Still no peace partner

Ben-Gurion realized that our adversaries’ concept of peace differed from what he later called true peace.

Hollande and Abbas 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Hollande and Abbas 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As expected, another attempt to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations a few weeks ago came to naught. The Palestinians again refused to budge from their usual pre-conditions, i.e. a cessation of Israeli construction beyond the “Green Line” including in Jerusalem; Israeli consent, in advance of negotiations; that the border between Israel and the future Palestinian state will be based on the 1967 armistice line (with territorial swaps); and freeing Palestinian prisoners.
After meeting France’s new President Francois Hollande, Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas told the press that he would agree to waive these conditions – only to reiterate them a few minutes later, adding a new twist, i.e. to increase delivery of arms to his security forces.
But rather than dwelling on the above non-events, (and one may assume that the forthcoming visit of Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat to Washington will be more of the same), it would, perhaps, be more profitable to examine the reasons why Israel and the Palestinians actually never had genuine peace negotiations – at least as far as the Palestinian role in them was concerned.
Walter Eytan, later a long-time director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, who conducted negotiations with Israel’s Arab neighbors after the War of Independence, still believed, in 1949, that Israel would sign peace treaties with its enemies within “10 weeks, or 10 months at the most,” but the more realistic David Ben-Gurion reflected that “if we run after peace, the Arabs will demand that we pay a price in borders or refugees or both.”
Not that Ben-Gurion did not want to achieve peace, but he realized that our adversaries’ concept of peace differed from what he later called “true peace,” meaning recognition not only of Israel’s de-facto physical and legal existence, but of its moral right to exist.
Anyone with even a cursory acquaintance with the modern Middle East could without difficulty list a host of failed initiatives, some Israeli, some international (mostly American) to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but more to the point, both historically and in terms of practical politics, one must go back to the underlying reasons why most of the initiatives have failed. To wit, the refusal of the Palestinians, and most parts of the Arab world to recognize the Jewish people’s right to a national state, in a region that they consider to be an exclusive Arab and Muslim domain.
Covertly and often overtly their refusal to recognize the right of the Jews is coupled with the hope that the ultimate fate of the Jewish state will be like that of the Crusader kingdom – i.e. it will eventually disappear.
Some of them even claim that there is no such thing as a Jewish people, and thus the Jews’ very right to self-determination is false.
This was one of the principal reasons why the Arab states refused to sign permanent peace treaties with Israel in 1949 – deeming it an illegitimate and temporary political entity – or to accept the armistice line as a binding international political boundary.
Ralph Bunche, the UN mediator at the time, confirmed, in response to an official Arab request, that “the cease-fire lines are not to be understood in any way to be political or territorial borders.” Today Palestinian spokespersons and others who support Palestinian territorial demands ignore this fact.
The unfortunate but inescapable conclusion to be drawn from the long series of failed attempts at peace negotiations is, that as long as the Arabs, and principally the Palestinians, do not accept, psychologically and politically, the reality and the legitimacy of the existence of Israel as the Jewish nation state, they will not be true partners for peace.
This does not mean that some day, and in different circumstances, this state of affairs couldn’t change, and in spite of the fact that at present Israel’s first priority must be stopping Iran’s nuclear efforts, this shouldn’t serve as an excuse to diminish the efforts to achieve peace – but it should open our eyes as to the futility of pursuing illusionary solutions.
The basic Palestinian refusal to come to terms with Israel’s existence was the only possible explanation for the unprovoked aggression by Egypt, Syria and Jordan in the 1967 War. And even in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, though it also had specific Egyptian reasons, a senior Egyptian commander, General Abdel Mohsen Murtagi, still told his soldiers to “conquer the land robbed from the Arabs in Palestine.”
Arab rejectionism began, of course, many years prior to the UN partition resolution of 1947, but the Arabs’ refusal to accept that decision, and the aggression that followed it, set the course for the future. In the same vein, the Arabs balked at accepting Security Council resolution 242 after the Six Day War because it called for permanent peace based on secure borders.
Similar cases were the Arabs’ rejection of the proposal for Palestinian autonomy at the 1978 Camp David conference and their evasion of the so-called Clinton proposals in 2001. Another was the failure of PA President Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Ahmed Qurei, then PA prime minister, to respond to the far-reaching proposals made by then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and foreign minister Tzipi Livni following the Annapolis conference.
Earlier, though the 1991 Madrid Conference produced an important peace treaty with Jordan, no progress was made in getting the other Arab players – Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians – to see peace with Israel as a valid goal. Later, under Ariel Sharon, Israel presented its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, including the dismantling of its settlements there, as a step toward peace, only to get missiles and mortar shells in response.
But the most obvious failure in this context was that of the Oslo accords, which granted international legitimacy to the PLO and allowed its leaders, including Yasser Arafat, to enter the “territories.” While the PLO had committed itself to pursuing its goals by peaceful means, in practice terror continued and even increased – the first Israeli busses exploding in Tel Aviv before the ink on the agreements had dried.
There are those who remind us of the so-called Saudi peace initiative of 2002 – conveniently forgetting that at the later Arab League summit in Beirut, the “initiative” became a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum, including in such matters as the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel and Syria’s demand that Israel withdraw from the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.
The late Menachem Begin used to say that peace was “inevitable.” But as yet, unfortunately, his prophecy has not come true.
The Arab world’s hope that Israel can be overwhelmed by war and terror has been frustrated, thanks to Israel’s military superiority and its strategic alliance with the US. But many Arabs still believe they will eventually be able to achieve their goal by other means. They tried economic boycotts – and failed. Their attempts to destabilize Israel by overrunning it with “refugees” has thus far been blocked.
Another recent tactic is circumventing direct negotiations with Israel as well as any other diplomatic step that could be interpreted as a final and permanent seal of acceptance of Israel by going to the UN in order to attain recognition there without negotiations.
That too has failed.
Realizing that this gambit will probably fail again, some Palestinian activists are now declaring that the goal should not be separate Palestinian statehood at all, but “one state for two peoples.”
A few weeks ago The Washington Post reported that a group of young Palestinians who view the establishment of a Palestinian state on the territory held by Israel since 1967 as “unsatisfactory,” are calling for the establishment of a single state encompassing the “territories” and the State of Israel, offering equal rights “to Jews, Arabs and those Palestinian refugees who will be allowed to return.”
The purpose is clear: to de-legitimize the State of Israel and reject the concept of the Jews as a nation under international law.
Extremists from the anti-Semitic left and right support the one-state solution on the assumption that its practical consequence is not only the liquidation of the Jewish state, but almost certainly the physical annihilation of most Israeli Jews or, in the “best” case, their survival as second-class citizens, as they were in most Arab countries.
Though Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in his Bar-Ilan speech three years ago accepted the “two-state” formula, this may not be the ideal solution, not only because of the terrorist and irredentist threat towards Israel, but also because it is doubtful whether the Palestinians, with their tribal and clan divisions, plus the fact of their existence as a separate nation being a fairly new concept, one certainly not very well-founded in history and ethnography, will ever be able to run an independent and autonomous state.
But one should not abandon hope for finding potential peaceful solutions, some of which had been considered in the past, only to be too rashly shelved.
Unilateral steps come to mind in this connection (but not in the defective way the Gaza “disengagement” was handled), so do interim steps or even a reinvolvement over time of Jordan.
But whatever the direction, the first step is for the Palestinians to accept the peace option honestly and courageously – and not to go on dragging their feet, or worse, harboring unrealistic dreams, as they have for the last 64 years.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US.