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Jerry Hayes

Could yesterday be the tipping point for dialogue in the Middle East?

June 1st, 2010 by Jerry Hayes

I followed the terrible events on the High Seas yesterday with a feeling not just of sadness, but of weary resignation. It was all so depressingly predictable. Just what did the 700 hundred people on board the flotilla think was going to happen when they tried to break an Israeli blockade? Probably, with the exception of the Nobel prizewinner and the author of Wallander and other assorted well meaning westerners, they knew all to well. As Al Jazeera television reported, when the flotilla left Cyprus, interviewees told us that, “it is Gaza or Martyrdom” and battle songs, ” the army of Muhammad will return”, were sung with gusto. One wonders how many knew that travelling with them were  such notorious supporters of terrorism as Sheikh Raed Salah.

I am not suggesting for one nano second that these people were travelling with the aim of arming Palestinians or to attack Israelis. Of course not, they wanted to highlight the despicable conditions in which Palestinians live, whilst the world, particularly the Arab world, allows it to fester.

I fly no flag for Israel, save for it’s right to exist as a state. But surely nobody of sound mind in the West can justify rocket attacks on civilians, nor Hamas’s use of family homes as launch pads with the inevitable consequences.  And surely nobody can remotely support those Islamic states who call for the eradication of Israel.

Israel sees itself a  little country surrounded by serious enemies who would cheer if they were wiped off the face of the earth. I say this not in defence of the atrocities that they committed in the past, but rather as an undertanding of their mindset. They see themselves as alone, fighting for survival. They have seen the Palestinians armed and those weapons used against their own women and children. Their first duty is to protect.

That’s why yesterday’s events was so mindnumblingly predictable. If the Israelis had let the flotilla pass, a precedent would have been started and perhaps the next one would be carrying munitions. So they offered a compromise that the cargo to be offloaded in neutral territory and transported to Gaza. Both sides knew this was never going to happen.

In many ways this terrible tragedy might just be the tipping point to sensible dialogue. William Hague rightly urged that United Nations resolution 1860 should be obeyed, that the blockade of Gaza should end. I would be amazed if that was not the view of President Obama, who will demand a price for the humiliation of his Vice President, Joe Biden. But the UN will have to carefully police the cargoes. Whatever happens,the Palestinian peoples can no longer be abandoned to live in fear and squalor, breeding more generations of hate.

Many years ago I sat round the Cabinet table of the Israeli Prime Minister Yitshak Shamir, as despicable a little man as you could possibly imagine. He was leader of the right wing Likud party. Two days later I had a meeting with two prominent Palestinian negotiators. To my surprise, they told me that they they preferred to do business with Likud as at least they knew where they were coming from.

Now if the horrors of South African Apartheid can be solved, why not the Middle East? Both Israelis and the Palestinians deserve an independent state behind secure borders and supported by the international community. But first there has to be trust, then forgiveness. Of course, the situation is far, far more complicated than this. But it is a baseline.  Both sides have committed and will go on committing, terrible acts of violence against each other unless somebody with the courage, vision and humanity of a Nelson Mandela can hold out a hand, if not of friendship, at least of mutual understanding. Both Jews and Palestinians are oppressed peoples who have suffered terribly under the hands of others; they have far more in common than most realise. It will  mean sacrifice on both sides, risk taking and political oprobrium. This could be the moment when, with support from President Obama, and enormous personal courage, Prime Minister Netanyahu became an historical figure.

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Categories [ Foreign Policy, politics ]

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