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Statesmanship vacuum bars way to comprehensive settlement plan

In The Australian, 24 November 2012 (revised and updated version of Project Syndicate article 20 November 2012)

THE Second Gaza War is over, so long as the Egypt-brokered ceasefire holds. But how long will it be before the apparently endless cycle of violence returns? If there are not to be more and even worse eruptions, Israeli policymakers and their rusted-on supporters in the US and countries such as ours need to ask themselves again some fundamental questions.

The wisest words on the latest conflict may have come from an Israeli living in a kibbutz near the Gaza border. "If you want to defend me, don't send the Israel Defence Forces for us in order to 'win,' " Michal Vasser wrote in Haaretz on November 15. "Start thinking about the long term and not just about the next election. Try to negotiate until white smoke comes up through the chimney. Hold out a hand to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Stop with the 'pinpoint assassinations' and look into the civilians' eyes on the other side as well."

Of course Israel is entitled to defend itself from rocket attacks. But the lesson of the past two decades is that rockets stop, and intifadas don't start, when there is a prospect of peace. And equally, when there is no such prospect, Palestinian militancy is uncontainable. The chances may look desperately slim of a comprehensive and sustainable two-state settlement being negotiated with Abbas's West Bank Palestinian Authority and accepted, albeit grudgingly, by Gaza's Hamas after a popular vote. But what is the alternative to trying yet again?

How many more times can Israel put at risk by military action and political inaction the longstanding and hard-won peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, still looking very fragile indeed in the aftermath of the Arab Spring?

How will further attempts to isolate and demonise Hamas contribute to sustainable peace? How will the elimination or dramatic diminution of its capability do other than leave Gaza in the chaotic hands of even more militant groups, and Islamists throughout the region with another recruitment tool?

If serious negotiations do not move forward, what will be left of the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 which, for all that Israel downplays its significance, still offers a critically important deal: full normalisation of relations by the entire Arab world in return for a comprehensive peace settlement?

How can Israel's preferred Palestinian leaders, Abbas and Salam Fayyad, be left with any credible capacity to deliver if, for talks to begin, they have to retreat on their minimum condition of a settlement freeze in the Occupied Territories?

More fundamentally still, if a two-state solution disappears completely from the agenda, can Israel really accept the consequences? Jews outnumber Muslims 6.2 million to 5.2 million across the total area of historical Palestine. But with a lower birthrate and declining immigration, it is only a matter of time before they are in a minority. Isn't it time to remember founding father David Ben-Gurion's warning: Israel can be a Jewish state, it can be a democratic state and it can be a state occupying the whole of the historical land of Israel, but it cannot not be all three?

The most urgent question of all because it has to be answered next week is what is to be gained by Israel and its supporters bitterly resisting the UN General Assembly resolution recognising Palestine as a non-member "observer state" (with a status similar to the Vatican)? This will come to a vote on or around Thursday, and every indication is that it will be passed by a huge international majority.

The text of the resolution contains no offensive language. It makes clear that full membership of the UN remains to be determined and that final status issues such as borders, refugees, Jerusalem and security all remain to be negotiated. True, its passage may give Palestine some standing the territory now lacks to seek prosecutions in the International Criminal Court for alleged violations of international law. But this is not a kangaroo court and allegations without substance can be expected to be treated accordingly.

Why not accept that Palestinian statehood has always been an indispensable requirement of Israel's own long-term peace and security? That it is overwhelmingly in Israel's interest to defuse rather than further inflame the issue? And that this need has become more urgent than ever with the new power realities in the neighbourhood?

Why not, in short, treat the UN vote not as an excuse for renewed confrontation but as an opportunity for a new start to serious negotiations? Rather than Washington punishing the Palestinian Authority, and maybe the UN as well, why not propose the kind of diplomatic circuit-breaker the world has long been hoping for?

Of course, to put on the table a comprehensive endgame settlement plan, addressing all the final status issues with compromises that all sides could be persuaded and pressured to accept, would require statesmanship. Unhappily, that has been agonisingly absent from Middle East diplomacy almost as long now as anyone can remember.

Gareth Evans was foreign minister from 1988 to 1996 and president of the International Crisis Group from 2000 to 2009.

This article is available online at: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/world-commentary/statesmanship-vacuum-bars-way-to-comprehensive-settlement-plan/story-fnfi3iga-1226523047391