IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN SO SIMPLE
[The Economist - January 2003}
The fight over land that could have been peaceably shared has lasted more than
half a century and is still the defining issue for the Arab world
ALTHOUGH Ariel Sharon's triumphant bounce back to the prime minister's office
has been mildly deflated by tales of financial sleaze, Israeli voters are all
set to re-elect him on January 28th. And they will do so largely because of his
stand on Palestinian issues, even though most of them support the Palestinian
policy of his challenger, Amram Mitzna. Paradoxical? Yes, but par for the
course of an interminable Israeli-Palestinian catalogue of muddle, paradox and
Mr Mitzna is proposing a hard-edged policy: first a call to the Palestinians
for swift negotiations but then, if the Palestinians procrastinate or
prevaricate, Israel's unilateral withdrawal from all of Gaza and most of the
West Bank, plus the completion of an impassable barrier to keep the no-longer
occupied Palestinians out of Israel. Opinion polls show that most Israelis
would go along with this: they would like to be out of most of the occupied
territory that has caused them woe, and they crave to be safely cut off from
neighbours they have come to dislike and fear.
Mr Sharon would fulfil neither wish. Despite paying lip-service to the idea of
a Palestinian state, he promotes a settlements policy that absorbs into Israel
large chunks of the land that would be essential to such a state, and, in the
name of fighting terrorism, is cutting the heart out of any future
self-governing authority. Yet, as our correspondent explains (see - - - - -
), the Israeli electorate trusts Mr Sharon.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not only paradoxical but, apparently,
bottomless. Yet its bottom has always been plain to the eye. The dispute's
longevity, the intractability--often the vileness--of many of the players on
either side, the sheer boredom of the dispute's unchanging nature have
encouraged weary observers to declare it insoluble. They are wrong.
For a start, boredom is a luxury that outsiders cannot afford: they ignore the
dispute at their peril. The conflict has not only done dreadful things to the
two peoples concerned--reducing aspiring Palestinians to penury and sturdy
Israelis to paranoia--but its tentacles stretch far and wide, distracting or
distorting both public opinion and government policies. The Arabs, and to some
extent the wider Muslim world, have chosen to make a defining issue of the
After September 11th, George Bush said that he expected the outside world to be
for or against America's fight on terrorism. American muscle gave his words
credence. The Arabs, and other Muslims too, say that they expect the West to
support their fight against the injustice the Palestinians have suffered at the
hands of Israel, or else. Or else what? It is a fair question. The Arabs have
been clumsy in their handling of the western political scene, and are armed
with self-interested reasons for allowing their threat to float emptily.
But it doesn't go away. The Islamist terrorists who now threaten the West and
its ways are inclined to find it handy. Osama bin Laden and his kind may not
give much of a damn about Palestine, but it is a solid-sounding cause that wins
converts where vaguer anti-Americanism does not. On a much broader scale, when
the Americans go asking Arab governments for support, the Arabs rap the
question back: when are the Americans going to do something about Israel? Quid
for quo, they don't quite say, one good turn deserves another.
The point is that the "something" they demand is not impossible. Some
international disputes seem beyond the ingenuity of man to solve. But the
Israeli-Palestinian dispute is not one of those. Both the quarrel, and its
resolution, are blazingly simple: two peoples fighting over a patch of land
that would surely be better shared.
And, only a short time ago, both the Israelis and the Palestinians had reached
the point of accepting that this was the answer and it could be done. There
were people then, as now, vehemently opposed to sharing. But, under Bill
Clinton's tutelage, Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak seemed on the way to a fair
split that would have ended the conflict. Tragically, the chance was bungled
and, once again, the end recedes to never-never land.
Yet when the Israelis and Palestinians do finally bring themselves, or are
brought by others, to come to terms, the answer will almost certainly be first
cousin to the hoary old solution suggested more than half a century ago before
the very first Arab-Israeli war broke out: a clean division of Britain's former
Mandate of Palestine into Israeli and Arab states.
When the British retired from their mandate in 1948, they left the key under
the mat for Jews and Arabs to fight over. The United Nations had come to the
rescue, devising a legal partition of the territory. The Arabs refused to
accept this, though it gave the Israelis a far more modest state than the one
they then had to fight for and win. At this time, and for many years
thereafter, it was the Arabs who kept the conflict going--though then, as now,
they were helped by Israel's ever-readiness to keep the fire stoked.THE CUCKOO
IN THE NEST
For a long time, the Arabs stubbornly held out against recognition, refusing to
accept the existence of a Jewish state in their midst. They stood by their
belief that the establishment of Israel on Arab land, at the expense of the
Arabs who used to live there, was a temporary setback that was bound eventually
to be put right by pan-Arab nationalist endeavour. They were outraged that the
Arab world should have been made to suffer unjustly for Europe's crimes against
the Jews. They spoke of Israel as a cuckoo in the nest, forgetting that it is
the cuckoo that thrives, chucking the resident nestlings out.
But by the mid-1970s, after repeated military defeats--in 1948, 1956, 1967 and
1973--most of the Arab world had come reluctantly to accept, in their minds if
not their hearts, that Israel was there to stay, a permanent Jewish fixture in
an Arab region. In 1978, Egypt, which not only had the largest army but had
also been, until then, the leading Arab nationalist voice, brought itself,
under Anwar Sadat, to face reality, and made peace with Israel. All realistic
prospect of a pan-Arab military drive against Israel died at that time.
By then, too, the central issue for most Arabs had changed or was changing. For
most, including the top Palestinian leaders, the ambition was no longer to get
rid of Israel, but to get it out of the Arab territory--in Egypt and Syria, as
well as the whole of the West Bank and Gaza--that it had occupied in 1967.
Egypt, offering a formal peace treaty, got its own land back. The others did
not. The Sinai desert and slivers of Jordan apart, Israel still sits on all the
land it seized 35 years ago, transforming much of it with the permanent
settlement that international law prohibits on occupied land.
The central problem of occupied Palestine remains an open, bleeding sore. In
1987, the Palestinians living under occupation rose in revolt against their
circumstances. They were slowly crushed by their Israeli occupiers, and
television showed them being crushed. With public opinion aroused, and with
America and its allies successful in the 1991 Gulf war, the Israeli-Palestinian
dispute worked its way to the forefront of international policy.
The Americans led a movement, starting with a Madrid conference, in quest of
peace. While this movement was lumbering along, a secret Israeli-Palestinian
peace process, nurtured by the Norwegians, magicked the 1993 Oslo accords which
pointed a quicker, phased route towards a settlement. It was, with detail and
variations, the same formula as ever--the division of the land in return for
peace--but it seemed to offer a better chance than ever before that the
conflict might end.
After seven years of spiralling down snakes and clambering back up ladders, a
final agreement seemed within touch. This would have split the land of the old
mandate, giving the Palestinians most of the West Bank and Gaza (which together
account for only 22% of the old mandate). The remaining differences between the
two sides were tricky but not insuperable, given goodwill and time.
But elections were looming, and the Americans and Israelis were in a hurry. Mr
Barak was prepared to concede more than any Israeli leader before him, but held
back from making his offer firm. Mr Arafat, instead of showing bold leadership,
listened to public opinion at home and dithered. Both teams, in the end, were
ham-handed, dropping a uniquely precious ball, and the region was plunged into
a bleakness that still prevails.
A second, but this time wholly misbegotten, Palestinian uprising then broke
out. The first outbreaks rose from spontaneous frustration, but the revolt
gathered speed without ever acquiring an aim. Senseless killing inflamed
senseless killing; the current INTIFADA has turned out to be quite
Politically, it shattered Israeli trust, destroying, in the blink of an eye,
the gains painfully gathered.The popular Israeli refrain--"We gave the
Palestinians land and they replied with bullets"--is a crude simplification,
but it is how the Israelis feel. Militarily, the INTIFADA gave Mr Sharon, by
then Mr Barak's successor, a pretext for crushing the life out of all the
central Palestinian institutions and locking the Palestinian people into what
amount to detention camps in their towns and villages. And as Palestinian
suicide bombers ply their dreadful trade, the Palestinian cause falters in the
western world. LOVE-HATE RELATIONSHIP
Yet, in the Arab world, support for the Palestinians is unfaltering. Why? It is
a question worth asking, since it is by no means self-evident why other Arabs,
with their own interests and problems, should care so much about the
Palestinians and theirs.
In an Arab world of nearly 300m people, the 9m Palestinians (half of them
resident in the West Bank, Gaza or Israel, and the other half living in the
diaspora, mostly in Arab countries) have an altogether disproportionate
influence. As the Americans scour the Arab world, looking for allies in their
campaign against Iraq, they are told repeatedly that support might be there for
the asking if the United States, instead of fussing exclusively about Saddam
Hussein's defiance of UN resolutions, was concerned about Israel's 35-year
disregard of the UN's instruction to get out of territory seized in war.
Let America, the Arabs demand, exert pressure on its partner. It has become
axiomatic that Arab compliance on Iraq, and American action on the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict, go together like horse and carriage, if not love
Love, as it happens, has nothing to do with it. Nobody could say that other
Arabs like, or have been kind to, the Palestinians whose cause they champion.
With Jordan and Syria honourable exceptions, the Arab world was reluctant to
accept them as refugees when tens of thousands were forced to flee in 1948-49.
The Arabs' excuse for their inhospitality was that they did not want to give
credence to the Palestinian flight as a permanent exodus. Over time this excuse
has grown increasingly feeble.
Look at Lebanon, where the Palestinians are still condemned to squalid refugee
camps, denied work and normal social services, dependent on UN charity. The
Palestinian refugees have been kept stateless, partly to help their political
cause survive, but also because Arab governments see them as potential
troublemakers and do not want them as citizens. And sometimes not even as
visitors: when Mr Arafat made one of his grosser mistakes, siding with Saddam
Hussein after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the Gulf states expelled their
Palestinian workers EN MASSE.
The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) has been pushed bloodily from
pillar to post, more by the Arabs than by Israel. Most Arab governments find Mr
Arafat a terrible nuisance, and his injured people a trial. They would love
them just to go away. Their cause--the loss of Palestine to Israel--is a
constant reminder of Arab defeat and humiliation by a small, alien country. It
is a dreadful memory that will fade only if the Palestinians have a state,
however small, of their own. As long as they have not, the Arab world's clear
failure to put a bad situation right provides fuel for the militant opposition
in almost every Arab semi-dictatorship.
While the West Bank and Gaza remain in Israeli hands, the Palestinian cause is
a rich source of Arab dissidence. It is used by radical nationalists and by
militant Islamists alike to raise unanswerable questions against their own
regimes, a banner under which to wave their dissent. What sort of feeble
government do we have, they demand, that cannot even liberate a bit of
Palestine? However unfair or irrelevant the question, it highlights the
rottenness that is believed by many radicals to lie at the heart of Arab
regimes.GETTING RID OF THE OLD MEN
>From this bleak point, how can outsiders start clawing a way back to a
situation in which peace would again seem hopeful? It has become evident, at
this stage anyhow, that the Israelis and Palestinians cannot manage this on
The general theory is that the Europeans, who provide the Palestinian Authority
with a fair dollop of its money, should deliver the Palestinians to the
negotiating table, while the Americans, who are the only outsiders that the
Israelis give a toss for, should deliver Israel. This has not worked so far.
Mainstream Palestinian leaders desperately want to get back to the table,
pinning their hopes to the belief that renewed negotiations, with managers and
monitors from outside, are their one chance of getting back on course towards a
viable Palestinian state. But the Israeli government, supported by the United
States, insists that there can be no talks until Palestinian violence comes to
a stop. And Mr Arafat and his men simply cannot bring this about. Their
authority has been dissipated, partly by their own failure to lead decisively,
and even more by the ferocity of the punishment that Israel has meted out to
them and their people.
Factional Palestinian rulers are now in charge. There is a continuing attempt,
under Egypt's aegis, to bring these leaders to accept a "ceasefire". This would
be partly an agreement to limit the violence by barring all killing of
civilians in Israel. Even more important, perhaps, it would commit the
stand-out diehards to limiting their aims to a state in the West Bank and Gaza,
and it would establish that the refugees' right of return would be "by
agreement between the two parties". If the militant Islamist movement, Hamas,
were to agree to those last two points, it would mark considerable
progress--but it is the Arabs' tragedy that they agree to things too late, when
the Israelis have long moved on. Moreover, so long as Mr Sharon's men continue
their policy of siege, repression and targeted assassinations, the factions
will not abandon their "right" to armed resistance.
The Americans are equally unsuccessful with the Israelis, but for a very
different reason. Mr Sharon is in charge all right, but, having put his faith
in a slugging military solution, he does not want to be compelled to the
negotiating table until he can lay down terms that suit his concept of what a
Palestinian state should be. Unlike some of his far-right allies, Mr Sharon
agrees, in theory, that there should be a Palestinian state, but suggests an
emasculated pretence of one, set up in disconnected parcels of land.
The Bush administration, at least so far, has been clearly reluctant to lean on
the Israelis to do what they do not want to do (it is a sign of Israel's superb
grasp of western power-politics that though it can sometimes be coaxed towards
certain actions, it, unlike the Palestinians, can almost never be forced). The
Americans may, however, have prevented the Israeli government from doing
certain things, such as deporting Mr Arafat, which it probably would have done
otherwise. Though Mr Bush has publicly accepted Mr Sharon's thesis that Mr
Arafat is no longer a partner for peace, his immediate need to keep the area as
quiet as possible takes priority.
While clearly out of sympathy with the Palestinian leaders, Mr Bush was praised
for a speech he made last June, looking to an Israel and a Palestine living
peaceably side by side. More important, his administration is playing a leading
part in an attempt by the so-called quartet--America, the EU, the UN and
Russia--to map a way from here to there.
But a map is not much good unless the Israelis and Palestinians can be
prevailed upon to follow it. And this, gloomsters say, will not happen so long
as the two old men, Mr Sharon and Mr Arafat, remain where they are. Mr Sharon
is a disaster because he does not accept the central land-for-peace equation;
Mr Arafat because he has lost control and drifts with the tide of events. But
both are democratically chosen. Mr Sharon is about to be re-elected; Mr Arafat
would have been if the Palestinians had been able to hold the election planned
for this month. Mr Sharon, it is generally believed, is merely waiting for an
opportune moment to send Mr Arafat packing. It is much harder to see, with the
Israeli public in their present frame of mind, who can send Mr Sharon packing.
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