BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Mark Urban
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Opportunistic peace-making in the Middle East

Mark Urban | 16:45 UK time, Tuesday, 15 July 2008

The idea of Israel swapping Lebanese prisoners for the corpses of two of its soldiers held by Hezbollah is an interesting sign of the times for many reasons.

Firstly, as Lebanese commentators have been quick to point out, it bolsters the Shia Islamic movement's standing and to some extent post-rationalises their abduction of those Israeli soldiers almost two years ago.

However the deal is more interesting in my view because it is another sign of what you might call the opportunistic peace-making or mediation going on in the Middle East at the moment.

paris_talks.jpgThe Germans helped to negotiate the Israel-Hezbollah swap. France played host to the latest meeting between the Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian president, and arranged discreet contacts with the Syrians at the margins of their Mediterranean summit.

Egypt meanwhile continues to try and build on the fragile Gaza truce brokered by its intelligence people acting as intermediaries between Hamas and Israel. Turkey, another regional player keen to get involved, has been hosting Israeli-Syrian talks over the future of the Golan Heights.

These various efforts are evidence of a rush of diplomatic oxygen made possible into the vacuum left by America.

US diplomats like to insist they are still battling to make possible President Bush's aim of a negotiated deal between Israel and the Palestinians before the end of the year but very few observers think that is still possible. Instead the Israelis and others have written off the Americans - largely because of the pending US presidential elections.

'Do a Clinton'

I can remember one Israeli minister telling me, before the Bush/Gore contest, "we can forget about US initiatives for the next 18 months".

He was factoring in an entire year's campaigning followed by the inauguration of a new administration, the Congressional confirmation of its key officials (notably the Secretary of State) and the time it then takes the new incumbent to get a plan up and running. In the current case, this means the key players have written off the US for 2008 and early 2009.

Now this view runs counter to the analysis being put about by some, that every American president aspires to 'do a Clinton' and seal a dramatic Middle East peace deal in the dying days of his second term. President Clinton, with his Camp David Israeli-Palestinian summit, was however more the exception than the rule.

campdavid.jpgHe had spent years building relations (with Yasser Arafat in particular, who visited the White House more times than any other foreign leader), and tried to use this leverage to advantage. President Bush has, to put it politely, not given the same 'focus' to building relations with Middle East leaders. In fact, he doesn't really have a relationship with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Hamas or Hezbollah.

So, in these dying days of the Bush presidency, Turkey or France feel the time is right to have a go brokering an Israeli-Syrian peace. Egypt, has flexed its influence in Gaza and the Germans have made use of long term ties with Hezbollah.

Golan Heights

Some of this work is little more than palliative - trying to ease the pain of impossible situations. The Gaza work - including Tony Blair's planned visit - or the Hezbollah prisoner deals fall into this category.

It is the Israeli-Syrian track that could possibly emerge into something more substantial. If Israel negotiated the return of the Golan Heights, which it seized in 1967, and Syria made peace, that could also bring profound change to the situation in Lebanon, where Hezbollah has long relied on Syria's help.

It's still too early to say whether there's a real hope of peace in that sector, and a final deal would almost certainly require a substantial American guarantee - possibly in the form of thousands of US troops on the Golan Heights.

But perhaps the diplomatic Sherpas, be they Turkish or French - will have got the two sides close enough to think seriously about a deal by the time a new US president is inaugurated in January 2009.


  • Comment number 1.


    For around 2000 years - give or take - the Jews ritually kept alive their certainty that Israel belongs to them - God given.
    For the same 2000 years others lived and died on the very same land, with no thought for the 'owners'
    Only a disingenuous politician would claim they could solve a problem like that, other than by war - winner takes all - which, when all is said and done, is how the Bible says the Israelis got the land in the first place!
    Where is Solomon when you need a bit of classy partition?

  • Comment number 2.

    I suppose that a pundit has to publish, even when he nothing to say.

    Yes, partition (directed by someone other than the Israelis) is the answer.

    Biblically, there is no "first place" for Israel- that, too, is ethnic propaganda.

    Historically and genetically, Syrians, Palestinians and diaspora Jews are all the same ethnic group.

    Just as with the emergence of the "Christians" from Jewish Essene political struggles, the current bickering is all within the same family.

    Would that our pundits could recognize ideology when it screams in their faces.

  • Comment number 3.

    I would like to hear more on the effect of the west bank/fatah vs gaza/hamas split.

    Is this a real splitting of the Palestinians? What effect will this have? Can people do a deal with one lot of Palestinians who have had enough, whilst isolating those who still want to fight? If Palestinians living in the west bank have jobs and electricity and security, but those in Gaza continue to live in a hell hole, what effect will this have on the will to fight in the long term?

    Could a two state solution eventually become acceptable to the Palestinians?

    From my living room it is difficult to tell what the ground truth is.

  • Comment number 4.


    I hope that it is not getting over excited by the chance of having peace in the Middle East...

  • Comment number 5.

    well, you have a public in Gaza that, in the main, supports Hamas, and one in the West Bank that does not. At times it has looked like Hamas had majority support in the West Bank too - certainly it is very strong in Nablus and Hebron.
    Things could drag on as they are now, there could be some sort of national unity government (perhaps as a step towards new elections), or Hamas could continue to build support in the West Bank until it can credibly claim to speak for a sizeable majority of Palestinians. The more Fatah feel they are in long term decline, the less likely they are to go for a unity government and new elections. It is an impasse without an easy resolution, but as many Palestinians, including Ghazi Hamad or Hamas, have commented, the division must be healed before they can have greater success with teh international community.

    no, don't worry, I am not about to subside in a fit of optimism. I think that most of what is going currently on is 'palliative' rather than substantive.

  • Comment number 6.

    Its worth pointing out that Israel siezed the Golan heights in '67, but not without mentioning the fact that Syria (just) failed to take them back in the Yom Kippur war 6 years later.

    Everyone is very quick to claim Israeli aggression in '67, but the threats by the Egyptian president days before to wipe Israel off the map which prompted the attack are strangely forgotten. Equally the Arab pre-emtive attack in '73, which was also in total breach of the UN resolutions is also rarely mentioned.

    It should also be pointed out that Syria doesn't recognise the state of Israel AT ALL. How is Syria going to negotiatie a redrawing of the borders when its legal position is that there isn't any border at all?

  • Comment number 7.

    well I'm glad to see the prisoner releases and theses negotiations being got on with.
    It worked in Ireland .Prisoner releases and jobs, allowing the economy to flourish (as someone pretty anti capitalism I have to concede a little begrudgingly there) and people after years of war often try to make a go of it, more so than those in other countries who have stakes but no involvement with the reality of nothing but "tough talk" and military right.


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