Ancient ideas of land and faith must underpin a new Middle East peace initiative

Having reported on the conflict for years, James Rodgers explains why energy and ambition alone will not be enough to secure peace.

It was a day of extreme heat, and extreme emotion. The prisoners were due to be released at Tarqumia, a checkpoint between Israel and the West Bank.

It was August. The Middle Eastern summer was at its hottest. There was no shade. Waiting families did not seem to mind. Perhaps they had been strengthened by learning to endure absence and separation. Perhaps hope and expectation alone sustained them that afternoon. Their excitement seemed to increase the air temperature even further.

The newly-freed prisoners were Palestinians who had been held in Israeli jails, mostly for carrying out, or planning, attacks on Israeli targets. A similar release is planned now, as part of moves by the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, to restart the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. It was just such a restart, in this case prompted by the launch of the "Roadmap" for Middle East peace, which had led to the prisoner release I witnessed then, in 2003.

Such new beginnings seem often to be prompted by the ambition of politicians or diplomats. In this case, Kerry, new in his post, is taking on one of the toughest diplomatic challenges of the age. In his announcement last week, he talked of £a significant and welcome step forward", which would see delegations coming to "Washington to begin initial talks within the next week or so" – in other words, very soon now.

Without the dedication and energy which Kerry has shown, this stage might not even have been reached. It is his enthusiasm which is the catalyst. The need to end the conflict is nothing new. There seems to be a growing opinion that it may soon be impossible to create a Palestinian state on the West Bank. The European Union’s view, published last December, is typical. Foreign Ministers decided then that continued settlement expansion, "would seriously undermine the prospects of a negotiated resolution of the conflict by jeopardis­ing the possibility of a contiguous and viable Palestinian state and of Jerusa­lem as the future capital of two states."

If attempts to take on the challenge are not prompted by ministerial ambition, they are often prompted by more than circumstances inside Israel and the Palestinian territories. The Roadmap of 2003 came in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq; the Madrid talks of 1991 followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The disputes remain the same: borders; refugees (those who fled the 1948 war, which brought Israel into being, and their descendants); the status of Jerusalem. Any solution to these fundamental issues will require compromise, or acceptance of loss or injustice. So far, this has proved impossible.

As the BBC’s correspondent in Gaza from 2002-2004, I was the only international journalist then based in the territory. I watched the conflict unfold from a rare viewpoint. Reporting the news gave me an understanding of daily reality, and the longer I did it, the more I sought to understand the deeper, enduring, causes of enmity between Israeli and Palestinian.

Taking a week or so away from news reporting, I made a radio documentary about the conflict and ideas of home.

It seemed that the more you went beyond the questions designed to get a soundbite for that day’s bulletins, the more ideas of historical destiny, reinforced by religious faith, came to the surface.

I was reminded of this recently when watching a BBC Television documentary, Israel: Facing the Future.

"Both sides claim to have rights on this land, and they claim that they are the only ones who have the rights on this land, and no side can in any way forego its rights on every inch of territory because it’s holy land," Ephraim Halevy, a former Director of Mossad, told the reporter, John Ware.

This is the extremely inconvenient truth which conventional diplomacy, and the journalism which reports it, too often underplays. Taking it into account is no guarantee of a successful peace process. Ignoring it seems to guarantee failure. Energy and ambition alone are not sufficient. This new diplomatic initiative will need to understand ancient ideas of land and faith if it is to succeed.

James Rodgers is the author of the newly-published No Road Home: Fighting for Land and Faith in Gaza (Abramis) and of Reporting Conflict (Palgrave MacMillan, 2012). From 2002-2004, he was the BBC’s correspondent in Gaza. He lectures in Journalism at City University London. 

US Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images
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Emmanuel Macron's power struggle with the military

Reminding your subordinates that you are "their boss" doesn't go as far as listening to their problems, it may seem.

This is the sixth in a series looking at why Emmanuel Macron isn't the liberal hero he has been painted as. Each week, I examine an area of the new French president's politics that doesn't quite live up to the hype. Read the whole series.

It had started well between Macron and the army. He was the first president to chose a military vehicle to parade with troops on the Champs-Élysées at his inauguration, had made his first official visit a trip to Mali to meet French soldiers in the field, and had pulled a James Bond while visiting a submarine off the Brittany coast.

It’s all fun and games in submarines, until they ask you to pay to maintain the fleet.

“Macron wanted to appear as the head of armed forces, he was reaffirming the president’s link with the military after the François Hollande years, during which the defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had a lot of power,” Elie Tenenbaum, a defence research fellow at the French Institute for International Relations, told the New Statesman. The new president was originally viewed with distrust by the troops because he is a liberal, he says, but “surprised them positively” in his first weeks. Olivier de France, the research director at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, agrees: “He sent good signals at first, gathering sympathy.” 

But the honeymoon ended in July, with what Tenenbaum describes as Macron’s first “real test” on defence: the announced cut of €850m from the army’s budget, despite Macron’s (very ambitious) campaign pledge to rise the defence budget to 2 per cent of the country’s GDP by 2025. A row ensued between the president and the French army’s chief of staff, general Pierre de Villiers, when the general complained publicly that the defence budget was “unbearable”. He told MPs: “I won’t let him [Macron] fuck me up like that!”

Macron replied in a speech he gave to military troops the day before Bastille Day, in which he called soldiers to honour their “sense of duty and discretion” and told them: “I have taken responsibilities. I am your boss.” After the general threatened to quit and wrote at length about “trust” in leadership, Macron added a few days later that “If something brings into conflict the army’s chief of staff and the president of the Republic, the chief of staff changes.” That, Tenenbaum says, was the real error: “On the content, he was cutting the budget, and on the form, he was straightening out a general in front of his troops”. This is the complete opposite of the military ethos, he says: “It showed a lack of tact.”

This brutal demonstration of power led to de Villiers’ resignation on 19 July – a first in modern French politics. (de Villiers had already protested over budget cuts and threatened to quit in 2014, but Hollande’s defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had backed down.)

Macron did his best to own up to his mistake, assuring the military that, although this year’s cuts were necessary to meet targets, the budget would be rised in 2018. “I want you to have the means to achieve your mission,” he said.

But the harm was done. “He should have introduced a long-term budget plan with a rise in the coming years right away,” says de France. “It was clumsy – of course he is the boss, everyone knows that. If he needs to say it, something is off.” The €850m will be taken out of the army’s “already suffering” equipment budget, says Tenenbaum. “There are pressures everywhere. Soldiers use equipment that is twice their age, they feel no one has their back." The 2 per cent GDP target Macron set himself during the campaign – a “precise” and “ambitious” one – would mean reaching a €50bn army budget by 2025, from this year’s €34m, he explains. “That’s €2bn added per year. It’s enormous.”

Read more: #5: On immigration, Macron's words draw borders

Macron has two choices ahead, De France explains: “Either France remains a big power and adapts its means to its ambitions” – which means honouring the 2 per cent by 2025 pledge – “or wants to be a medium power and adapts its ambitions to its means”, by reducing its army’s budget and, for instance, reinvesting more in European defence.

The military has good reason to doubt Macron will keep his promise: all recent presidents have set objectives that outlast their mandates, meaning the actual rise happens under someone else’s supervision. In short, the set goals aren’t always met. Hollande’s law on military programming planned a budget rise for the period 2018-19, which Macron has now inherited. “The question is whether Macron will give the army the means to maintain these ambitions, otherwise the forces’ capacities will crumble,” says Tenenbaum. “These €850m of cuts are a sign than he may not fulfill his commitments.”

If so, Macron’s row with the general may only be the beginning.  It didn’t help Macron’s popularity, which has been plummeting all summer. And the already distrustful troops may not forgive him: more than half of France’s forces of order may support Marine Le Pen’s Front national, according to one poll. “It’s hardly quantifiable and includes police officers,” Tenenbaum cautions. All the same, the army probably supports right-wing and hard-right politicians in higher numbers than the general population, he suggests.

James Bond would probably have known better than to irritate an entire army – but then again, Bond never was “their boss.”