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The Mental Standstill that Cripples the Mideast Peace

Have you ever wondered why “a just and lasting peace” in the Middle East is no closer today than 70 years ago? It was 1947 when the members of the United Nations decided that the only solution to the conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine was for each to have their own state. In other words, a two-state solution. Sounds sensible and Israel has one. Why not the Palestinians?

The smart people want you to think it is Israel which has been obstructing the two-state solution – and in December 2016 they passed a UN Security Council resolution (2334) which said so explicitly. The members declared that “the establishment by Israel of settlements in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, has no legal validity” and that the “cessation of all Israeli settlement activities is essential for salvaging the two-State solution”. They declared they would not recognize any changes to the 1967 borders unless they had been negotiated, and came down squarely on the side of the radical Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. All states, the resolution decreed, should “distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967”.

No mention of the Palestinians or any role they might have played in the failure to achieve their state. Language condemning the ongoing violence which assigned no responsibility. Yet another “call” to the parties to return to the negotiating table. It doesn’t take an expert to know this is all quite pointless, the umpteenth repetition of a “formula for peace” which isn’t going anywhere. So why has it captured mainstream thinking for so long? Bear with me as I explain.

In 1985, the foremost historian of the time, Barbara Tuchman, wrote a book on the stupidity of governments through the ages. In The March of Folly, she looked into several cases of what she called “the perverse persistence in a policy demonstrably unworkable or counter-productive”. To qualify as folly, the policy in question had to have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not merely in hindsight; a feasible alternative course of action must have been available; and the policy must have been that of a group, not an individual ruler, and one that persisted over several political administrations. When these conditions existed, the sequence was invariably as follows:

In the first stage, mental standstill fixes the principles and boundaries governing a political problem. In the second stage, when dissonances and failing function begin to appear, the initial principles rigidify. This is the period when, if wisdom were operative, re-examination and re-thinking and a change of course are possible … Rigidifying leads to increase of investment and the need to protect egos; policy founded on error multiplies, never retreats. The greater the investment and the more involved the sponsor’s ego, the more unacceptable is disengagement. In the third stage, pursuit of failure enlarges the damages until it causes the fall of Troy, the defection from the Papacy, the loss of a trans-Atlantic empire, the classic humiliation in Vietnam.

It’s that same mental standstill which explains why so many otherwise intelligent people continue to pursue a Middle East policy which has been so demonstrably a failure. And one with zero prospect of succeeding in future.

The fable we are expected to believe is that “the Jews” are interlopers in Palestine and don’t belong there, not even in East Jerusalem, that they illegally occupied Palestinian territory in 1967, and that they have been illegally building settlements there ever since. As the fable goes, if the Israelis would just “freeze” construction and pack up and leave, the Palestinians would get back what is rightfully theirs and would be content to live in peace with their Israeli neighbours. The Israelis could rest assured the Palestinians would never again send terrorists or launch missiles against them. This is all fantasy.

It is time to re-examine Western policy on the Middle East. The world has witnessed 70 years of wars, terrorism, ceasefires, resolutions, accords, frameworks, conferences, agreements, initiatives, road maps and joint understandings – while 24,000 Israelis and 85,000 Arabs have been killed. If ever the Palestinians were inclined to negotiate an agreement with Israel, the world has just given them a major new incentive not to. Where the 1967 Resolution 242 took an even-handed approach, Resolution 2334 effectively places all the responsibility for the continued violence on Israel, gives the Palestinians a pass, and leaves the policy landscape as barren as ever.

As Barbara Tuchman observed, once policy is being driven by preconceived fixed notions and evidence of its failure ignored or dismissed, it is exceedingly difficult to break out of the mental standstill which sustains it. In Tuchman’s view, “re-examination and rethinking and a change of course are possible, but they are rare as rubies in a backyard”. Not impossible, however:

The rarest kind of reversal – that of a ruler recognizing that a policy was not serving self-interest and daring the dangers of reversing it by 180 degrees – occurred only yesterday, historically speaking. It was President Sadat’s abandonment of a sterile enmity with Israel and his search, in defiance of outrage and threats by his neighbors, for a more useful relationship. Both in risk and potential gain, it was a major act, and in substituting common sense and courage for mindless continuance in negation, it ranks high and lonely in history, undiminished by the subsequent tragedy of assassination.  (p. 33)


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The four wars to destroy Israel

The first war against Israel was launched by six Arab states the day after the state of Israel was declared on 14 May 1948. When it was over, Israel had control of territory to connect the three chunks originally accorded it and had opened a corridor to West Jerusalem. The Jordanians – not the Palestinians — took East Jerusalem (ejecting the inhabitants of the ancient Jewish Quarter and denying Jews access to the Western Wall) as well as the West Bank, while the Egyptians took Gaza. The war ended with an armistice not a peace agreement, with the Arabs still refusing to accept the existence of Israel, i.e. the two-state solution.

Three more attempts to destroy Israel followed. In 1956 Egypt, which had been supporting fedayeen raids into Israel, closed the Suez Canal to Israeli shipping and blockaded the Gulf of Aqaba sealing off Israel’s southern port of Eilat. Israel responded by taking Sinai and Gaza but returned both in 1957 after a UN peacekeeping force was sent in to monitor a buffer zone between the two sides.

In 1967, Egypt expelled the UN force, moved 100,000 troops, 1000 tanks, and 500 heavy guns into the buffer zone, and again blockaded the Gulf of Aqaba. “Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel”, said President Nasser of Egypt. On Israel’s northern and eastern borders, Syria and Jordan also moved up troops with Saudi and Iraqi contingents joining in. Convinced an invasion was imminent, in June Israel pre-empted, destroyed most of the forces arrayed against it, and conquered Sinai and Gaza (again) as well as East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights (from which Syrian artillery had been bombarding civilian settlements in Israel since 1949). That war too ended with a ceasefire not a peace treaty.

In November 1967, the UN Security Council approved Resolution 242 which decreed (i) “the withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict” in return for (ii) “termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgement of the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of violence”. But the Arab states had already pronounced their “three Nos”. In September 1967, eight Arab heads of state met in Khartoum and resolved that there should be “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel”.

Six years later, on 6 October 1973, Egypt and Syria launched surprise attacks which almost succeeded, only being defeated after 17 days of fierce resistance and counter-attack. Disengagement of forces took another five months, but once again all that remained was a ceasefire and a promise to refrain from further military or paramilitary actions.


The feature image is from Egyptian President Anwar Sadat`s historic visit to Israel on 19 November 1977. Also in the picture are Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin (right) and the legendary military and political leader Moshe Dayan.