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.
As the terrible atrocities against the Jews continued through the Thirties, Britain fixed limits on admission of Jews to settlements in Palestine, which limits were designed to contain Arab unrest. But they neither stilled the unrest, nor in the least accommodated the numbers of horribly persecuted Jews in Europe who sought to emigrate there.
After the war, when the world contemplated in horror the Nazi murder of half the world population of Jews, Israel was unambiguously created by the United Nations as a Jewish state, in a process that conferred on Israel a far greater level of legitimacy than all other countries that were merely admitted to the U.N., rather than being created by it, on a unanimous vote of the permanent members of the Security Council.
Palestine declined statehood in 1948 and accepted the assurance of the Arab powers that they would annihilate Israel. Most Palestinians fled or were driven from what became Israel, and almost all Jews in Arab countries (except Morocco) were forced out of those countries. The Arab states have ever since used the Palestinians, in teeming and disease-ridden camps the U.N. has refused to upgrade despite Israeli and Western urging, as a breeding ground of terrorists; and they have maintained the Palestinian cause as a red herring with which to distract the Arab masses from generations of misrule. They are doing it still in Egypt, as the world awaits the ignominious demise of the Arab Spring in that important country.
Apart from Anwar Sadat and the kings of Morocco and a few relatively enlightened people in the Persian Gulf, no Arab leader has really accepted the legitimacy of the Jewish state, despite promises at Oslo and elsewhere, and this was confirmed by Mahmoud Abbas in his address to the U.N. a few weeks ago. Every agreement except the Sinai-Suez Camp David agreement with Sadat (who was rewarded with assassination by the Muslim Brotherhood, now contending with the military for control in Egypt) has been designed to exploit Israel’s desire for peace with promises of what amounted to a truce, in exchange for concessions on the ground by Israel. And a vast swath of world opinion, partly thirsting for Arab oil, has cravenly accepted this protracted Arab confidence trick: land for a truce that is cancelable without notice.
The European efforts in the Middle East since the Balfour Declaration have not achieved anything useful except the repulse of Rommel’s Afrika Korps, and for decades have consisted of nothing except to await American proposals and then make suggestions more favorable to the Arabs. The Obama administration (which tried to pretend the Bush-Sharon settlements agreement was not binding), is part of the problem and not of the solution. Israel has demonstrated, in the Sinai and in Gaza, that it will give up settlements for real peace (though it did not achieve it on the latter occasion).
Israel should not make any more tangibly unrequited concessions, no matter what happens in Egypt, and whatever the histrionics of the Turkish government. The Turks could actually be useful, as they are always more reasonable than the Arabs, and have historically been well disposed to the Jews. Israel should refrain from interdicting the West Bank’s strong economic-growth rate, which it has wisely facilitated. When the Palestinians become prosperous, as is starting to happen, they will become more interested in resolving the problem, if the useful (to the aspiring Arab genocidists) idiots among the Western powers stop being so credulous.
It is the possibility that Hamas will deal with Israel and that all sides realize that Israel really can’t be pushed any further (despite a defeatist mainstream media), that the West can’t or won’t try to push it any further, and that Palestinian statehood will be vetoed at the U.N. by the U.S. despite Obama’s flirtations with the Muslims, that creates hope that unconditional talks may finally proceed. The outline agreement has been there for at least a decade: a narrower West Bank with a secure connection to a deeper Gaza, a sensible division of Jerusalem, and two states at last with Palestinians free to return to Palestine.
Peace will come when both parties who were promised a homeland in the same place have one, and the Palestinians have something to lose if they continue to be cannon fodder for their cynical Arab brothers.
(Note: A word of thanks to Shannen Coffin for his gracious response on NRO, after our exchange of the last two weeks. We have e-mailed privately and I always like sharp exchanges with readers to end on a convivial note, as this one has.)