Seeking Israeli-Palestinian Peace

China Leaders Magazine

David Harris

January 2012

If there is light in the soul,
there will be beauty in the person.
If there is beauty in the person,
there will be harmony in the house.
If there is harmony in the house,
there will be order in the nation.
If there is order in the nation,
there will be peace in the world.

Chinese Proverb

It is a great honor to address the readers in China of this prestigious publication.

Our goal at AJC is to help advance the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. In doing so, we seek to explain Israel’s yearning for peace, the ancestral tie between the Jewish people and this land, and Israel’s security challenges as a small state in a turbulent, arms-laden neighborhood. For geographical perspective, the land mass of China is more than 450 times larger than Israel. Indeed, Israel is virtually the same size as that of the metropolitan area of Beijing.

We believe in the objective of two states for two peoples, living side by side in mutual recognition and harmony. This is a conflict where there is no winner unless both sides come out ahead.

Of course, all this is easier said than done. Many decades have come and gone. Many peace plans have been put on the table. Many top officials and diplomats from around the world have invested time and effort in seeking to advance the prospects of peace.

To date, while there has been some notable progress in security cooperation and economic development, which should not be overlooked, there is no deal. Still, it would be wrong to conclude this conflict is insoluble.

Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are leaving the area anytime soon. Neither party will defeat the other in the classic military sense of the term. Thus, the only logical outcome remains what it has always been – Palestine living alongside Israel, with internationally recognized boundaries separating the two, appropriate security measures in place, and, over time, growing interstate collaboration to help reach the region’s potential.

What has prevented the realization of this vision?

Above all, it has been one constant theme – the Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel’s inherent right to exist. This right is based upon the Jewish people’s 4,000-year-old connection to the land, a linkage that, like the Chinese people’s to China, is among the most enduring between a land and a people in world history. That central point, more than any other, explains the absence of peace for more than 60 years.

Go back to 1947. At that time, the UN General Assembly endorsed the recommendation of the UN Special Committee on Palestine to split the territory, ruled until that point by Britain under a League of Nations mandate, into two states – one Jewish, the other Arab.

Two states could have emerged then, avoiding years of conflict to follow. While the Jews agreed, the Arab world categorically refused to accept the UN partition plan. Instead, five Arab countries went to war to destroy the newly-established Israel. They failed, but they retained the West Bank, eastern Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.

Until the 1967 war of self-defense, when Egypt and Syria publicly declared their aim of wiping out Israel, those territories were in Arab, not Israeli, hands. At any time, they could have declared the State of Palestine. They did not. Instead, Jordan annexed the West Bank, while Egypt imposed military rule on Gaza.

In the process, another chance for Palestinian sovereignty was squandered.

Fast forward to 2000. A forthcoming Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Ehud Barak, joined with U.S. President Bill Clinton to propose a far-reaching two-state deal to Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat. Tragically, he did not accept the offer.

Here’s what President Clinton wrote about Arafat in his autobiography, My Life: “Right before I left office, Arafat, in one of our last conversations, thanked me for all my efforts and told me what a great man I was. ‘Mr. Arafat,’ I replied, ‘I am not a great man. I am a failure, and you have made me one.’”

Clinton went on to say: “Arafat’s rejection of my proposal [for a Palestinian state] after Barak accepted it was an error of historic proportions.”

That was at least the third unrealized chance for Palestine to emerge.

The fourth chance came in 2008, when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert – whose parents, like many Jews fleeing persecution, found refuge in Harbin – offered a deal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that went even further.

Abbas himself acknowledged that Israel offered the equivalent of 100 percent of the West Bank, including land swaps, but he did not even bother to respond to the deal.

Another chance for peace and sovereignty was lost.

In 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu was elected Israel’s prime minister.

He reaffirmed Israel’s commitment to a two-state solution and persuaded his skeptical Likud Party, suspicious that the true Palestinian goal continued to be Israel’s destruction, to go along.

In response to a U.S. request, Netanyahu introduced an unprecedented ten-month settlement freeze as a further inducement for the Palestinians to return to the bargaining table. But other than appear in Washington for a few days, the Palestinians were not to be found. Instead, they demanded several preconditions for showing up, whereas the Israelis said from the start that neither side should set preconditions for the resumption of talks.

And now we come to the current Palestinian gambit at the UN. The Palestinians claim they have no choice but to turn to the world body. Not true. They have a willing negotiating partner – Israel.

As Prime Minister Netanyahu stated in his address to the UN General Assembly: “The Palestinians should first make peace with Israel and then get their state... After such a peace agreement is signed, Israel will not be the last country to welcome a Palestinian state as a new member of the United Nations. We will be the first.”

Indeed, by focusing on the UN, the Palestinians are setting back any prospects for peace by seeking to go around Israel and create new facts on the ground. But is that the way to advance peaceful conflict resolution – by ignoring Israel, one-half of the equation? Hardly.

Those countries that support the Palestinian strategy at the UN, knowingly or not, may be planting the seeds for a new round of conflict, not coexistence. Palestinian expectations will only grow, but not be met, triggering possible unrest. And extremists in the region could dangerously seek to exploit the situation to their own advantage.

Moreover, the UN would be establishing a dangerous precedent that could be applied to other conflicts in the world. Imagine aggrieved groups like the Palestinians, and they do exist, circumventing direct talks with their adversaries and instead asking the UN to validate their sovereignty.

Finally, does Palestine today really constitute a state according to the generally accepted definition? No.

For starters, the Palestinian Authority, led by President Abbas, does not control Gaza. In 2007, he and his forces were routed from the land by Hamas, an extremist Islamist organization that engages in widespread terror attacks similar to other radical groups around the world such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and whose charter calls for Israel’s elimination. Abbas has not been able to return since. Yet he claims a state in both the West Bank and Gaza. How can this be? Hamas rejects his authority, indeed opposes his UN strategy.

What should be done?

Countries with an interest in peace, security and stability in the Middle East should tell the Palestinian leadership to stop unilateral actions at the UN and start bilateral actions at the negotiating table – with Israel. If there is a path to peace and a two-state settlement, it is there, not at the UN.

The Quartet – the UN, European Union, Russia and the United States – have just put forth a plan to get talks going without preconditions and pointed in the right direction. Israel has welcomed this initiative. The Palestinians are dithering.

For the sake of “peace in the world,” this time around let’s hope the Palestinians give the right answer.

David Harris, is Executive Director of American Jewish Committee (AJC), and Senior Associate St. Antony’s College, Oxford University (2009-11).

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