A Middle East miracle might just happen

I was once told by a senior Israeli official: “In the Middle East, if you don't believe in miracles, you are not a realist.” One would be forgiven for believing it will need a miracle for King Abdullah of Jordan's vision of a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arabs to be achieved in the course of this year.

The omens are depressing. Israel has a new hardline Government that has, so far, rejected even the aspiration of a two-state solution. If Binyamin Netanyahu were to confirm that position he would, in effect, be repudiating the strategy pursued by all Israeli governments since the Oslo Accords in 1993.

Indeed, if the establishment of a Palestinian state were ruled out, Israel's position would, ironically, become the mirror image of Hamas's, which rules out ever recognising the state of Israel. Moderate Palestinians, led by Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah, would be undermined, Arab states would withdraw support for a two-state solution and the region would face its greatest crisis since the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

So you might expect the mood in the Middle East to be awful, bordering on desperate. Although it is sombre, those who know the region feel that there is all to play for. There are two reasons for this.

The first is the complex personality of Mr Netanyahu. I have met him several times and had informal conversations with him. He is usually reticent on strategy but a master at tactics. I have no doubt that he deeply dislikes the concept of a Palestinian state but that is not the same as saying that he could never endorse one.

Sherlock Holmes once, memorably, said to Dr Watson that when you rule out all the other options whatever is left, however disagreeable, must be the right course of action. Hardliners, such as Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, realised some time ago that the only long-term alternatives to a Palestinian state were permanent military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza or the absorption of these territories into Israel. That would result in a new Jewish-Muslim state that would change the whole character of the country.

Mr Netanyahu is as aware of that as anyone. His immediate objective is to keep his right-wing coalition intact. Therefore, his language is tough. For example, he is insisting that Iran must end its threats against Israel if Palestinian aspirations are to be met. This could be seen as a wrecking tactic but is also the language of negotiation. Crucially, he has conceded a wholesale review of Israeli policy to be concluded before he meets President Obama in Washington next week.

That brings me to the second and, perhaps, decisive reason why the situation is more fluid than might first be apparent. Unlike George W. Bush, Barack Obama is engaging himself in the Israel-Palestine issue from the very outset of his presidency. He is doing so with more goodwill from the Arab world than any recent president.

He is well disposed to the Israelis but will put US interests before theirs as he tries to heal some of the bitter wounds of America's recent past in the Middle East. He is also fortified by opinion polls that continue to show strong support for a two-state solution by decisive majorities of both Israelis and Palestinians despite the views of Hamas and the present position of Mr Netanyahu.

I have had considerable experience of the US foreign policy machine - the White House, State Department, Pentagon and various think-tanks and lobby groups. It is like an oil tanker changing direction. It takes time to turn round but when it does, it is unlikely to change back again.

We are seeing signs of that with recent remarks by Joe Biden, which would not have been made without the full authority of the White House. Addressing the main US Israel lobby, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Vice-President stated: “Israel has to work towards a two-state solution. You're not going to like my saying this but [don't] build more settlements, dismantle existing outposts and allow Palestinians freedom of movement.”

If Mr Obama puts the full weight of his authority behind that position when he meets Mr Netanyahu next week it is inconceivable that the Israeli Prime Minister will reject it. Such a deep rupture with the US would be difficult at any time but its immediate effect would be to drive Ehud Barak and the Labour Party out of the coalition Government and antagonise Israel's friends, as well as its enemies, around the world.

Events over the next few months could move quite quickly. After his meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Obama is due to address the Arab world when he is in Cairo on June 4. It is being speculated that there might be a peace conference involving all the parties as early as July or August.

The likely, and wise, Israeli position will be to insist on a hard bargain. If they are expected to withdraw from the West Bank and accept a Palestinian state there will have to be a peace treaty with Syria and Lebanon as well. Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas will have to accept the permanence of the state of Israel.

This seems an impossibly ambitious programme but there is one way the circle will be squared. Any peace agreement will have to be ratified by referendums of both the Israelis and the Palestinians. If the Palestinians, of their own free will and in a proper test of their views, endorse the proposals, controlling the extremists becomes much easier.

Such a sequence of events may seem highly unlikely. Miracles, however, have a better reputation in the Holy Land than in most other parts of the world.

Malcom Rifkin, Defence Secretary and Foreign Secretary between 1992 and 1997.