A frequent contributor to this journal makes an attempt to solve the intractable problem of an Israeli-Palestinian peace on terms unlikely to find much favor in Israel. Whether this suggestion is a realistic option or not, the writer has at least been bold in setting out his course. –Ed.
The Seismic Fault in Geopolitical Tectonics
by Benjamin L. Landis
The failure to resolve the enduring Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is the principal factor in the instability that characterizes geopolitics thus far in the twenty-first century. This failure is certainly the root cause and the primary sustainer of the wave of international terrorism. Al-Qaeda was founded because of it. It has given birth to Hamas and to Hezbollah. It is the primary reason that the present government of Iran, not only supports Hezbollah and Hamas, but also is moving toward the development of a deliverable nuclear warhead capability. It nourishes the virulence of Islamic fundamentalism and its rejection of Western culture. It has weakened the influence of the United States government, as well as that of the Western European nations, in much of the Islamic world. It has seriously hampered the integration of the Muslim world, finally freed of Western European domination in the middle years of the twentieth century, into the world comity of nations. It has prevented the United States from successfully encouraging the establishment of more democratic governments in the Islamic world. For many Muslims, the failure of successive United States governments to end this conflict has cast the American people as favoring Israeli interests over those of the Palestinians and, by extension, over other Muslim populations. In other words, it has tended to divide the world into two adversarial camps. And forces every country to take sides.
With such a list of dire, quasi-catastrophic consequences, why has the Conflict not been resolved already? This failure is essentially a failure of United States governments since the conflict opened in 1948. The United States government, undoubtedly unintentionally, and unknowingly, took on the burden of reconciler and mediator of irreconcilable forces when President Eisenhower forced the British, French, and Israeli governments to cease their invasion of Egypt and to withdraw their forces in the fall of 1956. Effectively, this action permanently removed from their traditional roles in the Middle East both the British and French governments and forced the United States government to fill the vacuum.
Since this moment, the United States government has sporadically and without any consistent policy attempted to end the Conflict. It has had essentially no success. The profound reasons why these efforts have been sporadic, inconsistent, and unsuccessful are threefold. First, Americans, and therefore, their governments, are deeply stricken in their psyche by the treatment of the Jewish people by Western Christian Civilization, of which they are the dominant and most robust contemporary representatives. It is not only the guilt they feel by the barbaric actions of Hitler’s Germany, one of the founding states of that civilization, but also the painful consciousness of their own anti-Semitism. Although most Americans living today have no personal knowledge of the concrete manifestations of this attitude, which included forbidding Jewish refugees escaping Nazism from entering the United States and the virulent anti-Semitism of right wing, fascist and pseudo-fascist political commentators and leaders, the heritage has left its genes in the American psyche. Even after the end of the Second World War a quiet anti-Semitism was pervasive for many years in American society.
This psychological state has made it almost impossible for Americans to view Israelis and Palestinians objectively. They tend strongly to associate Israelis with the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. It is almost impossible for them to conceive that Israelis are no longer victims, but are often victimizers. The Israeli government has very successfully manipulated the conscience-stricken American society and its government. It has forged ahead with its aggressive policies, willing to be chastised by an indignant United States government in the knowledge that actions will not follow words. The most recent example of this is, of course, the declaration of the establishment of a new settlement in the West Bank during the American Vice President’s visit, in blatant contradiction to previous statements that new settlements would not be established.
Second, American governments have not been willing to confront the informal, but nonetheless powerful, Israeli “lobby” of the American Jewish population. This timidity is a result of both political maneuvering and being still in thrall to the guilty conscience of America’s own anti-Semitic heritage. Moreover, members of this “lobby” have held important posts in many administrations since 1956.
These two factors have meant that, probably more unconsciously than consciously, United States governments in their sometimes efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict have tended to put forth or support proposals that, certainly in the minds of Muslims, and oftentimes objectively, tend to favor Israel over the Palestinian Authority. Additionally, Muslims perceive that the United States government does virtually nothing to restrain the aggression of Israeli governments.
Third, the United States government was obliged after 1956 to move into an area of the world of which it had no previous experience and very superficial knowledge and there to take a leadership role. Unfortunately, this lack of experience and knowledge is still being manifested today 50 years later. The egregious errors of the Bush administration in handling the occupation of both Iraq and Afghanistan are flagrant examples. In defense of the American failure to master its role in the Middle East it must be acknowledged that at the time it took over this role it was faced with challenges from both the communist Soviet Union and communist China. Its diplomatic and military attention was understandably focused on containing the spread of communist states while avoiding a nuclear holocaust. During the years of the Cold War it failed to understand the undesirable consequences of allowing the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict to endure. The problem today is that the Cold War ended 20 years ago and United States governments still appear not to understand these consequences.
After 60 years of warfare, terrorism, and abortive peace negotiations is a resolution of this conflict still possible? Is the government of the United States capable of playing a determining role in achieving a resolution? What are the options?
Israel could undoubtedly overrun the West Bank with its armed forces and annex it into the state of Israel. I believe that everyone, to include all but the most fanatic Israelis, realizes that such a choice would resolve nothing. And, in fact, would increase international terrorism, would incite the governments of other Middle Eastern countries to prepare intensively to wage a war against Israel, would encourage Iran into pushing its development of a nuclear strike capability, would alienate Israel from the other nations of the world, would lead to international sanctions against Israel. The list of undesirable consequences is almost endless.
The ideal solution in an environment of rationality would be the merging of the Israelis and Palestinians into a single democratic, secular state, multi-ethnic, multi-religion. Given the history of the past 60 years, this is manifestly impossible even to consider today.
The only feasible option that exists today for ending this conflict is the establishment of a Palestinian state within the framework of a peace settlement that would obligatorily include the universal recognition of the states of Israel and Palestine by the other nations of the world.
Can such a resolution be achieved? There are three major obstacles.
- Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
- The Gaza Strip.
To overcome these obstacles compromises would need to be made by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Are they willing to do so in order to end 60 years of killing and to prevent their continuation? I will discuss this below. But first, let us look at the possible compromises that could overcome these three obstacles.
With respect to the Israeli settlers in the West Bank, one solution would be to resettle them on Israeli territory. As has been shown many times in the past, this would have to be done forcibly. The alternative would be to allow them to remain in their settlements, but within a sovereign Palestinian state. This would mean that they would become alien residents of this state and subject to its laws. There would no longer be any Israeli military forces present to enable them to assert their independence. A third option would obviously be a combination of the former two. Those settlers who want to remain on Israeli soil would be repatriated; the others would become residents of the new Palestinian state. If either of these latter two solutions were adopted, there would probably have to be a United Nations “border integrity” force established on the Israeli-Palestinian border for an indefinite period of time, primarily to prevent the Israeli government from sending its military forces into the new state because of allegations of mistreatment of Israeli citizens. This force should be made up of American, Russian, and Chinese contingents, armed forces of countries that Israel would hesitate to attack. Since there are a large number of Palestinians living in Israel today, it is hardly likely that the new Palestinian government will mistreat its Israeli residents, although the Israeli settlers may consider themselves mistreated because they must obey the laws of the new Palestinian state. It may be prudent as a psychological crutch to include in the treaty prohibitions against religious and ethnic discrimination.
With respect to the city of Jerusalem, which both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their religious and political capital, one solution proposed by some would be to inter-nationalize it. This would create more problems than it would solve. First, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians would accept it. Second, who would run the city– the United Nations? Not only is the United Nations not organized to assume a role as a government, but also it would be incapable of assuming such a task. Its governance would be subject to the whims of the veto power of the 5 permanent members of the Security Council. The only other viable solution would be to divide the city into approximately equal territories, so that the Israelis would retain the principal sites sacred to the Jewish religion and the Palestinians would retain the principal ones sacred to their religion. Approximately one-half of Jerusalem would be Israeli, the other, Palestinian. However, there would be no controls restricting the passage from one zone to the other. The line marking the separation of the two zones could be clearly marked, but citizens and visitors would be free to travel throughout the city. In one part they would be subject to Palestinian laws and police and in the other part to Israeli laws and police.
On the Israeli side, access to the city would be controlled along the western perimeter; on the Palestinian side, the access would be controlled along the eastern perimeter. The Israelis could construct their capital in their part of Jerusalem or in its western suburbs; the Palestinians could do the same in their part of the city or in its eastern suburbs. The treaty would necessarily have to include clauses to permit the untrammeled visits by citizens of one country to the religious sites in the other country’s part of Jerusalem and both countries would be obligated to grant this same right to Christians to visit their religious sites.
With respect to the Gaza Strip, one solution would, of course, be to repatriate its population to the West Bank. This solution presents several problems. First, the numbers involved would be more than three times the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank. Second, who would finance this population transfer? It would be far beyond the financial capabilities of the new Palestinian state. Third, any such massive increase in the West Bank population could only be assimilated if Israel were to cede an equivalent amount of territory to the Palestinian state. Fourth, it would deprive the Palestinian state of a port and an international airport.
Another solution could be to simply leave the population in place and cede the territory to Israel. This would make the inhabitants alien residents subject to the laws of Israel, just as Israeli settlers remaining in the West Bank could become aliens in the new Palestinian state. There is, however, one significant difference that tends to make this solution virtually impossible. The Muslim population of the Gaza Strip combined with the large Muslim population already living in Israel would mean that about half the total population of Israel would be Muslim non-citizens. This is a situation that no state can long endure, and particularly Israel, that considers itself a Jewish state and has consistently refused to permit Muslim immigration.
The most workable solution would be to incorporate the Gaza Strip into the new Palestinian state. But in order for the Gaza inhabitants to be fully integrated they would need to be able to travel without restriction to and from the West Bank and the inhabitants of the West Bank to travel unrestrictedly to and from the Gaza Strip. In like manner, visitors to the Palestinian state who arrive in Gaza would need to be able to travel freely to the West Bank. Since the distance separating the Strip from the nearest point on the West Bank is only about 20 miles it would be a short and brief commute. In order to create a viable commute a corridor would need to be created between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. This corridor would remain Israeli territory, but would not be patrolled or controlled by Israeli military and police. It would optimally contain a highway, a double track rail line, a pipeline, and telephone and electric lines. Palestinian police would patrol the corridor. The traffic moving in this corridor would not be permitted to stop, except in case of emergency. If deemed necessary, the construction could include barriers to prevent persons using it to penetrate into Israeli territory. The optimum solution would be an elevated corridor so that the movement of Israelis would not be impeded. As a far less acceptable solution, a ground-level corridor could be envisaged, but there would need to be a number of overpasses in order for Israelis to move between the parts of their territory cut by the corridor.
In addition to these major obstacles, which must be overcome by compromise for any peace treaty to be achieved, there are myriad lesser, but important issues that must also be settled. Such as, the right of the citizens of one country to visit the other and even to immigrate in reasonable numbers; the territorial limits of the new Palestinian state (This issue may require the participation of Syria and Jordan in some of the negotiations.); the destruction of the Israeli-constructed wall; the recognition of Israel by the new Palestinian state and other Muslim countries, etc. Nonetheless, when compromise has been achieved on the three major issues, solutions will relatively easily be achieved for these others.
Can Israel and the Palestinian Authority agree to such compromises as would enable the establishment of peace between them? On their own, it is not likely. There is too much bitter history between them that is still very recent, even though there may be a mutual recognition of the necessity for achieving peace, because both of them are caught in a no-win situation as long as they continue their present policies and tactics. There is, nonetheless, little hope that they will sit down together without urging from other nations.
Can the United States government be the agent for forging a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict? Very probably it cannot. On the one hand, it is not likely that it will ever push the Israeli government into a frame of mind in which it is ready to accept compromise. On the other hand, it has lost a great deal of credibility with the Palestinians as a result of its obvious tendency, at least in the minds of the Palestinians, to favor the Israeli viewpoint and its history of failed efforts.
How then can the process be moved forward? First, rather than the United States government trying to be the sole agent for bringing Israel and the Palestinian Authority to the negotiating table, a select consortium of the world’s leading powers should act together to kick start and push forward the negotiations. This consortium should be limited to Russia, China, the United States, and, possibly, Indonesia, as the world’s largest Muslim nation. This group would not only mediate the discussions, but would participate actively in developing solutions and in encouraging the protagonists to accept compromises.. But before any negotiations began, the group would require that both Israel and the Palestinian Authority each prepare its version of a detailed draft treaty that would establish a Palestinian state, would include all the points at issue, and, in particular, would set forth a compromise resolution for each of the major obstacles I have cited. Neither protagonist would be permitted to simply reiterate its present position on these three issues. These two draft treaties would then serve as a basis for opening the negotiations. The aim of the negotiations would then be to reconcile those areas in which the two proposals differ.
Would the governments of China and Russia accept to join such an effort? They would probably jump at the opportunity to have themselves identified along with the United States as the deciding powers in contemporary geopolitics. Especially since it would be an effort that does not affect their national interests and that would demonstrate their willingness and ability to act responsibly to ensure peace in the world. If they do not immediately volunteer, the government of the United States should do its utmost to convince them that their participation is essential to the effort and that the effort is absolutely necessary to ensure the stability of the world in this century.
The negotiations would be difficult, without a doubt. But the world can no longer accept that the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict continue any further into the twenty-first century. It is quite likely that the consortium will need to apply political, economic, and moral pressure in order to get the protagonists to accept reality. Possibly even to wave the possibility of sanctions if the protagonists prove to be intractable on specific issues. What the United States government would probably not be willing to do on its own, it may allow its hand to be forced by the other members of the consortium. On the other hand, if necessary, the consortium members should be ready to offer firm guarantees on issues of territorial security.
Benjamin L. Landis retired from the U.S. Army as a colonel after a 27-year career that included service with the Military Assistance Advisory Group at the U.S. embassy in Paris and as Senior U.S. Liaison Officer with the French Forces in Germany. He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and the French Army Ecole d’Etat-Major, and has an MSA from The George Washington University. After retirement, he was Director of Administration and Finance for several major law firms in Washington.