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Israelis & Palestinians: What Went Wrong?

Before the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Dayan’s position toward Egypt was that it was preferable to retain Sharm el Sheik and half the Sinai peninsula without peace than to have peace with Egypt without retaining Sharm el Sheik. After the Yom Kippur War, Dayan’s position toward Egypt changed, and he was willing to leave the occupied Sinai. As for the occupied West Bank, in complete disregard of demographic realities, he remained an annexationist. Henry Kissinger complained that whenever he asked the Israelis about their political intentions there, he failed to receive an answer.

The truth was that despite the “Three No’s” of Khartoum, direct negotiations with Jordan began soon after the Six-Day War, by 1970 with King Hussein himself. Even while Golda Meir was publicly lamenting, “If the Arabs would only sit down with us at a table like decent human beings and talk!,” her representatives were secretly meeting the King. Hussein flew his own helicopter to Tel Aviv and was taken by Dayan on a tour of the city by night. The King was ready to make peace with Israel if Israel withdrew from much of the West Bank as well as from East Jerusalem and if the Muslim and Christian holy places in the Old City were restored to Jordan. The King was ready to make concessions to Israel along the narrow coastal plain and at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Israel would not hear of it. The expanded municipal area of Jerusalem—by now it included not only Arab East Jerusalem but a part of the former West Bank—was declared Israel’s capital for “all eternity.” In addition to this Greater Jerusalem area, which was being intensively settled by Israelis on land confiscated from its Palestinian owners, Israel insisted on the latest (expanded) version of the Allon Plan. It called for the annexation of the entire Jordan Valley from the Lake of Tiberias down to the Dead Sea, the heavily populated area between Jerusalem and Hebron in the south, and the slopes of the western and northern mountain range of Samaria in the north. The King indicated that for such far-reaching concessions the Israelis would have to negotiate with the PLO. In retrospect, it is tragic that no agreement could be reached with Palestinian leaders in the West Bank or with Jordan in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

We are speaking of a time, thirty years ago, before the Palestinians were radicalized by an increasingly humiliating occupation regime and by large-scale expropriation of Palestinian land for the exclusive use of Israeli settlers. Neither Hamas nor Hezbollah existed and the PLO was not recognized internationally. Hamas was, in fact, encouraged by the Israelis as a counterweight to the PLO, much as the CIA supported the Islamic extremists in Afghanistan. An autonomous Palestinian entity, at peace with Israel, would not have removed the PLO from the scene but it might have considerably weakened its impact. Alternatively, in a peace settlement with Jordan the Palestinian issue might have reverted to what it had been before 1967: mainly a Jordanian problem.

The failure to reach an agreement seems all the more tragic, since at that time there were still relatively few settlers—fewer than 3,000—and they would not have been able to veto all concessions, as they do today. Today there are 200,000 settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip—their number has been allowed to almost double since the Oslo agreement of 1993. With 200,000 more settlers on former Jordanian territory in East Jerusalem, the total number has now reached 400,000. The settlement project continues to grow even now. Imagine the effect on the peace process in Northern Ireland if the British government continued moving thousands of Protestants from Scotland into Ulster and settling them, at government expense, on land confiscated from Irish Catholics.

The occupation was, by and large, a paying proposition. Until the first intifada twenty years later its costs were more than covered by taxes on the Palestinian population as well as by turning the West Bank and Gaza into a captive market for Israeli-produced goods and services. Michael Ben Yair, Israel’s attorney general in the Rabin government, recently wrote in Ha’aretz:

The Six-Day War was forced on us; but the war’s Seventh day, which began on June 12, 1967—continues to this day and is the product of our choice. We enthusiastically chose to become a colonialist society, ignoring international treaties, expropriating lands, transferring settlers from Israel to the occupied territories, engaging in theft and finding justifications for all this.

These are harsh words, but it is a characteristic of the tragic folly I am describing that Ben Yair did not put forward such views in a legal brief when he was still attorney general, as he could have done nine years earlier.

The settlers now are the strongest political lobby in Israel. In recent years they have been supported by lavish subsidies, grants of land, low-rent housing, government jobs, tax benefits, and social services more generous than any in Israel proper. The settlements are now a kind of suburbia of Israel proper: most settlers commute daily to their jobs in Jerusalem and the greater Tel Aviv area. With few exceptions, the settlements have not made Israel more “secure” as was sometimes claimed; they have made Israel less secure. They have greatly extended the country’s lines of defense. They impose a crushing burden of protecting widely dispersed settlements deep inside densely populated Palestinian territories, where ever larger numbers of Palestinians are increasingly infuriated by the inevitable controls, curfews, and violence, as well as by humiliation imposed on them by insensitive or undisciplined recruits and army reservists.

Two examples: an entire armored regiment has been tied down for years to protect a small colony of nationalist, religious fanatics in downtown Hebron, a deeply fundamentalist Muslim city. They believe that the Kingdom of God is near and—at first against government orders—squatted illegally in a couple of abandoned, half-ruined houses.

In the Gaza Strip some of the well-established, prospering settlements are only a few hundred meters away from the vast refugee camps, populated by third- and fourth-generation Palestinian refugees. In five minutes a visitor might feel as if he were passing from Southern California to Bangladesh—through barbed-wire entanglements, past watchtowers, searchlights, machine-gun positions, and fortified roadblocks: a bizarre and chilling sight.

The Palestinians are infuriated as well by seeing their olive groves uprooted or burned down by settlers while their water faucets go dry and their ancestral land reserves and scarce water resources are taken over for the use of settlers who luxuriate nearby in their swimming pools and consume five times as much water as the average Palestinian. The settlements themselves occupy less than 20 percent of the West Bank, but through a network of so-called regional councils they control planning and environmental policy for approximately 40 percent of the West Bank, according to figures recently published by B’tzelem, the Israeli human rights organization.

It is not difficult to imagine what the settlers’ lobby means in a country with notoriously narrow parliamentary majorities. Though 70 percent of Israeli voters say in the polls that they support abandoning some of the settlements, 400,000 settlers and their right-wing and Orthodox supporters within Israel proper now control at least half the national vote. They pose a constant threat of civil war if their interests are not fully respected. At their core is a group of fanatical nationalists and religious fundamentalists who believe they know exactly what God and Abraham said to each other in the Bronze Age.

The settlers are no longer outsiders or squatters as they once were. A great many became settlers for purely pragmatic reasons—cheaper housing in what they hoped would be more pleasant surroundings within easy commuting distance to Israel. For almost twenty-five years the settlers have been praised by every Israeli government as patriots, good citizens, good Zionists. At least in the West Bank, the settlement project long ago became a cornerstone of Zionist and Israeli national identity. By now there is a second generation of settlers who see no difference between themselves and other Israelis who live in Tel Aviv or Tiberias. Since the outbreak of the most recent intifada and the emergence of reckless suicide bombers, moreover, they are not merely defending an idea; as they see it, they are defending “home.”

As a result, on both sides now, the extremists are dominant: in Israel and Palestine they veto all progress toward peace. Disasters follow one after another daily and the end is not in sight. Hamas seems to have usurped the Palestinian national movement while hard-line religious groups seem to be usurping the Jewish national cause. The situation seems all the more tragic, since thirty years after Hussein’s first peace proposals in 1970, a similar peace scheme was tentatively endorsed by the Barak government. At Camp David, one of the worst-prepared peace conferences in history, Clinton, not Barak himself, conveyed to the Palestinians several “bases for negotiation” calling for a Palestinian state in which Israelis would continue to occupy roughly 9 percent of the West Bank; as Robert Malley and Hussein Agha wrote in these pages, Arafat was “unable to say yes to the American ideas or present a cogent or specific counterproposal of [his] own.”1

After more secret meetings between Israeli and Palestinian diplomats during the autumn, Clinton, on December 23, 2000, conveyed to Arafat what he called the “parameters” of an improved scheme, which the Israeli cabinet accepted2 ; Arafat’s reply to Clinton was delayed ten days, and when it finally arrived it expressed both interest in the new proposals and reservations about them. The negotiators (but not the principals) met again at Taba in Egypt between January 21 and 27 in 2001 and issued a statement saying, “The two sides have never been closer to reaching an agreement and it is thus our shared belief that the remaining gaps could be bridged….” It was too late: Clinton had left office, and the Israeli elections were impending. Like every other observer, Arafat was aware that Barak would lose.

We can only speculate on his reasons for not clearly accepting at least the basic outlines of an agreement. He may have thought he might obtain better terms under the incoming Bush administration. Or he may have despaired of ever restoring the West Bank and Gaza to Palestinian rule by diplomatic means. According to Robert Malley, who was present at the Camp David negotiations, the Palestinian negotiators were divided and competed with one another. Arafat apparently lost control over some of his own internal factions. He may have hoped at this moment that just as Hezbollah terror had succeeded in driving Israel out of southern Lebanon, so Israel could be forced by continuing violence to abandon Gaza and the West Bank. Arafat’s strategy at this stage, or perhaps even before, could even have been to hold out for a kind of Greater Palestine—just as powerful Israelis had long been planning a Greater Israel from the sea to the river Jordan. Sharon has long said he has been in favor of a Palestinian state east of the river, i.e., in what is now Jordan.

I don’t pretend to know what makes Arafat tick. He and his henchmen certainly underestimated, grossly so, Israel’s power, resilience, resolve, and international support. Arafat may, or may not, have decided already in 1993 to exploit the Oslo agreement in order to first consolidate a power base on the West Bank and then try to enlarge it later on to include a Greater Palestine, taking over all or parts of Israel proper. This is what the hard-liners in Israel claim and they may be right. Or they may be wrong: the Palestinians invested $3 billion in new tourist facilities on the West Bank during the past seven years; they may not have done so if the plan had always been to wage an all-out struggle. Such an investment would make sense for the Palestinian state that Arafat has often said he wants and Sharon is determined to prevent.

I interviewed Arafat in his Tunis headquarters in 1993 while the secret Oslo talks were still going on. He never hinted even vaguely that he knew of the talks, though one of his aides did. Arafat complained at great length about Rabin. At one point I asked him: “What do you want Rabin to do?” He said: “He is not a De Gaulle. Let him be at least a De Klerk.” To Israeli ears, this sounded ominous. Under De Gaulle, the entire French population quit Algeria. Under De Klerk, the whites were allowed to remain in a Greater South Africa controlled by the black majority. Arafat refused to clarify this remark. It may have been mere rhetoric. Out of Arafat’s hearing, one of his assistants later said sarcastically: “Well, the old man is no De Gaulle either.”

The right wing in Israel may be correct in claiming, as they now do, that no workable compromise is possible with the Palestinians, but if they are right, there is all the more reason to regret the strategically senseless extension of Israel’s defense lines to embrace a multitude of vulnerable, widely dispersed, often isolated Israeli settlements deep in heavily populated Palestinian territory. Instead of minimizing friction, they increased it. Almost 200 settlements on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip and more than 200,000 settlers in East Jerusalem are potentially explosive irritants that can undo any possible historic compromise. How much easier would it now have been, if Israel were poised more or less along the 1967 line (from which, after all, it defeated three Arab countries in six days).

Instead Sharon’s government is now trying, mostly for domestic political reasons, to build high walls along this line and innumerable other high walls around each settlement and each Palestinian town. Every other day it dispatches tanks and combat helicopters to patrol the roads leading to each settlement. It nevertheless suffers heavy casualties, calls up the reserves, and deploys huge forces in Jerusalem to prevent suicide bombers from making their way into Jewish neighborhoods. In too many cases, these extensive security measures fail—inevitably perhaps, since in Jerusalem Palestinian and Israeli residential and business quarters are intermixed, suicide bombers seem to get through the tightest controls, and retaliating strikes don’t discourage them.

In Israel and in Palestine, the center has collapsed. The much talked about “two-state solution” may no longer be practicable since on both sides all confidence is gone. The extremists of Greater Israel and the extremists of Greater Palestine mutually veto all progress. I use the terms “Greater Israel” and “Greater Palestine” with deliberate bitterness. We know the evil wrought by similar “Great” projects elsewhere: “Greater Serbia,” “Greater Bulgaria,” “Greater Ustashi Croatia,” and “Greater Greece.”

Israel is now likely to remain in physical control of millions of restive Palestinians. We don’t know for how long. It is possible that the long-sought “solution” will be delayed by another generation, perhaps more than one. For what does Ariel Sharon mean when he says he aims at dismantling what he calls the “infrastructure” of terror? The true “infrastructure” is not in some odd garage or workshop where belts loaded with explosives and steel nails are prepared and homemade mortar missiles are built. The true infrastructure is more dangerous: it consists both of the growing willingness of enraged young men and women to blow themselves up and the religious and political culture in twenty-one Arab countries that praises the suicide bombers as martyrs. This “infrastructure” is diffuse. It may not have a center. The most powerful air force can’t defeat it. In Afghanistan the Americans defeated the Taliban but not al-Qaeda, which continues to exist.

The race between Netanyahu and Sharon for the leadership of Likud is pushing both men further to the right. Sharon says he will not dismantle a single settlement. For both men, this may or may not be a bargaining position. But for their political survival, both men depend on right-wing and religious extremists. By effectively consuming the one thing Israel had to offer the Palestinians in return for peace—Palestinian land—the extended settlement project, I fear, may yet prove Israel’s undoing. It may lead to two equally awful alternatives: wholesale ethnic cleansing or permanent violence, terror, suicide bombers, possibly all-out war.


Perhaps Israel’s greatest tragedy has been the deterioration over the years of the quality of Israeli leadership. A flawed electoral system had a lot to do with this, since it discourages clear majorities. Recent attempts to tinker with the constitution have increased political instability. In less than a decade, one prime minister was assassinated by a right-wing fanatic and three prime ministers have been unable to serve out their terms. Government continues to depend on forming unwieldy coalitions that give undue leverage to religious and other splinter and pressure groups. The perennial instability has encouraged waste, xenophobia, and demagoguery. The moral bankruptcy of the Labor Party made inevitable the ascendancy of Likud and its religious, nationalist, and semifascist allies.

It remains to be seen if in the few weeks left until the Israeli election, Amram Mitzna, the new Labor leader, will succeed in reversing this trend. It seems unlikely. By promising to renew peace talks unconditionally with the Palestinians and to withdraw from Gaza and from some of the more remote West Bank settlements, Mitzna has at least offered voters a clearer alternative to Sharon than has been the case so far. He faces the enormous task of reeducating a terrorized electorate driven by recent events to support harsh measures against Palestinians. He must also try to rebuild a discredited party shattered by shameless opportunism and infighting among special interest groups.

It could be argued that the missed peace opportunities would have saved a lot of needless bloodshed and it could, of course, also be argued that such a “peace” might have proved to be illusory, a short-lived cease-fire with an adversary resolved to remove an intrusion, as the Crusader state was wiped out after a series of cease-fires and armistices. The jihad, according to this line of thought, would go on and on. I am not saying that it won’t; but the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, which have survived many a tough moment, seem to suggest that the wider Arab–Israeli conflict can only end if Israelis and Palestinians arrive at a compromise.

The nature and details of such a compromise have been known for years: the partition of a country over which the two national independence movements have clashed for almost a century now. The bazaar diplomacy of the past ten years has clearly been counterproductive. The so-called “incremental” Oslo peace process was abused by both sides; by relegating the most difficult problems to the very last stage it encouraged both sides to cheat. When force did not work, there was a tendency to believe in using more force, which led, as we are seeing, only to another dead end. The search for secure borders—even when it did not involve the domination of one people by another—was carried too far. No border is ever deemed absolutely secure before it seems absolutely insecure to the other side and so makes the next war inevitable.

The vast settlement project after 1967, aside from being grossly unjust, has been self-defeating and politically ruinous. “We’ve fed the heart on fantasies,/the heart’s grown brutal on the fare,” as William B. Yeats put it almost a century ago in a similar dead-end situation in Ireland. The settlement project has not provided more security but less. It may yet, I tremble at the thought, lead to results far more terrible than those we are now witnessing.

November 21, 2002

  1. 1

    See “Camp David: The Tragedy of Errors,” The New York Review, August 9, 2001.

  2. 2

    See Malley and Agha’s reply to Ehud Barak in “Camp David and After: An Exchange,” The New York Review, June 13, 2002.

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