By Kanchan Gupta
For a brief while in the late-1970s it seemed that the periodic bloodletting that had come to define Arab-Israeli relations and dominate Middle East affairs would become history. The Camp David agreement of 1978 leading to next year’s peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, till then implacable enemies, was supposed to be a defining moment, paving the path for a settlement of the Palestinian issue and Israel securing its rightful place in a region that had been hostile to the Jewish state from its inception and had sworn its destruction.
But history, as we all know, rarely if ever takes a linear leap into the future; rarer still does it illuminate the way to better times. Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat, who had shown exemplary courage in making peace with Israel, was assassinated in 1981. His assassin, Khaled Islambouli, was executed in 1982. Iran, which had by then witnessed an Islamic Revolution, hailed Sadat’s assassination and Ayatollah Khomeini declared Khaled Islambouli a martyr. A street in Tehran was named after him. Earlier this month in Iran a military parade was attacked and scores were killed in an eerie recall of events of October 6, 1981 in Egypt.
Sadat’s assassination ran the danger of the nascent peace treaty with Israel collapsing. The treaty survived as President Hosni Mubarak took Egypt closer to the US and further from the USSR. Across the Suez Canal, tectonic shifts happened. The USSR, unhappy over Egypt sliding out of and away from Moscow’s control, began looking for other allies. Shia Iran started intruding into the arc of Sunni Arab authority and control. The rules and terms of engagement in the Middle East radically changed from what they were prior to Camp David.
Yet all hope was not lost. The US persisted with its efforts to broker a larger peace that would lead to a meaningful engagement between Israelis and Palestinians. The Oslo process led to the signing of Oslo Accord 1 in 1993. It was followed by the Israel-Jordan peace treaty in 1994 and Oslo Accord 2 in 1995.
Twenty-five years is not a long time, but it is long enough for memories to fade and fray in the Middle East. So much so, the 25th anniversary of Oslo Accord 1, hailed as the cornerstone of a permanent solution to the Palestinian issue, has passed unnoticed and unobserved — in the region and the world. It has been sort of airbrushed from memory.
It could be argued that Israel has pulled out of Gaza (and subsequently justifiably barricaded it to protect its citizens from Hamas), allowed some self-governance and policing rights to the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and unlike its stormy relationship with Yasser Arafat, has maintained a comparatively less hostile though uneven relationship with Mahmoud Abbas. But the sum total of that is far outweighed by Hamas’s hostility in Gaza (fuelled in large measure by Iran via Syria as in Lebanon) and Palestinian belligerence in the West Bank.
Meanwhile, Jewish settlements continue to be built in the West Bank in pursuance of reclaiming ‘Eretz Israel’, or the Land of Israel, stretching from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean Sea. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is neither apologetic nor defensive about this. The US has shifted its Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, signalling gradual global acceptance of the unviability, if not impossibility, of restoring status quo ante as it existed before the Six Day War. The Knesset has passed the ‘Nation State Bill’, formalising the concept of a Jewish state through a basic law specifying the nature of the state of Israel as a nation state of the Jewish people.
Communications between Ramallah and Washington, DC have collapsed; President Donald Trump has characteristically given often mawkishly overstated Palestinian sentiments the short-shrift. A Right-bound Europe has neither the time nor the inclination to pander to the ‘Boycott, Divest, Sanction’ movement of the fashionably Left-wing anti-Semitists. If Jeremy Corbyn gets away with his rank anti-Semitism, the credit should go to the glaring incompetence of Prime Minister Theresa May.
The Annapolis roadmap, which was supposed to take both Israelis and Palestinians to their seemingly unreachable destination within a year, is now a footnote of the long and tortuous history of illusive peace-making. In 2007 both Israelis and Palestinians were tantalisingly close to a deal that was all but signed, sealed and delivered at Annapolis. Cynical as this may sound, so were they magically close to a deal at Oslo.
In the decade that has gone by since Annapolis, much has happened to widen the gulf between possibility and impossibility. The open hostility between Gaza and Israel is only one of the contributors to this widening. The collapse of the settled order in the Middle East, from Iraq to Syria and in between, is no less a contributor. Shia Iran’s attempt to emerge as the principal player is now being stoutly resisted by Sunni Arabia. Egypt is fighting its own war of attrition with Islamists. And Israel is no longer the eternal enemy of Arabs. Yesterday’s foes are today’s allies, at least sort of, as national and sectarian interests override pan-Arab affinities and affiliations.
It is not surprising that the 25th anniversary of the Oslo Accord and the passing away of the promise it held should have gone unnoticed, unmentioned and ungrieved.
Post-script: Trump says he still believes in a two-state solution. During the joint press conference after Netanyahu met him on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on Wednesday, he said: “I like two-state solution. Yeah. That’s what I think works best. I don’t even have to speak to anybody…” Later Netanyahu removed any ambiguity that may have persisted on what this means: “Everyone defines the term ‘state’ differently.” We must now await the details of Trump’s deal. It is unlikely to find favour with the Palestinians even if Abbas is willing to accept Israel retaining security control west of Jordan.