectionists may mistakenly believe that the window closing on a two-state solution means there is hope for their campaign to secure rights of citizenship in Israel through international pressure, thereby replacing Israel with a single, Arab-majority state.

Such a belief is illusory, and Hague needs to send a clear message. He needs to stress to both publics that Britain sees no alternative to a solution of "two states for two peoples" as a way to reconcile the demands of the two sides. The alternative is no solution - only more pain, instability and conflict for both sides.

The best advice for Hague on his trip? It comes from Albert Camus: "Don't walk behind me; I may not lead. Don't walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend."

May 24, 2013 09:30

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