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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Marine Le Pen’s new disguise: a bid to rebrand her far-right party as the “National Rally”

Le Pen hopes to present her renamed party as the working-class alternative to Macron’s bourgeois elitism.

Marine Le Pen had just declared: “When foreigners are in France, they must respect the law and the people” when chants of “On est chez nous!” (“We are at home!”) broke out in the audience. French flags were waved in the air.

On 11 March, Le Pen, 49, was re-elected leader of her far-right party, Front National (FN), and announced it was to be renamed Rassemblement National (“National Rally”). “It must be a rallying cry, a call for those who have France and the French at their heart to join us,” she declared at the party’s conference in Lille, northern France.

It’s a pivotal moment for the party her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, founded in 1972 and led until 2011. After going from a “jackass” far-right outfit known for its xenophobia, to the nationalist, anti-immigration party defeated in the final round of the 2017 French presidential election by the liberal candidate Emmanuel Macron, its goal is now to move “from opposition and into government”, Le Pen said.

For the FN leader, this is also a decisive moment. Le Pen’s credibility was damaged by her weak performance in the run-off debate and polls show her campaign eroded the political gains made during the party’s decade-long “de-demonisation”. “Her image is clearly tarnished,” Valérie Igounet, an expert on the French far right, told me. “But she is still supported by the party.” The FN claims its membership is around 80,000; Igounet says it is likely to have fallen to 50,000.

The proposed name will be put to a membership vote – as Le Pen’s re-election was, though she was the only candidate – but the move has already prompted concern.

Asked if they were happy with the rebrand, only 52 per cent of FN members answered yes. “It is a name that has negative connotations in French history,” Igounet said. Rassemblement National was a collaborationist party in the 1940s. It was also used in 1965 by defeated far-right presidential candidate Jean-Louis Tixier-Vignancour, whose campaign was run by Jean-Marie Le Pen. “For a party that wants to free itself from Le Pen’s father, it’s a surprising choice,” Igounet said. Another political organisation, Rassemblement pour la France, claims the FN has no right to the name.

Not all of the FN’s fundamentals have been abandoned. The logo, a red, white and blue flame inspired by an Italian neo-fascist party, remains. Membership surveys show 98 per cent still approve of the anti-immigration rhetoric, Igounet said.

Le Pen hopes the rebrand will enable new political alliances. Thierry Mariani, a former minister under Nicolas Sarkozy and member of the right-wing Républicains, has called for an alliance with the FN (which, he said, “has evolved”). But the Républicains’ leader, Laurent Wauquiez, is firmly opposed: “As long as I am leader, there will be no alliance with the FN,” he vowed. “The FN want to make alliances, but they have nowhere to go,” said Antoine de Cabanes, a researcher on the far right for the think tank Transform! Europe.

Can Le Pen’s party really be “de-demonised”? The former Donald Trump aide Steve Bannon, who is currently touring Europe, was invited to speak at the Lille conference. “Let them call you racists, let them call you xenophobes, let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honour,” he told activists, to rapturous applause.

Bannon has also praised Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, Marine’s more conservative 28-year-old niece, as the party’s “rising star”. The younger Le Pen is on a “break” from French politics but addressed the US Republicans in Washington in February, where she declared her ambition to “make France great again”. Marion is tipped as a possible future leader. “She has the right name,” noted De Cabanes.

Marine Le Pen insisted she didn’t want to “make an ally” of Bannon, but rather to “listen to someone who defied expectation to win against all odds”. Yet even her father, a Holocaust denier whose politics are closer to Bannon’s than his daughter’s, described the choice of speaker as “not exactly de-demonising the party”.

It was not an isolated incident. On 10 March, Davy Rodríguez, a parliamentary assistant to Le Pen, was forced to resign after he was filmed using a racial slur in Lille.

The FN defended Bannon’s invitation on the grounds that “he embodies the rejection of the establishment, of the European Union and the system of politics and the media”. Le Pen called President Macron’s politics a “great downgrading of the middle and working class” and declared her party “the defender of the workers, the employees, the sorrowful farmers”.

The road to the 2022 presidential contest includes four elections – municipal, departmental, regional and European –  in which Le Pen hopes to present her renamed party as the working-class alternative to Macron’s bourgeois elitism. But in Lille, activists cheered wildly not when Le Pen spoke about the road ahead, but when she declared: “Legal and illegal immigration are not bearable any more!” Plus ça change… 

Pauline Bock writes about France, the Macron presidency, Brexit and EU citizens in the UK. She also happens to be French.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game