by Henry E. Mattox
The words “tragic” and “disastrous” apply appropriately to the long-standing, convoluted, deadly Arab-Israeli dispute, especially if we make two assumptions:
1) the Palestinian objective has come to be to establish a nation state and to strengthen its position in the area, not to destroy Israel and drive its people into the sea; and
2) Israel’s objective remains basically a trade of land for peace, not to retain the West Bank and Gaza indefinitely and to expel somehow the Palestinian residents.
Considering the problem in this context, the word “ironic” fits the bill also. Here’s why:
Historic opportunities have repeatedly been missed, time after time. Recently these possible courses of action have included initiatives under the Tenet timetable for a ceasefire, the Mitchell Plan, Oslo I, the Wye Memorandum, the Saudi peace initiative announced days ago. A plethora of plans. Twenty-four years ago, the Camp David Accords; nine years ago, the Declaration of Principles—both signed in Washington.
The irony is that these and similar apparent opportunities for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians have been put on the table sporadically for more than a half a century. Good will, a deep-seated desire for peace, and a willingness to compromise by both sides, along with lots of good fortune, would have been necessary for success, of course—as they still are today. But the fundamentals of what, in the end, must be accomplished if the Middle East is to have peace have been around for more than a Biblical generation.
As far back as 1936, Britain, the League mandatory power for Palestine, formed a Royal Commission that released a report the following year: “An irrepressible conflict has arisen between two national communities within the bounds of one small country.” This study group, the Peel Commission, recommended partition. Its plan would have accorded most of the area to an Arab entity, with the Jewish sector centered in the north on Nazareth. Jerusalem would have been in an international area reaching to the Mediterranean at Jaffa, which city would have been part of the Arab sector. In the event, the British decided this solution was impracticable and continued direct control of the area.
Some ten years later, with all that transpired in the intervening years, it was the turn of the UN. In late November 1947, the UNGA adopted its Partition Resolution. Again, the proposed plan provided for two distinct political entities, with somewhat more area allocated this time to the Israeli nation than by the Peel Commission. Jerusalem was to be accorded special international status.
The Arab nations rejected partition under these or any other circumstances that included a Jewish state. When the dust had settled after Israel’s 1948 declaration of independence and the failed attack of massed Arab-nations armies, Israel had taken half of Jerusalem and most of the area designated by the UN as an Arab state. As a result of the clash, Jordan took over the West Bank. An Arab Palestine was farther than ever before from coming into being.
In 1967, a successful preemptive strike by Israel in the face of threatening Arab military power resulted in Jordan losing the West Bank, Syria losing the Golan Heights, and Egypt losing the Sinai Peninsular and Gaza to the IDF. International efforts, notably in the UN, began anew to try to resolve the underlying issues. One immediate result was the famous UN Resolution 242, which based hopes for lasting peace on these principles (and I quote):
1. Withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict;
2. Termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every state in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries. . . .
Israeli withdrawal from land conquered in battle in return for the Arab nations’ commitment to peace, that is.
Such was the framework for the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty signed twelve years later and the subsequent reversion to Egypt of the Sinai and its oil.
There the matter has remained otherwise, at best in a state of uneasy truce at times and at worst in a state of war, Israelis vs. Palestinians, as in recent weeks. As noted above, from time to time some kind of settlement has seemed possible, but accord has eluded the negotiators. During much of the ‘90s, the building of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and roads thereto, plus Israel’s assumption of control over water and electricity in the area, have made more difficult any approach to a lasting peace. Additionally, the fact that the occupation has lasted for so long—more than three decades—has increasingly galled Palestinian nationalists.
Resistance by the Palestinians has been marked recently by the increasing use of horrific suicide bombing, a form of asymmetrical warfare—or more plainly, terrorism—that now has occasioned the entry of major elements of the IDF into areas of the West Bank once under Palestinian jurisdiction. The deadly confrontation goes on and on.
Tragic and disastrous it is, yes. But there is a decided element of paradox, as well—always assuming the Palestinian leadership through the years has not been playing a zero-sum game of winner take all, and further assuming that Israel yet remains willing to accept a land-for-peace bargain. Each time the Palestinians turn down a deal as not quite satisfactory, as they have on a number of occasions, and armed insurrection ensues, their position seems to grow worse. Compare where they stand now with respect to nationhood, in contrast with their prospects in 1947, 1957, or even 1967 prior to the Six Day War.
It is arguable that Israeli tanks being sent into the West Bank in reaction to the wave of suicide bombings has resulted in a gain for Palestinians in world public opinion, especially in the Arab world. It is not clear, however, how deep or wide—or how official—this support will prove. (The Arab world is not exactly known for its support of the Palestinians in their troubles.)
In territorial and human suffering terms, however, the people of Palestine now seeking an independent national status would have been much better off if their leaders—notably Yasser Arafat—had settled for the possible in years gone by. Ironically, the more and the longer their leaders have resisted Israel, the worse off they, the ordinary Palestinians, have become. Only by going back, it seems, can the Palestinian cause go forward.