DATES matter a great deal in the Middle East. This is particularly true of the collective memory of those intimately associated with the Arab-Jewish struggle for control of land that is sacred to both.
Certain years in the century-long dispute have acquired iconic significance. For an Arab or an Israeli, the mere mention of 1917 triggers the memory of the Balfour Declaration; 1948, the establishment of Israel; 1967, the Six-Day war; and so on. Both sides accept the historical significance of these milestones, even though they view them from diametrically opposed positions.
Likewise, their interpretations of the decision of the recently formed Israeli government to extend sovereignty to some Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and to annex the Jordan Valley (News, 15 May) differ sharply. In the view of the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, the move “won’t distance peace, it will bring it closer”. The Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, has said that it means the end of the peace process and all security agreements with Israel.
If the Israeli government holds to its commitment to starting discussion of the annexation plan on 1 July, and then implements it, 2020 could become another milestone year; for, in a stroke, the realistic possibility of a two-state solution to the conflict — the template that has guided the search for peace for many decades — would evaporate.
IAN BLACK, a Middle East analyst and a historian of the Arab-Israeli conflict, says that “the concept of partition has been central to diplomatic efforts to resolve this most intractable and divisive of issues.” With unilateral Israeli occupation of about 30 per cent of the West Bank, “the central principle of the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians to national self-determination will disappear. Given the history so far, it is hard to predict a happy end.”
It is hard, too, to imagine Mr Netanyahu’s being dissuaded. The veteran Prime Minister has long desired to cement the military victory in 1967 into formal expansion of Israeli territory.
This may be his only moment of opportunity. In January, President Trump presented his Middle East peace plan giving the support of the United States for Israel to annex the whole of Jerusalem and large parts of the West Bank. Earlier this month, in Israel, after prolonged and tortuous negotiations, Mr Netanyahu finally scraped back into power by means of a fudged coalition. In November, Americans go to the polls in an election that could replace President Trump with a much less amenable Democrat administration. Time, therefore, is short, with only a brief window between July and November.
There will certainly be regional and international pressure on the Israeli government not to go ahead with annexation. Within Israel itself, voices will question whether the planned changes in the status of the West Bank will be conducive to peace. Palestinians are likely to take to the streets in protest, as they did during the first and second uprisings, in 1987 and 2000. But they will not stop the Israeli military machine if it is resolutely determined to move forward, deaf to international protests.
Neighbouring Jordan, which can expect a renewed influx of refugees, will call louder than most for international action. King Abdullah has said that annexing the West Bank “would lead to a massive conflict” with Jordan. But any war would most probably be one of words rather than arms.
Other Arab states will protest — again with words alone. King Salman, of Saudi Arabia, for example, has consistently said that the Palestinian issue remains paramount for the kingdom. But these words are from the mouth of the last of the older-generation Arab leaders. For the younger ones, notably his son and heir Mohammed bin Salman, and the de facto leader of the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Zayed, the Arab-Israeli conflict is increasingly a distraction from their regional ambitions. The top priority is confronting Iranian expansionism, which happens to be at the top of Israel’s list as well. Informal contacts between Gulf officials and Israelis are under way.
THE Europeans and Russia will hope that last-minute diplomacy can draw the sting from Israel’s West Bank plan. About 130 UK MPs, from both main parties, are urging the Government to impose sanctions on Israel if annexation goes ahead.
But unilateral action is unlikely to win Cabinet approval, and a joint European response seems out of reach. Nothing practical is likely to be achieved in such a brief time-frame. The reality is that the Palestinian question has gradually faded from view over recent years. The Arab uprisings, the Islamic State group’s surge in Iraq, the war in Syria, and the Iranian nuclear threat have filled the front pages instead.
Most of all, the Palestinian leadership has failed its people by allowing their cause to be forgotten. When they needed the charisma of a Yasser Arafat to guarantee global attention, they had, instead, a carpet-slipper of a leader in Mr Abbas, presiding over a discredited and bankrupt administration in Ramallah, at loggerheads with Hamas in Gaza.
So, the Middle East is in for a big change, and this could indeed be a milestone year. As in all the previous ones, there will be a clear victor and a clear loser. But that does not mean that peace is any closer.
Gerald Butt, a former Middle East Correspondent of the BBC and the Church Times, is Middle East Adviser to Oxford Analytica, a geopolitical analyst and advisory firm