Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: The Crisis
Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: The Other Players
Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: Recent History
Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: Looking Backwards
Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: The Future
What is the “Road Map” that President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, on the eve of the Iraq war, seem so convinced will end the Palestine-Israel conflict?
The “roadmap” is a negotiating plan created by a diplomatic four-some—the U.S., Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations—known as the Quartet. The group came together in August 2002 at the height of the international crisis that resulted from Israel’s re-occupation of Palestinian cities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The roadmap was designed, ostensibly, to be presented to the two sides in a more or less take-it-or-leave-it fashion, to impose on the parties an internationally-sanctioned resolution of the conflict.
But that was before the Bush administration moved forward the process of redrawing the map of the Middle East through its war in Iraq. The overthrow of the regime in Baghdad, the sacking of Iraq’s cities and much of its ancient history, and the devastation brought to the civilian population of the country have dramatically reshaped regional politics, in ways that are not yet fully apparent. With the Bush administration victorious in Iraq, crowing its triumphalism and reminding Syria of its unbridled power, with wannabe-king of Iraq Ahmad Chalabi boasting of his intentions to build warm and fuzzy ties (plus a rebuilt oil pipeline) with Israel, there was indeed a new Middle East being born.
The goals specified in the roadmap are significant. Unlike the Oslo process, the Quartet’s roadmap specifically identified the objective of ending the occupation, as well as engaging in a negotiating process to create some version of an independent Palestinian state and provide for Israeli security. It even set out timetables—the first phase was supposed to be completed by May 2003. In that period Palestinians were supposed to declare and observe a unilateral cease-fire leading to the end of the Intifada, reopen security cooperation, recognize Israel’s right to exist in peace and security, appoint an “empowered” prime minister, and begin drafting a constitution that would be subject to the Quartet’s approval. Israel, in that same period, was supposed to allow
Palestinian officials (only officials) to move from place to place inside the occupied territories, improve the humanitarian situation, end attacks on civilians and demolitions of homes, and pay the Palestinians the tax revenues due them. Israel was also to immediately close the new settlement “outposts” erected since Sharon came to power in March 2001, and, also as part of phase one, to freeze all settlement activity. The roadmap did not require Israel to dismantle existing settlements, all of which are illegal under international law, but only to freeze further growth.
In fact, even before the public announcement of the roadmap, the Palestinians (though not their Israeli counterparts) were already well on their way towards implementing the requirements: particularly through the sidelining of Yasir Arafat through the U.S.-imposed selection of Mahmoud Abbas, or Abu Mazen, as prime minister, with no popular election and little attention paid to Palestinian public opinion on the matter. The first phase was supposed to end in May 2003; but by that time Israel had moved only cosmetically against a few settlement “outposts,” and actually escalated the attacks against Palestinians supposedly prohibited under phase one: curfews, attacks on and killing of Palestinian civilians; demolition of Palestinian homes and property, destruction of Palestinian institutions and infrastructure, settlement growth, etc. In consequence, violence against Israelis, both soldiers and civilians, continued as well. In the second phase there would be the “option” of creating a “provisional” Palestinian state in 2003, with temporary borders. Only after the Quartet approved each step would the final phase lead to negotiations on permanent status issues such as borders, refugees, Jerusalem, and settlements.
There were numerous serious problems and deficiencies in the roadmap. While “ending occupation” was identified as a key objective, it was not defined, allowing Israel to claim that “the occupation” was over even while claiming permanent control of huge settlement blocs throughout the West Bank and Gaza, and maintaining control of all of Jerusalem as Israel’s permanent capital. There was specific reference to several UN resolutions—242, 338 and 1397—but none to the broader requirement of compliance with international law, or the obligations of Israel as the occupying power to implement the Geneva Conventions. There was no reference to other specific and relevant UN decisions, such as resolution 194 mandating the right of return of Palestinian refugees. In fact, there was no discussion of the right of return at all, other than the Oslo-style deferral of the issue of refugees to the final status talks that were supposed to be convened after the potential creation of a “provisional” Palestinian statelet.
Further, beyond the omissions and the lack of specificity in the roadmap, there was a larger problem. The so-called “Quartet” was much closer to a solo act with three back-up singers; U.S. power easily dominated the other three. And because the rules of the Quartet were that decisions were made by consensus, the U.S. had what amounted to a veto.
The first evidence came in December 2002, when the final language of the roadmap was completed. The Bush administration, acting in concert with Israeli wishes, announced that the text would not be made public until after the Israeli elections weeks later. After the victory of General Sharon’s right-wing Likud-led coalition, announcement was delayed again until a cabinet was chosen. Once the Israeli cabinet was in place, another delay was announced until “the situation” in Iraq was resolved. On the eve of the Iraq war, in early March 2003, faced with rising anti-war sentiment that included anger at the perceived U.S.-British abandonment of the Israel-Palestine conflict, Tony Blair insisted on a joint U.S.-British announcement that the roadmap would be made public as soon as the newly-appointed Palestinian prime minister had taken office.
But with war in Iraq raging, the roadmap dropped off the agenda again. By early April General Sharon’s government announced, with little fanfare and no response from the U.S., or the other partners of the Quartet, that Israel intended to impose new amendments on the terms of the roadmap, and if they were not accepted Israel would walk away from the negotiations.
The Israeli position also focused on keeping the U.S. in charge, sidelining any potential influence of the other Quartet members, the UN, Russia and Europe. Israel raised particular concern regarding the one area where the Quartet as a whole was supposed to play a key role, in approving Palestinian and Israeli compliance with the roadmap before moving on to the next phase. “We believe that the U.S. has a dominant and leading role in this process and accordingly the supervision mechanism should be led by the Americans,” the Israeli government said. “The Quartet may assist the process by supporting the American effort, but it cannot judge on issues such as determining goals for progress, judging on the transition from one phase to the next or addressing security issues.”
On March 14, Bush announced his personal commitment to the roadmap. That same day, U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice convened a meeting with Jewish leaders to reassure them that American support for Israel was not in danger. “We will lead the process and not the Europeans,” she told them. “We know you are worried about the Quartet, but we’re in the driver’s seat,” she said. She was right. Neither the United Nations nor any of the other Quartet members were even invited to attend the June 2003 Aqaba summit heralding the roadmap. And the “international monitoring team” announced at the summit was solely an American creation, to be staffed by CIA and Pentagon officers and headed by a Bush administration official.
For George Bush and for Tony Blair, the roadmap became a convenient way to try to convince the Arab world that even as they attacked Iraq they were still concerned about ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—without having to do anything to make it real. With the EU, Russia, and especially the UN (which should have been in the position of power within the Quartet) unable and/or unwilling to challenge U.S. domination of the process, the roadmap and its sponsors provided little likelihood of finding a just solution to the crisis.
At the much-hyped Aqaba summit on 24 June, 2003, Abu Mazen dutifully repeated the words the Bush administration had demanded: the armed Intifada must end. Sharon, for his part, spoke only of closing “unauthorized” outposts—a far cry from the roadmap’s official requirement for the closing of all settlements (“authorized” or not) established since March 2001.
President Bush, who also spoke of “unauthorized outposts” in his Aqaba speech, echoed Sharon’s limited interpretation. The Israeli diplomatic position focused on keeping the U.S. in charge, sidelining any potential influence of the UN, Russia or Europe. Israel raised particular concerns regarding the one area where the Quartet as a whole was supposed to play a key role, collectively monitoring the requisite compliance of the roadmap by both the Palestinian and Israeli sides, to be confirmed before moving on to the next phase. Instead, the Israelis took the position that, “we believe that the U.S. has a dominant and leading role in this process and accordingly the supervision mechanism should be led by the Americans. The Quartet may assist the process by supporting the American effort, but it cannot judge on issues such as determining goals for progress, judging on the transition from one phase to the next or addressing security issues.”
In its response to the December 2002 draft of the roadmap, the Israeli government stated that “The purpose of the road map should be an end to the conflict…rather than an end to the ‘occupation’.” That definition would entail making significant aspects of Israel’s occupation permanent, ignoring the rights of Palestinian refugees and relegating them to permanent exile, reducing any possibility of viable Palestinian independence to “certain attributes of sovereignty,” enforcing an end to Palestinian resistance—and calling such a militarily-driven solution an “end to the conflict.”
In the meantime, Israel continued to create new facts on the ground. When the Israeli government carried out the photo-op closing of five of the tiny unoccupied satellite settlements (mostly a single trailer and water tank surrounded by fencing), extremist settlers answered the move by erecting ten new outposts. Along with the settlements themselves, the most significant was its construction of what Palestinians called the “Apartheid Wall,” an electrified barrier almost twenty feet high separating the occupied West Bank from Israel.
What would a just and comprehensive peace between Israel and Palestine look like?
Almost all Palestinians today are looking for a solution based on international law and UN resolutions. That starts with the creation of a truly independent, sovereign, and democratic State of Palestine to be constructed on the 22 percent of historic Palestine that Israel occupied in 1967: the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. That means that all Israel troops would be withdrawn, and Israel’s occupation would be ended. United Nations or other international monitors may be deployed on the borders around and between the two states to ensure the security of the borders.
Israel and Palestine, as equals, would jointly exchange full diplomatic relations with each other. Israeli settlers would be given the option of moving to new homes inside Israel, or remaining in their homes as citizens of Palestine and accountable to the Palestinian government. Jerusalem would be an open city, with two separate capitals within it: the capital of Israel in West Jerusalem, and the capital of Palestine in East Jerusalem.
A comprehensive peace would also include recognition of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. That starts with Israel’s recognition of its role in the expulsion of refugees and creation of the refugee crisis in 1948, and public acceptance of resolution 194 and the right of refugees to return as it legally agreed at the time Israel joined the United Nations in 1949. Following that recognition of the right, negotiations on implementation of the right can begin.
Each state would be responsible for maintaining the safety and security of its own citizens, and would make commitments to prevent any cross-border attacks on civilians in each other’s territory.
A comprehensive and lasting peace will also require economic arrangements that move quickly to reverse the humanitarian disaster currently prevailing among Palestinians, as well as addressing the vast disparity of economic power between the two countries. Technology transfer and job creation should be among the approaches under consideration.
Won’t a Palestinian state be a threat to Israel’s security? What about terrorism?
Most Palestinian leaders have accepted the understanding that Palestine will be essentially an unarmed state, without any offensive weapons. Israel is by far the strongest military power in the region; it is one of the strongest military powers in the world. Israel’s nuclear capacity includes at least 200 high-density nuclear bombs, as well as a nuclear bomb production facility in the Negev desert at Dimona. Israel is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and refuses to allow international inspection of its nuclear arsenal as the treaty would require. Israel’s military includes not only the newest and most advanced U.S.-produced fighter-bombers, helicopter gunships, missile defense systems and more, but relies on its own domestic production capacity as well, one of the most advanced arms manufacturing systems in the world. Palestine simply does not represent any threat to the national security of Israel.
The issue of the personal safety of individual Israelis is different. During the years of Israel’s occupation of Palestine, resistance to that occupation sometimes took illegal forms, including the attacks on civilians inside Israel. But the overwhelming majority of attacks on civilians, terrorist attacks, were in fact in response to Israel’s occupation; with the end of occupation, the overwhelming majority of attacks will end. Certainly both Israel and Palestine will have an obligation to protect their own citizens from cross-border (or internal) terrorist attacks. When a fully independent and sovereign Palestinian state can develop normal relations with Israel, as opposed to the distorted relationship of occupied and occupier, it will be possible to cooperate on security issues as well.
What would the Middle East region look like with a secure Israel and an independent Palestine living side by side?
The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is one that has destabilized the entire Middle East region. Popular anger towards Israel because of its occupation of Palestine and the human rights violations inherent in that occupation, is sky-high and rising. Regional governments, themselves facing serious crises of legitimacy, have to balance their people’s rage against demands from the U.S. to maintain stability and some level of normal relations with Israel. Because most Arab regimes are so dependent on the United States—either economically (like Jordan), militarily (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar), or both (Egypt)—they have little choice but to accede to Washington’s wishes. But doing so further isolates them from their people, and raises the risks of instability and potentially even being overthrown.
An end to Israel’s occupation will immediately reduce tensions and instability in the region. The establishment of an independent Palestinian state and its normalization of relations with Israel as well as with surrounding Arab states will set the terms for regional normalization of ties with Israel, further easing Middle East tensions. Certainly many problems remain; Israel’s economy is many times larger than that of the surrounding Arab states, setting the threat of increasing inequity as the basis for regional economic cooperation. The “new Middle East” might look unfortunately similar to the “new North America,” in which free trade agreements end up further enriching the U.S. behemoth, while the much smaller Canadian and especially the relatively tiny Mexican economies pay the price.
But such developments are not inevitable. The potential remains for democratization and efforts for regional advancement as the trajectory of the next century. But all of that must wait till an end to Israel’s occupation.
Is a two-state arrangement really fair and based on justice?
It depends on one’s standards. If weighed against an abstract notion of “absolute” justice, creating a Palestinian state on only part of historic Palestine represents an historic injustice. If weighed against complete implementation of UN resolutions and international law, establishing a Palestinian state on only 22 percent of the land when the United Nations partition resolution designated 45 percent to become a Palestinian Arab state is not really fair.
In the real world, historical injustices sometimes become permanent. They do not become just or fair because time passes or power consolidates, but some parts of them do remain. The massive historical injustice that led to the dispossession and near-extermination of Native Americans in the first three hundred years of what would become the United States is no less unjust now. But how that continuing injustice can be addressed did in fact change. In the year 1702 it might have been possible to legitimately advocate sending the European colonists back to Europe and returning all the land to the Native Americans; three hundred years later that is not possible. Combinations of national recognition, economic reparations, affirmative action, protection of remaining tribal-held lands, and more are the new demands of Native Americans.
Certainly the Palestinian case is different. At the beginning of the 21st century al-Nakba, the catastrophe, in which Palestinians lost their land was just over fifty years past. Many Palestinians, now in their sixties, seventies or eighties, remember fleeing their homes and still hold the keys to the door they long imagined re-entering. It is not something familiar only through history books or dusty engravings. However, history has moved much faster in the last half a century than in the many years before it. With the shifts of the twentieth century, Israel has been consolidated as a vibrant, highly technologically advanced, powerfully armed western-oriented society under the absolute protection of the United States.
Palestine has the potential to reach as high a technological and scientific level, largely through the intellectual capital of its young and highly educated population. But it remains only a potential. Many, perhaps most, Palestinians and at least a few Israelis believe that once an independent and sovereign Palestinian state is consolidated, that the long-term best interests of both peoples will be found in merging the two small states into one, based on absolute equality for both nationalities and for all its citizens. Certainly such an approach could only result from a free and open choice by both Israelis and Palestinians. But considering such an option is for the future; it cannot even reach the discussion stage until Israel and Palestine, and thus Israelis and Palestinians, can sit across a negotiating table as equals, not while they face each other as occupied and occupier.
Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer
If you have ever wondered “Why is there so much violence in the Middle East?”, “Who are the Palestinians?”, “What are the occupied territories?” or “What does Israel want?”, then this is the book for you.
With straightforward language, Phyllis Bennis, longtime analyst of the region, answers basic questions about Israel and Israelis, Palestine and Palestinians, the US and the Middle East, Zionism and anti-Semitism; about complex issues ranging from the Oslo peace process to the election of Hamas. Together her answers provide a comprehensive understanding of the longstanding Palestinian–Israeli conflict.