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We Must Not Let Frustration Over the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Stop Us Making the Case for a Negotiated Two State Solution

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Jonathan Freedland's thoughtful piece on 23 November succinctly evokes the fatigue that has sapped so much energy from efforts to secure peace in the Middle East. But understandable as it may be, this is no time for progressives in the region to give up hope. Instead, this is the moment for moderate voices everywhere, on all sides, to make themselves heard above the despair and recriminations, in the hope of injecting fresh energy into the lifeless peace process.

Of course, if we are to have any prospect of making headway after so many years of frustration, we ought to recognise how difficult things have got. Hostility has overshadowed constructive engagement in the region for too long, leaving moderate friends of both Israelis and Palestinians, and supporters of the goal of peace itself, subdued and marginalised. Jonathan takes aim at the cheerleaders from both sides who he says "wave the flags of Israel and Palestine as if these were rival football teams." This is a region where the complexities of claim and counter-claim have produced starkly discordant narratives. In this environment, and with the eyes of the world on it, it is unsurprising that those who identify with a particular point of view become vocal in expressing it. However, we cannot abandon the debate to only those with such hardened positions, and we must now reach out to all those whose first instinct, in the face of the fear and devastation in Gaza and southern Israel last week, was to retreat from the floor.

There is, of course, understandable frustration when people suggest the disparity in casualty numbers in Gaza and southern Israel constitutes prima facie evidence that Israel is the unjustified aggressor, ignoring the fact that it did not fire first and has been compelled to protect its citizens by investing in bomb shelters, warning sirens and its new Iron Dome missile defence system. Similarly, international onlookers are aghast when Israeli hardliners seem to brush aside the Palestinian civilians killed and injured, putting pressure on the territory's struggling hospitals. But the longer supporters of both sides are locked into a battle that is essentially about justifying failure rather than demanding peace, the worse the prospects for progress become.

The current nature of the debate is doubly frustrating for Israel's supporters on the left, such as members of Labour Friends of Israel. They do not feel that the current Israeli government is promoting negotiations forcefully enough, and they are deeply troubled by continued settlement building; and yet they long for equal pressure to be applied to Palestinians who have refused even to come to the negotiating table in recent years. Furthermore, they are frustrated when longstanding critics of Israel are judged to be balanced if they begin one-sided diatribes with the fig leaf of condemnation of rocket attacks or theoretical acknowledgement of the country's right to defend itself. Given Israel's dangerous neighbourhood, this is no way to inspire the moderates, or to back the difficult compromises that must be made.

We now need to do whatever it takes to break the cycle of despair and empower those who would eschew conflict and take risks for peace. President Bill Clinton as a new special envoy to the region? Bring it on. And even the Palestinian UN bid, viewed with great suspicion by many supporters of Israel. Labour is backing the bid in the hope it will help restart negotiations. If it is to be more productive than polarising, the onus is now on all advocates of the bid to match their support with a call for the Palestinians to be obligated to return to negotiations with Israel over a two state solution, not to seek to isolate Israel in the international community.

If anything more were needed to stress the urgency of progress, it is the warning from key figures suggesting that time is running out on the very possibility of a two state solution. The alternatives - either the continuation of the status quo or a one-state solution - would be disastrous for both peoples seeking to live in this troubled land.

So we must not let fatigue, or preference for easy broad-brush answers, stop us all making the case for difficult compromises. If the debate has become too extreme, that is all the more reason for friends of a negotiated two state solution to confidently step back onto the field, armed with the facts to make our strong case heard.