Page last updated at 12:04 GMT, Friday, 18 September 2009 13:04 UK

Middle East 'haunted by the past'

As the US tries to restart peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, Jeremy Bowen says the fundamental differences between the two sides will need to be addressed before there can be a realistic chance of success.

Jerusalem skyline
Two peoples, both haunted by the past, want the same piece of land and cannot find a mutually acceptable way to share it or split it

Israelis are good at welcoming family and friends.

Shops in the concourse at Tel Aviv airport sell presents for the new arrivals. You can buy a nice bunch of flowers, a blow-up love heart, or a balloon shaped like a helicopter gunship.

One family, excited and emotional as they waited for some longed-for reunion, stood under their hovering balloon, military green with painted-on missiles and a payload of helium.

This week, Israel has been hanging on to a real-life flying tragedy.

A young pilot, Captain Assaf Ramon, was killed when his F-16 jet crashed on a hill in the West Bank during a training flight.

The young man's father - a celebrated air force flyer who took part in the raid on Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981 - was Israel's first astronaut. He was killed when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated in 2003.

One of the reporters at the funeral looked round the graveyard and saw a continuous thread, not just between the son being laid alongside his dead father, but also with the first Zionists in the area. He called them farmers with guns, two of whom were killed by Arabs 77 years ago.

Many Israelis feel as if they are surrounded by enemies.

That is why, in a country with compulsory military service, it does not feel strange to greet someone at the airport with an inflatable gunship. It is why a reporter can connect the deaths of a young pilot today and those of pioneers in the last century.

The same historical vibrations teach that the Arabs are unremittingly hostile, and that Israelis must always be on their guard. Why else do they need an air force? Why else did Jewish farmers have to carry guns?

US peace initiative

So Israelis are not on the edge of their seats hoping that President Barack Obama can, despite all the difficulties, create a new peace process or revive an old one. Instead they are sceptical, and cynical about anything other than more of the same.

US Special Envoy George Mitchell
US special envoy George Mitchell is trying to bring both sides together

Most people are much more concerned about Iran and its nuclear plans than about Palestinians, who are a known, containable commodity. The Iranians are much more worrying.

I am sitting writing this in the shade of some pine trees in the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba in the occupied West Bank. All the houses around me are illegal under international law.

If anything, the Palestinians who think all of this occupied land should be theirs are even more cynical and sceptical about peace than the Israelis.

Many Palestinians are convinced that history's lesson is that Israelis are out to steal their land. Not just the soil and rock, but the water underneath it too.

Plenty of Palestinians say that they prefer it when seemingly harder-line right-wingers like the current Israeli prime minister are in power.

The left, they say, are good at deceiving foreigners but they are just as determined to take land as the rightists.

For more than 15 years, on and off, Palestinians have watched leaders on the TV talking about peace.

Peacemaking

Then they look out of their windows and see land they believe is theirs disappearing under concrete, as Israel builds homes for Jews in the occupied territories.

Map of israel showing Tel Aviv, Kiryat Arba and Jerusalem

That is why the Obama administration in Washington has been pushing hard for a freeze on settlement building, to create a better atmosphere for talks.

Israelis are surprised, hurt and a little angry that an American president appears to be putting the feelings of the other side above theirs.

A former American negotiator looked back on the long record of failure in peace talks and said that one of the problems was that the US acted as Israel's attorney.

America's commitment to Israel is still unshakeable but it looks as if President Obama wants to try to be more like an honest broker, not the family lawyer.

By the way, there is plenty of pressure on the Palestinians too. But that is as predictable as the summer sun around here.

Fundamental problem

When the BBC sent me to live in Jerusalem in 1995, it was in the early days of the Oslo peace process. I left behind a perfectly good news story in Bosnia, with which I was somewhat in love. A Spanish colleague in Sarajevo asked me what on earth I was doing.

"They've made peace in the Middle East," she said. "You're nuts. The story's over."

But a couple of months after I arrived, a Jewish fanatic shot Israel's prime minister dead and that peace process started taking blows that in the end killed it. A couple of years later my Spanish friend moved to Jerusalem.

Every attempt at peacemaking has failed. The fundamental problem has not been solved.

Two peoples, both haunted by the past, want the same piece of land and cannot find a mutually acceptable way to share it, or split it.

Until they do, there will not be peace here or anything like it.

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