Throughout the democratic world, people have lamented the absence of peace in the Middle East. To date, the conflict between Arabs and Israelis has killed 85,000 Arabs and 24,000 Israelis.
Whatever the reasons — some of them are pretty unsavoury — most of the blame has been placed on the Israelis for “illegally” occupying Palestinian territory, building settlements there, constructing a wall to separate Jewish and Palestinian communities, and “over-reacting” to terrorist “incidents”. Some opprobrium has been directed at the Palestinians, but never for long, despite these “incidents” having killed over 1600 Israelis just since the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993. In 2014 alone, Palestinians killed 83 Israelis and wounded 882.
Discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict tends to assume that there is an “international consensus” about how to resolve the conflict, that a “two-solution” provides the answer, and that nothing should done to obstruct the “peace process” to that end. None of these are true, and continuing to believe in them is not a formula for peace but perpetual strife. If Western leaders really want the killing to end, they have to be prepared to answer honestly the following three questions:
- What is this “international consensus” you are so keen to uphold?
- What two-state solution do you believe the parties could agree to?
- What “peace process” do you think you are protecting?
1. What “international consensus”?
The term “international consensus” has a ring of authority to it which discourages dissenting opinion, often intentionally so. But the truth is that there is no consensus anywhere, whether on the part of the “international community” or the parties to the conflict, on what a final settlement should look like — and there never has been.
Over the years, there have been numerous proposals made for how the two sides could co-exist in peace, but not one of them has enjoyed anything remotely like a consensus. Some of the more notable:
- A “National Home for Jews in Palestine” with “full, just recognition of the rights of the Arabs … as well as a reverent respect for the Christian and Mohammedan Holy Paces” (Balfour, 1917)
- Jerusalem divided into a West Jerusalem borough and an Old City borough, each with its own municipal council for local services and a United Municipal Council for wider interests (Arlosoroff, 1932)
- Palestine partitioned into two separate, independent states, with Jerusalem and a corridor to the sea excluded from both (Peel Commission, 1937)
- Jerusalem divided into two self-governing boroughs, each with six wards. Each borough would send four representatives to the city’s Administrative Council which would include two British-nominated members, with the Administrative Council having exclusive control over the Old City and the Holy Places (Fitzgerald, 1945)
- Palestine partitioned into two sovereign states, both required to be democratic and to safeguard the rights of minorities, joined together by an economic union; Jerusalem to be a demilitarized and neutralized city under international trusteeship with a governor appointed by the United Nations (UN Special Committee on Palestine, 1947).
- Jerusalem to be part of Transjordan (now Jordan) with municipal autonomy in Jerusalem for Jews and “special arrangements” for protecting the Holy Places (Bernadotte, 1948)
- Jerusalem to be a separate entity under UN control, divided into two zones each with considerable local autonomy and linked respectively with Israel and Jordan, with a UN Commissioner to protect the Holy Places (UN Palestine Conciliation Commission, 1949)
- Internationalization of the Old City (Israeli government, 1949)
- Joint sovereignty with Jerusalem to be the capital of both Israel and a future Palestinian state, with its own laws agreed by the parliaments of the two states and daily operation of the city by a joint municipal council (Prof. Avishai Margalit, Hebrew University, 1991)
- Palestinian self-government in the West Bank and Gaza, with the issues of Jerusalem, Jewish settlements and Palestinian refugees to be dealt with during negotiations on the “permanent status” of the Palestinian areas (Oslo Declaration of Principles, 1993)
- Jerusalem to be the capital of both Israel and the Palestinians (King Hussein of Jordan, Strasbourg, Sep 25, 1995)
- Palestinians to receive 97% of the West Bank and full control of Gaza, with a land link between the two; the Arab neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem to become the capital of the Palestinian state; Palestinians to maintain control over the Muslim Holy Places; Palestinians to have the right to return to the Palestinian state with $30 billion in compensation (Clinton/Barak/Arafat discussion, Washington, Dec 2000)
The closest any of these amounted to an “international consensus” was the UN vote on the partition resolution of November 29, 1947 — but it wasn’t much of a consensus: 33 in favour and 13 opposed including six Arab and four non-Arab Muslim states, with 10 abstentions among whom were Britain, the mandatory power.
What this means is that the only consensus which will matter is the one worked out between the parties themselves, Israelis and Palestinians, and they don’t have one yet.
2. What “two-state” solution?
In announcing that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, President Trump stipulated that the United States was “not taking a position on any final state issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem or the resolution of contested borders”. The United States, the President said, “would support a two-state solution if agreed to by both sides”. So what might the two sides agree to?
Israelis have been pragmatic about what they would accept.
When they were weak, the Israelis settled for any kind of state they could get. Under the UN Partition Plan, Israel was accorded chunks of territory in the northeast, along the Mediterranean coast, and the Negev desert, with no territorial link to Jerusalem. Jerusalem itself was not to belong to Arabs or Jews but placed under UN administration. But when Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq launched their first war of annihilation against Israel the day after it declared independence, the Israelis’ military successes allowed them to open a road to Jerusalem and secure control over the Western part of the city. In that war, however, Jordan’s Arab Legion seized the Old City and razed the Jewish Quarter. For the next 20 years, Jews were denied access to their Holy Places — the first time this had happened in 2000 years.
When their Arab neighbours precipitated another war in 1967, the Israelis took the opportunity to substantially improve the security of their state by driving the Arab Legion out of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, Syria off the Golan Heights, and Egypt out of Gaza and Sinai. These gains provided Israel the strategic depth it had lacked to defend itself effectively, and the additional territories proved their value in 1973 when Arab states made a final attempt to destroy the Jewish state. Continued control of conquered territory is the reason the state of Israel no longer faces an existential threat from its neighbours. That is the present and the future, and no amount of diplomatic suasion or UN lawfare or boycotting and divesting will change that.
Israelis, not all of them, have worried about the moral and material costs of administering large numbers of Muslims and Christians and have advocated trading land for peace — when peace could be counted on. Hence the Begin government’s agreement to return control of Sinai to Egypt on conditions: a signed peace agreement, restrictions on Egyptian military activity on the peninsula, and an internationally-supervised (not UN) border regime. And the later calamity of the Sharon government’s unilaterally transferring control of Gaza to the Palestinians without conditions in the vain hope that peace would follow. It is possible future Israeli governments might agree to territorial concessions so long as these enhance the state’s security, but the imperative of keeping threats at arms length will preclude Israel according the Palestinians full sovereignty over any territory until at least a generation of peaceful coexistence has passed and the Palestinians have demonstrated they can fulfil the obligations of statehood.
As for Jerusalem, the Jewish people have considered the City of David their national and religious capital since the Israelite King David captured it from the Jebusites around 1000 BC. For two millennia, at Passover and Yom Kippur, Jews in the Diaspora prayed for an end to their exile and a return to the Land of Israel: “Next year in Jerusalem”. Now that that has come to pass, is it conceivable that Israelis would ever give up control over any part of Jerusalem from which Jews were once excluded, that they would ever agree to the city being divided with the near certainty that their access to their Holy Places would one day again be at risk, or that they would countenance the city so dearly won being placed under the “trusteeship” of other states or (worse) governed by an historically hostile United Nations?
Being a democracy, opinions abound in Israel on what a future settlement should look like, but to the degree there is an Israeli consensus it likely comprises the following:
- a territorially united Jerusalem which is the capital of Israel,
- a regime of special protections for all religions in all the Holy Places,
- self-government in the West Bank and Gaza with local police services but no military forces,
- swaps of territory to reduce the potential for friction between Jewish and Palestinian communities,
- the possibility that Jerusalem could also serve as the capital of a future Palestinian state, under arrangements which would not compromise Israeli sovereignty and control over the entire city and could perhaps also finally resolve issues of access to the Temple Mount/Haram a-Sharif.
Since the beginning, Palestinians have been opposed to the existence of a Jewish state in their midst. It remains to be demonstrated that they have had a change of heart. Over the years, Palestinians have rejected every British, United Nations, European, American, Saudi or Israeli proposal which provided for the existence of Israel. In contrast to the leaders of neighbouring Arab states, no Palestinian leader has ever publicly acknowledged Israel’s right to exist. Many have even refused to pronounce its name, preferring to call it the “Zionist entity”. Fatah and Hamas party constitutions and platforms purposely equivocate.
Against this background, an obvious question ought to be how Palestinians could refuse to recognize the state of Israel and also be genuinely interested in a solution which provided for peaceful coexistence with that state, i.e. a two-state solution. Now and then, Palestinian leaders have used language which suggests the possibility of accommodation, but their public record is overwhelmingly opposed. A few surely do wish for such an outcome, but most have been intimidated into silence. To be cast as an “accommodationist” can be a death sentence.
The only time a Palestinian leader ever came close to accepting a two-state solution happened in 2000, after the Camp David summit failed in June of that year, negotiations were resumed in Washington in December, and President Clinton said Yasir Arafat had agreed verbally to a deal which Clinton had read to him and to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. There was no signed document, however, and Arafat denied agreeing to anything once he returned home. It’s not inconceivable he feared what Palestinian radicals would make of the concession at the heart of the deal, recognition of the state of Israel.
What the record does show is supposedly moderate Palestinian leaders such as Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, not challenging the extremist position of Palestinian radicals such as the Hamas leaders in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Mashal, who insist on a single Palestine stretching “from the river to the sea” — from the Jordan to the Mediterranean. Just how supportive Abbas himself is of a two-state solution can be judged by his response to Trump’s Jerusalem announcement. While it was widely reported that Abbas had said Palestine would no longer “recognize the United States as a neutral mediator”, Western media outlets largely overlooked the fact he also appealed to “the world’s nations to reconsider their recognition of Israel” and to officially recognize Palestine. That sounds more like a one-state solution than two. What clearly worries Abbas and others is that their dream of a one-state solution vanishes once major powers set up embassies in Jerusalem and thereby effectively accept the permanency of an Israel whose capital is Jerusalem.
It is comforting for some to point out that the Palestinian leaders may not faithfully represent the views of the Palestinian population at large. Certainly their right to speak for all Palestinians can be questioned. As one American columnist recently observed, Abbas is in the 13th year of the four-year presidency to which he was elected in 2005. Haniyeh has been a de facto “prime minister” in Gaza since 2006. Mashal has never been publicly elected to anything.
Former US Secretary of State John Kerry was one of the hopefuls. He blamed the failure of his peace efforts on the “misguided policies of leaders” and left his job asserting that “polls of Israelis and Palestinians show there is still strong support for the two-state solution in theory. They just don’t believe it can happen.” Pure fiction, unfortunately. An encyclopedic study of some 400 polls carried out by five separate Palestinian research centres as well as leading international polling firms tell a different story. The Palestinian public does not, in fact, favour a two-state solution. Instead, by large and consistent majorities, Palestinians support the maximalist solution of a Palestinian state “from the river to the sea.”
What Palestinian leaders have done is to allow others to claim on their behalf that they would accept a “two-state” solution. This keeps the fiction alive for fellow travellers, while they themselves continue to pursue their elusive goal of one day “expelling the Jews from Palestine”. All it takes is one look at a picture of modern-day Tel Aviv to appreciate just how numbingly absurd it is for any Palestinian to hold on to such a dream — and how ridiculous it is for the “international community” not to insist that the Palestinians accept Israel’s permanence and legitimacy as the predicate for peace. No “peace process” can hope to succeed otherwise.
3. What peace process?
If you look into the history of the Arab/Israeli conflict, you may notice that most of the focus used to be on devising “a just and lasting peace” which the parties could agree to. Over the last two decades, however, the talk has largely shifted to advancing “the peace process”, or not compromising “the peace process”, or restarting “the peace process”, i.e. not the what but the how.
A good recent example was the US decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Little attention was focused on the rationale for the decision, almost all of it on how the decision might affect the peace process. Certainly, it wouldn’t go down well with the Palestinians. But what peace process?
As matters stand today, there is no peace process and there hasn’t been one which deserves the name for a long time. The “international community” in various guises has offered “road maps”, held summits, sent envoys, shuttled diplomats, and tried “two-track” diplomacy; but Israelis and Palestinians have not held serious discussions on a final settlement since Washington in 2000.
In 2001, there were six days of “talks” in Taba on the “Clinton parameters”, but these went nowhere. Clinton was leaving office in a matter of weeks (George W. Bush had been elected president), Barak was heading for electoral defeat, and Arafat mostly just asked for “maps, details and clarifications” — before launching the first intifada. From late 2006 to mid 2008, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met several times with Abbas to propose various territorial configurations for a Palestinian state, but Abbas too sought “clarifications”. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority was splintering between Abbas (Fatah) and Haniyeh (Hamas), and Hamas in Gaza precipitated a six-month long war of rocket attacks and guerrilla raids against southern Israeli towns. Apart from one meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2010, Abbas refused direct talks for virtually the entire period of the Obama administration, conditioning these on the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israel and a freeze on West Bank settlements and new construction in East Jerusalem.
Haniyeh’s own “meetings” with Israelis have been problematic. He served three terms in Israeli prisons, once for three years, and narrowly missed assassination in an air strike.
The insidious thing about a “peace process” which makes no progress is that it has been hugely advantageous to the Palestinians, indeed has allowed them to make gains without the requirement of reciprocal concessions. In the four decades since the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was recognized (by Arab states) as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” and was granted observer status at the United Nations in 1974, an entity called Palestine has evolved from being a mere territory in dispute to a nation-state on the threshold of being legitimized through full membership in the UN — without ever having to make any accommodation to the security interests of its Israeli neighbour with whom it has been at war for generations.
It is this progression of events which has sapped the energy out of the old peace process, not Israeli practices in the “occupied territories”. By doing just enough to convince the world they want to negotiate — decrying the absence of negotiations, declaring they are “ready” for talks, occasionally participating in them — the Palestinians have kept the fiction alive that they want a deal — when what they want is cover for the continued erosion of the democracies’ support for Israel.
The advent of an independent Palestine absent a peace agreement with security provisions is not a formula for peace but a prelude to war. A Palestine with an aura of legitimacy through UN membership, enjoying the support of enablers in governments and chancelleries around the world, armed by Iran, and presenting Israel anew with a threat to its existence can only lead to violence of a kind not seen since 1948-49. Of course Israel would win, but the human toll would be immense — and the democracies by their actions today would bear a large share of the responsibility.
Some advice to democratic leaders based on realpolitik diplomatic experience:
1. Recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and be done with the nonsense that there could ever be a “just and lasting peace” in the Middle East without Jerusalem being the capital of Israel.
2. Butt out of the kind of mediation which just encourages Palestinian radicals to believe they can continue to string out “negotiations” and not have to make concessions to their negotiating partner. Force them to talk d’égal à égal with the Israelis.
3. Restrict Western aid to genuine humanitarian relief, and leave it to the parties themselves to devise whatever economic relationship works for both.
4. Block any further progress at the UN towards Palestinian membership, and condition membership on:
(a) the Palestinians cleaning up their act, e.g. using the full force of their existing institutions, and cooperating with Israel and Egypt, to wipe out terrorist groups in their midst; ending the anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish indoctrination of the Palestinian population including children; and practising some semblance of democracy.
(b) a signed peace agreement.
As Albert Einstein observed: “Peace is not merely the absence of war but the presence of justice, of law, of order — in short, of government”.
Feature image: Tel Aviv (commons.wikipedia.org)