Palestinians throw tear gas canisters during a protest after Israeli forces made raids on houses and shops in Ramallah on the West Bank on January 7, 2019. Photo: AFP/Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency

The Middle East has been aptly described as a region in which the conflicting parties never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. With the likes of Jordan and Egypt having recognized the State of Israel, Syria sidelined by its domestic problems and the Gulf states looking upon the Jewish state as a de facto ally in their confrontation with Iran, the only major issue that stands between Israel and the Arab world is the questions of the Palestinians.

The issue does not only bedevil Israel. It is also one that the Arab states have a problem addressing were it only for the fact that, by and large, they mostly have only themselves to blame for its inception.

In 1947, the last year of the British mandate, Palestine had a population of some 1.9 million, of which some 630,000 were Jewish and some 1.2 million Arab. With the Jews clamoring for their own state, and the two communities at each other’s throats, the United Nations adopted in November 1947 a partition plan for Palestine providing for the creation of two separate states, one Jewish and one Arab, with Jerusalem under international status.

The Jews, albeit reluctantly, accepted the partition plan. The Arabs did not, and in May 1948, days after the Jews had proclaimed the State of Israel, the combined armies of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Syria and Iraq moved to occupy the areas of Palestine controlled by the Jewish state.

Why the Arab states would object to the partition of Palestine to the point of going to war to oppose it, and this when none of their national interests were at stake, says much about a part of the world where emotions ruled, passions ran amok and compromise based on rational thinking was not part of the landscape. But actually the Arab states objected to more than the partition of Palestine; they objected to the very concept of a Jewish state

Contrary to expectations, the new state held its own, and when an armistice was signed in February 1949 it had more than doubled its territory, and seized West Jerusalem.

By refusing to compromise and accept the 1947 partition plan, the Arab states not only suffered a humiliating defeat, they also ended up with a State of Israel twice the size of that originally planned.

The 1949 armistice resulted in the emergence two viable geographical entities, one controlled by Israel and one by the Arabs. While it was less favorable to the Arabs than the 1947 UN partition plan, it provided each party with a part of Jerusalem that it could claim as its capital. Thus the objective conditions that would have led to the creation of a Palestinian state in parallel to the Jewish state existed. But just as the Arab states missed the opportunity to accept the 1947 UN partition plan, they now missed the opportunity to accept a less favorable solution, albeit one that did not impact either their security or territorial integrity.

The creation of Israel resulted in the uprooting of some 720,000 Palestinians who lost their homes and sought refuge in the neighboring Arab countries.

From a moral perspective, an injustice had occurred leading to a major humanitarian crisis. With Israel refusing to take the refugees back, resettling some 720,000 fellow Arabs throughout the Arab world was within the realm of the feasible. However, the thrust of the Arab policy toward the State of Israel was to eliminate it rather than to come to any agreement with it.

To keep the issue of the Palestinian refugees on the table, the Arab states chose not to resettle them but rather to confine them to camps or shantytowns in the countries of refuge and prohibited them either from working or integrating. This proved for the Arab states the making of a time bomb

To that end, and in order to keep the issue of the Palestinian refugees on the table, the Arab states chose not to resettle them but rather to confine them to camps or shantytowns in the countries of refuge and prohibited them either from working or integrating. This proved for the Arab states the making of a time bomb.

Over time the camps became havens of despair before becoming the incubators of terrorism. In 1970 the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which had been generated by the camp environment, tried to overthrow the Jordanian government and subsequently moved to South Lebanon, where it created a state within a state. Thus, having resolved not to address the Palestinian refugee problem at is inception, the Arab governments were now confronted with a people for whom they had no empathy, were viewed with suspicion and only endured in camps through Western aid.

The 1967 Six-Day War marked the transition of Israel from a nation under siege to a local mini-superpower. This, however, was not followed by any political developments. And while in June 1967 Israel offered to return the Golan to Syria and the Sinai to Egypt in exchange for a peace treaty, the only response it received was the September Khartoum Declaration, which stated unequivocally that the Arab policy toward Israel would consist of “no peace, no negotiation and no recognition.”

If the Six-Day War marked the apex of Israel’s power, the subsequent 1973 Yom Kippur War brought to the fore its limitation. This, in turn, brought about a major shift in the Arab position, with Jordan and Egypt signing peace treaties with Israel. With Syria on the sidelines and the Gulf states in essence preoccupied by Iran, the Arab/Israeli conflict, which started as a collision between the Jewish inhabitants of Palestine and Palestinian Arabs, reverted in part to its original format, with the caveat that there is on one side a Jewish people that morphed into a Jewish state and on the other a non-state actor loosely termed “the Palestinians.”

While the asymmetrical relationship between Israel and the Palestinians suffers from the vagaries of the internal politics of both sides, it also has a debilitating effect on the values of the stronger of the two parties, in this case the occupier rather than the occupied. With no issue in sight for all concerned, a strong case can be made that the indefinite continuation of the status quo is more liable to have negative rather than positive consequences for the conflicting parties, with one caveat. Seventy years of conflict have shown that put face to face, the two parties have an ingrained incapacity for coming up with any form of a viable and mutually beneficial agreement. The end result is that peace, if it is ever to occur, will have to be coaxed from the outside.

Whether the international environment is conducive to such an endeavor and is ready to invest the political capital required is a moot point. But what is not is that the days of missed opportunities are over, if only because there are no more opportunities to miss. Conversely, creating opportunities rather than groping for those that no longer exist requires that the parties come to grips with a reality that has been systematically obfuscated, namely:

  • Whatever may be the fantasies of Hamas, the radical Sunni Islamist group that controls Gaza, or of any other Palestinian, Israel will not be wiped off the map, and the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean will not become an Islamic state.
  • Whatever the dreams the 7 million or so Palestinian refugees, or rather their descendants, who mostly linger in UN-funded camps, they will never go back to where they came from. Thus the “right of return” is ultimately a myth that has the perverse effect of perpetuating an illusion. Ultimately the Palestinian refugees will join the ranks of those who have been expelled over the decades, including the Germanic communities of Central and Eastern Europe, the Algerian “Pieds-Noirs,” the Ugandan Asians, the ethnic Chinese from Vietnam, or the Jewish communities throughout the Middle East and who found new homes.
  • Last but not least, the “occupied territories” are exactly that: occupied territories. They might continue to be so for decades but if only for demographic reasons a two-state solution is one for which there is no realistic alternative.

One of the hallmarks of the Middle East is its capacity to endure in denial of reality. Currently this denial is slowly eroding at the edges, albeit not necessarily for the right reasons.

Thus it is an objective fact that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. This does not exclude the possibility of a hypothetical Palestinian state also basing its government offices in Jerusalem and also as claiming it as its capital; but it does not detract from Jerusalem being Israel’s capital.

Likewise Syria has irretrievably lost the Golan Heights to Israel. Granted, years ago a leasehold might have been part of a peace plan, but today there is no going back. Ultimately, the purely cursory reactions of protest when the administration of US President Donald Trump recognized both Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the annexation by Israel of the Golan Heights are indicative of how far away the Arab world has moved from its Palestinian concerns.

It took some 70 years for the clash between the Jews and Arabs of Palestine to come full circle. They are now face to face. Granted the asymmetry of power between the two is massive but it still does not enable one to impose its will totally on the other. And both sides seem to believe that time is on their side. As things stand today, both might well be wrong.

Alexander Casella

Alexander Casella PhD has taught and worked as a journalist for the likes of Le Monde, The Times, The New York Times, Die Zeit, The Guardian, and Swiss radio and TV, writing primarily on China and Vietnam. In 1973 he joined the UNHCR, serving, among others, as representative in Hanoi, regional representative for the Middle East in Beirut, regional coordinator in Bangkok, head of the East Asia Section...

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