The Peel Commission report (that was in 1937), the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry’s recommendations (1946), the UN partition resolution (1947), the Bernadotte plan (1948), the Lausanne conference (1948-49), Security Council Resolution 242 (1967), the Rogers plan (1970), the Jarring mission (1971), the Camp David “framework for peace” (1978), the Madrid conference (1991), the Oslo declaration of principles (1993), the Palestinian-Israeli interim agreement (1995), the Wye summit (1997), the Camp David summit (2000), the Sharm-el-Sheikh summit (2000), the Taba conference (2001), the Bush road map (2003): if none of these could end the Jewish-Arab conflict in Palestine, what hope is there for Annapolis?
Indeed there is little. When time after time a problem cannot be resolved, it is reasonable to suspect that it may be unresolvable, at least in the manner in which it is conceived. And yet, we have been told, the problem has now come so tantalizingly close to resolution that all it needs is one more little push.
In the talks between Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat at Camp David in 2000—so goes this assessment—Israel and the Palestinian Authority, with the active mediation of President Clinton, were a hair’s breadth away from an agreement. Almost all the pieces were in place. These included the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; a total Israeli withdrawal from the latter and a near-total one from the former, with several settlement blocs being retained by Israel; territorial compensation for the Palestinians in the form of a land swap; and a re-division of Jerusalem with all of its Arab neighborhoods reverting to Arab rule. Although some issues remained unsettled, including the disposition of the Temple Mount and the future of the families of the 1948 Palestinian refugees, here too the gaps had narrowed to bridgeable proportions. But just then, at the last moment, both sides dug in their heels, the second intifada erupted, and the deal was off. Annapolis represents a second chance to conclude it, one that must not be missed.
Such is today’s received wisdom: the road to Israeli-Palestinian peace has been fully laid out and needs only to be paved in a few last sections. All that is lacking is the political courage on the part of Israeli and Palestinian leaders to stick to the “Clinton parameters” laid down at Camp David, plus the Clinton-like involvement of an American President to keep their minds concentrated on the task. If George W. Bush and his administration are prepared to play this role in their final year in office, an end to the conflict is finally in sight.
But it is not. Even if—above all if—a Palestinian state is established along the lines of the Clinton parameters, the conflict will not be over. It will simply downshift for a while into lower gear.
Let us return for a moment to Camp David, whose fourteen days of nonstop activity and all-night negotiating sessions, recurrent deadlines, changing offers and counteroffers, crises, sulks, embraces, cajolings, threats, and arm-twistings were the kind of situation that no statesman rationally seeking to defend his nation’s interests should ever allow himself to get into. A Metternich or Bismarck would have shuddered at the thought of making fateful decisions deeply affecting future generations of his countrymen as if he were hammering out a three-year contract in a labor dispute.
Yet even given the concessions wrung from them under such pressure, the two sides were nowhere so close to an agreement as has been alleged. Some of the outstanding issues, such as that of the Temple Mount, might indeed have been settled with more effort; others, like the refugee problem, could probably not have been. And what was agreed upon was only in general terms, leaving numerous details as potential stumbling blocks. There was no true meeting of minds on anything—not on future borders, not on percentages of land to be annexed or swapped, not on the nature of Palestinian demilitarization.
Moreover, even had Barak and Arafat reached an agreement, it would in all likelihood have been impossible to implement. Barak had lost his Knesset majority on the eve of Camp David when a key coalition partner deserted him out of concern that he might make the concessions that he indeed ended up making, and he probably could not have won Knesset approval for those concessions or a governing mandate in new elections. (When elections took place in 2001, he was in fact trounced by Ariel Sharon.) And had Arafat, as Israel insisted to the end, waived the Palestinian refugees’ “right of return,” something opposed in numerous opinion polls by two-thirds to nine-tenths of the Palestinian public, there might have been a Hamas-led uprising in his lifetime rather than after his death.
Today, the difficulties are only greater. With Gaza in the hands of Hamas and Mahmoud Abbas in shaky control of the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority would have to press for Camp David-plus in order to justify itself to the Palestinian public. And should Israel give it that, or simply repeat Barak’s offers, Ehud Olmert, the prime minister with the lowest popularity rating in the country’s history, would similarly lose his coalition and new elections, too. Turning the Clinton parameters into the Bush parameters is no magic wand for success.
For Israel, this is just as well. Territorially, an agreement based on Camp David would be a bad deal. In the course of the negotiations there, an initial Israeli demand for annexation of 13 percent of the West Bank was whittled down to 5 or 6 percent, so that the settlement blocs originally designed to make Jerusalem and Tel Aviv less militarily vulnerable not only would have failed to do so but would have become extremely vulnerable in their own right. Large towns like Ariel and Ma’aleh Adumim were reduced on the map to enclaves, Jewish polyps hanging on thin stalks of access roads running through Palestinian territory. Jerusalem itself was turned into a crazy quilt of Jewish and Arab neighborhoods, between whose two national jurisdictions a driver traversing the city might have to pass a dozen times. Were Israel and the Palestinian Authority ever to cease cooperating fully, let alone regress to hostilities, Israel’s capital and biggest city would quite simply be paralyzed.
Making things worse was the land swap, a concept introduced at Camp David by Washington in blatant contravention of its own U.S.-sponsored Security Council Resolution 242, which in 1967 called on Israel to withdraw “from territories” occupied in that year’s war, not from those belonging to it beforehand. In accepting the principle that West Bank land acquired by Israel had to be paid for in kind, the Israeli negotiators were endorsing the Arab interpretation of 242—an interpretation holding that, against the explicitly stated intentions of the resolution’s American and British framers, “from territories” meant from all territories.
This had its consequences. From an initial American proposal of nine square kilometers of Palestinian land for one square kilometer of Israeli land, the ratio was pared down at Camp David to three-to-one, and later at Taba (so the Palestinians would claim) to one-to-one. Apart from the precedent of Israel’s ceding sovereign territory to an Arab state, an act that might come back to haunt it one day, this shrank the annexable portion of the West Bank still further. Consequently, when the post-Annapolis Olmert-Abbas negotiations begin, any demand by Israel to retain all of the land now on its side of the West Bank security fence, built in the years after the failure of Camp David, would be a non-starter.
The Clinton parameters were not much better in other areas. On the issue of Palestinian demilitarization, they called for an international rather than an Israeli force to monitor the Palestinian state’s border with Jordan in order to prevent the smuggling of weapons like rockets and anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles; as is clear from the example of Lebanon, such a force would be worthless. The Americans also rejected Israel’s position that its air force should be granted open skies for maneuvers and reconnaissance above Palestinian territory, recommending instead that “the two sides work out special arrangements for Israeli training and operational needs.” It is safe to assume that the Palestinians will construe these needs as minimal.
And then there are the refugees. Instead of stating forthrightly that a Jewish state should not be expected to accept any of them, the Clinton parameters listed “admission to Israel,” albeit subject to its “sovereign decision,” as one of five possible solutions for the problem. And lest anyone think that such a decision would be strictly Israel’s own business, President Clinton also suggested that Israel “indicate” in advance that “some of the refugees could be absorbed.” Ehud Olmert will thus have to start his talks with Mahmoud Abbas not with an Israeli refusal to accept any refugees but with a debate over how many must be accepted.
This is Ehud Barak’s legacy to Olmert, and it is not a happy one. Normally, if one bargains for a rug in a bazaar and the rug merchant turns down one’s final offer, one is not obliged to make that into one’s opening offer the next time around. But in the world of Israeli-Arab negotiations, in which Israeli concessions are routinely “pocketed” with no Arab quid pro quo, the logic of the marketplace does not apply. Here Israel’s last offer is automatically expected to be its first one whenever bargaining resumes.
The Palestinians have often been faulted, even by observers sympathetic to their cause, for failing to compromise at critical junctures. They are the people, in the endlessly quoted words of Abba Eban, who have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Had they only said yes in 1947, they could have had their state then. In 2000 they missed their chance again. Now, at Annapolis, history has come knocking once more. They would be serial bunglers indeed to slam the door in its face this time, too.
But this is an unfair and condescending judgment. It treats the Palestinians as beggars who have to take what is offered them or stand accused of improvidence. Why, in 1947, should a people that outnumbered the Jewish minority in its midst by two-to-one have agreed to divide its living space, as the UN partition resolution decreed, on a 55-45 basis with the Jews getting the larger share? Why, in 2000, now offered a mere 20 percent of this space, should it not have fought tooth-and-nail over every inch of it? And why, in the negotiations set to take place in 2008, should it be any more conciliatory than it was in 2000?
The answer given us is: so that the Palestinians can finally have their state. But what kind of state would such a mini-Palestine be? It would consist of two detached parcels of land, without an army to defend them, totaling 6,250 square kilometers, the size of Delaware. Its smaller part, the Gaza Strip, would be overcrowded and impoverished; its larger one, the West Bank, would consist of half desert and semi-arid countryside; and neither would be capable of absorbing more than a small fraction of the Palestinian diaspora that dreams of returning to the homeland it believes was stolen from it. Meanwhile, next door, on nearly four-fifths of that homeland, a far more prosperous and powerful Israel would only inspire envy and resentment. What exactly would Palestinians have to rejoice in?
There are of course sovereign states that are even smaller. The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago has 5,128 square kilometers. Luxembourg has 2,586. Malta has 316. But such countries were not born in ethnic warfare and partition; they do not seethe with grievance and humiliation; they are not supposed to provide a solution for millions of exiles; they are not lived in by a people, grown accustomed to strutting on the world stage, that stands to be diminished by its own independence to a bit role.
It is said that the Palestinians should take their example from the Jews, who in 1947 agreed to a state that fell far short of their aspirations, too. And indeed if one looks at the 1947 partition map, the Jewish state born from it would have been a cripple, three unconnected limbs of Mandate Palestine separated by Arab corridors and minus Jerusalem and half the Galilee. It is impossible to envision such an Israel having continued to exist for long—nor did it, for in the fighting that broke out after Arab rejection of partition, it enlarged itself by half, joined its severed parts, and carved out a link to Jerusalem, whose Jewish half became its capital.
Precisely this, however, is why any comparison of the current situation of the Palestinians with that of the Jews in 1947 is ironically double-edged. For it is clear today that even had the Arabs accepted partition, Israel would eventually have had to go to war to break out of its straitjacket. Although not discussed openly, this was something understood by most Zionist leaders in agreeing to partition, which they saw as a crucial but not final step in consolidating Jewish power. Without partition there would have been no Jewish state to develop the institutions of sovereignty, to absorb Jewish refugees and immigrants from Europe and the Arab lands—and to build an army capable of expanding partition’s borders.
When one asks, therefore, why the Palestinians have not done what the Jews did, one is really asking why they did not accept statehood at Camp David in 2000 with a public commitment to peace and a private determination to pursue irredentist policies. This is a good question, part of the answer to which may indeed be their psychological inability to set aside their wounded pride and sense of the injustice done them for the sake of long-term goals. Yet there is more to it than that, for it can be plausibly argued that it is their very adherence to these goals that best explains their behavior.
The Palestinians, after all, know that statehood will never enable them to defeat Israel on the battlefield by themselves; even were they not demilitarized, they can never possess the economic means to match Israel’s military might. What prospect they have of destroying Israel, or of weakening it to the point where additional territory could be wrested from it, would depend on one of two options. The first of these, championed by Hamas, is to resist the temptation of Palestinian independence and preserve the status quo until Israeli-Palestinian disentanglement becomes impossible and a bi-national state emerges whose Arab population with its higher birthrate inevitably becomes a majority.
The second option, preferred by the Palestinian “moderates,” is to choose statehood, however degrading its terms, while seeking to undermine Israel from within and keeping other Arab countries embroiled with it so that they remain military allies. These two ambitions would be related, for the more a growing and disgruntled Arab minority in Israel protests its second-class status, and the more Israel is accused of denying Palestinian refugees their “right of return,” the more the Arab world will go on nourishing hostile feelings toward it. If Israel does not fall by itself, a tiny Palestinian state could then still count on provoking a decisive war into which its Arab neighbors could be dragged when the right time came.
On the face of it, the Palestinians’ insistence on their “right of return” to homes lost 60 years ago in Israel is absurd. It would be absurd quite apart from the fact that no such right was ever demanded on behalf of far larger refugee populations in the 20th century, such as the millions of Greeks thrown out of Turkey in 1921-22, the similar numbers of Germans evicted from Poland and Czechoslovakia in 1945, or the tens of millions of Muslims and Hindus who fled India and Pakistan in 1948. It is also absurd for the simple reason that most of these homes no longer exist and those that do cannot be returned to.
The majority of Palestinians who fled Israel in 1948 were rural; nearly all of their villages were razed to the ground long ago to make room for Jewish settlements and Jewish agriculture. Of those who were city dwellers, some lived in houses and neighborhoods that are still standing; yet for the last half-century these have been inhabited by Israelis who are their legal owners and cannot be made to surrender them. Where in Israel would the families of refugees go if their “right of return” were recognized? The poorer would end up in Israeli Arab slums hardly more congenial than the “refugee camps” they reside in now. The wealthier would find that their present homes in Amman or Damascus are grander than anything they could afford in Haifa or Jaffa. None would be returning to family property, and all would be choosing to live in a Jewish state whose customs are alien and where they might be discriminated against in various ways. How could this, rather than financial compensation or resettlement elsewhere, be the preferred option of most Palestinians?
And in fact it is not. The same polls that show a large majority of Palestinians vehemently supporting the “right of return” to Israel, a country that few of them have ever been in, report that not many are interested in “returning” there themselves. As in the old Jewish joke that a Zionist is a Jew who gives money to a second Jew in order to send a third Jew to Palestine, the average Palestinian would like another Palestinian to exercise the “right of return” for him.
But this is no reason for Israel to give ground on the refugee issue in the false belief that it is a purely symbolic one. In a diaspora of many millions, there will always be poor and unemployed Palestinians sufficiently attracted by Israel’s need for cheap labor to move there, and there will always be a Palestinian establishment to encourage them. If Ehud Olmert offers “symbolically” to accept 10,000 Palestinian refugees annually for five years, Mahmoud Abbas will ask for 50,000; if a compromise is reached, the Palestinians will fight to have it worded in such a way that it can be challenged later. There will always be pretexts for claiming that Israel has not honored the “right of return” as it promised to.
There will always be pretexts, too, for claiming that Israel is a systemically “racist” society that must be made to surrender its Jewish identity. It is already clear that a long-term campaign along these lines, in close collaboration with a Palestinian state, is the future strategy of Israel’s own Arab leadership. It will not be bought off by half-measures. If Israel gives greater equality to its Arab citizens, it will be told to repeal the Law of Return that gives every Jew the right to immigrate and settle in the country; if it repeals the Law of Return, it will face a demand for Israeli Arab political autonomy; if it grants political autonomy, heavily populated Arab areas will vote for Anschluss with the state of Palestine. Occupying only a small part of the country that Palestinians will still consider rightfully their own, this state will find Palestinian irredentism an overpowering temptation.
This is why, though political commentators may have trouble understanding it, the stubbornness of Palestinian “moderates” on the refugee issue, and their refusal to recognize the Jewish character of Israel, are not bargaining chips they can be expected to give up. They are strategic positions. From the Palestinians’ point of view, despite all the suffering caused by the Israeli occupation, there is no hurry. If they achieve a state on their own terms, well and good. If not, so much the better. One way or another, time is on their side.
The hard fact is that British Mandate Palestine never was, and is not today, big enough to accommodate both a Jewish and an Arab state. The “two-state” solution never could succeed and never will.
To assert as much is not to propose an “undivided land of Israel” stretching from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. Change “land of Israel” to “Palestine,” and you have the solution of Hamas. A Jewish state entertaining any such idea would be engaged in a romantic form of suicide.
Israel will have to withdraw, for the sake of its own survival, from most of the West Bank. It should not do so, however, as part of a settlement establishing a Palestinian state that can only be a permanent danger to it. On the contrary: it should withdraw on its own and in such a way that a Palestinian state will not come into being. Pulling back to the security fence while holding on to all of Jerusalem, without which no Palestinian state is possible, would be the best way of accomplishing this. As I have argued before in these pages, Israel has only one responsibility toward the Palestinians of the West Bank: either to give them full equality as Israeli citizens or to give them full freedom without Israeli occupation or control. It does not owe them a state and has no interest in their having one.
What, then, would happen to them? As I have also argued, left to their own devices the West Bankers would sooner or later join up again with Jordan, a country of 90,000 square kilometers with which they were united between 1949 and 1967. Over half of Jordan’s nearly 5.5 million inhabitants are already of Palestinian origin. Physically and culturally, the western part of Jordan is a mirror-image replica of the West Bank. Palestinians have always felt at home in it, more than in any other part of the Arab world.
It is said in objection to this that King Abdullah and the Jordanian ruling class, whose Bedouin origins are not Palestinian, fear an eventual Palestinian takeover, do not therefore want the West Bank with its large and politically unruly Palestinian population, and cannot be forced to re-absorb it against their will. This is true. But the Jordanian ruling class has even more to fear from Islamic fundamentalists than it does from Palestinians, who are well integrated in Jordanian society, and the chaotic West Bank reality that would be left behind by an Israeli withdrawal may make Jordan or Hamas the only two alternatives. In such a case, it is not difficult to imagine Abdullah, with the agreement of Israel and moderate Palestinian elements, sending his army into the West Bank to take control of it. This would be in the Jordanian—as well as in the American and European—interest, not as a favor to Israel.
As for the Gazans, they can be left to stew in the juices of Hamas for as long as it takes for them either to revolt or for Israel to move in militarily and throw Hamas out. In the end, a Jordanian solution would be best for them, too. Transferred to Jordanian sovereignty with a corridor through Israel, Gaza would give Jordan a seaport on the Mediterranean, which would be an economic boon for both parties.
Needless to say, such a scenario has its own potential perils. If the Hashemite regime in Amman ever fell to Palestinian or Islamic radicals, Israel would find itself in a serious situation. On the whole, however, it is safe to say that Palestinian irredentism would be better contained within a Jordanian framework. As citizens of a large and potentially prosperous country like Jordan, the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza would not feel cooped up in a miniature polity in which their opportunities were limited and their frustrations were great. Israel would no longer be the envied big neighbor next door. The grief and anger for what was lost in 1948 would be easier to manage. They might even, with the passage of time, be gotten over entirely.
Will the Olmert-Abbas negotiations fail like all their predecessors? Let us hope so.
Indeed, it is not entirely clear who wants them to succeed. The U.S. State Department and Condoleezza Rice, certainly. Likewise, one presumes, the 49 governments that sent foreign ministers or delegates to the Annapolis meeting. And of course, Israel’s eternally hopeful president Shimon Peres, who constructively predicted that Annapolis’s failure would be a “catastrophe.” And editorial writers and political commentators all over the world who echoed him. But Ehud Olmert? Mahmoud Abbas? President Bush?
Olmert, it might be recalled, is the politician who was elected eighteen months ago on a platform calling for the implementation of Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal plan, which he had strongly backed and which he inherited when Sharon had his stroke. It is not entirely clear what has happened since then to change his mind. Perhaps Hamas’s seizure of power in Gaza and the continuing rocket and mortar attacks from there; perhaps Israel’s botched war against Hizballah; perhaps the moderate tones of Abbas. And perhaps Olmert, knowing that the time for a West Bank unilateral withdrawal is not ripe, believes that one last round of failed talks with the Palestinians is needed to ripen it.
Abbas, too, may be playing a cagy game. If talks with Olmert are to succeed, they will demand concessions from him that he can hardly afford to make; but if they do not take place at all, his position at the head of the Palestinian Authority is supernumerary. Dragging talks on for as long as possible while alternately ascribing a glimmer of hope to them and blaming Israel for their lack of progress may be his best bet.
And George W. Bush? On the one hand, the President did all he could to make Annapolis a gala occasion and committed himself to following up on it. On the other hand, his pointed remarks in his Annapolis address about Israel’s being “a homeland for the Jewish people” indicate that he is perfectly aware of the crucial importance of such a definition, which the Palestinians have repeatedly refused to accept. Perhaps he believes they will reconsider. Perhaps he believes they will not. He has spent his first seven years in the White House as the greatest friend Israel has ever had there. One tends to think that that is how he will leave it.