Less than a fortnight ago, I walked across Temple Mount with Israel’s official archaeologist. Tourists and Orthodox Jews mingled at the Western Wall. The sun was hot. The only Palestinians present were young men selling souvenirs – postcards and trinkets depicting the Christian, Islamic and Jewish holy sites that pack the Old City. A squad of young Israeli soldiers carrying automatic weapons drew attention to the sensitivity that surrounds the place. They were relaxed enough to flirt with the tourists. Jerusalem was calm.
Then came Ariel Sharon’s mindlessly provocative visit, rioting, dead children and new martyrs to the Palestinian cause. One act of vain arrogance, and months of progress have been undone. It is a painful reminder that Israel’s most dangerous enemies are no longer beyond its borders.
Until the stones and bullets began to fly in Jerusalem, Nablus, Ramallah and Hebron, peace was the main topic of conversation among liberal, secular Israelis. It seemed inevitable. The big worry was what it would mean. Could an Israel shorn of external threats heal its long-overlooked internal wounds? Could religious and secular, European and Middle Eastern, Hebrew- and Russian-speaking Israelis learn to tolerate each other?
A final settlement is still coming in Israeli-Palestinian affairs. Not this week, perhaps not this year, but it is coming. A sovereign Palestine will be declared, Jerusalem will be shared, refugees of the 1948 and 1967 wars will not return to their homes and most Israeli settler communities will be protected by the bargaining of more land for peace.
Is this madly optimistic? The hurdles are numerous. Since the withdrawal of the ultra-orthodox Shas in July, Ehud Barak’s government has been in a minority in the Knesset. Yasser Arafat is playing his favourite game of brinkmanship. The US presidential election provides an incentive for delay. The visceral issues of Jerusalem, refugees and settlers are not yet resolved. But the truth is that they will be. Israel has decided to settle. The principle of land for peace has been accepted. What is now required is the peace to compensate for territorial surrender.
In this context, the tragedy of the latest fighting takes on a new force. The 12-year-old Mohammad Jamal Aldura, caught in lethal crossfire at Netzarim junction on the Gaza strip, and dozens of other victims of this latest spasm of mutual hatred, did not die to advance a cause. The cause is accepted. Joint sovereignty over Jerusalem will be agreed – either under UN or bilateral Israeli/Palestinian control.
That is how far the peace process has travelled. To far-off observers, the new conflict may seem indistinguishable from the intifada or the jeering crowds who flocked on to the streets of the West Bank to celebrate Saddam Hussein’s Scud missile strikes during the Gulf war. However, we are witnessing the death throes of a dispute entering its terminal phase.
Israel’s biggest problem is peace. A state struggling to absorb one million Russian immigrants, growing inequalities of wealth and health, and a looming confrontation between democracy and theocracy is nervous about the consequences of final closure in the dispute that has obliged it to maintain internal unity. Liberal, Establishment, European Israel looks to the future with trepidation. It deserves understanding and support.
To understand, one need only visit the permanent encampment that has grown up around the prison in which the former Shas leader Aryeh Deri is serving his sentence for fraud. The blind faith of Shas supporters, encamped in what was once the car park, is frightening. These are the poor and dispossessed of Israeli society. They are mainly Middle Eastern Jews, those who came to Israel from Morocco and Iraq, and who feel that their homeland treats them as second-class citizens. For them, Deri – a man convicted on the basis of hard evidence and in an objective court – is the victim of an Establishment fit-up. They see their war as one between the two Israels. Liberals on both wings of Israeli secular politics fear they will fight it with renewed vigour once peace is entrenched.
That is why Barak’s new campaign to revive Labour’s membership (down to 70,000 from a high at least four times that) is more than a matter of self-interest. It is an earnest attempt to rebuild the secular democratic consensus that dominated Israeli politics after the formation of the state. Barak knows that both Labour and Likud accept the peace imperative. The threat comes from those who have reduced both big parties to mere rumps in the Knesset.
One conservative Israeli with whom I ate dinner recently referred to Shas and other orthodox factions as Hezbollah. To my companion, the hardliners play the same role as their counterparts in Islamic societies. They are absolutist, intolerant and naively committed to spiritual answers to purely practical questions.
When Sharon ignored the advice of Palestinian officials and Israeli police against his visit to the Haram al-Sharif, he played straight into the hands of these people. They cannot prevent the negotiation of a final deal with the Palestinians, but they do retain the power either to render it unworkable or to force rejection when it is put to the vote in the election or referendum that must follow agreement.
Israel’s fragile pro-peace majority must be shown proof that territorial concessions will deliver security. This means that Arafat must calm his rioters, even though to do so will inflame the fundamentalists who challenge his own position. He must make the case that sober negotiation, not bloodshed, is the path to progress.
Two absolutes inform Israeli diplomacy today: first, that peace is coming and, second, that it must be irrevocable. Nobody in Israel expects peace to be warm. Amicable relations will take decades to develop. Economic interdependence will oblige Israelis and Palestinians to meet – but on the basis of necessity, not curiosity. The nature of this relationship can be allowed to change and develop, but security is non-negotiable. Palestinian sovereignty and economic growth demand a reciprocal guarantee of Israeli safety.
To those who insist on allocating blame, this will be anathema. Palestinians and their supporters around the world must understand that, because Israel is a democracy, the word of its government requires the consent of its people – a consent that can be withheld or withdrawn if concessions are not backed by hard guarantees.
Despite the deepening fissures in Israeli civil society, the majority of citizens have made the psychological journey from confrontation to compromise. Palestinian intransigence, no matter how apparently legitimate, can reverse that. Chairman Arafat must seize the moment.
Tim Luckhurst is a former editor of the Scotsman. He was a delegate at the third annual colloquium of the Anglo-Israel Association