Blessed Are the Peacemakers (and Probably Norwegian): As Blood Continues to Be Spilt in the Middle East, Peace on Earth Has Never Seemed So Unachievable. Yet the Number of Violent Trouble Spots around the World Is Actually Declining. Anton la Guardia on the Men and Women Who Try to Resolve Conflicts
La Guardia, Anton, New Statesman (1996)
The other day, I came across an old white baseball cap at the bottom of a drawer. Emblazoned on the front, in Hebrew, Arabic and English letters--were the words: Blessed are the peacemakers". It had been given to me as a freebie, to ward off the desert sun at a ceremony to sign the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan in October 1994. In these days of war, killing, terrorism and religious extremism in the Middle East, the very idea of peacemaking seems a cruel joke, but on that windswept day in the desert, everything seemed possible.
The treaty with Jordan came a year after the momentous handshake in Washington between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Ararat. There was talk then of the "Children of Abraham"--the Jewish descendants of Isaac and the Muslim heirs of Ishmael--sharing a common religious, historical patrimony. Abraham was the archetypal peacemaker, resolving his conflict with Lot over land and bargaining with God to save Sodom from destruction.
But as the Bible tells us, Abraham's offspring were not destined to live together peaceably, and for the past three years the sons of Isaac and the sons of Ishmael have killed each other without pity. Much blood-spilling is taking place elsewhere in the world.
Yet peacemaking need not be hopeless. According to researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden, the number of armed conflicts around the world has been declining steadily. At the peak in 1991, there were 54--from wars to "minor" conflicts. In 2002, the number was down to 31. The researchers say the figure for 2003 may be "slightly higher" as a result of the war in Iraq, but the trend is still downwards.
There is no shortage of work for peacemakers. Their task is even more important in this era of "global insecurity", when a conflict in a faraway place can have a direct impact at home, in the flow of refugees, drags and terrorists. To succeed, the heirs of Abraham the Peacemaker need to be armed with faith, patience, resilience, inventiveness, limitless optimism--and luck.
Christmas in Bethlehem will once again be a mournful affair, observed in the shadow of Israel's guns, with faded pictures of Palestinian martyrs rather than tinsel to decorate the birthplace of the Prince of Peace. Many have tried their hand at solving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians--from American presidents to local churchmen--and all have failed. Tony Blair, who ardently pressed George Bush to issue the "road map" for peace earlier this year, seems to have given up. And yet there are those whose hope for peace in the Holy Land is irrepressible. Terje Rod-Larsen, the Norwegian academic who played midwife to the 1993 Oslo accords and who has nursed the peace process ever since, will not accept that the historic deal is dead.
Where others retreat into despair, Rod Larsen, now the UN's special envoy to the Palestinians, sees hidden achievements. Where other mediators crash into a wall of hatred and intransigence, he insists: "There is now a narrow window of opportunity. If the parties seize it, there is possibility to move forward." Rod-Larsen believes that it is possible to achieve incremental progress. The appointment of a new and wilier Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, and the political pressure being exerted on Ariel Sharon by Israeli senior army officers, businessmen and public opinion, may re-establish some kind of peace process. Perhaps there could be an unofficial freeze on building Israel's separation wall in the West Bank, perhaps a renewed Palestinian cease-fire and perhaps, ultimately, a partial Israeli retreat from territory in exchange for a Palestinian state with temporary borders.
"In a paradoxical way, even in the depths of bloodshed, the peace process has in a strange way moved forward," explained Rod-Larsen during a visit to London. "For the first time in history, the Palestinian chairman and a Likud prime minister have agreed that the aim of negotiations is the establishment of a Palestinian state. …