When I began writing these posts I was determined to take on the toughest issues of the day, and one of those is certainly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I do not know what a possible solution is at this point--indeed I would be flabbergasted to see anything like real peace in my lifetime--but I do think that it behooves us all to look at some key historical facts and, above all, to try to find some intellectual framework for a solution. The recent speeches by President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, alas, fail to do either, and thus require some comment.
The paradox underlying the problem is the most fundamental paradox of international relations. For centuries after the Treaty of Westphalia, western civilization tried to impose a legal framework on international relations, even though it has never made a serious attempt (and, in my opinion, should not) to create a world government. When the United Nations was created in 1945 the foundation of its legal framework was the respect for frontiers. That, it seems to me, is the only lasting basis for an international legal order, but unfortunately, no one has found a way to make governments last forever, much less to make people stay in one place. It is probably fair to say that every nation on earth was built originally by conquest. The human past includes no age of pristine innocence. Present-day historians like to picture pre-Colombian America as some kind of bucolic paradise, but in fact, its tribes made cruel war upon one another, apparently exterminated whole civilizations in their midst (the mound builders, for instance), and, in some places, at one another. And whether or not one believes that the creation of ancient Israel was divinely ordained, which I do not, it was undoubtedly bloody, sometimes mercilessly so. The history of Europe is largely a history of warfare. We must keep all this in mind when we turn to this history of a small territory on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean.
The Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the subsequent Palestine mandate must be seen in this broader context. The British, who in 1917 had no rights in the region other than rights of conquest, declared that the Jewish people should be able to create a "homeland" in Palestine without prejudice to the rights of the existing populations there. That, of course, was a contradiction in terms from the beginning, and the Arab populations realized it. After the war the League of Nations gave the British a mandate--that is, sovereignty--over Palestine, and they continued to allow some Jewish immigration while eventually concluding that it would have to be severely limited. British troops had to prevent civil war in the region during the 1920s and 1930s. American Jews in this period were highly ambivalent, to put it mildly, about the whole project. The Jewish masses of Poland and Russia (by then the Soviet Union) had never been full citizens of their countries before 1919 or so, and man wanted a new homeland. American Jews had chosen a different solution: settlement in a country that recognized no religious distinctions among its citizens. Although they faced social prejudice in the first half of the twentieth century and their opportunities at the highest levels of American society remained in many ways limited, they felt well off indeed. Phillip Roth in one of his recent books suggests that American Jews around 1940 were the most loyal of all American immigrant groups, precisely because they had no loyalty to any mother country.
Now contrary to myth, Holocaust survivors did not found Israel. The founders of Israel were Zionists settlers, most of them from further east, who had been living in Palestine for decades. They were also largely secularists and socialists. When the war came to an end, they carried on a political and military campaign against British occupation, including acts of terrorism, while also trying to bring as many Holocaust survivors to Israel as possible. Those who had survived the war and the death camps in Eastern Europe were now living in displaced persons camps, and nearly all of them ruled out returning to their former homes. The United States, alas, would not welcome them. The tough immigration laws passed in 1924 were still in effect, and there was no political will to make an exception for hundreds of thousands of Jews from eastern Europe. That, as an American of half-Jewish ancestry, is my greatest regret about the whole story. When Ernest Bevin, the anti-Zionist British foreign secretary, said that the United States wanted the Jews to go to Palestine because they did not want them to go to New York, he was, sadly, speaking the truth.
In 1947, the British, weary of their imperial burden turned the mandate back to the new United Nations. The UN sent a commission of westerners to investigate the situation, including some Americans, who returned home very sympathetic to the Jewish cause, largely because the Jews were obviously so much more westernized than the Arabs. The Arabs at that moment lacked effective political leadership, in large part because their leaders had been jailed or exiled by the British during an Arab revolt in the late 1930s. The UN eventually recommended a partition of the territory, one that would have given the Jews significantly less than what became their border after 1949. The Zionists, as authors such as Conor Cruise O'Brien and the Israeli Benny Morris have pointed out, always took the practical position that any territory was better than none, since it would provide a basis for further expansion. The Arabs did not and refused to accept the partition plan at all. In all honesty, while the Jews were surely wiser, it seems to me one can sympathize with both sides here. In the wake of the Second World War Jews naturally did not trust the protection of any non-Jewish state, with the possible exceptions of Britain and the United States, where they could not go. On the other hand, the Arabs saw no reason--and still don't--why Christians at the distant United Nations should have been able to award a large part of territory in their midst to people whose only claim was that their ancestors had lived there thousands of years ago. We obviously cannot as a general rule start redistributing territory around the world on that basis--it would be a recipe for endless war.
To secure their state the Israelis had to defeat the Palestinians within the territory allotted them, and also to hold off the neighboring Arab states who intervened, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, on the Palestinians' side. The first task was relatively easy: the Palestinians were out-organized and out-gunned. The second was harder but the Israelis, who proclaimed their state in the spring of 1948, managed it, and even moved well beyond the borders specified by the UN resolution. Most of the Arab population of the new Israel fled--a good deal of it, we know now, was forcibly ejected. In 1949 the UN negotiated an armistice between Israel and its neighbors, temporarily depriving the Palestinian Arabs of any recognition whatever while leaving most of them under Jordanian control. But the Israelis, led by Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, were not satisfied. They regarded the new lines as only the beginning. Some hoped to go all the way to the Jordan River; others, like former terrorist Menachem Begin, wanted to go further. Noting that the old testament God had promised the Jews the East Bank, as well as the West Bank, of the Jordan River, Begin in his party newspaper wrote articles in the early 1950s with titles such as "Amman too shall be ours." (I owe that deal to Ezer Weizmann, the former Israeli Defense Minister and President who helped negotiate the 1979 peace deal with Egypt.)
The Israelis got two chances to expand those frontiers over the next 20 years. In 1956 they signed on to an Anglo-French attempt to overthrow Gamel Abdul Nasser and seized the Sinai peninsula. During the next year President Eisenhower forced them to give these gains up, partly by threatening to end the tax deduction for contributions to Israel for American citizens--no idle threat in an era of 91% marginal tax rates. In 1967, it is now generally agreed, the Arabs did not want war, but Nasser, like Khrushchev in Cuba five years earlier, allowed a game of brinkmanship to go to far. The United States was too pre-occupied with Vietnam to head off the crisis, and the Israelis decided to attack. This time they occupied the Sinai, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank. In response, the Arabs recognized the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people, and eight years later Yasir Arafat addressed the UN. Four years after that Israel withdrew from the Sinai in exchange for peace with Egypt, and in the 1990s Israel made peace with Jordan, whose population is now more than half Palestinian. But attempts at peace between Israel and the Palestinians have failed.
I am sure politicians and historians will still be arguing about that for at least a century; I can only give my opinion. Neither side, in my opinion, has ever established a consensus that would moderate is claims to the extent that real peace would be possible. On the one hand, the Palestinians still claim a right of return for the families of those who left in 1948-9, and many will not formally accept Israel's acceptance at all. On the other hand, Israel has tens of thousands of settlers and some politicians, certainly including its current Foreign Minister and very possibly its current Prime Minister as well, who have not given up on establishing an almost completely Jewish state in all the territory west of the Jordan at all. That is why no Israeli government has dared put a halt to settlements. At the end of the Clinton Administration Ehud Barak seemed ready to concede nearly all the territory outside the 1949-67 border, and to compensate the Palestinians for any territory Israel retained, but because of Arafat's intransigence, we never found out whether he could have sold that deal to the Israeli people. Since then the Israeli political spectrum has moved drastically rightward.
The Palestinian people have become more militant as well. Hamas won an election in 2003 and now rules the Gaza strip. Essentially American and Israeli strategy beginning with the Bush Administration--which specifically disavowed Yasser Arafat--has been to build up a Palestinian leadership under Mahmoud Abbas that would rule Palestine with due regard to Israeli sensibilities--that is, he would renounce any right to an Army, accept the permanence of some large Israeli settlement blocs and the loss of all Jerusalem, and allow Israel to station troops on his country's eastern border. (As Hanan Ashwari, for some time in the 1990s the chief Palestinian negotiator and their international public face, put it, "To the Israelis the only acceptable Palestinian is a Zionist, one who accepts the existence of Israel and renounces the right of return." Most Palestinians are not ready to do either.) In my opinion President Obama's speech two weeks ago was designed to save this policy. He offered (to the extent that he can) the Palestinians the 1967 borders with agreed mutual adjustments--but in return, Abbas had to end his new alliance with Hamas. Abbas, I suspect, created that alliance because he could see that the current Israeli government had now intention either of returning to the 1967 borders or even of halting settlements (and thus further expansion of Israeli territory) now. He was right. And Netanyahu's reception before Congress--a bipartisan reception an American President would not even dare dream of--was proof that Obama will never be able to do what Eisenhower did and apply effective pressure on the Israeli government to bring about a deal that it does not want. Netanyahu, meanwhile, is furious because Obama repudiated Bush's public pledge that Israel would simply keep large settlement blocs in any new agreement--forgetting that what one President can promise, another can take away. AIPAC is indeed one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, however, and I would not be surprised if Congress passes a resolution repudiating what President Obama has said. (For an earlier discussion of AIPAC's power, see the post of May 20, 2006, here.)
While the Israeli government does not formally base its claims today on any donation for a higher power, it does, it seems to me, maintain in effect that Israeli needs are paramount. Israelis have a right to live within any borders they deem necessary; Palestinians have only such rights as the Israelis are willing to let them have. Even the state which Netanyahu claims to offer them will lack many attributes of sovereignty. I can't help believing that that's why he claims to favor talks at all--he knows the Palestinians will never accept that status. Meanwhile, it certainly is not clear that conflict and terrorism would stop even in the entirely hypothetical case that the Palestinians were given the right to a state east of the 1949-67 border.
Ironically, Abbas is now going to return to where the conflict in its present form began, the General Assembly of the United Nations. It endorsed partition in 1948 and he wants it to do the same thing now, giving the Palestinians less than they would have received then but far more than Israel is willing to give them. The United States government, ironically, is proclaiming that the United Nations cannot recognize states. (The situation is of course different now because in 1948 Britain had formally turned sovereignty over to the UN.) The European states have been relatively pro-Palestinian for decades now, and many of them may go along with this. That will take the situation, to a certain extent, out of Washington's hands.
The only possible deal, it seems to me, at this point, and for decades to come, is some kind of a truce. That is how the Christian and Muslim worlds co-existed for long periods from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries on the frontiers of Eastern Europe. That is how peace was maintained in Western Europe during the Cold War, when the West German government never completely accepted the sovereignty of East Germany (while recognizing its authority beginning in 1972.) But neither side wants a truce.
I see only one piece of good news in all this. Like the Austro-Serbian conflict before 1914, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is the kind of issue that in earlier days would have divided the great powers and perhaps led to a continental or world war. As the events in the Balkans in the 1990s showed, we have moved beyond those times. A UN resolution on Palestinian independence may divide Washington from some of its European allies, from Russia and from China, but it will not lead to great-power war. The advanced countries have uncoupled third world conflicts from issues of their own basic security. That is a huge advance for civilization, and one for which we should all be grateful.