While other traumas worldwide have dominated the headlines in recent months, the disaster of Palestine persists. Unless decisive action is taken, particularly by the United States and the European Union, it will get only worse, with incalculable consequences for the Palestinian and Israeli peoples and also for the stability of the Middle East and the peace of the world.
Reports conflicted over the numbers arriving in Bethlehem for Christmas, but what is certain is that this biblical city has been destroyed as a living entity whose inhabitants can work, be educated and live viable family lives, by the hideous Israeli wall. It strangled the city. Banksy's graffiti accurately conveys its viciousness and cruelty. Bethlehem, however, is only one of the many Palestinian cities, towns and villages that continue to suffer from 500 roadblocks and the ever-constricting wall.
Gaza, especially, is a land of nightmares. At a UN conference I attended in New York a few weeks ago, we were told that 80 per cent of its inhabitants subsist on UN handouts. Britain's international development department is one of the most prominent donors. But alleviation of suffering, though worthy, does not contribute to a solution to this appalling disaster. Only political action can bring it to an end.
There are those who believe that the gathering at Annapolis at the end of 2007 could kick-start negotiations, leading, eventually, to a two-state solution. I am not among them. My view is that Annapolis was a complete waste of time.
This was borne out by the first post-Annapolis meeting between Ehud Olmert, Israel's ineffable prime minister, and the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, which broke up without a scintilla of progress having been achieved. This was not simply due to the Israelis' fraudulence but to the fact that Abbas and his Fatah party on their own cannot deliver. In the Palestinian elections two years ago - elections verified as totally valid by outside observers - it was not Fatah but Hamas that won.
Yet Hamas was not present at Annapolis - not present because not invited. The smart move would have been to invite Hamas and impose on them the responsibility for not being there, should they have decided to boycott.
It is undeniable that Hamas has been responsible for savage terrorist acts. Yet so was Mau Mau in Kenya. So was the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland. Eventually both had to be involved in negotiations. So will Hamas, if there is ever to be a solution for Palestine-Israel. When Yitzhak Rabin was Israeli defence minister, I told him that if he did not negotiate with Fatah, he would have to negotiate with Hamas.
Abba Eban, the most eloquent of Israeli statesman, said that you make peace by talking to your enemies. The Israelis and the appalling Bush administration have not learned this lesson. Indeed, they bear full responsibility for first the recalcitrance and now the stubbornness of Hamas.
When Fatah was the elected governing party in the Palestinian territories, Bush and the then Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon (still, after two years, obscenely maintained in a coma) imposed impossible conditions on them prior to negotiations. The consequence was the election of Hamas. Instead of accepting reality, the US and the EU imposed a boycott on the legitimately elected Hamas, leading directly to more suffering for the Palestinian people, political stalemate, and the Hamas military take-over in Gaza.
It is not as though any of the Israelis' short-term objectives have been met. The three Israeli soldiers captured by Hamas and Hezbollah 18 months ago remain prisoners - like all the Palestinian elected assembly members kidnapped by the Israelis. As for the long-term, the time is not far distant when there will be more Palestinians (including Israeli Arabs) than Jews in the former mandated Palestine, and if the Israelis and the US continue to be deliberately blind to the true situation the idea of a Jewish Israeli state will only be maintained by even greater oppression and apartheid on the South African model.
Yet South African apartheid collapsed in the end, just as apparently impregnable Stalinist Communism collapsed. Only hard-headed realism can save both the Palestinians and the Israelis. Yes, Hamas is very far from an attractive interlocutor; but it is there and will not go away. Yes, Hamas fires rockets into Israel and, despite all the force of the demoralised Israeli army, will continue to do so. Yes, Israelis like, recently, the two soldier hitchhikers in the West Bank, will continue to be murdered just as far more Palestinians are murdered regularly by the Israeli army.
Yet realism demands that this situation be resolved by negotiation, not by homicide. I have pressed our own foreign secretary to bring Hamas into negotiation. I, and others like me, will go on pressing. My hope is, that with even a moiety of good sense, 2008 will end better than it has begun for both Palestinians and Israelis. But I am not counting on it.