While I am sticking to my resolve not to propose a solution to the conflict in Gaza and the West Bank between Israelis and Palestinians, I do think that understanding how the conflict began and how we got to where we are can help us all. In fact I think both parties to the conflict understand these questions much better than western observers. Underlying all this, meanwhile, is a fundamental question about the essence of the modern world--and I will begin with that.
For the last eight or nine weeks I have been reading the Iliad for a class of senior learners. The class is well run and the discussions have invariably been lively, often focusing on the differences between the ancient Greek world view and our own. Emotions rule the world of the Iliad--both the human world of Achilles, Agamemnon, Helen, Hector, Priam and all the rest, and the world of the gods, who continually intervene in earthly quarrels. Students have constantly wrestled with the obvious differences between the Greek gods and the Judeo-Christian god to whom we have all been exposed all our lives, whether we are religious or not. That latter god laid down laws and standards of virtue which he expected humans to live up to, pointing us, in many instances, towards a calmer, more peaceful and more moral world. Not only do the Greek gods not do that, but they also display all the vices of human beings. The Greek world, as a result, is almost totally chaotic. I have been something of a gadfly from the beginning of the class, frequently arguing that the Greek view might actually be a more accurate portrayal of human nature and the sources of human behavior than our own more idealistic one. Recently, indeed, it occurred to me that our whole civilization is based on the idea that reason can provide rules that will allow us to overcome the chaos that Homer identified so clearly. The history of the last few centuries certainly reveals the western experiment to be less than a complete success. The wisdom of the Enlightenment has not prevented the eruption of wars on a scale Homer could not even dream of, even as the nations of the world have tried to organize lasting peace. Perhaps, though, the experiment in rationality is worth continuing, not because it is destined to succeed completely, but because the alternative would be worse. These, it turns out, are key issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I am going to begin my analysis today with the creation of modern Israel in 1947-8. Modern Zionism had emerged as an international movement in the late nineteenth century and won its first great political victory in 1917, when the British government--then at war with the Ottoman Empire--announced that it would support the creation of a "Jewish national home"--a new concept in international law--in Palestine, with the understanding that this would not prejudice the rights of the existing Arab population. Thus was born not only the dream of a Jewish state, but the contradiction that has bedeviled it ever since. The British pledged to implement that plan when they assumed control of Palestine under a League of Nations mandate after the First World War, and it immediately led to violent conflict between Jews and Arabs, who opposed the idea from the beginning. By the late 1930s the British government had backed away from the plan and was severely limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine, even as the holocaust threatened. After the war the Jewish population of Palestine revolted against British rule, and the British in 1947 announced their intention to terminate the mandate and turned the question of Palestine's future over to the new United Nations. That body appointed a commission to study the conflict between the Jews and the Arabs and recommend a solution.
That committee recommended a partition of Palestine--that is, what is now Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank--into Jewish and Arab states. The Jewish state it envisioned was considerably smaller than Israel today, and Arabs would have comprised almost half its population. The Truman Administration endorsed the plan, and helped line up the two-thirds General Assembly majority that approved it on November 29, 1947, as UN Resolution 181. The General Assembly, however, had no power to implement the resolution, and thus asked the Security Council to take steps to do so. This attempt to resolve the issue peacefully and by legal and diplomatic means, however, collapsed at once.
The Zionist leaders in Israel welcomed the resolution, even though they did not regard the terms of the partition as satisfactory. They understood that the international endorsement of a Jewish state, however small, was perhaps the most critical step towards creating the Israel they had in mind. The Arabs, on the other hand, made a terrible mistake, from their point of view, by rejecting it completely. Within days, civil war between the Arabs and Jews had broken out in Palestine. This was a very brutal conflict, as detailed by the Israeli historian Benny Morris in his book Righteous Victims, and by the late spring the Jews were beginning to get the upper hand. Meanwhile, the Security Council refused to play the role the General Assembly had envisioned and could not agree to a new approach to the conflict that had emerged. The attempt to solve the problem through international agreement had failed, and the two parties on the ground were now at war.
On May 14, when British authority in Palestine lapsed, the Israeli leadership, headed by David Ben Gurion, proclaimed the new state of Israel. Neighboring Arab states--some of them newly independent as well--immediately declared war on that state and sent troops into Palestine. As far as I can see, however, the Arabs within Palestine--who suffered, as Morris points out, from poor organization--did not at this time proclaim a state of their own. In the international war that followed the Israelis managed to expand their territory far beyond what the partition plan had envisioned and beyond what they had controlled on their independence day. Meanwhile, most of the Arab population of that territory either fled or was driven out. And the territory they did not regain--the West Bank of the Jordan River, East Jerusalem, and Gaza--did not become part of a Palestinian state after the armistice of 1949, but instead came under control of the Jordanian and Egyptian governments. The UN recognized the Palestinians who had fled to Gaza, Lebanon and Jordan as refugees, but that was all. Israel, like most other modern states--including the United States of America--had established itself not via international agreement, but by force, followed by varying degrees of international recognition--though without any diplomatic recognition from its immediate neighbors. The Palestinians had been given no say in the process of redrawing the region's borders, had lost the military battle, and had now become stateless persons.
From 1949 through 1967 the Arab-Israeli conflict was a conflict among states, with Egypt leading the Arab coalition against Israel after Gamel Abdul Nasser took power there in the early 1950s. None of those states accepted the status quo as anything but temporary. The Arabs hoped to destroy Israel, and sponsored guerillas who crossed Israel's borders to commit terrorist acts. The Israelis--and this has been well documented by Morris, Conor Cruise O'Brien, and others--wanted to expand their borders. They attempted unsuccessfully to do so when they attacked Egypt in 1956 together with Britain and France and occupied the Sinai peninsula, only to have President Eisenhower force them to withdraw, and they did so more successfully in 1967, when they attacked Egypt, Jordan and Syria after Nasser had closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships, effectively blocking the port of Eilat. The Six Day War left them in control of the Sinai Peninsula, all of Jerusalem, the whole West Bank of the Jordan River--referred to by the Israelis as Judea and Samaria--and the Syrian Golan heights. They immediately offered to return the Sinai and the Golan in exchange for formal peace treaties with Egypt and Syria, but they did not make a parallel offer to Jordan with respect to the West Bank, which many Israelis saw part of the original grant from their god to the Jews. Instead, the Israeli government began establishing settlements in the West Bank--and the settlements have grown under every Israeli government in the last 56 years, and now include half a million people.
The years from 1967 through 1979 transformed the conflict from a mainly interstate one to a renewal of the original 1947-48 battle between the Jewish and Arab inhabitants of Palestine. The 1967 war sent more refugees from the West Bank into Jordan, and Yasir Arafat's Palestine Liberation Authority now emerged as the political representative of the Palestinian people, with some international recognition from various states and from the United Nations. International efforts to arrange peace talks between Israel and the Arab states went nowhere until 1973, when Egypt and Syria staged a surprise attack on Israel and won initial successes, and Egypt emerged having regained some of the Sinai peninsula. That led to disengagement agreements among Israel and Egypt and Syria, and then, in the late 1970s, to Anwar Sadat's peace ovetures and the conclusion of the Camp David accords in 1979, when Israel agreed to full withdrawal from the Sinai in exchange for full Egyptian diplomatic recognition. Those agreements also promised "autonomy" for the Palestinians on the West Bank, although as I have come to understand, the Israeli government of Menachem Begin believed that that meant autonomy for the people, but not for the land--that is, while the Palestinians would enjoy some form of self-rule, they would not enjoy territorial sovereignty or their own state in what Begin referred to as part of the "land of Israel."
Once again the Palestinians had taken no part in the talks and rejected any such plan. Their leadership had now headquartered in Lebanon, where they played a role in a disastrous civil war and built up a substantial military capability. That in 1982 led Israel to invade Lebanon to destroy that capability. Eleven years later came another apparent breakthrough. Just as Jimmy Carter had brought Sadat and Begin together at Camp David, Bill Clinton brought Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Arafat to the White House to consummate the Oslo accords in 1993. Those accords recognized Israel's right to exist and provided for some Israeli military withdrawal from the West Bank and the creation of a Palestinian authority to take over the administration of the Arab population there and in Gaza. They did not promise a Palestinian state, but merely envisioned further negotiations between that Palestinian authority and the Israeli government to determine the "final status" of the West Bank and Gaza. Shortly thereafter, these agreements apparently enabled the government of Jordan to sign its own peace treaty with Israel. In short, the accords seemed to provide, for the first time, a framework within which Israelis and Palestinians could live together in peace, although the exact terms of their relationship remained to be worked out.
Important opposition to this new framework immediately emerged on both sides. Hamas, which had been founded to organize Palestinian resistance in the late 1980s, immediately opposed the accords and emerged as a formidable competitor with the PLO. In Israel Rabin was assassinated by a young Israeli who regarded him as a traitor for concluding the the accords in 1995. Pressed by the Clinton Administration, Arafat and Rabin's successor Ehud Barak tried to conclude a final status agreement. The parties met at Camp David, following in the footsteps of Sadat and Begin and Carter, in late 2000. Israel offered Palestinian sovereignty over much of the West Bank and Gaza, but wanted to retain key settlement blocs and to divide the Palestinian territory in various ways, while also maintaining control of its airspace and limiting its military forces. The Palestinians wanted some acknowledgement of a right of return for refugees, although exactly how it would be implemented remained unclear. The two sides also disagreed about the fate of East Jerusalem and the custody of holy places. An excellent and very well sourced Wikipedia article on the failure of the the talks suggests to me that the two sides remained very far from an agreement, and I urge all readers to look at it themselves and evaluate the responsibility for the failure of the talks. Both sides, in different ways, repudiated the process after the summit's failure. In Israel Ariel Sharon defeated Barak's center-right coalition in the the next year, and Palestinians in the West Bank launched new rebellions and terrorist campaigns, led in part by Hamas. The Israeli government concluded that they had simply used the Oslo agreements and the Israeli withdrawal to prepare for a new armed campaign against Israel. A panel discussion organized by the New York Times tells a great deal about the origins of Oslo and why it failed.
The last twenty years seem to have pushed both sides farther and farther from agreement. In Israel neither Sharon nor his successor Benjamin Netanyahu have shown any interest in a two-state solution. The Bush II administration blamed Arafat for the failure of peace talks and demanded new elections in the West Bank and Gaza to elect new Palestinian leadership. To its utter amazement, Hamas won an easy victory in those elections, albeit with slightly less than 50 percent of the total vote. The Palestinian authority, now led by Mahmoud Abbas, a.k.a. Abu Mazen, refused to yield to Hamas, and has refused to hold any further elections since. Sharon did withdraw Israeli troops from Gaza in 2005, making it a separate enclave. Hamas rapidly gained power there, and Israel and Egypt have blockaded the territory ever since, controlling all its utilities. The complicated significance of that withdrawal is explained at length in another well-sourced Wikipedia article.
Since taking power in Gaza Hamas has built up its military capabilities there. Meanwhile, north of Israel, Hezbollah, a militant Shi'ite group backed by Iran, has become a very important political force in Lebanon and established a parallel military capability. Both Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon have built up enormous stockpiles of rockets and drones which they have periodically fired into Israel, which has defended itself with antimissile systems and carried out several punitive expeditions. Early this year, the creation of a new right-wing government in Israel, including settler activists who apparently have designs on the entire West Bank, moved the conflict into a new phase. Then came the massacre of October 7, and now, the Israeli war on Gaza.
In recent years there has been much talk, on both sides, of a one-state solution rather than a two-state solution. Since the numbers of Jewish Israelis and Arabs between the Jordan River and the sea--including Gaza--are almost equal at this point, and the Arab birth rate is higher, the militant Palestinian leadership presumably regards that as a step towards eventual takeover of the whole area, with very serious consequences for the Jews, while the Israelis see it as too big a threat to the existence of the Jewish state. Meanwhile, both sides covet territory belonging to or inhabited by the other, just as they did in 1947-48. The principles of self-determination and equality that international politics claim to have been based on at least since the First World War cannot, sadly, solve this problem, because, despite the existence of many people of good will on both sides, neither political authority respects the claims of the other. At times I find the insistence of my own government upon an eventual two-state solution somewhat pathetic, since there seems to be no possibility of it coming to pass, but thinking about last week's discussion of the Iliad and our times, I see that to give up on the two-state solution would be giving up on a particular vision of humanity, in this case at least, that we do not want to lose.
The October 7 invasion and massacre was the kind of terrorism the Palestinians have used since Israel's foundation, but on a larger scale. Their use of big rocket attacks from Gaza--joined by Hezbollah from Lebanon--seem designed to make at least large parts of Israel uninhabitable for the Israelis, and reports from Israel indicate that they are having some success. In response, Israel is using unprecedented tactics in Gaza, treating it and its population the way the British and Americans treated the Germans and the Japanese during the Second World War. I do not know what the goal of their bombing is, but it seems pretty certain that more than half of the Gazan population will be homeless by the time the war is over, whether it successfully destroys Hamas or not. In the last few weeks, not only Israeli right-wingers, but even people within the current government, have been putting forth the expulsion of all the Palestinians from Gaza--two million of them--as the only solution to Israel's long-term problem. The Israeli Intelligence Minister just advocated resettling Gazans elsewhere publicly, only to be disavowed by anonymous government spokespersons. Meanwhile, armed settler militias have emptied sixteen Palestinian villages in the West Bank during this year. These steps, like the bombing, hearken back to the Second World War. The Allies at the end of that war cooperated in the expulsion of nearly twelve million Germans from territory given to Poland and the USSR, from Czechoslovakia, and from elsewhere in Eastern Europe. The Allies--utterly supreme in 1945--faced no real opposition to what they did then. We do not know what the consequences of a parallel step for Israel today would be. I hope that it does not take place.