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I hesitate before entering the debate about the Israeli action in Gaza. But I wanted to share a powerful interview with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, which took place last autumn and I haven’t seen referred to elsewhere.

In both its content and tone, the interview is the most committed statement about the need for peace and a fair settlement with Palestine that any Israeli leader has made in recent times. The interview is worth reading in full but here are a couple of quotes:

We have a window of opportunity…in which to take an historic step in our relations with Palestine and a historic step in our relations with Syria’

‘ We must make these decisions, and yet we are not prepared to say to ourselves ‘yes, this is what we must do’ We must reach an agreement with the Palestinians, meaning a withdrawal from nearly all, if not all, the occupied territories….including Jerusalem’

To those who defend the Gaza invasion, Olmert’s words underline the Israeli Government’s ultimate objective of a fair peace; smashing Hamas as an offensive force is not the abandonment of that objective, it is a means to its end.

And yet, as anyone with insight into the plight of the Palestinians has pointed out, the Gaza action will drive Palestinian and wider Arab opinion away from the quest for a negotiated solution. And, let us be clear, the justification the Israelis are giving for their disproportionate action with its inevitable impact on the innocent is indistinguishable from that which will be offered by the perpetrators of the next major terrorist outrage in Europe or America. The difference in the accounts will only be over ‘who started it’, an impossible question for the Middle East conflict, an unhelpful question in any conflict from the playground to relationship breakdown, and a question that philosophers tell us is unanswerable.

So Palestinians and Israelis continue to suffer from the Catch 22 that leaders on neither side feel they have the legitimacy to negotiate peace until they prove themselves through acts of aggression which make it impossible for the other side to negotiate.

The deficit most obviously is leadership. But also it is faith in the long term. As we know from behavioural economics, human begins are bad at the long term. An Israeli friend says that the problem on both sides of the conflict is that the combination of past pain and weak government means there is simply no faith in the future. Bringing the future into the present is the key to progress in the Middle East; it is the duty and definition of leadership.

In conflicts like this, my inclination is to avoid taking sides.  Regardless of our sympathies, a way forward needs courage and compassion from whatever source.  But looking at the resources and capacities of the Palestinians and the Israelis, it is difficult not to conclude that the failure of leadership is more profound coming from the richer, stronger, more democratically mature country.

We are holding our first 'RSA Thursday' of the year on this issue on 8 January at 12.30 pm.  For further information, and to book, please click here.


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