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Irreconcileable differences: Jerusalem has become no less holy to either side

President Obama's latest attempt to cajole Israel and the Palestinian Authority into reaching a historic peace accord has floundered. Predictably, the blame game has now begun. Adding a new twist to the familiar script of failure in Middle East diplomacy, this time the US administration has chosen to join its European allies' instinctive reaction of pointing the finger at Jerusalem, while Israel has publicly blamed the US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Each attempt no doubt has its peculiar qualities — the usual mixture of bad timing, clash of personalities and outside imponderables that make each round of failed peacemaking the stuff of lectures, essays, memoirs and recriminations.

Yet they all have much in common. For once one has replaced names or dates — US special envoy Martin Indyk for George Mitchell, 2008 for 2014 — the dynamics, stumbling blocks and predictable negative outcomes are the same.

Western diplomats, who seem keener than anyone else involved — Israelis and Palestinians included — to bring an end to this conflict, should ask the reason why. Why does peace remain elusive?

After all, it is these same diplomats who have insisted for more than 20 years that the contours of a peace deal are known to all and that the two sides always get to a point where they are "closer to a deal than ever before", as John Kerry optimistically said last December, echoing Ehud Olmert's almost identical statement in July 2008.

Funny, we are always so close, but we never get there. And that is part of the problem.

After 20 years of trying to find the perfect point of equilibrium in a complex algorithm of territorial, identity, and religious and material claims, it should be obvious that the peace-process formula has the wrong ingredients. Scientists would readily understand that repeating the same experiment over and over again without changing its elements or their quantities will always yield the same result.

Diplomats seem to miss this point. It is easier to blame "the extremists on both sides" or the craven pressure groups lurking in the shadows; the evils of nationalism or the perils of a fractious coalition; the shadows of the past or the narrative of the victor. Every time, something stands in the way whose nefarious influence could be removed or mitigated if only x, y or z were altered.

Europeans are fond of blaming America's presumed bias towards Israel, forgetting, conveniently, that their lukewarm, fair-weather friendship for Israel can never replace American security guarantees. The liberal commentariat loves to go after Israeli hawks — it gives them a chance to let off their subconscious anti-Semitism by variously relabelling the object of their hatred with such anodyne terms as "the Israel lobby", "neocons" and "settlers", while downplaying terrorism, Islamic radicalism and the Arab world's internal dynamics.

The BBC can wash its hands of the obligation to represent a complex story fairly, by embracing the morally neutered terminology of "bystanderism", whereby fault lies with "the extremists on both sides" and other such invented "blame-both-sides" categories that only inhabit the moral equivalence of a liberal newsroom's world.

Nobody, on the other hand, seems to have grasped the obvious, because it is unpalatable and inconvenient, especially to those who have spent a lifetime believing in Middle East peace both as an end in itself and a panacea for other problems. There is no deal because the cost of peacemaking far outweighs its benefits for either side.

After all, consider this. For Israelis and Palestinians alike the stumbling blocks, over the years, remain the same. The Palestinian demand for refugees to be granted a right of return, the Israeli demand for Palestinians to recognise Israel as a Jewish state and their mutually exclusive demands over sovereignty in Jerusalem are unlikely to change, because if compromised they would irreparably damage the core components of the national identity of each side.

Israel is unlikely to relinquish the strategic depth afforded by territorial control over the Jordan Valley and provided by the West Bank in exchange for vague international guarantees. Palestinian nationalism cannot leave behind, at least notionally, the millions of descendants of refugees who escaped the 1948 war, yet it is doubtful that it could accommodate them physically in a territory as small as the West Bank and Gaza and financially in an economy as tiny as the Palestinian one. And though Israel's enemies would love to impose such an outcome, Israel is unlikely  to commit national suicide.

As if this were not enough, past failures and regional developments compound the problem. Why should either side trust their negotiating partner when each previous attempt collapsed? What has changed to make it better?

Are the Palestinians less determined on resettling refugees? Have they renounced delegitimising Israel? Have settlements shrunk in size and demography? Are their inhabitants streaming back to pre-1967 Israel? Has Islam declared Jerusalem no longer holy? Has Judaism forgotten it? And how can Israel negotiate a final deal with the Palestinian Authority while Gaza remains under Hamas rule? Why should Israel take "risks for peace" when the entire region is in turmoil? Who can believe that a Palestinian government which signs a peace deal will survive long enough to make it stick, given the Islamic resurgence currently shaking the Arab world?

The Arab-Israeli conflict defies solution. It has always done so. It will continue to do so in the near future. Trying once more what failed before is doomed to beget more failure.

It is time the West recognised that the differences between the two sides are irreconcilable — and the sooner the better.
yuval Brandstetter MD
June 1st, 2014
7:06 AM
The Arab-Israeli conflict defies solution. Wrong. It defies the solution advocated based on the Land fo Peace where the Jews give up that which they have little of, namely Land, for something the arabs do not have, which is peace. The solution is two way. Either the Jews are eliminated Nazi fashion as advocated by every Arab leader in arabic. Or the UN applies the same difinition to Arab refugees as it does every other refugee in the world, while upholding the San remo treaty as the binding legal status of the Jewish Homeland west of the Jordan, whereas the east Bank is the Arab Palestinian State. Dont expect the Arabs to agree to anything less than solution one.

hegel`s advocate
May 22nd, 2014
2:05 PM
A Raffoul is totally wrong to say "Look back at the source of the problem". This bogs everyone down in the 20th century (or in previous centuries). Zizek`s summary statements "the 20th century is over" and "the future will be utopian or there will be none" ring true . Why are countries/religions not adopting the Uruguay model of civilisation? If Isis,Boko Haram,Hamas etc are the `real`Islam kidnapping,raping,murdering and spreading lies through "Taqiyya", then the `unreal` Islam is all the muslims who claim Islam is peaceful. They are the `useful idiots` for the billionaire Saudi management,the uber capitalist muslims who finance terrorism and the Arabic translations of Hitler`s book! Femen argue Islam should be banned from democratic public life like Nazi ideology is banned. The Pope and Islam should shut up,self -educate ,recognise what is superior in the 21st century to their selfish religious beliefs,recognise where consciousness has evolved and create utopia. There is no alternative to this anymore,there is no answer in the past good enough. Even at the Critical Muslims (online)magazine there`s not a single thought not bogged down in the 20th century`s carnage and wars. Are the idle rich still as "ignorant as swans" as Lord Ken Clark described them in 1969 ? The Bono, Geldof,Gates and Branson breeds certainly are. And the `swans` of Hamas ,Isis and Boko Haram have eyes like viscious fish fed on taqiyya.

May 4th, 2014
11:05 PM
A Raffoul - Please explain - you would like Israel to apologize for winning the war started by the surrounding nations to strangle Israel before it took its first breath? Well the attacks did not work and Israel has survived and thrived in spite of the contract stream of venom and hatred directed at it since. There are compromises that can be made - but compromise requires both sides to give in. And that has never happened - Israel is the stronger party but a solution is not reachable by insisting that only Israel compromise

May 4th, 2014
4:05 PM
In a previous comment the author states that we need to look at the original source of the problem. I agree. But the source of the issue come not fifty years ago or 100 years ago. It started with the profit Mohammad and the Koran with the verse that says all infidels should be killed or enslaved or taxed. Is it just the Jews that can't make peace with Islam. Not the Hindu in Indonesia or India. The Christians in the Philippines. The issue it Islam cannot make peace with anyone. It's a violation of their religion.

May 4th, 2014
12:05 PM
According to A Raffoul, the problem does not defy solution since he offers a solution. And his solution is simple: Israel gives up. Of course there is a corresponding solution on the other side: The Arab world must acknowledge the injustices it perpetrated against the Jews, since long before 1948. etc. Hmmm, if "the source of the problem" is the existence of Israel, as its enemies have long insisted, it is no wonder it does not want to accept the "solutions" they offer.

May 4th, 2014
12:05 PM
AT least one Pope has suggested making Jerusalem an international city under the jurisdiction of perhaps itself or some international body. That seems like one possible solution to one of the problems. When pointing to the territorial and wealth losses of the Palestinians, Israel's critics tend to forget the losses of territory, living space, and wealth lost by Jews. The losses of the Holocaust are repeated frequently, but what about the losses of those Jews who were driven out (and continue to be driven out) of Arab lands where they had historic ties?

May 4th, 2014
8:05 AM
The Jordanians and Egyptians who like to call themselves Palestinians must finally accept defeat. They cannot win. They must feel the hard hand of war -- from Israel or more likely, eventually, from America. They must beg to be allowed to surrender unconditionally. Then, when they want peace, they can have it.

May 3rd, 2014
10:05 PM
The source of the problem is an endless series of wars and terrorism that were waged against the Jewish state, because the Arab world refused to recognize that Israel is the national state of the Jewish people, and refused to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state. If there were no war, there would not be refugees.

Jack Schwartz
May 3rd, 2014
9:05 PM
The Arab side should admit first of all that there never was a "Palestinian people" in all history. Such a people was created solely in order to undermine Israel in the eyes of public opinion. Then they should acknowledge that they oppressed, humiliated and exploited for more than 1000 years as dhimmis, inferior non-Muslims in the Islamic Empire. There is much else but let us conclude with Palestinian Arab recognition of their role in the Holocaust, as the article at the link indicates:

May 3rd, 2014
6:05 PM
A. Raffoul. Thats not going to happen. I would argue that the solution is that the Palestinians admit that they lost and that they all leave and go live in Jordan or whever they want to go. I would assume that wont happen either. As for 1948, its the Palestinians fault. All they had to do was agree to partition. Since they said no, everything that happened after that is on their head

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