The recent exchange of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit for a thousand Palestinian prisoners in Israeli hands is regarded as a cautiously hopeful sign even by Israeli hawks, as it appears the only possible de-escalation from the absolute collapse of the peace process that was almost implicit in the Palestinian bid for full membership as a state in the United Nations. The Israeli Right was fiercely opposed to Palestinian statehood from 1948 until relatively recently, when it realized that the Palestinians could not be induced to leave territory Israel occupied after the 1967 war; could not be physically expelled, because neither domestic nor international opinion would tolerate such an outrage; and could not be assimilated, both because of natural Arab resistance, and because of the danger of Israel’s ceasing to be a Jewish state and homeland, which has always been its only raison d’être. (There were Israeli bi-nationalists, jolly progressives who wanted to share; Canaanites, i.e. complete secularists; and territorialists who had wispy dreams of settling in Uganda or Ethiopia — but none of them ever had any grasp of reality.)
The Palestine Liberation Organization under Yasser Arafat played the land-for-peace shell game for many years until — when offered all of Gaza, almost all of the West Bank, and a chunk of Jerusalem in an autonomous state, by Ehud Barak in 2000 — Arafat demanded the right of return (i.e., demographically to overwhelm the Jews within Israel with millions of supposedly returning Palestinians) and declared the second Intifada. Barak lost power to Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Left (“Peace Now”) perished, Sharon crushed the new Intifada, the bigotry of most of the Western media was exposed with the myth of the Jenin Massacre, Arafat died, Hamas gained control of Gaza (thanks to George W. Bush’s undiscriminating love of free elections, and the PLO’s corruption), so there was a three-state non-solution: two Palestines as well as Israel. Sharon made a settlement arrangement with the United States and vacated Gaza, uprooting Jewish settlers, and Gaza became a splendid launching ground for rockets killing Israeli civilians.
In seeking United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state, Arafat’s heir in Fatah and the PLO, Mahmoud Abbas, is pretending that he can obtain sovereignty without the agreement of Israel, the United Nations having offered statehood to both Israel and Palestine in 1948 and been rebuffed by the Arabs. We have come full circle, as the PLO seeks what its forebears rejected, and the Israeli Right seeks what its forebears rejected but the now-defunct Israeli Left (led at the time by David Ben-Gurion) accepted. The PLO purports to have given up on negotiating with Israel, and Israel is now negotiating with Hamas, which both parties long refused to do. The United Nations has effectively accepted the largely European counter-proposal (to U.N. recognition of Palestine) for fast-track, unconditional talks for a resolution of all issues. This is what the present Israeli government has been seeking. In Arab-Israeli matters, this incomprehensible roundel justifies some optimism.
In 1917, in the desperate days of World War I, British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour promised “a Jewish homeland” in what was called, resurrecting Roman terminology, Palestine. In the same declaration, it was assured that this would not compromise the rights of the Muslim and Christian Arabs in the same and adjoining territory. As Britain was selling the same real estate to two different and hostile parties, before it was itself in possession of it, there was never going to be a solution that didn’t divide it in two. Nor has there been.
Every admission of Jewish settlers between the wars was strenuously contested by the Arabs, who were much less tolerant of the Jews than the Turks had been. Between 50,000 and 75,000 British troops were necessary for most of the inter-war period to assure comparative calm in Palestine, after the colonial secretary, Winston Churchill, invented the kingdom of Trans-Jordan (or Jordan), on, in his words, “a sunny Sunday afternoon” in 1921.