A kindergarten for murderers

Observations on the Middle East

In the Middle Eastern kindergarten, the Israelis claim that they will not withdraw their tanks, they will not remove or even freeze the settlements, before the Palestinians put an end to terror and incitement. At the same time, the Palestinians say that they cannot put an end to terror and incitement before the occupation is concluded.

Both sides accept, more or less, the ideas of President Bush, which are identical, more or less, with the programme of the former president Bill Clinton, which is similar, more or less, to the European peace plan, which is not very different from the Saudi proposals. So everybody knows that, at the end, there will be two states, roughly according to the 1967 lines, two capital cities in Jerusalem, no Jewish settlements in the heart of Palestine and no large-scale return of Palestinian refugees into Israel.

What are we all waiting for? Is it really just the kindergarten mentality of "I'll do it if you do it first!"?

Essentially, the patient - by which I mean both the Israelis and the Palestinians - is unhappily ready for surgery, while the doctors - by which I mean Sharon and Arafat - are too cowardly to operate.

The Israelis and Palestinians must make one more attempt at a simultaneous deal: the removal of a few settlements in return for the dismantling of one terrorist organisation. Then the removal of a few more settlements in return for the dispersion of another Islamic fundamentalist group.

If this doesn't work, let us take the conflict "upstairs", which means negotiations between Israel and the Arab League. (When I was at kindergarten unable to resolve my conflict with another child, I would go to his older sister, or his parents.)

Perhaps we ought to begin not with borders and settlements, not even with Jerusalem and the Holy Places, but with the Palestinian refugees who have been rotting in camps for more than 50 years now. These people should not move into Israel because if they do, there will be two Palestinian states and not even one for the Jewish people. But these refugees need homes, jobs and citizenship of the Palestinian state. This means a few hundred thousand jobs and homes, and is the most urgent dimension of the conflict. These people are suffering every day in inhuman conditions. Their despair is the prime source of Israel's security problem. As long as these refugees have no hope, Israel will have no security.

In an effort to resolve the problem of these refugees in the future Palestinian state, Europe can play a major role, along with America, the rich Arab nations and Israel, in their rehabilitation - regardless of the historical polemic on who takes how much of the blame for the refugees' tragedy. The Holy Places can wait. The refugees cannot.

The author's latest novel, The Same Sea, is published by Vintage Paperbacks (£6.99)

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2002 issue of the New Statesman, The Best of Young British