St Bride's: Sermon Series

Modern Day Peacemaking

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When I was first attracted to the Middle East as a 21 year old reporter, peacemaking was not something that was foremost on my mind. What drew me to Lebanon in the mid 1980s was quite the opposite - a country in the grip of civil war where a young journalist could make his name.

I found what I was looking for.

In the space of two years I covered fighting between Christians and Muslims, Maronites and Druze, Israelis and Lebanese, Shias against Sunnis, Palestinians against Shias and finally Christians against Christians. There were probably more permutations that I have forgotten but you get the point.

With the exception of Terry Waite - peacemakers were very thin on the ground back then. But as a crash course in the workings of Middle East politics it was quite an education.

It was not until I was posted to Jerusalem for The Times in the early 1990s that I really became acquainted with the role of modern day peacemaking.

This is not just the actions of a few well-intentioned amateur mediators trying to resolve religious and ethnic differences. Today it is a global industry involving politicians, diplomats, special envoys, academics, journalists and human rights activists.

There are hundreds, possibly thousands of them focused entirely on this one subject - namely resolving the outstanding dispute between Israel and the Palestinians over control of land between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean sea. The wide held belief is that a solution to this problem will lead to an overall peace between Israel and its Arab neighbours. Failure to solve it will exacerbate tensions between the west and Islam.

I know some St Bride's Parishioners are currently on pilgrimage to the holy land and I am sure they will report back with their experiences.

But what struck me when I first arrived to take up my assignment was the glaring contrast between the geographical size of the problem and its international status.

The area in dispute is a tiny sliver of land. You can cover most of modern day Israel and the Palestinian territories in a few hours by car. Jerusalem - the heart of the conflict - is a city of less than a million people comfortably crossed by foot in an hour or two.

It is not strategic in any military sense. The land does not possess minerals riches or oil and yet it remains the heart of a conflict whose resolution has defied some of the best minds of the past half century.

Eritreans, East Timorese and Kosovans have all won their independence in the past few years - to be followed this summer by the people of Southern Sudan. Yet the Palestinians remain stateless and as a result the region unstable.
The failed peace efforts would fill an entire library of good intentions - the Madrid negotiations, the Oslo peace accords, the Taba agreement, the Road Map to Peace signed in Aqaba, Sharm el-Sheikh, Geneva, Wye River Plantation, Annapolis, Camp David and so on.

The latest statesman to devote his attention to the issue is Tony Blair who has spent three years residing in a suite of room's in Jerusalem's finest hotel - the American Colony.

He does not have a peace agreement to his name yet - but I suspect that he knows even his best efforts are unlikely to succeed.

It is easy for journalists to criticise. We are by our nature cynical. In the Middle East betting on failure is a wise option for any pundit.

I once played a small, accidental part in a minor dispute but it taught me a good lesson about the fraught nature of the conflict.

It was my first Christmas in Jerusalem and I received a call from George, a contact who was the private secretary to the Armenian Patriarch. He was a deeply conspiratorial character but he knew everything that happened in the old city of Jerusalem and he wanted to meet me at a café in the Christian Quarter.

When I arrived he explained that it was the turn of the Armenians to write that year's Patriarchs' Christmas message signed by all seven Christian leaders.

He handed me a dull Christmas message, no doubt handed down from him the year before. I sharpened it up for him, adding a few criticisms of the Israeli authorities for allowing Jewish settlers to seize Arab homes.

The patriarchs signed up the statement probably without reading it. I circulated it to my colleagues in the press on a slow news day. By the end of the week we had a fully fledged international incident on our hands.

The then Mayor of Jerusalem cancelled his attendance at the annual Christmas service. Diplomats and clerics became involved. I had unwittingly caused an international incident.

A fortnight later while interviewing the Israeli government's head of Christian affairs on a story I was working on, he retrieved the document from his files and slapped it on the table.

I thought I had been rumbled by the Israeli secret police and would certainly be reprimanded or expelled. Instead the official declared with a flourish: "you see this - I happen to know for a fact that it was written by the Vatican!"

The anecdote illustrates not only the absurdity of the Middle East conflict but how even the tiniest issue can be blown up out of all proportion.

Since I lived in Jerusalem, Israelis and Palestinians have endured the second Intifada, the wave of suicide bombings by militants, the construction of the security wall through the west bank and the complete breakdown in meaningful negotiations.

The Palestinians are deeply divided, with the population in Gaza under the control of the militant group Hamas. Israel is fixated on the threat posed by Iran, which the entire region fears is about to acquire nuclear weapons.

The term middle east peace process exists only as a phrase today but is otherwise meaningless.

And yet I can't in good faith leave you with such a depressing outlook.

I still have hope.

I was lucky enough during my time in Jerusalem to meet the late Yitzhak Rabin, a gruff former general, with a tough reputation among the Palestinians. He was the leader who came closer than any other Israeli to understanding that it was in the country's interest to do a deal with the Palestinians. He understood that Israel could not remain Jewish and democratic and hold on to the occupied territories. His handshake with Yasser Arafat in the white house rose garden should have signalled the beginning of the end of the conflict.

I remember how quickly the atmosphere changed when that peace deal was signed. Almost overnight Palestinians and Israelis discovered they had far more in common than they imagined. There was an economic boom in the west bank as Palestinian investors hurried to cash in on the peace dividend.

Precisely because he was a real peacemaker, Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish militant and the peace process never really recovered.

Today I can't pretend to see any Yitzhak Rabins on the horizon, but perhaps I am looking in the wrong direction.

We are now in the midst of what is called the Arab spring. The presidents of Tunisia and Egypt have been forced from office and with luck will be replaced by democratically elected leaders later this year.

Colonel Gaddafi is holding on to power in Libya by a thread. The president of Yemen is on his way out. The president of Syria has finally understood that he will have to reform or possibly face a similar fate.

If this is - as many of us hope - the equivalent of the Berlin wall coming down in the Middle East then there should be some real opportunities ahead.

For sure this is going to be a long and messy process but Arab dictators will no longer be able to hide behind the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an excuse for their failings. They will be too busy clinging to power to cause trouble elsewhere.

This is a real chance for Israel and the Arabs to find common ground.

When I lived in Jerusalem I would often receive calls from angry readers complaining about my negative coverage.

I remember one woman calling to tell me that I "always reported the bad news" and never the good things that happened.

I had to explain that that was the nature of my work. Good news by definition was not of much interest to my readers. I promised her, however, that one day when peace came to the land I would happily shut my office, pack my bags and move on, perhaps returning to cover Christmas and Easter celebrations in the holy land.

We are not there yet, but hopefully that day will come.

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