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Israel Needs a Strategy for Peace

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The ceasefire negotiated over Gaza has held, but there are few reasons to think that it will last indefinitely, let alone become a turning point in relations between Israel and the Palestinians. Indeed, there are four particularly tragic aspects to the latest crisis that make it harder than ever to feel optimistic about the prospects for peace.

The first was highlighted by a BBC interview with an Israeli woman who had just arrived in Britain with her family to get away from the indiscriminate rocket attacks launched from Gaza. Sixty-four years after the State of Israel was established to provide Jews fleeing persecution in Europe with a safe refuge, Israelis find it necessary to flee their homes to find safety in Europe. The inability to bring the conflict with the Palestinians to an end has become a major challenge to the founding logic of Israel itself.

Of course, Israeli's are not about to give up on their state or the idea of communal self-defence on which it was built. Any policy based on the belief that they might would be doomed to fail. But the question does need to be asked why the aspiration to build a secure homeland for the Jewish people remains so elusive after all this time. Changes taking place within the region and beyond mean that the situation is likely to get worse rather than better without a significant and historic shift in Israeli national policy, of which there is no sign.

The second tragic feature of the conflict is the inability of Israelis to see in the Palestinians a reflection of themselves; a proud and determined people whose will to prevail grows stronger with every blow inflicted on them. Many still cling to Golda Meir's view that the Palestinians don't exist as a people distinct from Arabs in general and hope that the Palestinian Diaspora and parts of the occupied territories will gradually merge into the surrounding Arab countries over time.

If there was any truth in that there would have been no fighting in Gaza because the conflict would have petered out years ago. The Palestinians have not faded away. If anything, the experience of dispossession and occupation has strengthened their sense of identity and national feeling, just as the pogroms in Russia gave rise to the Zionist movement on which Israel was founded. Israel's unwillingness to come to terms with that is an ongoing source of its own insecurity.

Tragic also is the extent to which the rejectionists on both sides continue to work in tacit alliance with each other while moderates find themselves increasingly marginalised. It is hard to imagine that Hamas was under any illusions about how Israel would respond to its rocket offensive. We must reasonably conclude that it was part of their plan, not that this seems to have troubled the Israeli government. The result is that Hamas emerges strengthened, as do those on the Israeli side who insist that a stronger military response will be necessary next time. Hamas can also be expected to benefit from this in due course.

Excluded from consideration is any initiative to restart talks on a two-state solution. This is dismissed as a "reward for terrorism" despite the fact that we are constantly reminded that what Hamas actually wants is the destruction of Israel, not a two-state solution that would recognise Israel's existence. In the absence of a peace process that offers moderate leaders the realistic prospect of a just settlement, militant and extreme elements will remain in the ascendency.

The final tragedy is that Israel continues to focus on its strategy for war when what it really needs is a strategy for peace. Necessity and the Darwinian principle of survival of the fittest have turned Israel into a formidable military power. It has the most advanced weapons and some of the ablest commanders and military thinkers of any country in the world. Yet these attributes have failed to give Israel the security it desires. Moreover, it will never be able to change that reality on the basis of military strength alone. The hardest lesson for Israel to accept, given its history, is that real and lasting security can only be built with the cooperation of others.

Change is becoming even more important because geopolitical and diplomatic trends are going to make Israel's position harder to sustain over time. A demographic shift is on course to make the Palestinians a majority in the land comprising Israel, Gaza and the West Bank by the end of this decade. This will change the moral as well as the material balance of power to Israel's disadvantage. How can it control land in which Jews are a minority and hope to remain a state that is both Jewish and democratic?

Then there is Israel's growing isolation within the wider Middle East. This is partly a consequence of the Arab Spring. It will be more difficult for Israel to do business with elected Arab leaders facing pressure from below than it was with biddable despots like Hosni Mubarak. It is also a product of Israel's failure to develop a countervailing "alliance of the periphery" with non-Arab forces in the region. Attempts to build a partnership of convenience with Iran foundered in the 1990s. The same thing has now happened to Israel's alliance with Turkey.

Compounding all of this is a changing global balance of power and the relative decline of Israel's principle ally, America. Preoccupied by the rise of China, the loss of economic competitiveness, its mountainous deficit and the need to reduce existing commitments, America may not have the will or means to provide the kind of diplomatic, military and financial support it has extended to Israel in the past. By contrast, the rising powers of China, India and Brazil have already extended state recognition to the Palestinians.

The one positive to come out of the Gaza conflict was that Israel drew back from a ground invasion. The failure of Operation Cast Lead to solve its Gaza problem four years ago will have weighed heavily on that calculation. But Israel remains a long way from recognising the futility of war, never mind embracing a new realism about the necessity of peace. Whether it does so while there are still moderate Palestinian leaders to make peace with is another matter again.