Legendary Israeli diplomat Abba Eban observed after the failed 1973 Geneva peace conference, “The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity” to end the Arab-Israeli conflict. Eban’s wry assessment rings true almost 50 years later. Missing an opportunity is a mistake; never failing to miss an opportunity is a sin against oneself. Endlessly repeated, mistakes become fatal sins when used by a clever opponent to their advantage. Let us count the ways.
The first sin is not accepting the Jewish people as a valued and ancient component of the Middle East. The Jews were directly responsible for helping the Ottoman Empire flourish from its founding in the early 14th century to its demise at the end of World War I. The empire – which controlled much of southeastern Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa – welcomed Jews as equal citizens and provided them a safe haven when they were driven out of western Europe by massacres and persecution.
It was only in the 19th century that the status of Jewish minorities scattered in almost all Arab countries began to worsen. Had their Arab brothers continued to embrace them as equals, they would not have emigrated from the region en masse, they would not have felt the need to establish an independent state, and their later achievements would not remain confined to Israel alone.
In an October 15 speech before the Knesset on “10 big lies” against Israel, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the biggest one of all: the Holocaust was the brainchild of the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. Netanyahu claimed that when al-Husseini met with Hitler in 1941, “Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews” – until the grand mufti advised Hitler: “Burn them.”
The simple truth is that the conversation Netanyahu described never happened. The full German record of the November 28 meeting clearly shows that al-Husseini was only seeking German support for Arab independence from colonial rule and a formal declaration supporting the independence of Palestine, Syria, and Iraq. The grand mufti wanted the destruction of Jewish settlements in Palestine – not the destruction of the Jewish people. Unfortunately, in politics, outrageous lies such as Netanyahu’s often reap the same fruits as simple honesty, and perhaps more.
The second sin is choosing the wrong alliances to further the Palestinian cause. From the alliance with Nazism and fascism to the dependence on the Soviets and Arab leaders for whom the Palestinian cause is nothing but a tool to achieve their own purposes, Palestinian leaders have almost always chosen the most harmful allies for their cause.
For instance, Palestinian leaders backed Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser in blockading the Straits of Tiran against Israeli shipping in 1967. Israeli quickly seized the opportunity to invade the Egyptian Sinai, the Syrian Golan Heights, and the Jordanian West Bank. And when then-prime minister Golda Meir offered to return virtually all the territories it had just captured in exchange for recognition and peace, the Palestinians and Arab states did not miss the opportunity to miss an opportunity and responded: no recognition, no negotiation, no peace.
Palestinian leaders also supported Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which led Kuwait to expel 400,000 Palestinians after a 1991 US-led coalition forced Hussein’s troops out of the emirate.
Throughout its 73 years, Israel’s choice of allies has been more strategic and influential. Its allies have never pushed it into conflicts that do not serve Israel’s interest nor have they pushed Israel into wars it cannot win. Today, while Israel enjoys good relations with all the major powers, Western and Eastern alike, the Palestinians are stuck in futile alliances that only deliver international isolation as religious extremists and terrorists.
With the Palestinian leadership – Hamas, in particular – allied with Iran and Turkey, the most destabilizing and anti-Western countries in the region, it is little wonder the West views Israel as a loyal and dedicated guardian of the interests and values of Western culture. This alliance with Iran and Turkey affects and exacerbates the fourth and fifth sins. Before discussing those, however, it is necessary to first address the sins of the most influential of all Palestinian leaders.
The third sin is the Yasser Arafat paradigm. Many may be surprised to find the former head of the Palestinian Liberation Army and the Palestinian Authority on this list. Yet he is the man who established the principle of violent resistance that armed non-state organizations follow today: If the price is the blood of Arab Palestinians, then there is no harm in paying it to defeat the occupation.
In a 1995 speech to, oddly enough, celebrate the birth of his daughter, Arafat vowed, “The Palestinian people are prepared to sacrifice the last boy and the last girl so that the Palestinian flag will be flown over the walls, the churches, and the mosques of Jerusalem.” This exaggerated rhetoric conveys a distorted image to the world that the Arabs do not really grieve as the Israelis and Westerners do, and that the lives of the Palestinians are worthless, even to the parents of dead Palestinian children.
The leader who signed the historic 1993 Oslo peace agreement – which he himself paved the way for in a 1988 speech before the United Nations in which he recognized Israel’s right to exist, condemned terrorism in all its forms, and announced a peace initiative calling for the right of Middle East countries, including Palestine and Israel, to live in peace – also turned down the offer by former prime minister Ehud Barak and then-US president Bill Clinton in 2000 that would have created a thriving Palestinian state that included all of Gaza and 91% of the West Bank. Not only did Arafat reject the deal, he unleashed the Second Intifada that left the infrastructure and cities of the Palestinians in ruin.
And he made it easy for former prime minister Ariel Sharon to convince US president George W. Bush that “Arafat is the key to terrorism” by giving the green light to radical fundamentalist Palestinian organizations such as Islamic Jihad and Hamas to carry out suicide operations against Israeli civilian targets, thus legitimizing any Israeli response – no matter how violent, unjust, and excessively out of proportion.
As for his neighbors, Arafat also did not hesitate to establish a Palestinian state within Arab countries that welcomed the PLO within their borders. The clearest example of this occurred in Jordan, where multiple attempts to overthrow and even assassinate the Jordanian king culminated in the 1970 events known as “Black September.” It is little wonder that, with the exception of Jordan, no Arab country has ever offered citizenship to Palestinian Arabs. Understandably, Black September left a legitimate and abiding distrust among Jordanians who fear history will repeat itself should the two banks of the Jordan River unite again. (I addressed this point in a recent Foreign Policy article in which I considered the unification of the two banks as a theory worthy of consideration as a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.)
The fourth sin is the Palestinian people suffering more from the decisions of their leaders and allies than from the actions of Israel. Like Arafat, Hamas’s allies of political Islamic leaders are all too eager to fight Israel until the last Palestinian falls dead. These leaders are largely responsible for the Islamization of the Arab-Israeli conflict, pushing it to the current extremism far beyond political realism and pragmatism. This stokes the fire of Islamic populism and inflames Israel’s radical Right, which is always ready to take advantage of opportunities to attack while playing the victim before an international audience.
It is past time for the Palestinians to abandon allies for whom their cause is nothing but a tool to challenge regional and international powers and expand their influence in the region. It is the courageous leaders in the UAE, Jordan and Egypt, with perhaps Saudi Arabia and Syria to soon join them, in whom I find the greatest hope that the sins of our forefathers will not bloodstain a brighter future for our children and grandchildren.
The fifth sin is viewing the conflict with Israel as an “all-or-nothing” war to the death. Standing between the Palestinians obtaining any of their legal and moral rights is their battle cry to satisfy all historical grievances, reclaim the entire land, expel all Israelis, and eliminate the State of Israel. What has the all-or-nothing approach succeeded in gaining? Very little, if anything at all.
By rejecting compromises capable of ending the conflict while failing to present alternatives, the Palestinians have cast themselves as the stumbling block to peace, thus achieving Israeli interests at the expense of their own. This allows Israel to cast the Palestinians as unappeasable villains and themselves as valiant underdogs in a play written, produced, and directed by Israel. Indeed, the Israeli propaganda machine is no less important than the Israeli army in its war with the Arabs, and even exceeds it in influence in many cases.
The greatest missed opportunity may have been rejecting UN Resolution 181, which divided Palestine into two states, Arab and Jewish, with an internationalized Jerusalem as a separate entity. Nevertheless, as Natasha Gill pointed out so eloquently, “What they [Palestinian Arabs] said no to was the idea that the Jews’ humanitarian plight granted them special political and national rights in Palestine, and that those Jewish rights should trump Arab rights. The Arabs said “No” to the idea that they should pay the price for longstanding Christian persecution of the Jews, and they expressed deep resentment at the hypocrisy of the Europeans, who were promoting a home for the Jews in Palestine as they closed their own doors to the victims of Christian/European antisemitism.”
While this is all true, one can only imagine how strong and unified the region would be today if the Arabs and Palestinian leaders had accepted the partition plan rather than rejected it as unjust and in violation of the UN Charter’s principles of national self-determination, which, by the way, it most certainly was. Nevertheless, had our forefathers accepted a little injustice for the greater good of mutually assured peace, prosperity and progress, we could have avoided the cost of all the disasters that have not ceased to this day.
The ancient Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu observed: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” Do Arabs know Israel? Do we know ourselves? I ask because we have tried the game of hostility and intransigence, and we have proven that we are not good at it. It goes against our nature, our cultural values and our self-interests.
The sixth sin is exploiting the Palestinian cause for political gain. Not all, thank God, but some Arab political leaders in the region and even some governments use the Arab-Israel conflict as a smokescreen to hide their own deficiencies, failures, and hidden agenda. No peace in the Middle East? No state of Palestine? No economic security or prosperity for all citizens? Unrest and uprisings? Don’t blame us, blame Israel. If Israel didn’t exist, we would have no social or economic problems, the Palestinians would have their own state, and the region would be a paradise on earth.
They argue that Israelis would have been driven from the land and into the sea decades ago if it were not for Western and American support. They also argue that despite this support, Israel can and will be defeated because it is not inherently a strong nation. Victory is inevitable.
Victory is never inevitable. Leaders of countries in the region that accept this truth – United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Sudan, Morocco, and Qatar – recognize Israel. Others do not or cannot. Or they will not because Israel is vital as a scapegoat for issues that would otherwise rest squarely on their shoulders to resolve or too convenient a distraction from any examination of their own ambitions and agenda.
In conclusion, it is now time to be frank with our people that the option of peace with Israel and the West through skillful negotiation is the best solution to ensure a peaceful coexistence and prosperous future for our region. Until we do, we will be fighting an endless war in which we ourselves are our own worst enemy.
The writer is a Jordanian entrepreneur and a writer with weekly columns in the Arabic press.