Two nations, Israeli and Palestinian, both have long existed in the same area. Most of that territory is now controlled by Israelis- the Palestinians mean to get enough of it back to create a Palestinian state (Farsoun, 1997).
The dispute goes back to Abraham and his two sons: Isaac, who founded the Jewish nation, and Ishmael, the symbolic father of all Arabs. Such biblical stories are important because the Jews base their claim to Israel partly on Jehovah's promise to Moses that he would deliver the Hebrews out of Egypt to "a land flowing with milk and honey" (Exodus 3.8). The catch is that God directed the Hebrews "unto the place of the Canaanites" occupied territory. Jewish fortunes changed, though, and after a millennium the last vestige of their control in the region was ended by the Romans in A.D. 70. During the diaspora that followed, most Jews were scattered throughout the world.
The Palestinians have existed in the region for centuries and may date back to the pre-Hebrew tribes in the area. In any case, Palestinian Arabs were the area's primary inhabitants for many centuries and comprised 90 percent of the population in 1920. Most Palestinians are Muslims, but many are Christians.
In Europe, however, Zionism gathered strength in the nineteenth century. Zionism is the nationalist, not strictly religious, belief that Jews are a nation that should have an independent homeland (Shlaim, 1999- Wheatcroft, 1996). After the British captured Palestine from Turkey during World War I, they allowed limited Jewish immigration into the territory. The trickle became a flood when those fleeing Nazi atrocities swelled the Jewish population in Palestine from 56,000 in 1920 to 650,000 by 1948 (compared to nearly 1 million Arabs). In rapid succession, fighting for control erupted, Britain turned the issue over to the UN, and Arab leaders rejected a UN plan to partition Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. Israel won the ensuing war in 1948 and acquired some of the areas designated for the Arab state. At least 500,000 Palestinians fled to refugee camps in Egyptian-controlled Gaza and elsewhere; another 400,000 came under the control of Jordan in an area called the West Bank (of the Jordan River).
Since then, Israel has fought and won three more wars with its Arab neighbors. In the 1967 war Israel captured considerable territory, including the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) from Jordan. Victory, however, did not bring Israel peace or security. The most important reason is the unresolved fate of the West Bank, which is central to the quest of Palestinians for their own autonomous, even independent, homeland.
Israel has retained control of the West Bank for two reasons. One is security. The West Bank thrusts far into Israel's central region, and Israel has refused to withdraw before peace is fully achieved. Part of the full-scale peace, the Israelis say, is the cessation of terrorist acts against them. Israel is also reluctant to quit the West Bank because the territory is emotionally central to many, especially conservative Jews, who call the West Bank by its biblical names of Judea and Samaria. Israel would find it especially difficult to surrender control of East Jerusalem, which is a holy city for Jews, as it also is for Muslims and Christians.
The fate of Israel, the Palestinians, and the occupied territories has created an explosive mix. In addition to the wars, there have been numerous terrorist attacks against Israel and against Jews and others around the world, Israeli incursions into Lebanon, and repeated clashes between Israelis and West Bank Palestinians.
There have also been positive developments. Pressures from outside countries and war weariness among both Israelis and Arabs created the incentive to try to settle their differences. Peace agreements were reached between Israel and Egypt in 1979, after meetings with President Carter at the presidential retreat at Camp David, and between Jordan and Israel in 1994. Additionally, Israelis and Palestinians have searched to find common ground. Progress has been made. Most Arabs no longer advocate the dissolution of Israel. An increasing number of Israelis are willing to admit that the Palestinians cannot be kept a stateless people in perpetuity.
Yet as the last decade or so illustrates, the peace process has been maddeningly slow and uncertain. The 1990s began positively with a Middle East peace conference in Madrid in 1991 and the election in 1992 of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. He advocated compromise with the Arabs and authorized a secret talks held in Norway with the Palestine Liberation Organization(PLO). In the resulting Oslo agreement, (1) Israel recognized the PLO as "the representative of the Palestinian people" (2) the PLO renounced violence and recognized Israel's right to exist, and (3) the two sides agreed to a plan to create Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza by century's end. Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat signed the pact before a beaming President Clinton, who waxed eloquently. "The children of Abraham...have embarked together on a bold journey". 1 Soon thereafter, Israel turned over some of its authority in Gaza and parts of the West Bank to the Palestinians, and Arafat became the first head of the Palestinian National Authority (Robinson, 1997).
Peace soon retreated, however, under extremist attack. In late 1995 Rabin was assassinated by a fanatical Israeli, who denounced his victim for "setting up a Palestinian state [in the West Bank] with an army of terrorists... [that Israelis soon] will have to fight."2 Arab extremists also struck out to murder the peace. Hezbollah and other Arab groups launched terrorist attacks that increased Israeli doubts whether Arabs could be trusted (Arian, 1996).
A year later, these worries helped conservative Benjamin Netanyahu come to power in Israel. He argued that the Oslo pact had "brought neither peace to Israel nor real security," dismissed the idea of an independent Palestine. He pledged to expand existing Jewish settlements in the West Bank and declared undivided Jerusalem to be "the eternal capital of the Jewish people."3
Relations between the Palestinians and Israelis once again plummeted. The Palestinians accused Netanyahu of reneging on the Oslo Accords. Israel countered that the Arafat government has not lived up to its end of the bargain- it has not helped to prevent terrorist attacks on Israelis and to capture and punish terrorists.
In the 1999 elections, the Israelis' longing for peace won out over their simultaneous suspicion and fear of the Palestinians and other Arab neighbors, and Netanyahu was defeated by Ehud Barak. A prodigy of the slain Yitzhak Rabin, Barak told his followers, "If Yitzhak is looking down on us from where he may, he knows that we together will fulfill his legacy. We need to strengthen our country's security by moving forward to peace agreements."4
Whatever Barak's intentions, his path was uncertain. Hopes rose when talks with the Syrians began over the Golan Heights, but then fell when the negotiations stalled. Israel withdrew in May 2000 from the security zone it had occupied for 18 years in southern Lebanon, but whether that will increase stability by eliminating a sore point or increase conflict by bringing militant Arabs to Israel's northern border is unclear. Renewed talks with the Palestinians seemed to have enough promise that President Clinton invited Arafat and Barak to Camp David for intensive negotiations. The hope was to recreate the success of the first Arab-Irsaeli meeting there. Camp David II failed, however, primarily over the seemingly intractable issue of Jerusalem. Arafat insisted on reclaiming East Jerusalem, but Barak was equally adamant that Israel would not give it up.
Whatever their personal views may be, both Barak and Arafat face strong pressures from within their own camps that make compromise and progress difficult (Barzilai, 1999). Some Israelis see the Palestinians as evil. Orthodox Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual advisor to the Shas political party thundered, "You are bringing snakes beside us.... Will you make peace with snakes?"5 Moreover, Barak heads a government made up of a seven-party coalition. That weak position led him, for example, to agree that any transfer of the Golan Heights back to Syria could only come after a referendum. One of the parties left his coalition when Barak went to Camp David, and he was rebuked by an opposition leader for abandoning the idea of "Zionist Jewish" Israel.6
Similarly, Arafat has been attacked by Arab hard-liners (Shikaki, 1998). For example, one critic has written that Arafat is too willing to "surrender with a fig leaf of dignity" to achieve "an unjust peace" so that he could fly "flags of fantasy," that is, imagine himself the leader of a Palestinian state.7 It is also the case that the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon increased the pressure on Arafat. As he explained, "My public sees Hezbollah as heroes who succeeded in getting the Israeli arm out of Lebanon, and believes that this is the route we should take as well."8
Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians continued in the aftermath of Camp David II, perhaps because the alternative was too terrible to contemplate. As one senior U.S. official put it, "The entire Middle East is standing at the edge of a cliff."9 That dangerous place is not new in the ancient history of the Middle East. One can but hope the leaders on both sides will step away from the precipice and, instead, look to antiquity to remember the words of the book of Isaiah (52.7), "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace."10
1. New York Times, September 14, 1993, p. A1.
2. New York Times, November 7, 1995, p. A1.
3. New York Times, June 3, 1996, p. A8.
4. New York Times, May 18, 1999.
5. New York Times, August 7, 2000.
6. New York Times, July 9, 1999.
7. Mohamed Heikal, "Secret Channels- The Inside Story of Arab"
Israeli Peace Negotiations (London- HarperCollins, 1996), quoted in Judith Miller, "After the Handshake," a review in the New York Times Book Review, August 10, 1997, p. 7.
8. New York Times, May 30, 2000.
9. Newsweek, May 18, 1998, p. 43.
10. "Did You Know That," p. 151