I began the blog “A Mid-East Journal” early in January 2010, and I wrote the last piece on 30 December. My intention from the start was to follow the ins and outs, the ups and downs, of the peace process in what I thought might prove a turning point in the history of both Israel and Palestine – and then to produce a book about the events of 2010.
As 2010 dawned, it seemed to me possible that the year might prove seminal in the long-drawn-out process of finding an accommodation between Israel and the Palestinians. Although many of the negative factors that had frustrated past efforts were still present, the signs that meaningful negotiations might be resumed and brought, eventually, to some sort of favourable outcome seemed more hopeful than for many years.
Within its first days in office, the new US administration had clearly marked the Middle East as a priority for its attention. It was on 22 January 2009, in a special ceremony in the White House, that newly-elected President Barack Obama named George Mitchell his “special envoy to the Middle East”. The event, attended also by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was widely interpreted as a determination on Obama’s part to involve himself and his new administration in working for, and in finally achieving, a settlement to the long-running Arab-Israel dispute.
At the ceremony Mitchell said that, along with Obama and Clinton, he believed the objective of a Jewish state and a Palestinian state living side by side was possible, and that the conflict, old as it was, could be resolved
Obama charged his Middle East envoy to return to the Middle East, and to seek a “comprehensive peace”. By that, Mitchell soon made clear, he meant not only a settlement of the Israel-Palestine impasse, but also peace between Israel and Syria, and between Israel and Lebanon, and a normalisation of relations between Israel and the Arab world as a whole – ambitious objectives indeed, and certainly not susceptible of achievement in the space of one short twelvemonth. Some sort of breakthrough in the long-lasting Israel-Palestine dispute did, however, seem a possibility.
It was in March 2009 that the Obama administration explicitly incorporated into US policy the 2002 Arab League peace plan, originally mooted by Saudi Arabia, under which the Arab world undertook formally to recognise Israel and enter into normal relations with her, in exchange for Israel’s withdrawing from territories captured in the 1967 war. Three months later President Obama, in an unprecedented move, reached out to the Muslim world in a speech in Cairo.
In what must still be regarded as an historic address, Obama said the “cycle of suspicion and discord” between the United States and the Muslim world must end. He called for a “new beginning”; both sides needed to make a “sustained effort… to respect one another and seek common ground”. The US bond with Israel was unbreakable, he said, but the Palestinians’ plight was “intolerable”.
Fortunately or unfortunately, whichever way one chooses to regard the matter, water continued to flow under the bridge. Events overtook aspirations. For example, it quickly became apparent that all the overtures in the world counted for nothing against the reality of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
As regards the position of the Palestinians, the West Bank, administered by the Palestinian Authority, had been enjoying unprecedented economic growth – something between 5% and 7% was the World Bank’s estimate for 2009. Meanwhile the Islamist terrorist organisation Hamas, having seized control of the Gaza Strip in a bloody internecine coup d’état, remained virtually at war with Fatah, its rivals within the Palestinian Authority, and deeply opposed to any accommodation with, or even recognition of, Israel.
Considering itself at war with Israel, Hamas had pursued a consistent policy of firing rockets from Gaza, indiscriminately hitting anything within range. Supplied with ever more sophisticated weaponry from Iran and Syria, Hamas’s attacks started reaching deeper and deeper into Israel. Finally, in December 2008 – after Barack Obama had won the Presidential election, but before his inauguration – Israel launched its short, sharp and devastating Operation Cast Lead against the Hamas regime.
The legacies of that conflict were a virtual cessation of the rocket incursions, accusations that Israel’s attack had taken too little account of the impact on the civilian population, and a continuing blockade of the Gaza Strip by both Israel and Egypt – Egypt being as keen as Israel to prevent Hamas boosting its military capabilities. Israel’s blockade, which allowed a regular though restricted flow of humanitarian aid through the main land crossings, extended also to a naval blockade aimed at preventing the import of weaponry and related materials by sea.
A possible additional legacy of the conflict – though this is difficult to assess – was that Hamas had agreed to Egypt acting as a mediator in talks aimed at the release of the Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, captured in June 2006 by Hamas in a cross-border raid and held prisoner in the Gaza Strip ever since.
In Israel the intensive peace talks with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, that had occupied the then prime minister, Ehud Olmert, during the final months of 2008, came to a sudden end with Israel’s strike against Hamas in the December. In any case, Olmert was already acting in a caretaker capacity, following his resignation after charges of corruption, and Israel was awaiting new elections. These produced a change of government, and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu finally headed his new – and rather fragile – coalition in March 2009.
The following months saw Israel’s right-wing prime minister, and America’s new Democrat president, attempting to bring apparently irreconcilable political perspectives on the Middle East into some sort of congruence. On the face of it they succeeded. Against the odds, before the end of 2009 Netanyahu had formally accepted the two-state solution as the desired outcome of any future peace deal, and had, moreover, instituted a ten-month moratorium on building in the settlements of the West Bank.
This was the overall position at the start of 2010 – sufficiently encouraging, it seemed to me, to give hope of some sort of breakthrough during the course of the year. And so I decided that for twelve months, starting on 1 January 2010, I would follow the ups and downs in what could scarcely at the time be called a “peace process”. How much, if anything, would be achieved during the year? Would my initial feeling that we were on the brink of a breakthrough be realised? These were the questions that my articles would eventually reveal.
So I created the blog “A Mid-East Journal”, and posted the pieces as I wrote them. Taken together, they trace the tortuous progress of the early efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table, recording the occasional gleams of hope and the predictable setbacks, and then, when the principals were finally brought face-to-face, both the depressing cynicism of many about the prospects of success, and the uplifting determination of a few to maintain the process, whatever the setbacks – and there were many. The articles record also events in the region that impacted on the peace process – the Gaza flotilla episode, the “Mossad assassination” in Dubai, the Lebanon border incident, the rocket attacks on Israel,.
Of course the breakthrough that seemed so enticing a possibility in January – and virtually within grasp in September, when Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu sat down at the same table with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for their first direct face-to-face talks in nearly two years – had by December apparently turned to dust and ashes. The peace process had certainly stalled. Yet it had not foundered. President Obama had invested so much in his Middle East policy that he could not – indeed he simply refused – to acknowledge defeat. As the year ended, behind-the-scenes diplomatic activity led by the US administration was fast and furious, while in front of the curtain US special Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, had virtually reopened the initial, pre-breakdown, “proximity talks” phase – a version of shuttle diplomacy aimed at keeping dialogue between the principal parties open.
At the same time a new factor in the complex equation had emerged – moves by the Palestinians towards a form of “unilateral declaration of statehood”, initially by seeking recognition from international bodies and friendly states for a sovereign Palestine within the boundaries that existed just prior to the Six Day War in 1967. Practical considerations of many sorts probably militate against success in this enterprise on its own, but as a psychological means of exerting pressure on the right-wing within Israel’s coalition government, it may prove effective.
Whatever the outcome of this, and of the many other initiatives afoot at the end of the year aimed at trying to break the Israeli-Palestinian log-jam, it is clear that when eventually the first history of the sovereign state of Palestine, and the next history of the sovereign state of Israel, come to be written, the events of 2010 will prove of major significance in both stories – and I hope my book, “One Year in the History of Israel and Palestine” will provide those future historians not only with the facts that underlay the events of 2010, but also background to and commentary on the facts.
Preliminary details of “One Year in the History of Israel and Palestine” can be found at: http://www.troubador.co.uk/book_info.asp?bookid=1390