Political realism of Benedict XVI on Israel-Palestine problem

Tel Aviv (AsiaNews) – “Armed solutions achieve nothing,” Benedict XVI repeated yesterday to an assembly of diplomats accredited to the Holy See, referring directly to tensions between Israel and Lebanon and also – as was evident from the context – to those between Israelis and Palestinians. He also reiterated that Israelis and Palestinians should enjoy, peacefully, equal dignity and rights, and that “the Israelis have a right to live in peace in their state” just as “the Palestinians have a right to a free and sovereign homeland.” These statements that today are widely – practically universally – proclaimed by the international community have been consistently maintained by the Holy See since well before they become commonplace. If this has come about, history cannot ignore this contribution.

As for the concrete situation, it appears that we are still far from this happy state of affairs. But with the intent of encouraging all those involved to follow the road that leads to peace, the pontiff felt it was apt to notice the “positive signs” that he “noted in recent weeks” in relations “between Israelis and Palestinians”.

And so that the hope that they “may consolidate” will not turn into simple illusion, Benedict XVI warned that “it is no longer possible to be satisfied with partial or unilateral solutions” and instead he called for a “global approach, which excludes no one from the search for a negotiated settlement, taking into account the legitimate interests and aspirations of the different peoples involved.”

This precise observation of the pope can be discerned as a direct and concrete contribution to discussions under way on the methodology to be used to attain peace in the Holy Land and whereabouts. While the big objectives, peace and security for two national states – the Israeli one, now in existence for nearly 60 years and the Palestinian one, yet to be established – appear to be shared by all, agreement seems to be far away on the path to reach them. The relative debate is internal to Israel but even to the “West” – that feels a particular vocation (historically founded) to facilitate peace in the Middle East. The debate is also present within the European Union: France, Spain and Italy have alluded to a renewed Peace Conference (that offers precisely ‘a global approach’); other European countries have not yet pronounced themselves and still others – in Europe and beyond – appear to be devoted to keeping on life support the famous “Road Map” , at least formally. Apart from having already failed, the road map limits itself to seeing only a gradual pacification of relations between Israelis and Palestinians, somewhat removed from the worrying – in fact explosive – regional context.

The debate is neither metaphysical nor is it simply “ethical”: rather it is about feasibility first and foremost, about geopolitical realism. Is it really possible to foresee an Israeli-Palestinian peace that is not accompanied by peace between Israel and Syria, Israel and Lebanon? Isn’t it practically a certainty that the more “positive signs” there are in the purely bilateral sphere (Israel-Palestine), the more the rest, fearing “exclusion”, will intensify efforts to stop them, sowing discord (in the Palestinian sector) or launching aggressions (like those of Hezbollah against Israel on 12 July), with particularly grave consequences (like the limitless escalation of the same clash)?

And then, can one imagine attaining peace between Israelis and Palestinians without a truly global effort and the participation of directly involved states to resolve the plight of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Syria and – especially – in Lebanon, where they are still living in particularly difficult conditions?

Concretely, current debate is tackling the question about whether or not to involve Syria in peace negotiations (Lebanon, it is certain, will follow Syria and the questions to be resolved between Lebanon and Israel in the context of peace negotiations are minimal by comparison). The Syrian government has recently declared its desire to resume peace negotiations with Israel on several occasions. Officially the Israeli government is not in favor but within the civil, military and media establishment there are strong currents of thought that are in favor and the discussion is continuing.

If the “global approach” supported by the pope is chosen, the modalities would not have to be invented from scratch: they could be found in the “Madrid Conference” that was initiated back in 1991 by the then US president George Bush and which was attended, as it happens, by Syria and Lebanon as well as the Israelis and Palestinians. It aimed to produce a series of bilateral peace treaties sustained and reinforced by another series of multilateral treaties with the wider support of the international community.

If the Madrid conference were organized again (or one similar to it), it would be boosted even more by the historic resolution of the 2002 Beirut summit of the Arab League that formally offered to normalize relations of the Jewish state with all Arab countries. The “positive signs” of recent times should definitely include a positive reference to this Arab initiative made by the Israeli PM Olmert in a public speech that signaled a break with the policy followed by Israel until then of not giving it any importance. At around that time, Olmert met in Jordan with a key figure of the Saudi government, which has authored and promoted the 2002 initiative (since then confirmed several times). News of the meeting was denied but in fact no one doubted it had taken place.

Certainly the “global approach” brings enormous difficulties, risks and complications due to the huge complexity of matters to be negotiated and resolved and the dramatic nature of changes on the ground that it calls for. But can we do without it? The pope seems to be saying no: “partial solutions”, he said, were not satisfactory. To reach peace, it is precisely this “global approach” that is called for, which “does not exclude” anyone and which safeguards, through “negotiated solutions” the “legitimate interests of the different peoples involved”. This is not utopian, it is realism; it is not realpolitik (in the pejorative sense) but ethical and – not less so – “geopolitical” realism.

by Arieh Cohen