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The race is on to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Submitted by on 05 Nov 2010 – 17:44

By Nigel Nelson, political editor of The People

Tony Blair spends a week a month at the five-star American Colony in Jerusalem. But so little is heard of his peace mission one could be forgiven for wondering if being pampered in a £560-a-night suite at one of the Middle-East’s most luxurious hotels is all he does.

When I went to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the West Bank this summer to discover what he is up to, in advance of the Washington peace talks, I expected to find those who might tell me thin on the ground. But it turned out there was hardly a high-ranking Israeli or Palestinian I met who did not know the envoy representing the interests of the United Nations, European Union, America and Russia in the region. The former Prime Minister has been keeping himself busy since he took up the quartet job three years ago – but to what ends is more difficult to fathom.

The Israelis love him, and he has access to PM Binyamin Netanyahu and Defence minister Ehud Barak on every visit. “No-one thought he was going to come here and bring peace overnight,” one of Israel’s top government officials told me. “His mandate was to build on Palestinian institutions to lay the foundations for a Palestinian state. And he’s been an amazing success story.” If building is meant to be taken literally then Palestinian construction workers on the occupied West Bank have much to thank Mr Blair for. Everywhere you look apartment blocks are going up.

But talk to ministers in the Palestinian Liberation Organisation above the noise of power drills and dumper trucks, and they say something very different. One, who was happy to call TB his “very, very good friend”, complained: “He has no teeth. He cannot bang the table to make the Israelis change their minds.” Another on the Palestinian Authority negotiating team added: “We hoped for more from Blair. He came here with the image of The Big Man but we have not seen many results. The Israelis have weakened him. He is not equipped to make things change.”

Yet an end to the conflict between Israel and Palestine is arguably easier to achieve than the one in Northern Ireland. For a start, both sides agree on the answer – the two-state solution – and both are scared witless by Hamas who have control in Gaza. The Israelis fear that without a deal with the PLO Hamas could take over in the West Bank, too. And the Palestinians say that unless an acceptable peace is agreed soon then Hamas will press for a one-state solution. That means making Arabs Israeli citizens and, given their higher birth rates, outnumbering and outvoting the Israelis in 20 years. Posters are already going up in the West Bank advocating such a thing. PLO ministers have an extra reason for urgent movement. If Hamas do take over they fear they may be shot.

A Palestinian homeland could mean a thriving Arab economy. Israeli dual-use restrictions which stop farmers getting hold of fertilizer in case they turn it into bombs, or plumbers obtaining pipes which could be used as missile launchers, would be lifted. And Palestine has a plentiful supply of rock which, the PLO say, could transform them from the world’s third largest exporter of stone and marble to its first. More than 1.5 million tourists go to Bethlehem each year, and the eyes of PLO officials sparkle at the thought of Palestinian tour guides adding religious sites in Jerusalem to the itinerary. “We would be very rich,” said one. Indeed. And very optimistic. The future of Jerusalem remains a huge sticking point, and agreement over some sort of international control over the Holy sites is probably the only way of ungluing it.

A return to 1967 borders seems the best solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but that would mean displacing 140,000 Jewish settlers. Not easy to accomplish. Israeli settlements are not the ramshackle hotchpotch of hastily constructed huts that I imagined before seeing them, but neat little housing estates which would not look out of place in Surbiton. Only high walls to stop snipers firing into living rooms during the Israeli TV equivalent of Eastenders suggest their flower borders are on the frontline.

Palestinians are most attracted to proposals put forward by Kadima’s Ehud Olmert before his premiership ended in March last year, although no-one outside the negotiating teams seems to know exactly what they were. The PLO attitude to Israel is: you show as your map and we’ll show you ours. But Israeli hardliners in Likud say that offer is now off the table because it was not accepted at the time.

Tony Blair might be trying to put it back on again, but most of what he gets up to must necessarily remain behind closed doors; positions being harder to shift once they become public. So our ex-PM may be doing more than we can guess. If he can be instrumental in a deal a Nobel peace prize awaits and Britain’s streets would be a safer place once al-Queda has lost the recruiting sergeant of the Palestinian conflict. If Mr Blair fails it’s more tarnish on a legacy made lacklustre by Iraq.

But as one PLO minister told me: “We must get to the end game quickly. And to do that we must have an end to games. Israeli peace with Palestine is more than just peace for Palestine. It’s peace for the entire Muslim world.”