October 4th, 2011


Off the road map on the West Bank #Palestine #Israel

DO YOU REMEMBER THE ROADMAP? The plan to bring peace, security, and Palestinian statehood, and thus end the Middle East conflict?

In 2003, it was presented as the solution to the problems which had plagued the region for more than half a century. Presidents, Prime Ministers, and other politicians seemed to queue up publicly to express optimism that it would work.

Journalists are often seen as a cynical bunch. So some people might not have been surprised to hear a conversation I had then with a colleague from a leading news organization. At the time, I was the BBC's correspondent in Gaza. The colleague I was speaking to had experience of working in the region going back more than twenty years. He was not convinced that this was going to change anything.

Our talk turned to the attitude of editors in faraway places. My fellow correspondent had been taken to task for pouring cold water on the upbeat views of world leaders. I had been met with a puzzled semi-silence when I had explained that I could not report on the celebrations in Gaza for the reason that there were none. One of the next stories I sent, in fact, was an account of series of Israeli rocket attacks.

Last month I returned to Jerusalem, and the West Bank, for a short visit. I remembered two conversations I had had in the summer of 2003.

A view of the Damascus Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem
A view of the Damascus Gate into the Old City of Jerusalem

The first was with a Palestinian cafe owner in the Old City of Jerusalem. Aged perhaps in his late forties - although ages are hard to tell there, an I sometimes took people to be much older than they were - he pointed out that generations of Israelis and Palestinians were growing up knowing each other only as enemies. He remembered a time when things had been different. Perhaps he had never counted Israelis among his best friends, but he had at least known them, done business with them. There was a mutually beneficial relationship, of sorts. This was an experience his younger compatriots had never had.

The second conversation, as if to confirm the first, was with a young man in Gaza. He was aged nineteen. He had been given rare permission to travel from Gaza to the West Bank - via a crossing usually open only to foreigners and VIP's. This had brought him face to face with a soldier of about the same age as he. He was astonished that this could be. Never having seen an Israeli soldier up close, I think he had pictured them all as combat-hardened thirty year olds.

Neither side knew the other, and the opportunity to do so was diminishing. They met only in confrontation: mostly at checkpoints. In consequence, people began to see each other not just as menacing, alien, incomprehensible, terrifying - but also, perhaps, as something slightly less than human.     

Journalists then, as now (although I gather that getting into Gaza, aside from being possibly more dangerous than it was then, is also more difficult) were able to see both sides of the conflict in a way denied to all but a handful of diplomats and aid workers. Thus they acquired a knowledge and experience often beyond that of policy-makers poring over the dead-ends of their roadmap.

Back on the West Bank last month, in the days before Mahmoud Abbas' declaration at the United Nations of Palestinian statehood, I was struck by just that: 'dead ends'. It is very hard to see how 'Palestine' could come into being, even supposing there were the international political will. Too much of the land which would be in that state now lies beneath Israeli settlements and military posts. This uncomfortable fact was pointed out by Robert Fisk in a recent piece for The Independent.  

This, like the real prospects in 2003 for the roadmap's success, is something which leaders rarely discuss - in public, at least.  

So we can call reporters cynical, biased, negative, or whatever. It is much harder to call them wrong. The same cannot be said of the leaders who held summits to promote their plan. A look now at the text of the roadmap, with its talk of a settlement by 2005, vindicates the cynics.