Fri, Jan 13, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Blurred borders and conflict

Bloody disputes over territory are common around the world - from Russia's covetous view of Ukraine to China's claims on Taiwan. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is best viewed in this context

By Max Hastings  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

A Washington strategy guru, both Jewish and Zionist, remarked to me matter-of-factly a couple of months ago: "We shall not see a resolution of the Israel-Palestine issue in our lifetimes."

I agreed with him, and that was while Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was still in charge.

Much comment in recent days has assumed that real progress was possible in what is called the Middle East peace process if the old bear had survived in power. This view seems ill-founded. Sharon was -- with great political difficulty -- able to lead Israel out of Gaza because only a small minority of Jewish settlers valued anything that was there.

He surely had no intention of allowing any dispensation on the West Bank that might enable the Palestinians to create an economically and socially viable state, never mind to achieve the self-respect indispensable to responsible behavior.

Sharon, like most Israelis, wants peace but is also committed to ensuring that Israel's permanent borders are a substantial improvement on those of 1948. The persistence of Israel's ambitions on the West Bank represents an absolute barrier to any meaningful accord, whoever leads the government in Jerusalem.

Yet Israeli hawks say: "What is sacrosanct about the 1948 map? Those borders merely reflected the ground we held when fighting stopped, after the Arab states tried to crush Israel at birth. Half the world is dissatisfied with its frontiers, and seeks to amend them. Why should we be different?"

It is indisputably true that many frontiers are contested. All over the world, nations jostle for each other's land, and sometimes fight for it. Border lines in atlases tend to represent pious expressions of hope, rather than facts acknowledged in both adjoining territories. We might fare better in assessing the Israel-Palestine conflict if we viewed it in the context of other such disputes.

Most sizeable sovereign states harbor minorities with rival allegiances. The longstanding confrontation between India and Pakistan about Kashmir is the most dangerous example, because it is capable of precipitating a nuclear showdown. Only this month, Russia highlighted its eagerness to regain hegemony over Ukraine.

China's obsession with recovering Taiwan is the greatest threat to peace in Asia. Indonesia is a teeming muddle of peoples. Many have in common only the fact that they once belonged to the Dutch East Indies, and a significant number would prefer to shed their allegiance to Jakarta.

Tokyo still seethes about Soviet possession of the Kurile Islands, Japan's so-called Northern Territories, seized in 1945 and followed by the forcible deportation of about 400,000 Japanese residents. To this day, Russian coastguards periodically fire on Japanese fishermen who stray too close inshore. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow showed some signs of being willing to relinquish the Kuriles. Under President Vladimir Putin, the Russian line has hardened decisively again.

South American states succumb to periodic outbreaks of border conflict. The future of Quebec within Canada remains as bitterly disputed today as for the past two and a half centuries. There is also the Balkan ferment and a Cypriot partition imposed by the Turkish army. The issue of Gibraltar poisons British relations with Spain.

Many Germans and Poles remain deeply resentful about the redrawing of their borders by the victors in 1945. Amazingly, few people are even aware that Russia then annexed a substantial part of eastern Poland, together with useful Baltic coastal territory in old East Prussia. Poland was given land from defeated Germany by way of compensation. Millions of ethnic Germans were forcibly transferred westwards.

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