On Iyar 4 – on the evening of May 4 – we started celebrating the founding of the State of Israel 74 long years ago. How is it that in all that time, and despite attempts too numerous to mention, we have been unable to bring the Israel-Palestinian dispute to an end? Why has that trauma in our body corporate been allowed to fester over the years, deflecting the good opinion that much of the world would be happy to bestow on us? Is there a flicker of hope, in this year 5782, suggesting that the prospect of endless conflict stretching way into the future can be avoided, and the apparently intractable problem could eventually be resolved?
For much of Israel’s 74 years, Arab opinion as a whole has resented Israel’s presence in its midst. Palestinians mark Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948 with their own Nakba Day (“Day of Catastrophe”), using the date in the common calendar that marked the end of the British Mandate, May 15. Although attempts to negotiate a resolution to the conflict are strewn across the recent history of the Middle East, the sad truth is that all such efforts were predestined to fail, even before the parties sat down at the table.
Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, leads a Fatah party whose charter states quite unequivocally that Palestine, with the boundaries that it had during the British Mandate – that is, before the existence of Israel – is an indivisible territorial unit and the homeland of the Palestinian people. Every Palestinian, it declares, must be prepared for the armed struggle and be ready to sacrifice both wealth and life to win back their homeland.
Why then, one might legitimately ask, has Abbas spent the past 17 years nominally supporting the “two-state solution” and pressing for recognition of a sovereign Palestine within the boundaries that existed on June 5, 1967 – the day before the Six Day War? To proclaim that as his aim is to acknowledge Israel’s legitimate existence.
At the negotiations in 1993 and 1995 leading to the Oslo Accords, Yasser Arafat – then President of the Palestinian National Authority – decided to woo world opinion by overtly supporting the two-state solution as a device leading to the eventual overthrow of Israel. After Oslo 2, he held a secret meeting with Arab leaders in a Stockholm hotel, but what transpired was leaked to the Norwegian daily, Dagen. Among much else, he told Arab leaders that the PLO intends “to eliminate the state of Israel and establish a purely Palestinian state.”
Promoting the two-state solution has indeed swung world opinion to what it perceives as the Palestinian cause. But the naked truth is that no Palestinian leader has ever been able to sign an agreement that recognizes Israel’s right to exist within “historic Palestine.” To do so would instantly have branded him a traitor to the real, as opposed to the nominal, Palestinian cause. It would probably have been more than his life was worth.
As a result, innumerable peace negotiations have at least yielded one inescapable truth. Short of committing hara-kiri, Israel could never offer enough in any peace talks because its very existence is at odds with the Palestinians’ real objective.
For most of the past 74 years it has seemed obvious that unless or until the Palestinian leadership accepted that Israel is here to stay, the stalemate was doomed to persist. During all this period, what could have broken the logjam? Only an apparently impossible, unimaginable, thaw in the solidly frozen Arab-Israeli political relationship.
And then, two years ago, the impossible happened. The first Abraham Accords were signed. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain agreed to normalize relations with Israel. They were followed by Sudan, and then by Morocco. They may not be the last.
Where once Arab opinion was unanimous and unequivocal – no dealings with Israel before the Palestine dispute is settled – a new pragmatism had emerged. Nor has normalizing relations with Israel meant rejection of the Palestinian cause. In fact, each of the Arab states that has signed up to the Abraham Accords has maintained its support for Palestinian aspirations. Yet the states involved, as well as the Middle East as a whole, are beginning to see the positive results of this new, collaborative approach to regional politics.
Here too might lie the hope of resolving the Israel-Palestinian dispute. A Middle East shorn of its old Arab-Israel antagonism would be fertile soil from which a pragmatic solution could emerge. What we need is a new vision for the whole of the geopolitical entity that was once the Palestine handed to Britain in 1922 to establish a national home for the Jewish people. ■
The writer is Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. Follow him at: www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com