The Arab World Geographer
Forum on Current Crisis in Palestine/Israel
Reflections of a Long-time Observer

Richard Nolte
(U.S. ambassador to Egypt 1967)
Westport, CT  06880  U.S.A.

Among the grand themes playing out during the past half-century in the Middle East, two stand out, highlighted by the current explosion of violence. One is the rise of Israel from embattled David to regional superpower. The other, in parallel, is the emergence of a Palestinian nation. Both have evolved in competition for the same piece of ground (smaller than Vermont). Both have been able to draw on outside support, Israel spectacularly so. For both so far, it has been pretty much a zero sum game, Israeli gain versus Palestinian loss. But the odds have been shifting, and the future remains in doubt. Will a militant Israel continue to prevail despite mounting losses in blood and treasure? Will it ultimately fail and be absorbed into the Arab world like Christian crusader kingdoms eight centuries ago? Or will wiser leadership on both sides find common ground and satisfy the desire of the majority of both populations for a normal life, free form fear and loss?

The rise of Israel from embattled David to regional superpower  is an astonishing success story, underpinned by the extraordinary financial, diplomatic, and military support of the United States, support which still continues. Four victorious wars against its neighbours (1947–48), 1956, 1967, 1973), a war of attrition against Egypt (1969–70), two invasions of Lebanon (1978, 1982), and the acquisition of territory from Syria, Jordan, and Egypt are waymarks on Israel’s path to pre-eminent power.

At the same time, Israeli enterprise and determination, plus private foreign investment, tax-free giving, and lavish taxpayer-supported U.S. aid (US$85 billion and counting) have made Israel into an advanced, industrialized, and technologically sophisticated nation with its own arms exports and aid programs. A per capita income of some US$15 000—far higher than that of its Arab neighbours—makes Israel the 15th wealthiest country in the world.

But Israel has not so far been able to resolve a major problem: the Palestinians. There are upwards of 2.5 million in the occupied territories of West Bank and Gaza and a million or so Palestinian citizens of Israel—20% of the total. Until the troop withdrawals after the Oslo accords, Israel thus controlled a Palestinian population of over 3.5 million. What to do with them has been at the heart of the problem of peace from the beginning.

Keep the land and let the Palestinians go elsewhere as in 1947–48, when some 725 000 fled from Israeli force and terror? Keep the land and incorporate the Palestinians as citizens in a democratic Israel? or as helots in an apartheid system of Bantustans? Give up the West Bank and Gaza (but keep Jerusalem)—let them have their own state? Israeli opinion is fiercely divided on all this, and no end in sight. And all along, as the Palestinian population burgeons, very little has been done on the Israeli side to offer them friendship or to instill confidence and trust in Israeli leadership, Israeli motives. It is as if the survivors of European victimization had learned nothing about dealing with victims except hostility, discrimination, and the use of force. Israel’s harsh policies of repression, however, have played no small role in hammering out a Palestinian sense of national identity.

The Palestinians are victims in a zero sum game, and despite the systematic efforts of Israel and the United States to deny any status to the Palestinians but that of refugees or terrorists (Who are they? Not a people, not a nation, said Golda Meir in 1969), they have established themselves as a people entitled to recognition as such by the world community and entitled to negotiate their claims at the same table with the Israelis.

From a fractious mosaic of families and clans, this stormy progression begins with the establishment of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1964 and proceeds through three decades of setbacks (expelled from Jordan, 1970; expelled from Lebanon, 1982) and achievements. The PLO was recognized as the official voice of the Palestinian people by the Arab states in 1974, and grudgingly, by the U. S. in 1988. In 1987–93 the Intifada (uprising) in the territories of stone-throwing young men and boys led to the Oslo agreement between Israel and the PLO, which provided for Palestinian self-government in the West Bank and Gaza. The agreement represented notable progress for the Palestinians and a major break in the deadlock over peace. It produced a widespread reduction of tension, an Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, and the expansion of commercial relationships. There was hope for the future on both sides.

But all that promising beginning came to a halt with the assassination of Rabin, with the bus massacres of Israeli civilians and with the election of Benyamin Netanyahu as prime minister in 1996. The U. S. continued its dogged effort to promote the “peace process” but refrained from using pressure, on the ground that it was up to the parties to negotiate a solution because they were the ones who would have to live with it. But that’s like putting a mouse and a cat in a cage together and telling them to negotiate their differences. The mouse has no choice, no place to go. The cat doesn’t want to go anywhere; he is happy where he is, and all he requires of his patron is to keep the Alpo coming and keep others away. The metaphor may oversimplify matters, but it does suggest the great imbalance of power involved.

It also suggests the difficulty facing the U.S. of maintaining the role of honest Broker in the light of its all but total commitment to Israel—the ongoing aid of US$3.5 billion a year, the web of military support agreements, the tacit acceptance of Israel’s defiance over the years of some 70 Security Council resolutions critical of Israel, and the protective veto of 29 more. In the case of Iraq, the U.S. insisted, “UN Security Council resolutions must be obeyed.” Not since Eisenhower told Prime Minister Ben Gurion to get out of Sinai after the 1956 conquest has the U.S. pressured Israel into doing something it didn’t want to do.
 Despite all, the Palestinian mouse has slowly been gaining certain strengths that improve the equation. One is world-wide sympathy for the underdog and anger at Israeli treatment—which may come to act as a restraint on Israeli behaviour. Another is the rapid Palestinian population increase, a potential demographic threat. A third, and perhaps the most telling, was the Intifada. The Israeli response decided on by Yitzak Rabin under the Likud government was “We will break their bones!” But when Rabin was elected prime minister in 1992, he finally concluded that coming to terms with the Palestinians was the only alternative to continuing expense for Israel, and to continuing strife and bloodshed. Hence the Oslo accords.

With the election of Ehud Barak in 1999, the Israelis repudiated the negative policies of Netanyahu, and the prospect for further progress in the peace process improved. Again, tensions relaxed as Barak in the spirit of Rabin proposed moving to a final solution. For the first time, real progress was made on the central issues dividing Israelis and Palestinians: boundaries, refugee claims, Israeli settlements, and Jerusalem. Despite all, negotiations ground to a halt on the issue of sovereignty over the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, sacred to Muslims, including most Palestinians, and to Israeli Jews. The emotional investment on both sides was extreme.

Ariel Sharon’s foray with well-armed escorts onto sacred Muslim precincts was seen by Palestinians as a deliberate provocation. Fifty years of humiliation and frustrated anger came into focus as they exploded into stone-throwing action. For Israelis, all the violence was attributable to machinations by Arafat, which revealed that an unremitting Palestinian hostility underlay their participation in the peace process. The violence—Palestinian violence—must be stopped by them, or else .. . And so, in a moment, back to square one.

The Intifada was prompted by fear on one side. But with this look into the abyss of escalating bloodshed and destruction, the leaders on both sides may conclude, like Rabin, that the only alternative is negotiating peace and that the ideology of sovereignty over sacred places is negotiable too. If not, if all the U.S. “honest brokerage” fails, perhaps Americans should ask themselves if the policy of support for Israel no matter what has been in the best long-term interest of Israel, the Palestinians, or the United States.

(Submitted 12 October 2000)

© The Arab World Geograppher

Forum / Editorial / Nolte / Khashan / Mustafa / McColl / Newman / Halper / Schechla / Khamaisi / Taylor

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