At a moment when we’re reflecting on the life of a leader who preferred war to peace and as preparations are underway for talks to end the conflict in Syria, this is not a bad time for a reminder that diplomacy can actually work. Yesterday it was announced that the Iran nuclear deal, agreed in Geneva last November, will go into effect just two days before the Syria talks are due to begin in the same city.
Iran will begin eliminating some of its enriched uranium while, in return, they will receive billions of dollars of relief from sanctions. It’s not necessarily pretty but it’s effective.
Talk to anyone connected with the Syria negotiations and you’ll struggle to find any hint of optimism that Geneva II, as the talks have been named, will lead to any similarly messy but effective deal. But then just a year ago the same could have been said – was actually said – about the Iran talks.
They are, admittedly, two different discussions. The Iran negotiations could afford to take their time: there was no daily death toll. There were shades of grey that all sides could accept. In Syria each day brings new tragedies and takes the country further away from a diplomatic solution.
But bad talks are better than no talks. And for a reminder of what “no talks” looks like, the death of former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, eight years after he fell into a coma, is as good as any.
Sharon, despite the cheerleading from some over the weekend, was no peacemaker. His responsibility for the massacres in Sabra and Shatila in 1982 will not be forgotten. He hated the 1995 Oslo deal with a passion. The Gaza withdrawal, which he so proudly touted, was not about negotiating with a partner; it was about making unilateral decisions that left a perceived enemy as weak as possible.
For the past decade we have lived through an era where diplomacy has been seen as a means to a military end. Sharon’s passing is a suitable coda. The Iran talks may falter again. The Syria talks may not even begin. The Israel/Palestine talks may lead nowhere. But let us hope that we are on the brink of a new era where diplomacy is not merely used as a convenient stepping stone.
Steve Bloomfield is Monocle’s foreign editor.