The minister in charge of Mideast issues for the British Foreign Office sees a once-in-a-generation chance for a comprehensive peace deal in the Middle East. But he says it's a brief moment that could be lost if the players don't grasp it urgently.
Bill Rammell, who is visiting Boston this week, says he's not naive about the serious obstacles. There are deep internal divisions among Palestinian factions, and Israelis have swung to the right in the fallout from this year's deadly Gaza incursion and barrages of Hamas rockets.
But Rammell argues that competing factors militate in favor of a rare opportunity for a breakthrough:
-- The Obama Administration has gotten involved in the conflict from its first day in office, appointing veteran mediator George Mitchell and pressing the Israelis and Palestinians alike for concessions.
-- Arab countries have shown unusual cohesion in expressing a new willingness to move toward a regionally embraced deal that would create a viable Palestinian state in return for guarantees of Israel's security.
-- Progress on Mideast peace has occurred in the past under conservative governments in Israel that have the political muscle to make compromises, not least on the sensitive issue of Israeli settlements in the Palestinian West Bank.
The Arab peace initiative was first framed by Saudi Arabia in 2002, and last month Saudi King Abdullah rearticulated the plan to President Obama. The plan essentially calls for a return to Israel's 1967 borders alongside a sovereign Palestinian state and other concessions in return for Arab recognition of Israel.
Rammell delivered an address on Tuesday at Northeastern University on the Middle East peace effort, and elaborated in a breakfast interview today at the Boston Harbor Hotel.
Rammell is one of four ministers of state under Foreign Secretary David Miliband, and has a wide portfolio, including counter-terrorism. A Labour Party member of Parliament, he was an ally of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, and joined him in endorsing the Iraq war. Rammell barely survived a Conservative Party challenge in his district of Harlow in 2005. The Middle East now takes up much of his time.
Rammell told me that the revived Arab initiative "is a very positive step," and he added: "now we do need to see a response, a particularly a response on settlements. My sense is that there is a real urgency to this issue."
At the same time, Rammell said the Hamas movement, which controls Gaza, needs to publicly commit to halting rocket attacks and other violence against Israelis, and recognize Israel.
Rammell said he has no illusions that getting to an overall settlement will be a huge challenge. That's why an overall deal requires a "confidence-building process" of smaller steps: "Israel starts to make movements on things like settlements; then diplomatic representation, trade missions -- all sorts of things that demonstrate that the Arab world is willing to recognize Israel, and through that to actually ensure its security. That's the fundamental deal: it is about security for Israel, and a Palestinian state in return."
"There's more work to be done. We need to operationalize the Arab peace initiative so that it becomes a reciprocal, step-by-step process. But it's on the table. And again, that's why timing is of the essence. The moderate states persuaded the more hardline Arab states to put this on the table, and it will not be on the table forever and a day. That's why we need to see a response, so the moderates can stay on board."
Rammell recalled one factor in the successful Northern Ireland process: "There were incremental changes that improved the lives of ordinary people, becoming free of conflict, and that reached a critical tipping point where those people turned around to their politicians and said, 'we're not going back'."
Rammell said Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, spoke by satellite to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington last week, and "the tone of his comments was quite constructive." Netanyahu, unlike recent his predecessors, has opposed the two-state solution, saying the first goal should be economic progress.
Rammell noted of Netanyahu: "Yes, he talked about an economic track. But he also talked about a political track with the Palestinians, and I don't think he has quite put it that way before.... I hope he will come out publicly in the near future and endorse a two-state solution."
About this blog
About James F. SmithJim Smith came home to his native Boston in 2002 to become the Boston Globe's foreign editor after spending 22 years abroad. He was previously based in Buenos Aires and Mexico City for the LA Times, and in Johannesburg, Tokyo and The Hague for the AP. In 2007 he became the Globe's national political editor, coordinating presidential campaign coverage. He is a Yale graduate, and has an MBA. He is married to Maxine Hart and has two sons, Matthew and Daniel.
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