Perspective 49. Israelis and Palestinians: Farther Apart Than Ever?

Perspective 49. Israelis and Palestinians: Farther Apart Than Ever?

Currently the government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority are not even talking about talking. Since the collapse of John Kerry's brave effort over seven years ago, there have been no serious efforts to negotiate basic issues. Nor do any seem likely in the near future. Is it time to despair?

No. While present prospects are dismal, it is as always important to see things in perspective (the underlying theme of this blog). Matters have stalled over the last twenty years, but the gap between the two sides had then reached its narrowest point ever.

In perspective, the conflict began in the late nineteenth century with the widest possible gap: neither side even acknowledged that there was another side! Jewish settlers in Ottoman Palestine regarded Arabs there as individuals who would benefit from Zionist development of the land. They did not see them as a people with a collective claim (Arab nationalism was not yet very visible).

Arabs in Palestine saw Judaism as a religion and the Jewish settlers as European alien intruders: also not as a people with a national link to the land.

During the Mandate period the two sides were forced to deal with each other's presence, but initially did not concede national rights to the other. Each sought an undivided Palestine under its own control. The first move toward compromise was acceptance by the Jewish leadership, over much opposition and with many reservations, of the 1937 Peel Plan for partition between a Jewish state (20 percent) and merger with Transjordan (80 percent).

Arabs in Palestine (and elsewhere) rejected partition on grounds that Palestine was an integral part of the Arab world and that its Arab population (still a large majority) was entitled to self-determination. This was likewise their position before and after the 1948-9 war.

After the 1967 war Arab states (but not the Palestinians), accepted UN Resolution 242 and began a process of indirect negotiation that would eventually lead to peace treaties with states on 80 percent of Israel's borders. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) finally accepted Resolution 242, and negotiation with Israel, in 1988. In 1998 it removed from its Charter the clauses calling for Israel's destruction.

The 1993 Oslo agreement was the first mutual recognition between credible leadership of the two sides. Though not explicit, Oslo was clearly designed to lead to a two-state solution. Serious negotiations between the core parties on the basic issues of the conflict, with an agreed framework (two states), did not take place until 120 years after its onset, and then only three times: in 2000-01, 2007-08, and 2013-2014.

Though narrowed, the gap is still substantial. Israel will have a hard time coming to terms with inevitable continued Muslim control of the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary, third holiest site in Islam (but also site of the ancient Jewish Temple). Palestinians have so far not come to terms with the reality that five million descendants of 1948-9 refugees will not be going back to their original homes in what is now Israel.

Nor can one ignore the opponents of a two-state solution. Attacks by Palestinian extremists helped to derail the peace process, and there are doubts about any negotiations so long as Hamas rejectionists control Gaza. On the other hand, the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank has tripled in the 28 years since Oslo, casting doubt about Israeli commitment to two states.

Yet even right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in 2009, endorsed the two-state framework. His endorsement was very conditional, and was not actively pursued. But two states remains the basis for future talks.

To sum up: in the long sweep of history there are grounds for hope if not optimism. It took half a century for the two sides to concede each other's existence and discuss compromise. It took another half century for mutual recognition and an agreed framework between accredited leaders. It should not surprise us that it may take another half century to work out the details.