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Thursday, November 11, 2004

Times of London Opinion Piece: Choose your own cliché

Fresh start. Road map. Political engagement. Choose your own cliché
Michael Gove
SOME OF my best friends are clichés. Anyone who writes regularly will often find that a familiar word that comes readily to hand is better than beating about the bush. But clichés are like alcohol. While it’s eminently forgivable to indulge occasionally, as a way of getting through the day, excessive use clouds the judgment.

And when it comes to peering through a glass darkly, no issue is so clouded by an overreliance on the crutch of clichés as the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Two historic events in this past week have recast the nature of that conflict. But even though President Bush’s re-election, and the closing of the Arafat era, demand a fresh engagement with the issue, the air is still thick with the fug of stale cliché.

There is a widespread sense that a new opportunity exists to provide the Palestinian people and the Israelis with fresh hope for the future. But that fresh hope is compromised by the tired assumptions with which it is accompanied. As Tony Blair prepares to meet President Bush this week there is near-unanimity from European commentators and politicians about what should be done.

The President should be told to re-engage with a peace process that has faltered, more than anything, because of his culpable neglect. He must show greater impartiality, rather than favouring, as he has, if only by inaction, the Israeli Government.

The Israelis, for their part, must recognise the folly of seeking to use military means to protect themselves from terror. And only through progress between Israel and the Palestinians can the wider problems of the region be solved.

All of these clichéd assumptions: the belief that America is to blame for neglecting to engage; the conviction that the President must display neutrality; the judgment that Ariel Sharon’s current tactics are folly; and the idea that the peace process is the principal solution for the region’s woes are almost totally wrong. These assumptions have underpinned the policies that were followed for 30 years in the Middle East, and they have been responsible for our current misery. The repetition of each of these clichés now brings to mind another, with politicians who refuse to learn from history condemned to repeat it.

The first wrong-headed assumption is embodied in the demand that Bush “re-engage” with the Middle East peace process, as though conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians was like a squabble between children, a dispute due primarily to a failure on the part of the figure in authority to assert himself. This error springs from a misplaced faith that major conflicts can be resolved if only outside figures apply themselves to brokering negotiations with all the energy at their disposal. The truth about peace processes is that outside brokers can achieve something only if the parties to the conflict want out. And that wasn’t the case with Arafat.

Few presidents could have tried harder to engage with the Middle East peace process than Bill Clinton, but he knew where the blame lay for its demise. When Yassir Arafat sought to praise Clinton for the American leader’s efforts at the end of his presidency, Bill would have none of it. “I’ve been a failure,” he told the Palestinian leader, “and it’s thanks to you.” Peace talks at Camp David, and Taba, ran into the sand because Arafat chose not to accept what had been negotiated but preferred to see what more could be extracted through the violence of the second intifada.

If Arafat had been genuinely intent on peace then his energies would have gone into making his nascent state work. Like Michael Collins, the Irish terrorist godfather turned statesman, Arafat should have accepted borders that were less than ideal, so that a start might be made on nurturing a democracy, and then set about dealing with those rejectionists on his own side who threatened the peace.

But Arafat preferred the poisoned romance of staying a terrorist leader to the hard nobility of building a nation.

That left Israel’s leaders with no option but to protect their own democracy as best they could. And that was a moral course which any leader following an ethical foreign policy should have respected. George Bush did.

He could not remain impartial between a terrorist entity prosecuting a campaign that targeted innocents and a democracy defending itself, any more than a policeman can be even-handed between burglar and householder.

Bush has been critical of some of Israel’s actions, for no state can act wisely in every circumstance. But the tired insistence that the Sharon Government be told, on every occasion, to mend its ways, ignores the emerging truth that the Israeli Prime Minister has achieved signal successes in difficult times. Ariel Sharon’s policy of erecting a security barrier along Israel’s frontier and targeting the leaders of the fundamentalist terror group Hamas has resulted in a dramatic fall in the number of terrorist incidents on Israeli soil.

As well as protecting his citizens in the short term, he has also given the Palestinians the opportunity to recognise that their violence has been counter-productive. The intifada has failed, and as its author lies comatose in a Paris hospital; they must look for hope elsewhere.

Indeed, foreign statesmen who wish to see the people of the Middle East enjoy a better future should broaden their gaze beyond this one conflict to recognise what is truly at the heart of the region’s malaise. Arafat was not the only Arab leader to blame his people’s problems on the Jews, to prefer the romance of the liberation struggle to the hard work of democratic modernisation, and to line his own pockets while his citizens scrabbled for survival. The root cause of violence, poverty and division in the Middle East is not a failure to solve the peace process. The failure of the peace process stems from the continuing addiction of so many of the Arab world’s leaders to fomenting violence, presiding over poverty and indulging in the politics of division.