It almost seemed like the original Arab-Jewish conflict came with two bookends: The first bookend fell into place in 1948.
The crushing defeat of the Arabs in 1967 could have been the second. But it turned out otherwise. The ’67 war that should have ended the conflict yielded to the reality of an ever-lowering ceiling of a two-state solution.
The Khartoum Resolution of the Arab Summit of September 1967 affirmed the famous Arab “Three No’s”: No peace, No recognition and No negotiations with Israel till Israeli forces withdraw from what the summit called “Arab lands occupied on June 5.” Palestinians did not sign on to the resolution, and the withdrawal applied only to land occupied in 1967.
Over 50 years of war-making and peace-making the conflict has metamorphosed from an “Arab-Israeli conflict,” to a “Palestinian-Israeli political process,” with Palestinians and Israelis as the principal antagonists. Accepting a two-state solution, Oslo, the Palestinian Authority, settlement expansion, wars and endless peace-process negotiations were further complicated by the emergence of a jihadi, anti-Crusaders movement, which mushroomed across the region into a potent “resistance” force by Islam’s two competing and conflicting identities, Sunni and Shia. Islamists precipitated a Palestinian political and geographic split before and after Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.
What we know for a fact is that neither war nor negotiations has resolved the Palestinian- Israel conflict. Familiarity with the talent of those who failed to resolve it over five decades teaches all aspirants that humility and patience are in order. There are no quick fixes.
Drastic changes have affected the regional balance of power, and we need new tools to deal with new realities. The same 50-year-old arguments dealing with this conflict will no longer do. Palestine has plummeted on the regional agenda, which signals a reassessment of the evolving power equation.
The weak, vulnerable and needy State of Israel of 1948 has expanded, consolidated and built a regional powerhouse through decades of war and peace. It is now a military regional superpower with a Qualitative Military Edge (QME), as it is a technological superpower. It has one of the most agile global and Middle Eastern political networks and a broad middle class. It is a model of modern nation-building.
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However, Israel has yet to resolve the problems of citizens’ equality and religious and secular identities, or to reach anything close to a consensus on dealing with Palestinians and the land it occupied in 1967. Its politics are fractious and it cedes veto power on peace to powerful forces that drive the ever-changing status quo. Occupation of the Palestinians and their land is entrenched. The present Israeli polity does not feel compelled to make strategic decisions or concessions.
It is hard to deny that devaluing and dehumanizing Palestinians whenever they come in contact with the Israeli state is policy.
“They have to know who is boss,” I am told.
Occupation, imposed deprivations and despair of seeing light at the end of the tunnel continue to be incompatible with stability or peace.
Incitement, fanning prejudice and xenophobia are the operative policy of both Israel and the Palestinians. To survive and to thrive, politicians bend to the wind of the populist victimization narratives.
Israel will not be compelled to end the occupation, but it can accept a historic compromise based on geo-strategic considerations that Israelis find compelling. It must find answers to the big questions about land, people and a secure, stable future. It is precisely this space that now opens the prospect of exiting the zero-sum Arab-Israeli game and establishing a cooperative, coordinated path toward a new Middle East.
Palestinians were barely cognizant of what was happening in Europe before, during and after the Great Wars. They were not equipped to deal with a modern European movement like Zionism, nor with the State of Israel or its supporters. Palestine/Israel is the world’s richest issue in symbolism, because it has a whole spectrum of conflicts packed in a tiny “holy” land of cross-currents: religion, race, ethnicity, color, wealth, justice, power and scientific vs mystical thinking. It sits at the crossroads of continents and civilizations in a neighborhood that holds the world’s largest deposits of energy.
Over the course of the past 50 years Palestinians transformed their cause from one of refugees to one of a self-identified nation seeking a state on its homeland. It captured the attention of the world and the imagination of those who viewed the Palestinian cause as one of justice and liberation.
Governing under occupation while dependent on foreign aid requires a sophisticated, committed leadership. Such leadership would be fully aware that the pursuit of independence is incompatible with corruption.
The sum total of the Palestinian experience is that their quest for a homeland through militancy was met with crushing force and ultimately led to splintering into two politically and geographically divided polities. Both entities are dependent on external subsidy.
Occupation, dictatorship, poverty, injustice and indignity breed victimhood and terrorism not contented citizens.
The huge imbalance of power renders a negotiated agreement between Israel and Palestinians about final status unattainable at the present. What is possible, however, is negotiations and actions to improve things on the ground to detoxify and ameliorate the multitude of factors that preclude agreements now. Peaceful self-empowerment on remains the Palestinians’ best hope and path to negotiated freedom.
Geographically fractured and politically fractious, Palestine is not on the map today. It is not free and the Palestinian Authority has no monopoly on the use of force. The practical burdens of the occupation fall disproportionately on the common people rather than on the elite. Peace cannot be achieved until Israeli leaders accept it and Palestinian leaders can deliver it.
There is no military solution, but the occupied must look for new ways out. Final-status issues have for decades dominated negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.
They have failed again and again while the degradation of Palestinian daily lives continues.
The Palestinian economy remains dependent on international subsidy and trade with Israel. Failure of negotiations has consistently stunted the budding infrastructure- building project and crushed economic development.
The Palestinian polity headed by the PA and Hamas is fractured beyond hope. The donor community which funds the PA must insist on government accountability, formation of political parties and election campaigns long enough to allow competition for public support through public debates.
Good governance means the rule of law and leadership that promotes public self-empowerment without which no people can thrive.
No counterterrorism measure is more effective than good governance.
Palestinian presidential elections have not taken place since 2005 and legislative elections have not happened since 2006.
Opening up the political space, freedom of speech, formation of political parties will make negotiating with Israel and the international community more meaningful if it focuses for a finite, defined period on building state institutions and infrastructure to empower and improve the quality of lives of the Palestinians.
Israel knows how to expand mobility and economic, commercial and educational connections. The international community can be especially helpful by asking for this.
This period would be a prerequisite and a prelude to final-status, conflict-ending negotiations. Palestinians will be in a stronger negotiating position after they improve their institutions. Israel can start by normalizing the living conditions of the Palestinians.
Normalization is a two-way street.
In the aftermath of the 1973 war, it was made clear that strategic Arab-Israeli wars have come to an end. The Palestinian-Israeli peace process was in full bloom and Palestine continued to be the “First Arab Cause” for decades.
The Arab people who sacrificed for decades in the name of Palestine eventually erupted in the Arab Spring and stripped away the pretense. The Arab agenda of today is over-stacked with issues ahead of Palestine, but Palestine’s symbolic significance cannot be wished away from people’s consciousness. All problems of the region today are intertwined and inter-digitated, to the point where problems of any single state cannot be solved in isolation. The tsunami of the Arab Spring leaves Arabs no choice but to confront reality, to think and search for new ways to shed the strictures of the past. Old barriers must be broken and new bridges must be built. This has already begun.
Unless a new regional regime provides a program of security, multiple sources of energy and stability with massive industrialization, land reclamation and technological education, the region will continue to march on its present perilous trajectory.
Much as Europe needed a solution after World War II that saved the countries and the continent, the Middle East now needs a regional strategic solution. This regime must be led by the United States partnering with allies, with a regionally funded Marshall Plan. It is a long, transformational leap that can match the overwhelming needs and threats with massive capabilities.
Palestine and Israel can be part of this regime.
Finally, this is about leadership. Our times call for global and regional statesmen and statewomen to inspire and lead people in conflict to work together and fight for an epoch-ending and epoch-making compromise, beyond victimhood toward a safe Middle East open to all its citizens. The real fight is between those who share this vision and those who oppose it.Ziad J. Asali is the president and founder of the American Task Force on Palestine, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization established in 2003 and based in Washington.
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