The latest efforts to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians are hanging by a thread, which should be no surprise. Perhaps, based on the 2000 Camp David peace talks, sponsored by President Clinton, when the Palestinians walked away, essentially, from a complete resolution that seemed to be within reach, and the 2008 Annapolis peace talks sponsored by President Bush, which also ended in failure, another round of direct talks was destined also to fail. There were, and are, no shortages of reasons for pessimism.
The talks will fail. Even if some so-called agreement produces a document with Israeli and Palestinian signatures, peace – real peace – is not at hand, nor, sadly, is peace – real peace – the mutual objective of both the Israelis and the Palestinians at this time. Real peace, while entirely consistent with the vast majority of Israelis’ aspirations (notwithstanding the strident rejectionist camp within Israel), is still anathema to too many Palestinians who are in power (think Hamas). Peace is what Hamas is in power to prevent. Not only have the Palestinians not shown any change in their refusal to accept Israel as a Jewish homeland deriving from the Jewish peoples’ historic and unbroken connection to Israel stretching back almost three millennia, but their own leadership is hopelessly and deeply fractured, not just over the fine points of an eventual peace, but over so much as even paying lip service to the notion of Israel’s survival. Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority which controls the West Bank, does not have the power to make peace with Israel, and Hamas, which controls Gaza, is dedicated to Israel’s destruction. There is a desperate need for peace talks, but not between Israel and the Palestinians, but, rather, between the Palestinians and the Palestinians.
A digression into some history is in order here. Following the May 14th, 1948 departure of the last British forces from Haifa, David Ben-Gurion declared the creation of the state of Israel in full accordance with the 1947 UN Partition Plan, which the Arab bloc rejected. The United States and the Soviet Union immediately recognized the new nation of Israel. Simultaneously, Egypt, Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq declared war with Saudi-Arabia and Sudan also sending troops to assist in the annihilation of the new nation. Trygve Lie, Secretary General of the United Nations declared this coordinated invasion to be the “first armed aggression the world has seen since the end of the Second World War.”
According to UN figures 726,000 Palestinians left between 1947 and 1949. During that same time, and for a few years thereafter, approximately 850,000 Jews who had lived in Arab lands for centuries found that they were no longer welcome and many resettled in Israel. The Arab invaders, unable to defeat Israel, refused to make peace and, at the same time, refused citizenship to the thousands of refugees who remained in areas under their control, leaving many to live in squalid refugee camps. Tragically, they, or more accurately, their descendants have become pawns in the middle-east conflict demanding the right of return — even now 62 years later. Arab nations in the vicinity, particularly Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon have refused to absorb them. Indeed, Jordan and Lebanon have, at times, waged war against the more militant Palestinian factions within their borders. It took approximately 5 years for millions of victims of World War II to resettle elsewhere, but after 6 decades the offspring of these refugees continue to be held in squalid refugee camps.
The area has seen very few years of peace in the intervening years. The conflict that really changed the landscape, however, was the 1967 six-day war, which began when Arab armies again massed for invasion and President Nasser of Egypt, closed the straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, an action which Israel had warned would be considered an act of war. This time the overwhelming Arab forces were defeated within a week by the Israeli Defense Force led by its legendary general, Moshe Dayan. As a result, Israel seized the eastern half of Jerusalem, Hebron and the entire West Bank from Jordan (the latter being a protectorate ‑ not a nation), the Golan Heights from Syria the Sinai desert and the Gaza Strip (an Egyptian protectorate) from Egypt. Israel learned two lessons from these years of conflict: (1) If peace was ever to be established with its neighbors, its principal bargaining chip would be the return of Arab lands, and (2) that it needed a buffer area to protect itself from future attacks.
Subsequently, due to the enlightened leadership of Anwar Sadat who succeeded Nasser and the vision of King Hussein of Jordan, and after yet another war in defeating Arab armies that launched a surprise attack on the Jewish high holiday of Yom Kippur in 1973 (in which Arab armies had some initial success which burnished Mr. Sadat’s image as a hero in Arab eyes), Israel entered into peace treaties first with Egypt and then with Jordan. Israel returned the Sinai and Egypt washed its hands of Gaza. In the treaty with Jordan, King Hussein renounced any further Jordanian control over the West Bank. Both Egypt and Jordan recognized Israel and the nations established diplomatic relations. By and large with minor exceptions this is the geography of the land today.
For at least the last two decades, efforts have been made, mostly by the United States, with involvement by Russia, the UN and the EU to prod the inhabitants of Gaza and the West Bank (i.e., Palestinians) and Israel to enter into a comprehensive peace treaty. Conferences in Madrid and later (secretly) in Oslo established a framework for what has been alternately called a “roadmap” or “the peace process.” Toward the ends of both the Administrations of Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush peace talks were held in the United States, first at Camp David in 2000 and then in Annapolis in November 2007. As recounted by the principal negotiator for President Clinton, Dennis Ross, Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister, offered Yasser Arafat essentially everything he was demanding (including a shared capital in Jerusalem and some form of compensation to take account of the so-called “right of return,” but added a caveat that acceptance of the proposal would be conditioned on agreement by Arafat that this would be a full and final resolution of all Arab demands and that the Palestinians would make no further claims. Mr. Ross reportedly was astonished at the fullness of the Israeli peace offer and he conveyed the proposal to President Clinton who gave it to Arafat. Rather than accepting a proposal that seemed to respond to all his demands to end years of war, Mr. Arafat is reported to have said, “If I accept that caveat I will be signing my death warrant.” He then went home and started the second intifada, using Arial Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount as an excuse. A similar proposal was made in 2007 by then Israeli Prime Minister Olmert.
While factions on both sides have fought against a two-state solution to this long conflict, Palestinian leadership (as well as that of most of the Arab nations in the area) has generally preferred to retain their grievances rather than have peace with Israel? Scholar Shelby Steele, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute, writes:
“In other words [to Palestinians] my hatred is my self-esteem. This must have much to do with why Yasser Arafat rejected Ehud Barak’s famous Camp David offer of 2000 in which Israel offered more than 90% of what the Palestinians had demanded. To have accepted that offer would have been to forego hatred as consolation and meaning. Thus, it would have plunged the Palestinians — and by implication the broader Muslim world — into a confrontation with their inferiority relative to modernity. Arafat knew that without the Jews to hate, an all-defining cohesion would leave the Muslim world. So he said “no” to peace.”
If the offers of 2000 and 2007 were rejected why is there any reason to expect a different result now? There isn’t, although every President since Jimmy Carter has tried. Now comes President Obama (who in the words of Leslie Gelb “is so self‑confident that he believes he can make decisions on the most complicated of issues after only hours of discussion”) with the latest effort to revive the peace process. In that vein, he started his peace efforts shortly after the commencement of his presidency by making the incredible blunder of setting as a precondition for talks that Israel must halt construction within existing settlements in Jerusalem, notwithstanding that a halting of construction had never been a precondition to earlier peace talks. The president fully knew then and knows now that the fragile coalition government of Prime Minister Netanyahu would collapse if he agreed to that condition. Moreover, he also knows that infill settlements in existing Jewish areas do not change the basic contours of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, he has handed Mr. Abbas, who doesn’t even speak for all West Bank Palestinians, let alone Hamas in Gaza, an excuse to avoid or walk out of any talks by invoking the settlement excuse. Charles Krauthammer stated it quite well in his column in the New York Daily News on September 10, 2010:”Unfortunately, there’s no more sign today of a Palestinian desire for final peace than there was at Camp David. Even if Mahmoud Abbas wants such an agreement (doubtful but possible), he simply doesn’t have the authority… Hamas, which exists to destroy Israel, controls (a substantial part of Palestinian territory) (Gaza), and is a powerful rival to Abbas’ Fatah even in his home territory of the West Bank.
Unable and/or unwilling to make peace, Abbas will exploit President Obama’s tactical blunder, the settlement freeze imposed on Israel despite the fact that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations had gone on without such a precondition for 16 years prior…Abbas will walk out…That would solve all of Abbas’ problems. It would obviate signing on to a final settlement, fend off Hamas and make Israel the fall guy.
…Much of the world, which already condemns Israel even for self-defense, will be only too eager to blame Israel for the negotiation breakdown. And there is growing pressure to create a Palestinian state even if the talks fail — i.e., even if the Palestinians make no concessions at all. So why make any?”
And why should Israel any longer trust the land-for-peace formula or the so-called guarantors of peace agreements, particularly the United Nations. The Israelis unconditionally left Gaza in 2005, and in the process Israeli soldiers forcibly removed Israeli settlers from their homes. Their reward? Unremitting rocket attacks from Gaza on Israeli territory. In 2006 Israeli forces, responding to repeated cross-border provocation from Hezbollah (including killing 3 Israeli soldiers and kidnapping 2 others) invaded southern Lebanon. An inconclusive 33-day war was fought. At its end, as part of a cease-fire, the UN agreed to guarantee the peace and police a key provision that Hezbollah would not import any further rockets with which to attack Israel. Nevertheless, as of 2009, Hezbollah has acquired 60,000 rockets as well as scud missiles from their Iranian patrons, through Syria, all capable of hitting Israel.
Tony Blair, the current special envoy of the so-called “Quartet” (US, UN, Russia and EU) has stated that no one should negotiate with Hamas until they fulfilled three conditions: (i) recognize Israel’s right to exist; (ii) renounce violence; and (iii) accept agreements already made by previous Palestinian negotiators. Hamas has not met any of those conditions and yet Mr. Obama (and the Palestinian leadership) conditions talks on further concessions from Israel to demonstrate that it truly wants peace. What does he think Israelis want? More blood, death and destruction? Every Israeli family has a family member serving in the IDF for a significant period of time every year and every Israeli knows someone who has lost a loved one in battle.
When the Palestinian side announces that it will formally recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish State, they are entitled to an Israeli announcement that Israel will formally recognize Palestine’s right to exist as a Palestinian State. That’s all the confidence-building reciprocity that should be required.
Earlier this year a flotilla of ships originating in Turkey headed to Israel allegedly to provide humanitarian supplies to the people of Gaza. Both Israel and Egypt have closed their respective borders with Gaza to prevent the importation of weaponry (although we hear very little about the closed Egyptian border). Israel invited the flotilla to unload its shipment for inspection in an Israeli port, an invitation that was refused. Thereafter, the Israeli navy intercepted the flotilla, boarded the ships and a firefight ensued resulting in the deaths of several persons on board. This, of course, resulted in a predictable chorus of condemnation from governments around the world, particularly in Europe.
And Israel having built the only democracy in the middle east and a thriving high tech economy and successfully defended it militarily against overwhelming odds is now faced with perhaps the most serious threat to its existence … one that cannot be defeated by military strength alone; a campaign to delegitimize the nation itself. Iran’s leaders insist it be wiped off the map. Leaders of other nations imply that Israelis don’t care about peace and treat it at international forums as if it were an outlaw. Recently, as Bret Stephens reported in his Wall Street Journal column:
… a man named Karel de Gucht told a radio station in Belgium that the current round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations were certain to founder upon the stubbornness of Jews. “There is indeed a belief — it’s difficult to describe it otherwise — among most Jews that they are right,” he explained. “So it’s not easy to have, even with moderate Jews, a rational discussion about what is happening in the Middle East.”
…Mr. de Gucht [may] sound like a neo-Nazi; in fact, he is the Trade Commissioner of the European Union. How does a paladin like him come to say something like that? Because it’s really not that far from the sorts of things that already are being written; that are, as they say, “in the air.”
Mr. de Gucht later apologized for his remarks stating that he wanted to make clear that anti-Semitism has no place in today’s world. But sadly, appeasement and anti‑Semitism (defined by some perceptive person as hating Jews no more than is necessary under any particular circumstance) are part of Europe’s unhappy history. Europe, which has not in the past cloaked itself in glory protecting its Jewish citizens when they constituted a significant portion of its population, shouldn’t be expected to lose sleep when Israel faces destruction in the present. Hopefully, Mr. Obama, who started his presidency by constantly criticizing Israel and showing little respect for Mr. Netanyahu, won’t accompany Europe down a path which is contrary not only to America’s long term strategic interests but its democratic values as well.