There exists today a new path to peace. It is based not only on conventional Israeli-Palestinian negotiation, but on the potential for a new relationship between the Arab nations and Israel. It is an opportunity of unprecedented promise. We must grasp it with both hands.
I have worked on what we call ‘the peace process’ for several years during my time in Downing St; and then for exactly 10 years, intensively, since leaving it.
I have been through the Annapolis process under the leadership of President Bush and Condi Rice; the process led by Senator Mitchell and then Hillary Clinton under President Obama; and finally the long, detailed process over two years under John Kerry.
So there has been a lot of process with immensely capable leaders, but as yet no definitive peace.
Now there is a new American President who has signalled his determination to make peace.
My judgement based on this experience is as follows. There remains a latent and clear desire for peace amongst both Israelis and Palestinians. Israeli opinion does not really want Israel to try to govern a bi-national state; and Palestinian opinion does not really believe the State of Israel is going to disappear.
The solution of ‘two states for two peoples’ remains the most viable and realistic option.
But the credibility of the ‘peace process’ has been profoundly damaged since the Oslo accords.
Whatever the explanation, the outcome, for the moment, is that many Palestinians have concluded that Israel is not serious about negotiating a Palestinian state, and many Israelis have concluded that Palestinian politics is incapable of running one consistent with Israel’s security.
So the fundamental challenge is not a simply one of negotiation – borders, security etc. It is one of context, cultural acceptance and credibility.
This has led to such a widespread depression about the prospects for peace, that it is possible to miss a movement of momentous historical significance which offers the opportunity to change the whole dynamic in a radical and positive way.
Over these past few years, after stepping back from the Quartet role, I have concentrated my efforts, with my team here in the Middle East, on the possibility of a new path forward.
Today the wider region is undergoing dramatic change. The turmoil of the Middle East is easy to discern. But underneath the surface events, and following the Arab Spring which began in 2011, several elements have emerged which alter the regional context.
First, it is plain that the region is in a life or death struggle for its future between those who want a narrow, sectarian and essentially totalitarian view of religion to determine that future; and those who are striving for economies based on the rule of law and societies of religious tolerance, connected to the modern world not in opposition to it.
This is the real dividing line in the Middle East today: the battle against extremism – whether of the Shia variety promoted by the Iranian theocracy or of the Sunni variety advocated by groups from the Muslim Brotherhood through to ISIS.
In this battle, a democratic State of Israel should be in alliance with the nations of the region, because Israel faces the same external threats and therefore shares the same strategic interests.
Secondly, at this very moment in time, there is a new leadership arising in the region, a generation of leaders who perceive the sectarian politicisation of Islam as wrong and regressive, who govern young and impatient populations and who know that their route to progress lies in opening up to the world in friendship. And in each of these countries, this leadership is showing courage and determination in making change.
For example, today in any survey of Arab youth, the Emirates come out top of the countries young people want their country to emulate. In Saudi Arabia, the now Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, under King Salman’s authority, is engaged in a radical and exciting process of modernisation. President Sisi has been outspoken in his condemnation of Islamist extremism and in his efforts to protect Egypt’s Coptic minority.
So we have the objective reason for a regional alliance; and the subjective leadership capable of delivering it.
However, it might be thought that this is sufficient and that the Palestinian question, so long synonymous with Middle East politics, has diminished in importance.
But this would be an error.
A new relationship between Arabs and Israelis is definitely today possible; and tantalisingly close.
And it is no great state secret to say there are forms of cooperation, particularly on security matters, which take place already.
But the key to a true relationship, where there is overt, public and strategic collaboration – what I call ‘above the table’ not below it, remains the Palestinian question.
It is possible – indeed I would argue necessary – to find a new way forward to manage and ultimately resolve that question; but it is not possible, in my view, to set it aside.
The politics of the region do not permit that, and it would be wise to build our hopes for peace on that reality and not to dream that the effluxion of time or the pressure of events will remove it from our calculus.
The new way forward is to integrate the regional approach with a traditional negotiation.
The engagement of the region provides the strength to help carry any peace process. It gives the Israelis the comfort of knowing that the region as a whole stands behind any agreement with the Palestinians and offers Israel the huge prize of normalisation.
It gives the Palestinians the reassurance that any agreement will be supported by the wider Arab and Muslim world and gives them local partners in the building of the Palestinian State. Crucially, it can help bring about the unification of Palestinian politics – an absolutely essential pre-condition of peace – but on a basis fully consistent with peace.
The Arab Peace Initiative, as amended, posits a framework for negotiation. The Israeli Government has identified positive elements within it. So this can help guide any American led process.
But to work, we must break with some of the ‘theology’ of peace-making which has become hallowed doctrine over the past 25 years.
It is correct that there is no ‘economic peace’ separate from a political solution. When the politics are moving forward as for example in the period 2007-2010, in the time of Salaam Fayyad as Prime Minister, the economy also responds with higher growth; when the politics stall, as after the breakdown of negotiations in 2011, the economy also stalls.
Nonetheless, measures on the ground, building peace from the bottom up, provide vital ballast to any political process. In Gaza, infrastructure, electricity and housing; on the West Bank, freedom of movement, water and development in parts of Area C: progress here helps create the context for a negotiation.
On the political process, we need a step by step approach towards a Palestinian State, where over time we build confidence that the eventual goal will be attained. This is not the same as so-called ‘interim solutions’ which Palestinians fear become permanent; it is rather a recognition, that without an organic evolution towards statehood, we are left with an ‘all or nothing’ position which so far has actually resulted not in ‘all’ but in nothing.
The same goes for normalisation between the Arab States and Israel. This can be turned into a process rather than a one off event. Sensitivity to the politics of both Israelis and Arabs should lead us to create a set of inter-locking points where everyone gets comfortable that change is happening, but in a way which is manageable.
What is necessary is not only Arab support for a traditional peace negotiation but active engagement with it.
If such a methodology can be put in place, and a credible path to peace and Palestinian Statehood established, then the opportunities for Arab-Israeli cooperation go far beyond politics. The regional dialogue should encompass the full range of mutual interests.
Self-evidently there are enormous economic possibilities. The region is undergoing deep economic re-structuring and change. Israel could both contribute to and benefit from participation in this transformation.
Civic society across the region should engage in cultural and educational exchange. And I applaud greatly the initiatives such as those led by Koby Huberman. They have a big role to play.
Strategically, think how much more impactful the nations of the Middle East would be if, when promoting their interests and dealing with their challenges, Israelis and Arabs were speaking in unison. Think of the effect on the policy of the USA and Europe.
I can tell you frankly from the conversations and interactions I have with those in the region as well as obviously those here in Israel that this regional approach is now, virtually by consensus, accepted as the right road to travel. There is goodwill, a real sense of shared purpose and an appetite.
Of course the obstacles are also formidable. The legacy of past conflict and mistrust is still visible. The uncertainty persists as to whether what is desirable is achievable. Public opinion in the Arab world is changing but has a long way to go and the Palestinian issue must be on a genuine path to resolution.
Also, in the Middle East, we are always at the mercy of events.
The most immediate challenge is Gaza. As a result of the cut in electricity announced two days ago, we are down to under 3 hours of power a day. In the summer heat, in Ramadan, this is intolerable.
I have long advocated a fundamentally different policy towards Gaza. I maintain that leaving it in its present condition – and for this moment let us not debate why this condition exists – threatens all we wish to achieve. There is an urgent need for political change in Gaza. But most urgently, as we figure out how that political change can be brought about, we must alleviate the suffering of the people.
I have discussed and put forward proposals, with various interested parties, as to how this situation can be eased particularly around electricity. I hope we find a way through. But I cannot over-state that any peace process which ignores Gaza is a process doomed to fail.
So, as ever, as we lift our gaze to look at the bright possibility of hope on the horizon, we can espy in front of us the things which can wreck it and replace it with the more familiar pessimism.
But to summarise, the opportunity for a new regional approach is for sure real.
If we succeed, the benign consequences go far beyond the Middle East. Apart from the unpredictability of the regime of North Korea, the single biggest security menace for the world is that of Islamist extremism. It is a phenomenon which is global as events in the Philippines remind us. It scars the daily life of European citizens as witnessed by the tragic events in the UK. Its cost in terms of the way we live and what we have to spend on security is incalculable, money which could be deployed so much better on improving lives rather than saving them from terror.
This ideology came out of the Middle East and in the end has to be defeated here. Consider what a compelling counter narrative to that of the extremists would be the Jewish State of Israel and the predominantly Muslim states of the Arab world sitting down in peace together. As we learnt in the 20th C, totalitarian ideologies are vanquished by a combination of the will to fight and the superiority of the idea we're fighting for.
The idea which should govern the 21st C is that of the open mind, the willingness to treat as equals and partners those who are willing to treat us as such; to move across the boundaries of faith, culture, race and nation to seek out common cause and advantage.
This is what is at stake at this juncture of history in this region of unique history in this time of historical opportunity.
Progress is always the product of circumstance and leadership.
The circumstances are ready; now we need across the region the Leaders to have the wisdom to understand the opportunity and the courage to seize it.
These 10 years have been an interesting time for me. I have come to have a deep affection for this country, a deep belief in the hope for peace.
And equally – despite all the setbacks and challenges – an internal optimism, which I’m never quite sure if it is borne of experience or said to be some character defect.
It remains with me now.
If you think of this country and how it has been built over the last 70 odd years, how extraordinary this nation is today, think what it can offer the world. And then think of the imagination that is needed to create the circumstances in which peace can be achieved with Palestinian neighbours, on a basis of a partnership of equality and respect.
Then this country can become what it can and should be, which is: a model to the region; a partner to the region; and a gateway from the region to the world.
I’m crazy enough to think it could happen.
This is my 182nd visit to Israel. I’m very happy to do another 182 and more, provided at the end of it that hope is turned into a reality.