Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Peace - Israel Palestine - An Interesting Perspective

In communicating with others about Israel and the Palestinians I often hear:
1.                 The Arabs/Palestinians can’t be trusted – look what they’ve done, and/or
2.                 I don’t like current Israeli positions but both sides are equally wrong  - e.g. – why are you so: “pro-Palestinian” ? and/or
3.                 Why are you concerned about Palestinians?   There is no real “Palestinian”.  People have taken advantage of things in creating something that isn’t real and/or
4.                 Israel does its best in difficult circumstances.

I find this very frustrating.  

It is obvious to me that some Palestinians and the leadership of neighboring Arab countries have made serious mistakes.   As World War II ended, Palestinians and neighboring Arab leaders should have accepted and supported the idea of  proposed  Jewish and Arab states in Palestine.   Jordan’s King Hussein made a huge mistake in getting involved in the June, 1967 War in support of Egypt.   

I am troubled, though, by the continuing message which says essentially:  “Israel wants to make peace, but there are no Palestinian leaders to negotiate with”.  
I’ve found after reading numerous books and other writings that the reality has been more like:    “Israel wants to make peace as long as its proposed partner has  guaranteed in advance that the terms will be overwhelmingly in Israel’s favor (e.g.  unacceptable for lasting peace with the Palestinians)”.    

Yasir Arafat could have agreed to several Israeli peace proposals.   It is unclear what good this would have accomplished if his leadership would then have almost immediately been overthrown (or if he would have been assassinated) as being a traitor to his cause.

In The Bride and The Dowry: Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinians in the Aftermath of the June 1967 War  (Yale University Press, 2012),  Avi Raz speaks effectively of the aftermath of the 1967 war.   His deeper message clearly is shown at the end of the book:

(p.282)   Though the June 1967 War had catapulted the Palestinians onto center stage, Israel had refused to recognize their emergence as an independent political factor – a nation with a legitimate claim to statehood.  It took more than three decades of occupation and five years of Intifadah  for Israel to concede its momentous mistake.

However, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process failed, and in 2000 a second, much bloodier Intifadah erupted.    A serious study of the peace process and its collapse awaits sufficient historical perspective and access to the relevant official records.  But it is already clear that the failure is largely rooted in the pattern set by the Israeli government during the early days of the occupation.  While Washington insisted that Israel should return to the pre-June 1967 War borders, the Israeli aim was – in the explicit words of Premier Levi Eshkol – to retain the “maximum of territory.”  This line was pursued by subsequent governments.  It was underpinned by Jewish settlement in the occupied territories which the Eshkol government had instigated early on.   The settlement construction in the West Bank never stopped; in fact it increased sharply after the Israeli-Palestinian peace process had got under way.  Ehud Olmert, Israel’s prime minister between 2006 and 2009, stated in 1988  that the “policy of expanding Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria…was designed to block any possibility of pressure for Israel to withdraw from these areas.”  It took Olmert another two decades of intensive building of settlements to acknowledge the inevitable territorial price the Israelis must pay for peace.

On 6 June 1967, the second day of the Six Day War, Abba Eban said at the UN Security Council that “men and nations do behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.”  Eban reiterated the same aphorism in articles and speeches in later years, always referring (p.283) to the Arabs.  He and his government colleagues never thought of themselves in this context.  Only when Eban was no longer a member of the cabinet did he admit privately that “the [Israeli] government sometimes makes the right decisions but not before trying every other possibility.”  Indeed, throughout the four and a half decades that followed the June 1967 War, it has been Israel that has time and again proved the validity of Eban’s maxim.

The policy towards the Gaza Strip is yet another glaring example of a fatal mistake that took Israel nearly forty years to correct.  As we have seen, the Eshkol government decided to retain Gaza, and subsequent governments built civilian settlements there.  This blunder was not corrected until the premiership of Ariel Sharon, one of the prime movers of the Israeli fait accompli approach and the godfather of the settlement project.  In the summer of 2005 Sharon finally yielded to the intolerable cost – in blood, money, and international reputation – of keeping this tiny, poor, and densely populated province of maintaining the security of a few thousand Jewish settlers who lived lavishly in twenty-two settlements in the midst of 1.4 million destitute Palestinians.

To be sure, Sharon had no intention of giving up “Judea and Samaria.”  In fact, the so-called Disengagement from the Gaza Strip was designed to freeze the political process, thereby preventing the establishment of a Palestinian state and maintaining the geopolitical status quo in the West Bank.  Yet an increasing number of the more realistic Israelis have recognized that the conflict with the Palestinians  cannot be resolved unless Israel accepts what the whole world has been saying from day one of the occupation: Israel must return to the pre-Six Day War lines with minor and reciprocal modifications.     In 2002 the Arabs offered what Israel had called for from its foundation in 1948: an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict, recognition of Israel, peace agreements, and normal relations – in exchange for withdrawal from all the territories occupied in June 1967, a just solution to the refugee problem in accordance with UN Resolution 194, and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with Arab Jerusalem as its capital.  This far-reaching peace initiative was crafted by Saudi Arabia, adopted by the twenty-two member Arab League at its summit in Beirut in March 2002, and reaffirmed at the Riyadh Summit of the Arab heads of state in March 2007.  In Israel none  of the governments (p.284) since 2002 – Sharon’s, Olmert’s, or Netanyahu’s – has ever discussed the Arab peace offer.

Despite high-sounding proclamations about the desire to make peace with the Arabs, whenever a prospect of reconciliation was on the table, Israel has been immobilized by fear of what it would entail.  ‘Aziz Shehadeh, who led the Palestinian entity movement, wrote in 1969: “Immediately after June 1967 a golden opportunity was offered to the Israel Government to achieve a peaceful settlement…. The Israeli  leaders wavered and did not grasp the importance of this offer.”  Shehadeh concluded: “The seed of peace that was planted immediately after the Six Day War has thus been trampled upon by forces both within and without the country.”  But Israeli leaders kept maintaining that no Arabs were willing to negotiate a peaceful settlement with Israel.   As late as 1975 Yisrael Galili, who served in the cabinet from 1963, went so far as to claim that “there was not a single occasion when the government of Israel refused to respond to an Arab initiative.”  However, a number of prominent contemporary officials and observers – including a cabinet minister and an army general – argued retrospectively that in the aftermath of the 1967 War, Israel missed an opportunity for a settlement with both Jordan and the Palestinians, particularly the latter.

Indeed, it was not the Arabs who never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity – as Eban’s often cited quip suggests – but the Israelis, who persistently and deliberately squandered every opportunity for a settlement.    They changed tack only when doing so was inescapable.    King Hussein’s pithy  summary was that “Israel can have either peace or territory, but not both.”  Abba Eban, who quotes this observation in his 1993 memoirs, goes on to say that it was “not far from being a universal international consensus.”  But it was Eban who  quarter of a century before had carried out Israel’s foreign policy of takhsisanut, or deception, designed to serve as a political cover-up for the effort to gain time while staying put in the occupied lands and creating a fait accompli.

This study has focused on Israel’s policy and practice in the aftermath of the June 1967 War, and some readers might feel that its conclusions, which are especially critical of Israel, are not even-handed.  But it should be borne in mind that the parties to the conflict were unequal.  There were the victorious occupiers on the one hand and the vanquished and the occupied on the other, and the former held all (p.285) the cards.   They were aware of international resentment but did not care.  A popular song which came out in 1969 appropriately captured the Israeli collective spirit:

The whole world is against us
Never mind, we’ll overcome
. . . . . . . .
And everybody who’s against us
Let him go to hell

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