50 years of conflict

Israelis visit the Western Wall in 1967 after its opening to the public following the Six Day War (photo credit: R. M. KNELLER/JERUSALEM POST ARCHIVES)
Israelis visit the Western Wall in 1967 after its opening to the public following the Six Day War
 Fifty years ago, one week after the war, the government met to discuss the new situation. The main task was to decide what Abba Eban was to put in his upcoming speech to the UN regarding Israel’s postwar positions. It was generally agreed that the Arab states would not make peace with us, based, apparently, on the assumption that the Arabs would never accept Israel’s legitimacy in the region. Nonetheless, Israel had to at least present its conditions for peace; indeed one person, Moshe Dayan, suggested that perhaps they should treat that subject seriously even if there was no chance for peace.
The government, which was a national unity government (Herut, under Menachem Begin), had joined during the tense days before the war. Thus, on 18 and 19 June 1967, the government agreed that, with some security stipulations, the Golan Heights could be returned (up to the international border) to Syria; the Sinai could be returned to Egypt. The Gaza Strip, however, would be annexed – although it might remain occupied until the numerous refugees there could be moved elsewhere. Moving them to the West Bank was discussed, and subsequently the prospect of purchasing land in Latin America for “voluntary transfer” was also considered.
While it was not said specifically, the exception for Gaza came from a belief that it was part of Eretz Israel (as Begin was to clarify many years later). So far as can be determined, these decisions were never relayed to the Arab states and a year later they were rescinded. All this can easily be found in the Israeli archives’ 26-page protocol of the 18-19 June 1967 meetings.
Decisions regarding the West Bank were more complex, but several things were quickly and unequivocally agreed: east Jerusalem would be annexed, uniting the city (the annexation became official June 26); the Jordan River would be Israel’s eastern border with the adjacent Jordan Rift Valley remaining under Israeli control. As for the rest of the West Bank, the area inside, no decision was taken (although there was a good deal of discussion about what to do with the refugees). Two arrangements were discussed. One idea was to return parts of the West Bank to Jordan (one government member opined that king Hussein had sounded somewhat moderate in his post-war speech); a second option was to create a Palestinian state in various parts – a state that could even have a foreign policy but would be surrounded territorially by Israel (since Israel would be keeping the Jordan Rift Valley).
In the following months, this latter option was even discussed with leading local Palestinians, who rejected it – for obvious reasons.
The government took no decision about the area inside the West Bank but pursued both options in the months to come. But, whatever the ultimate disposition of the territory within the West Bank (besides east Jerusalem), Yigal Allon (then Labor minister) suggested setting up Jewish settlements immediately in those areas Israel would keep.
The following year, the Allon Plan emerged. Incorporating the territorial ideas adopted in June 1967 (Israeli control of the Jordan Valley and various areas within the West Bank), the plan was not officially adopted by the government but was conveyed to Jordan.
Israeli annexation of east Jerusalem was clearly a problem, but even more problematic for both Jordan and the Palestinians was Israeli control over the Jordan Valley – that is, the border between the West Bank and Jordan.
This would accord Israel control over all land entrances and exists to the West Bank; it was a clear deal-breaker. And it has remained so until today, or rather, returned today.
Yitzhak Rabin was willing to forgo control in favor of an international force, NATO, under American command.
Rocket warfare, new military doctrine, particularly since the first Gulf War in 1991, changed the attitude toward control of that border. Military adviser at Camp David Maj.-Gen. Shlomo Yanai had opined that expanding the narrow waist of Israel was far more important for security than control of the Jordan Valley; there was no need for full Israeli control even if desirable.
Chief negotiator Gilead Sher added that the issue was more of a psychological nature than a security one, to placate public anxieties. Yet, here we are again with that old deal-breaker – neither Jordan then nor a leader of a Palestinian state could agree to a situation in which Israel would continue to control all land exits and entrances to that territory, regardless of the amount of land in the West Bank actually included (around Israeli enclaves or settlements blocs) in such a state.
This issue, however, highlights one of the main lessons that can be drawn from the 50 years of “peace making” that periodically accompanied the long occupation. Israeli security considerations remained paramount, to the detriment even of reaching peace. Based on a fundamental belief that the Arabs would never accept our legitimacy here, it would not be enough to protect the old “border,” the green line, but even the line 60 km. to the east – the Jordan River – would have to be held to prevent violation of an agreement, the possible invasion by a third army (or today by terrorists).
This was the belief that even peace could not be trusted and therefore security was more important than peace. It will be remembered that the same logic pertained also to the Sinai, when the government of Golda Meir rejected Anwar Sadat’s offer of peace in early 1973, unwilling to give up the security advantages offered by Sinai even though there were signs of impending war and a peace offer on the table. King Hussein, Sadat and even Syrian president Hafez Assad were each to comment at various times that it was strange that Israel continued to demand what they considered unreasonable security measures when what was being offered was actually peace. Israel didn’t seem to know how to say yes, or recognize yes – an allegation that might be made in recent years in face of the Arab Peace Initiative.
Besides this basic mistrust, there were, of course, other impediments from the Israeli side to reaching an agreement over the past 50 years. Even Rabin told the American president in 1974 that “no Arab leader will ever make true peace and normalization of relations with us,” but later he added that this could change – that it would take time, including time to test the Arabs.
That is basically what lay behind Oslo, namely, the idea of an interim agreement, a gradual process during which the other side could be tested. A problem with this, however, was that the interim nature of the Oslo Accords left a three- to five-year opening for those who opposed a final agreement – extremist elements in both publics, time to mobilize, organize and conduct what they viewed as their ultimate struggle against acquiescence to the other side.
But it was not only time that helped the spoilers, but also the open-ended nature of the Oslo Accords.
As pointed out by one of the initiators of Oslo, the late Ron Pundak, a critical flaw was the absence of an endgame.
Certainty of what lay at the end of the interim period – for the Palestinians, end of occupation and an independent state; for Israelis end of the conflict – might have made the expected sacrifices acceptable. And this might also have aided the struggle against the spoilers.
Handling spoilers was and will always be a problem, but having a clear end-game may be at least one way of doing so. A leader’s concept of leadership, what he or she is actually willing to do or believes should be done, may also be a factor.
Looking at the past 50 years, some Israeli leaders have given priority to public opinion or what they believe the public will accept. President Bill Clinton has written that prime minister Ehud Barak’s inexperience as a political leader led him to acquiesce to public opinion (in the context of negotiations with Syria). The opposite concept, to lead rather than follow the public, was clearly Olmert’s approach in his negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, implicitly reflecting Clinton’s contention that successful negotiations would bring the public support.
There are other perhaps less central aspects of past negotiations that may be viewed as impediments to their success. Some have pointed to coalition politics, for example, the fact that both Rabin and Barak had to deal with coalition leakage; Barak went to Camp David as head of a minority government. But Begin too had coalition problems including opposition within his own party. In fact peace with Egypt would not have been achieved without the votes from the Labor opposition. One can only speculate on whether the same would apply if the prime minister were from Labor and not the Likud.
A negative factor that accompanied most if not all of Israel’s past negotiations over the West Bank was connected with negotiating style. Even Rabin, along with those who both preceded and followed him, approached the Palestinian issue out of a belief that all of the territory is “ours.” Asserting this, Rabin once said that the difference between Labor and the Likud was that Labor was willing to give up some of it. This approach was that Israel was willing to “give” something to the Palestinians (at least in talks with the Jordanians the term “return” was initially used). Even Olmert spoke of making a “generous” offer.
Of course the Palestinians too viewed all of mandated Palestine as theirs, but they were not in control and therefore not in a position to give or not.
This was a psychological matter, but, as one Palestinian negotiator commented, if the approach had been different, one of interests or Israeli needs and Palestinian needs, perhaps the talks at Camp David would have been more fruitful. Other participants at Camp David later pointed to the Israelis’ assumption of symmetry during the talks.
That is, Israeli demands for reciprocity: we make a compromise, you make a compromise. But in Palestinian eyes, they no longer had anything to compromise; they had made what they called their “historic” compromise when in 1988 they agreed to the two-state solution, giving up 78% of mandated Palestine in favor of a “mini-state” on the West Bank and Gaza.
None of this is meant to say that ideology never played a role as an impediment to success. It is, however, difficult to prove or demonstrate when ideology (or simple thirst for territory, or power) intervened. Actually, the one time when ideology did enter the picture, it played a positive role. In negotiations with Egypt, Begin was influenced by the impact of the loss of life in the Yom Kippur War, but he was also motivated by his concern over the new president in Washington, Jimmy Carter’s expressed interest in the Palestinians and Carter’s efforts to convene an international conference for a comprehensive agreement that would deal also with the West Bank.
Holding on to Gaza, seen as part of Eretz Israel, Begin was willing to forgo Sinai, including even the military air bases there and the settlements, in order to forgo pressure to negotiate Eretz Israel: the West Bank. Under pressure from the US and Egypt, he agreed to an interim five-year plan for autonomy for the West Bank (similar to the later Oslo Accords but with Jordan and local Palestinians rather than the PLO playing the key role). He skillfully negotiated this, however, so that the peace accord with Egypt was not conditioned upon implementation of the autonomy agreement.
This counter-intuitive role of ideology contributed to a breakthrough with Egypt; as intended, Israel’s control of the West Bank was maintained. The ideology of Eretz Israel could hardly be expected to facilitate any breakthrough with the Palestinians. But there were other factors that contributed to at least partial progress toward peace with the Palestinians over the past 50 years. Progress could indeed be seen in the Oslo Accords, in particular the letters of mutual recognition and the commitment to discuss, at a later date, the final status of the West Bank, and in the Olmert-Abbas negotiations that reached agreement on the security issue and came close to final agreement on the other core issues. Both of these had a good deal to do with the people who came to power in Israel, Rabin and Olmert.
In Rabin’s eyes, there were momentous changes in the world (collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the US as the sole superpower). Regionally there was the increased Arab interest in the US, weakening of the PLO, and the PLO’s 1988 acceptance of the two-state solution and recognition of Israel’s right to exist. There were also potential threats to Israel, such as the rise of Islamism and Iran’s moves toward nuclear weapons, and a domestic concern over the resilience of the Israeli public as apparent in the reactions to the Scud missile attacks of 1991 and the first intifada. All of this appeared to offer an opportunity, as well as a need to seek an end to the conflict in a limited time.
These are the factors and circumstances that led to a political will, the willingness or determination to reach a peace agreement. Political will is clearly the critical factor, but while various factors contributed to the creation of this, the underlying motivation was linked directly to the continued occupation. Or more accurately, to the threat perception regarding Israel’s future.
The Labor Party’s long held mantra of democratic or Jewish, that is, the demographic “danger,” began to be perceived as a concrete threat. Rabin saw continued control of the occupied territories as leading to a binational state (read democratic state with full legal rights for all), with the implication of future minority status for the Jews, or apartheid – he actually used that word. Neither alternative promised a secure future for Israel. There is a good deal of evidence that once in power, prime minister Ariel Sharon too perceived this threat.
He was the first Israeli prime minister to agree to the creation of a Palestinian state; he condemned the occupation by name, in the Knesset, and he began examining various scenarios for evacuating not just the Gaza settlements but possibly even all the settlements from the West Bank. It is far from clear just how far Sharon would have gone; indeed it is not clear how far Rabin was willing to go. In what became his last speech to the Knesset, October 5, 1995, Rabin spoke of an “entity less than a state” in the West Bank. He might have changed his position had he not been assassinated one month later; much as he had totally changed his earlier refusal even to speak with the PLO.
Like Rabin, Olmert too was influenced by a number of factors, such as the economic burden of maintaining the West Bank (and east Jerusalem), but like Rabin (and apparently Sharon) the major consideration was the future of Israel as a Jewish state, namely the demographic threat and the slide towards a binational state. This is not to say that none of these leaders was motivated by a moral abhorrence of ruling over another people, but the political will that at least Rabin and Olmert demonstrated – as distinct from their predecessors and successor – was motivated by the belief that occupation posed a greater threat to Israel than peace.
Today, there is no sign of such a political will on the part of the government. The Arab Peace Initiative, with its promise of peace, security, end of conflict and normal relations has made no impression; Abbas’s concessions to Olmert on (all but one) Israeli settlements in Jerusalem made in his talks, his repeated assurances that the PLO has no intention of changing the character of Israel (by massive refugee return), along with his stubborn advocacy of non-violent resistance, seem to be of no interest.
Whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rejectionism stems from ideology, the overriding desire to remain in power and coalition rivalries, or psychological denial of the situation, is difficult to know. What we do see is creeping annexation of 60% of the West Bank (Area C including the Jordan Valley) and various enclaves, autonomy for the Palestinians outside these areas, territorially surrounded by Israel, and possibly permanent resident status for others, much like the status of the already annexed east Jerusalem. Recent laws like the regulation law so that building can be continued everywhere, and other laws being proposed, for example, to annex Gush Etzion or to extend Israeli labor regulations to the settlements, point to the choice having already been made: one state, an apartheid state, from the sea to the river, minus some scattered autonomous enclaves.
The writer is Darwin Professor emerita of the Department of Political Science, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, and the author of Israeli Peacemaking Since 1967: Factors Behind the Breakthroughs and Failures.