Time for Israel to back down

In the Holy Land (as the newspapers like to call it), the first world collides with the third: an affluent, mainly white democracy, economically and culturally close to the west, confronts poor, brown, mainly Muslim people. One side has tanks, rockets and helicopter gunships; the other has only stones, a few rifles and the shock of terrorist attacks. The west's reactions do not say much for its sense of common humanity. The deaths of two Israeli soldiers receive more appalled attention than nearly 100 Palestinian deaths, including those of children. The Israeli fighters are called soldiers, the Palestinian fighters terrorists. Ehud Barak is portrayed as a rational and practical dove even though, like the Ulster Unionists, he says "no" to most things, while Yasser Arafat is shown as erratic and unpredictable. Most tellingly, the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem have become, in western media parlance, "disputed lands", not "occupied territories".

Yet occupied territories - illegally occupied, according to UN Resolutions 242 and 338 - is exactly what they are. They are occupied mainly because Israel, after fighting four wars against its Arab neighbours, believes that it needs them to guarantee its security (though some of its citizens would also argue that it has an historic right to them). The United Nations solution is simple: land for peace. The Palestinians get their land; Israel gets its security from attack. In 1991, at the Madrid peace conference, such a deal seemed on offer, and the 1993 Oslo peace accords gave the hopes substance. Palestinians believed that the accords might lead to eventual statehood. Seven long years later, that aspiration seems further away than ever.

Israel has never ceased to behave like the occupier. A letter to Ramallah, on the West Bank, must still be addressed: "via Israel". Restrictions on Palestinian movement are as onerous and as humiliating as ever. Jewish settlements on Palestinian lands - frequently called Jewish "neighbourhoods" by the western media as though they had always been there - have increased. Building has continued at a faster rate under the supposedly pro-peace Barak than under his hard-line predecessor. Settler highways have been driven through the West Bank, so that Palestinians are coralled into a series of small, isolated cantons, making the prospect of a state (or, for that matter, an effective and credible Palestinian Authority) a geopolitical absurdity. Western television viewers see only the Israeli tanks; Palestinians see the bulldozers daily. If the Palestinian uprising is now more violent than ever, that is because the sense of betrayal is deeper.

Israel continues to dictate terms for negotiations, behaving as though it were a political strongman. It will continue to do so as long as the US holds the laughable title of "honest broker". The discouraging outcome from Sharm al-Sheikh is that the US president will have total authority over the scope of the inquiry into the current troubles. The encouraging one is that Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, will be a member and that he, like Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy supremo, was present at the summit.

Mr Annan is at least credible as a neutral broker. And if the EU wants to become a significant force in world affairs, and if it wants to be a standard-bearer for human rights, this is the moment to seize. Almost anything is better than the US, and both sides have reason to accept EU leadership in a renewed peace process: the Palestinians because internal Muslim pressure on EU states matches the internal Jewish pressure on Washington; the Israelis because, under Yitzhak Rabin's premiership, they once dreamed of joining the EU, and the dream is not a completely impossible one.

So the Oslo peace process may yet be patched up. But, this time, the Palestinian sense of injustice will not be appeased for long. The peace process must not be restored as an end in itself. Both the tanks and the bulldozers must withdraw permanently from the West Bank and Gaza. No doubt Israel, from time to time, will still face terrorist attacks, as does almost any country in the world. But as by far the strongest military power in the region, with the backing of the world's only remaining superpower, Israel no longer has need of the security for which the occupied lands were originally seized. No outside power is likely to equip and support an Arab invasion, as Moscow might have done before the 1990s. In that sense, the deadlock in the Middle East is the last fossil of the cold war. It is time for someone to bring the Israelis into the 21st century.

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why Brown should hold his nerve