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Can there be peace between Israel and Palestine? History says probably not

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16 December 2023, The Australian, by Greg Sheridan

Israel has on at least four separate occasions offered a full state to the Palestinians, who each time rejected it. It starts in 1947.

Can there ever be peace between Israel and the Palestinians?

If history is a guide, the answer is no. But we are right to believe in miracles.

The Israeli government has only weeks to finish, or at least change fundamentally, its operation to destroy the Hamas terrorist group in Gaza. International pressure on Israel is mounting drastically. The humanitarian cost in Gaza, though entirely the moral responsibility of Hamas, is unsustainably high.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not be moved by the Albanese government signing a defective, one-sided UN resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire but not even mentioning Hamas by name, nor its October 7 atrocities.

It’s demoralising, of course, the defection, and confusion, of Australia, which was once at the centre of the Western alliance.

But much more important is the attitude of US President Joe Biden, who warns that Israel is losing international support. Biden himself is under immense pressure for solidly backing Israel.

The biggest operational problem for Israel remains the 500km of Hamas tunnels. Israel must destroy or disable these if it is to capture or kill top Hamas leaders and permanently disable Hamas militarily. The international pressure is immense. Israel will finish its operation by January or change its methods such that large-scale humanitarian aid can enter Gaza.

But it’s what happens the day after the operation ends that is where the biggest disagreement between Jerusalem and Washington (and Canberra, though Australia now has no influence at all with Jerusalem) comes in.

The Biden administration, like most international opinion, wants negotiations to resume towards a two-state solution, a Palestinian state living next door to Israel. Given that’s agonisingly distant, in the short term it wants the Palestinian Authority, which administers the West Bank, to administer Gaza.

Netanyahu says no on both scores. He doesn’t want the PA in charge of Gaza and he now rejects the two-state solution. My guess is he’d compromise on having the PA back in Gaza. The two-state solution, however, extraordinarily complex and difficult, seems impossible operationally.

Nothing generates more ignorant cliches than the Israel-Palestine dispute. Much discussion of it just involves endless recycling of familiar cliches that mostly float clear of reality. The difficulty with the two-state solution is that Palestinians, and in the past their Arab neighbours, and now their Iranian sponsors, have rejected every single genuine offer of a Palestinian state.

Until recently, most Israelis wanted a two-state solution. As anyone who has visited Israel knows, it’s a successful modern democracy, with a vibrant society, ethnic diversity and great economic achievement. It yearns to live normally, in peace. But decades of relentless attack by regional enemies who don’t accept its right to exist has changed its attitude to the utility, and dangers, of peace negotiations.

Notwithstanding three regional wars aimed at Israel’s annihilation, and almost constant lesser attacks from a collection of enemies that would fill a fat phone book, Israel has on at least four separate occasions offered a full state to the Palestinians, who each time rejected it.

It starts in 1947. The last uncontested sovereign power over the land of Israel, before modern Israel was created, was the Ottoman Empire. Ditto for the West Bank and Gaza. After the Ottomans, Britain ruled under a mandate first from the League of Nations, then the UN.

In 1947 the UN decided to split the land between Jews and Palestinians, with Jerusalem belonging to neither state but administered internationally. The Palestinians could have had their independent state right then. Israel would have been much smaller. Instead the Palestinians, plus all their Arab neighbours, rejected the deal. In 1948, when Israel declared independence and was formally recognised by a vote at the UN, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan all attacked, planning to wipe the Jews out of existence.

There was terrible fighting. Several Jewish towns were massacred. Some 750,000 Palestinians left Israel. This had several causes. One is they expected Jewish soldiers to be as savage with them as Arab soldiers had been with Jewish residents. Another is they expected Arab nations to quickly overwhelm Israel. Then they would return. Some Arab leaders advised Arab residents to flee temporarily. Some Palestinians were certainly driven out by Jewish soldiers. Large numbers of Palestinians remained, and today 20 per cent of Israel’s population is Arab. About the same time, 850,000 Jews were expelled from Arab and North African countries where Jews had lived for millennia, although often as a persecuted minority.

Israel’s Arab neighbours were determined never to accept a Jewish state. In 1967 they were making troop movements preparatory to attacking Israel, and declaring they were about to attack. So Israel launched a pre-emptive strike and in the process took control of the West Bank, which had been in Jordan’s possession, and the Gaza Strip, which Egypt had controlled, and the Sinai Desert, which also belonged to Egypt. Neither Jordan nor Egypt had ever tried to set up an independent Palestinian state in these territories.

Following this war the Arab states declared their policy of “three noes”: no peace, no recognition, no negotiation.

In 1973 Egypt, under Anwar Sadat, and Syria, with a degree of help from some other Arab nations, launched a surprise military attack on Israel that became the Yom Kippur war. At terrible cost, Israel won that war.

Despite his anti-Semitic past, Sadat made a historic peace with Israel in 1979. Critically, Israel returned the vast Sinai desert to Egypt, giving up all the strategic depth it had afforded Israel, and all its mineral resources, in exchange for a durable peace treaty. Israel evicted Jewish settlers who had moved to Sinai. But in terms of the politics of a subsequent Palestinian state, here is the most powerful lesson of all. Egyptian Islamic Jihad, enraged at Sadat making peace with Israel, assassinated him in 1981.

The Egyptian peace treaty demonstrated conclusively Israel would trade territory for peace, so long as it got real peace. The US underwrote the peace and it stands today. The Egypt-Israel treaty showed everyone peace was possible. Sadat’s assassination showed everyone it would always carry a high price.

The Oslo peace accords kicked off a process in the 1990s that led to Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, under the sponsorship of Bill Clinton, offering a full Palestinian state to Yasser Arafat.

Barak offered 96 per cent of the West Bank, some compensating territory from Israel proper, all of Gaza and the Palestinian neighbourhoods of east Jerusalem. Israel would keep only the large Jewish settlement blocs near Jerusalem, a couple of per cent of West Bank territory, and give territory from Israel proper in compensation. Barak wanted a full guarantee of peace and an end to all other Palestinian claims on Israel.

Arafat refused the deal. He tried to tell Clinton that Jews really had no historic connection to Jerusalem. He couldn’t meet the requirement to end all claims. And he demanded that all four million of the descendants of the 750,000 Palestinians who left in 1948 be allowed to return and live permanently in Israel, not in the new Palestinian state but in Israel itself. This is the so-called “right of return” and it’s an absurdity.

Every other refugee population that goes to live elsewhere is permanently resettled. But, of the neighbouring Arab countries, only Jordan offered Palestinians citizenship. Generally, Palestinian refugees and their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren were kept as notional refugees so the UN would pay for them in perpetuity, and as a bargaining chip against Israel.

The Palestinians could have had an independent state from Clinton and Barak, flooded with international aid, sponsored by the US, the EU and the Arab world. But had Arafat taken this deal he would surely have been killed by his own extremists eventually, just like Sadat. It’s likely Arafat never remotely wanted a deal. Former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid once told me that Arafat had told him privately that it was his ambition “to throw all the Jews into the sea”.

Barak’s remarkably generous deal, which would have involved uprooting many Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, was improved and offered to Arafat again. But again the Palestinians rejected it, making the third clear time they refused to accept a state.

In his memoirs, Clinton makes it clear Arafat bears responsibility for the failure to achieve a Palestinian state. If we’re sceptical of Israeli sources, we can read the detail in numerous memoirs of US officials intimately involved in the negotiations.

The fourth clear offer from Israel of a Palestinian state came at the end of the prime ministership of Ehud Olmert, in 2008. A year later, Olmert gave me his first and most extensive interview on this peace plan. Everything he said to me was later confirmed in the memoirs of Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state at the time.

“From the end of 2006 until the end of 2008, I think I met Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas, then and now the Palestinian president) more often than any Israeli leader has met any Arab leader. I met him more than 35 times. They were intense, serious negotiations,” Olmert told me.

“On 16th September, 2008, I presented him (Abbas) with a comprehensive plan. There would be a territorial solution based on the 1967 borders with minor modifications on both sides. Israel will claim part of the West Bank where there have been demographic changes (by this Olmert meant the three biggest Jewish settlement blocs).

“In total it would be about 6.4 per cent (of the West Bank, with Jewish settlers outside those blocs forced to leave the West Bank). In return there would be a swap of land (to the Palestinians) from Israel as it existed before 1967. I showed how this would maintain the contiguity of the Palestinian state. I also proposed a safe passage between the West Bank and Gaza. It would have been a tunnel, fully controlled by the Palestinians but not under Palestinian sovereignty.

“Jerusalem was a very sensitive, very painful, soul-searching process. While I always believed that historically, and emotionally, Jerusalem was always the capital of the Jewish people, I was ready that the city should be shared.

“Jewish neighbourhoods would be under Jewish sovereignty, Arab neighbourhoods under Palestinian sovereignty, so it could be the capital of a Palestinian state.”

The area of the holiest sites, sites holy to Muslims, Jews and Christians, Olmert proposed, should be administered by five nations – Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Palestinian state, Israel and the US. On the right of return, Olmert offered a symbolic return of 1000 Palestinians a year for five years to Israel itself and an international fund to recognise Palestinian suffering.

By then the descendants of all the Palestinian refugees, living in many countries, numbered five million. It’s insane to imagine Israel would invite five million Muslim Arabs to come and live in the state of Israel itself. The only purpose of the right of return is to give Palestinian leaders an excuse to reject a state. There would also need to be some security guarantees, such as the Palestinian state not acquiring conventional military weapons.

Rice in her memoirs says she was thrilled by this offer. She found it breathtaking and incredibly generous, the most that could ever be imagined. There was no absolute guarantee Olmert could have delivered this deal, but if the Palestinians had said yes, and the Americans had backed it, it would have been unstoppable. Except, perhaps, by a new wave of Palestinian terrorism.

Olmert told me: “I said this is the offer. Sign it and we can immediately get support from America, Europe, all over the world. I told him (Abbas) he’d never get anything like this again from an Israeli leader for 50 years. I said to him, do you want to keep floating forever, like an astronaut in space, or do you want a state?”

Abbas said he would come back next day with experts and advisers. But his office rang and said he’d forgotten a pre-planned trip. He’d come back to Olmert the next week. But Abbas never responded to the offer at all.

That was a fourth clear chance for a Palestinian state, clearly rejected by the Palestinians.

Later, even Netanyahu for a time would commit himself to a two-state solution, which he now rejects, but for many months the Palestinians refused to negotiate with him. The offers from Barak and Olmert involved immense courage, huge concessions and rare social and political strength. They meant Israel would trust a Palestinian state not to launch terrorism or worse against it. One part of the West Bank looks directly down on Tel Aviv airport. The whole of Israel could be paralysed if a neighbouring Palestinian state launched any attacks.

But every time an agreement looked possible, Islamist extremists would launch terror attacks on Israel designed to derail the peace process. They want conflict. That was a key reason Hamas was set up. Even with security guarantees, it’s now all but impossible for Israelis to trust a Palestinian state.

So in the meantime there are serious efforts to make life better for Palestinians in the territories. Netanyahu allowed Qatari aid to flow to Gaza and hundreds of Gazans to work in Israel proper. The aid was misused for weapons and tunnels and some of the workers supplied Hamas terrorists with detailed information regarding Israeli targets for the October 7 atrocities. How can Israel now trust any Palestinian state?

Further, what evidence is there a generation of Palestinians, raised on hate-filled anti-Semitic indoctrination in their schools, would ever accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state next door? There would always be incentive for Islamist extremists such as Hamas to assassinate any Palestinian leader who made peace or declared an end of claims on Israel.

This is one of many reasons the Albanese government was so ill-advised in changing to calling the West Bank and Gaza “illegally occupied Palestinian territories”. If Israel’s occupation is illegal, it must withdraw. Who then does it hand the territories over to? Hamas?

All the while Iran funds and co-ordinates the extremists: Hamas, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Houthis in Yemen, militias in Syria and Iraq. Under Biden, the US has lost influence in the Gulf, so it’s more difficult for everyone to resist Iranian money, guns, threats and influence.

Eventually, a two-state solution will have to come back, but eventually is a long time. The Israeli government, not unreasonably given everything, sees no prospect of it in the near future. No doubt Anthony Albanese and Penny Wong know better.

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Article source: The Australian/Greg Sheridan

2024-05-08 07:04:10.000000