What is the point of flogging a dead horse? The Israeli-Palestinian peace carriage has advanced not an inch in the 68 years since the founding of the state of Israel. Its horse had no life in it from the very beginning.
A plethora of dates, strewn across the recent history of the Middle East, mark doomed efforts to resolve the conflict – the Madrid Conference in 1991, the Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1995, the Wye River Memorandum in 1998, the Camp David Summit in 2000, the Road Map for Peace in 2003, the Annapolis process in 2007, the Obama administration’s direct peace talks of September 2010 followed by its second, intensive effort, led by US Secretary of State John Kerry, over 2013-2014. The truth is that all were predestined to fail, even before the negotiators for each side sat down at the table.
Ignoring the smoke screen of accusations and excuses thrown up by each side on each occasion, the fundamental reason for the succession of failures is not difficult to deduce. Arab opinion as a whole resents the presence of the state of Israel in its midst. Palestinians regard Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948 as a disaster, and mark it annually with their own Nakba Day (“Day of Catastrophe”). Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), leads a Fatah party whose charter states quite unequivocally that Palestine, with the boundaries that it had during the British Mandate – that is, before the existence of Israel – is an indivisible territorial unit and is the homeland of the Arab Palestinian people. Each Palestinian, it declares, must be prepared for the armed struggle and be ready to sacrifice both wealth and life to win back his homeland.
Why then, one might legitimately ask, has Abbas spent the past ten years nominally supporting the “two-state solution”, and pressing for recognition of a sovereign Palestine within the boundaries that existed on 5 June 1967 – that is, on the day before the Six-Day War? They are, in fact, also the armistice lines that marked where the Israeli and Arab armies stood on July 20, 1949, following the first Arab-Israeli war.
Given the founding beliefs of Abbas’s party, this tactic – inherited from his predecessor, Yassir Arafat – obviously represents only the first stage in a strategy ultimately designed to gain control of the whole of Mandate Palestine, an objective explicit in what he says in the Arabic media, but which he never expresses in his statements to the world.
Supporting the two-state solution is designed to swing world opinion to the Palestinian cause – and it has succeeded very well. But the naked truth is that no Palestinian leader would ever sign up to it, since to do so would be to concede that Israel has an acknowledged and legitimate place within Mandate Palestine – and that would instantly brand him a traitor to the Palestinian cause. No Palestinian leader – not Yasser Arafat, nor Mahmoud Abbas, nor anyone who might succeed Abbas – dare sign an agreement that recognizes Israel’s right to exist within “historic Palestine”. It would probably be more than his life was worth. From the Palestinian perspective, the insurmountable obstacle lodged within the two-state solution is that one of the states must be Israel. The innumerable peace negotiations have at least yielded one inescapable truth: short of committing hara-kiri, Israel could never offer enough. Its very existence is anathema.
This is why the oft-repeated cry of Israeli leaders – that only face-to-face negotiations can solve the interminable dispute – is way off the mark. Face-to-face talks have been tried to destruction. As far as reaching a negotiated peace is concerned, the PA is a busted flush.
What is needed is an Arab-wide consensus, reached with Israel, on the future geo-political configuration of what was Mandate Palestine, starting from the perhaps unpalatable, but nonetheless undeniable, presumption that Israel is here to stay.
Just suppose, for one mad moment, that Israel simply pulled out of the West Bank, abandoned its towns and smaller settlements, handed over East Jerusalem as a Palestinian capital and, hey presto, a sovereign Palestine was born. Its Fatah government would instantly be vulnerable to its greatest enemy bar none – rejectionist, extremist Hamas, the de facto government of Gaza, which has been at loggerheads with the PA for the past decade, and which seeks to overthrow Abbas’s administration in the West Bank, just as it succeeded in doing in Gaza.
And not only Hamas, for the Islamic State octopus, seeking to control the Middle East as a whole, has already spread its tentacles into Yemen and Libya. IS, too, would soon be infiltrating a new, weak Arab state, intent on absorbing it into its jihadist caliphate.
The Arab world is well aware that a newly-born Palestine would be in urgent need of an effective military presence and high-tech security on its borders, as indeed Jordan and Egypt both are. In serious discussion they would recognize that a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would require military cooperation across the board – just as Egypt liaises with Israel in combatting Hamas and IS in Sinai, and Jordan in combatting IS across its borders with Iraq and Syria. To create a sovereign Palestine and leave its security to its own puny forces, would be to throw the new state to the wolves.
Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has shown the way. Speaking to the UN General Assembly in September 2014 he said: “Many have long assumed that an Israeli-Palestinian peace can help facilitate a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world. But these days I think it may work the other way around – namely that a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world may help facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace.”
That broader rapprochement has, in effect, been achieved, forced into blossom in the hothouse created by the growing assertiveness of Iran, following its nuclear deal, and the mayhem created in the Middle East by the rampant Islamic State. Albeit covertly, Israel collaborates on a broad range of security issues not only with Egypt and Jordan, but with Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, inter alia.
An Arab-Israel peace conference, at which the Arab interest was represented by the Arab League, and which was charged with securing a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, might well take as a starting point the Arab Peace Initiative, now 14 years old, and adapt it to take account of today’s realities.
One possible result of intensive, but realistically-based, negotiations might be the creation of a new legal entity – a Confederation comprising three sovereign states: Israel, Jordan and a new-born Palestine. Such a Confederation, conceived specifically to guarantee the security of all three partners through close military and economic cooperation, could also provide the basis for the future growth and prosperity of each.