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Lord David Hannay GCMG and Edward Mortimer CMG on the Israel-Palestine conflict

How hopeless is the situation?


At a recent Cambridge University United Nations Association (CUUNA) event, I discuss the history and current face of the Israel-Palestine crisis with Lord David Hannay CMG, British diplomat, member of the House of Lords and previously ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations, and Edward Mortimer CMG, Director of Communications in the Executive Office of the United Nations Secretary-General until 2007.

The Israel-Palestine conflict has been so lengthy and relentless that there is a danger of losing hope for a successful resolution of the conflict. As such, I am keen to know when Hannay and Mortimer felt that Israel and Palestine were closest to reaching a peace settlement. Both agree that the 1990s was the most optimistic period. Lord Hannay expands: 'Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait had been reversed and there was a feeling that the old cold war in the Middle East had come to an end, and that, broadly speaking the Soviet Union […] and the United States were prepared to work together for a settlement in the Middle East of the Palestinian dispute'. He also mentions the then Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzak Rabin, 'who had been a hardliner in his earlier years in politics but who became absolutely determined to bring a solution' but was 'murdered just because he was going to get a solution'.

Edward Mortimer concurs, 'Yes, 1993, when they had Rabin and Yasser Arafat shaking hands in front of Bill Clinton at the White House lawn. There were sceptics, of course, on both sides, but most of us thought, this is it, we’re getting somewhere.' In answer to whether he sees hope for the current situation, he seems torn. 'If you work for the United Nations, you have to be an optimist', and yet 'it’s extremely difficult to be optimistic at the moment'. Mortimer laments that 'there are so many other things going on in the Middle East, let alone in the rest of the world, that it’s become slightly like a side show'.

Lord Hannay's take is doggedly optimistic. Sticking at it 'remains the only viable and moral cause for the international community to take… I’m sure the path will be extraordinarily stony and very long, but turning your back on this problem is only going to make it worse.'

The American stance under Donald Trump's presidency has hardly contributed to a solution. Hannay asserts that Trump 'is not starting from a position that has the slightest chance of getting an agreement, because his starting position is that the government of Israel is always right'. Mortimer notes 'a strange reversal of roles' in the American political system. Whereas 'historically, it was […] the Democrats who were the most pro-Israel', the balance has shifted. 'Bernie Sanders is saying rather extraordinary things actually, about holding Israel to account for the amount of aid that it gets. Biden, so far, is resisting that.' Nonetheless, 'the Israelis have perhaps relied too much on [the idea that] America will always be at their back. What happened in Northern Syria last month has probably given Israelis something to think about'.

The Israeli government is not pretending to favour a two-state solution to the conflict, and Trump has made remarks in 2017 effectively undermining the traditional US stance of pushing for a two-state solution. I am keen to know Hannay and Mortimer's stance – could there be a viable alternative? Hannay sees 'a lot of extremely undesirable alternatives, which are likely to lead to more bloodshed and instability in a region that is already fundamentally unstable.' He maintains that only a two-state solution is plausible, adding that change might happen due to external developments. 'Apartheid in South Africa collapsed partly because the Soviet Union collapsed. Nobody thought the Soviet Union was going to collapse, so nobody thought Apartheid was going to collapse, but they both did. You can’t be sure that there [aren't] events that will act in a positive sense.'

Mortimer adds that 'one thing that might change in the next few years is American unconditional support for Israel'. More generally, he tells me, 'the geopolitical world situation is changing'. The Iraq war amongst other events 'indicated the limits of American power'. 'Though the rise of China in many senses is not very comforting, particularly to us as […] what we hope to call a western democracy, but in terms of how a regional conflict like the Arab-Israel one is played out, that might change […] possibly in a hopeful direction.'

How can we detoxify the conversation around Israel and Palestine? In Hannay's opinion, 'the most important thing is to talk to all the participants in this dispute, and by all, I mean including Hamas.' In such a complex situation, 'it doesn’t help at all if you start drawing red lines everywhere'. All in all, it seems fair that, as Mortimer tells me, 'just as one can’t rule out the next disaster, one also shouldn’t rule out the next turn up'.