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There is an eerie déjà vu about an unmistakable and oft-repeated process in the Arab–Israel conflict. The process started in 1937 and has repeated itself with minor variations many times over the subsequent 74 years. The process is as follows: Arabs go to war with Israel, promising Israel’s destruction and the annihilation of its Jews. Israel wins the war and offers peace. Arab leaders reject Israel’s peace offer, renew their promises of destruction and annihilation; and after a while they go to war again, and lose again, and Israel again offers peace. Repeat this process 31 times and you have the history of the Arab-Israel conflict in a nutshell.
Unfortunately, this process never seems to make it to our mainstream media’s radar screen, nor into many of the classrooms of professors of Near Eastern Studies.
We see it in its most recent iteration in an April 3rd article in The New York Times describing the Palestinian Authority’s much ballyhooed intention of demanding that the UN officially welcome into the family of nations and into UN membership the State of Palestine. Interestingly, the article was titled “In Israel, Time for Peace Offer May Run Out,” as though Israel had not already made numerous peace offers to the Palestinian Authority, and ought to do so quickly. The text of the article did make reference to an offer that Netanyahu’s government was preparing, and to the preemptive rejection of this future offer by Palestinian Authority leaders, who had no hesitation pointing out that they feel they can do better at the UN. But nowhere in the article was there any clarification that Arab leaders have a history, more than seven decades in length, of rejecting Israel’s repeated peace offers and squandering a grand total of thirty-one opportunities for the peaceful creation of a state for the Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, alongside of Israel.
The first such opportunity arose in 1937 when the Peel Commission recommended the partition of British Mandatory Palestine west of the Jordan River. The Jews would get about 15% of that territory, with the other 85% going to the Arabs, and to a small corridor from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem that would remain under British Mandatory control. The Jews accepted the recommendation. The Arab leadership rejected the plan and escalated Arab violence against the British and Jews to a bona fide war: the “great Arab revolt.” Had the Arab leadership accepted the Peel Partition plan, there would have been an Arab state in 85% of Mandatory Palestine in 1937. The British suppressed the revolt with great cruelty.
The next opportunity came with the UN Partition Plan of November 29, 1947, and the UN’s non-binding General Assembly Resolution #181. This resolution gave c. 55% of Mandatory Palestine to the State of Israel for the Palestinian Jews, and the other c. 45% would be the state for the Arabs west of the Jordan River. The Zionists accepted. Arab leaders rejected the plan, went to war in high-handed defiance of the UN, and lost. Had they accepted, there would have been an Arab state in a bit less than half of Palestine in 1947.
But even in defeat, with their armies in disarray and with the nascent state of Israel in control of far more territory than had been intended by the UN Partition Plan, the Arab belligerents refused to make peace. Instead they agreed to what they triumphantly announced would be a mere temporary armistice. With this agreement came the third opportunity for an Arab state alongside of Israel. At the Rhodes Armistice Talks of 1949 the Israeli negotiators indicated that the newly conquered territory was negotiable, in exchange for recognition, negotiations without preconditions, and peace. The Arab representatives refused, confident that they would soon wipe out the Jewish State. Had they agreed to negotiations, there could have been an Arab state in somewhat less than half of Mandatory Palestine in 1949.
Ironically, it was the 6-Day War (6/5-10/1967) that offered the fourth opportunity for the creation of an Arab state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. A few days after the UN cease fire of 6/11/67, Abba Eban, Israel’s representative at the UN, made his famous speech.
He held out the olive branch to the Arab world, inviting Arab states to join Israel at the peace table, and informing them in unequivocal language that everything but Jerusalem was negotiable. Territories taken in the war could be returned in exchange for formal recognition, bi-lateral negotiations, and peace. The Arab representatives at the UN torched his olive branch.
Had the Arab states taken him up on his offer, there could have been peace and the possibility of the fulfillment of the UN General Assembly Resolution #181. Instead, the leaders of eight Arab states met in Khartoum, Sudan, in September, 1967 to discuss what they called the “new reality.” Their decision was no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it.
The first Camp David Accords offered the fifth opportunity. During 18 months of intense negotiations, ending on September of 1978, President Carter, Prime Minister Menahem Begin, and Egyptian President Anwar es-Sadat, thrashed out the text of a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. In the context of this agreement, Menahem Begin agreed to a 3-month freeze on Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank. He also urged the PLO and Jordan to renounce the three Khartoum “NOs” and join Egypt in negotiations for a more comprehensive peace agreement. Israel offered a framework for negotiating accords to establish an autonomous self-governing authority in the West Bank and the Gaza strip, and to fully implement the UN’s binding Security Council Resolution #242. The accords recognized the “legitimate rights of the Palestinian people,” with implementation of those rights and full autonomy within five years, and the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank and Gaza after the democratic election of a self-governing authority to replace Israel’s military government. Israel’s willingness to return the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in exchange for peace demonstrated definitively that its offers of territorial compromise for peace were not mere words. Nonetheless, Arafat refused.
The Fahd Plan, 8/1981, the Fez Plan, 9/1982, the Reagan Plan 9/1982, and the Brezhnev plan[i], 9/1982, all emerged in a flurry of diplomatic activity from July of 1981 to September of 1982. All called for a Palestinian state to be formed on parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. While the Fez Plan had the most moderate language and was considered a victory of Arab moderates, none of the plans gained traction in the Arab world and Arafat rejected Fez, Reagan and Brezhnev outright. Sources offer conflicting evidence regarding Arafat’s rejection of the Fahd plan[ii].
To be fair, it is important to note that Israel too rejected these plans. One cannot second guess history; so it is useless to speculate regarding what Israel’s reactions might have been had Arafat been willing to entertain any one of these four plans, to abandon terrorism and to join Israel at the negotiating table.
It is interesting to note that Arafat’s unilateral declaration of statehood for the Palestinian people on the West Bank and Gaza Strip , 11/15/1988, was greeted with much fanfare in the Arab world and the USSR. However, it was a PR ploy far more than a political move. While it enhanced Arafat’s stature, it did nothing to advance peace between Israel and the Arab world nor did it change any political realities on the West Bank and Gaza Stip. Israel rejected the declaration because it was unilateral and unconditional, offered no cessation of hostilities, insisted on pre-conditions that were unacceptable to Israel, and made no offer of negotiations.
In October, 1991, at the behest of the USA and USSR, Israeli, Syrian and Palestinian representatives met in Madrid to discuss peace and the creation of an independent political entity for the Palestinian people. The Palestinian delegates, although not members of the PLO, openly expressed their support for Arafat and were in constant contact with him in his exile in Tunis, sometimes flying there from Madrid to consult with him. Thus despite Israel’s reluctance to deal with him, Arafat controlled and directed the Palestinian contingent at Madrid. According to some sources, it was Arafat’s “red lines” beyond which no negotiations could be entertained, and across which no Palestinian representative could tread, that scuttled the Madrid talks. It was also Hamas’ rejection of the talks, and its call for strikes and other protest activity on the day that the talks began, that helped thwart the Israeli and American goals of the peaceful creation of an autonomous Palestinian entity on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Most analysts agree, however, that the Madrid talks did at least lay the groundwork for the Oslo Accords of September13, 1993, which were seen at the time as the beginning of a new era of peace and the foundation for the State of Palestine that would emerge from the Israel-PLO negotiations that were set in motion at Madrid.
In 1993, with Pres. Clinton’s support, Israel undertook negotiations in Oslo with Arafat for the creation of an autonomous Palestinian entity. The result was the first iteration of the Oslo Accords. The PLO became the Palestinian Authority (PA), and Arafat was brought out of his Tunisian exile to be the “rais” (head, leader) of the PA, with its capitol in Ramallah. In exchange, Arafat agreed to eschew terror, end incitement, disarm and dismantle the terrorist groups under his control, create a democratic Palestinian government, educate the next generation for peace, and settle all differences by negotiation, per his personal letter signed and handed to Rabin on September 9. Arafat immediately violated every one of the Oslo Accords and began a terror war against Israel with the first suicide bombing on April 6, 1994. This offensive grew into a full-blown terror war with the “2nd Intifada”, which began on 9/29/2000 (see below).
In hindsight it is clear that Arafat had no interest in democracy or in peace. He used his new position as “rais” of the PA as leverage for personal enrichment and self-aggrandizement, and he used the Palestinian territories under his control as a launching pad for a renewed terror war against Israel.[iii] In this latter endeavor he was aided greatly by his partnership with Hamas.
Israel’s reply to Arafat’s continued terror war, despite his commitments at Oslo was “Oslo 2,” a re-convening of both sides on September 24, 1995 in Taba, Egypt, with Arafat again agreeing to halt terror attacks, end incitement, and handle all disagreements via peaceful negotiations. But he did not, and car bombs, suicide bombers, roadside bombs, kidnappings, sniper shootings, and stabbings continued to be his modus operandi for Palestinian independence.
Three years later, on October 23, 1998, at the Wye River Plantation, Israel and the USA worked again with Arafat to re-engage him on a diplomatic level and pressure him to uphold the commitments he made at Oslo. Per the Wye River Memorandum documenting that meeting Arafat agreed again to crack down on terrorism. In exchange for that renewal of his original promise, Israel agreed to withdraw from more of the West Bank. Arafat continued his terrorism partnership with Hamas, pretending that he could not control Hamas and was thus not responsible for continued terrorism. But for two more years, Arafat continued to sponsor terrorism against Israel, fund more than a dozen terror organizations, work hand in hand with Hamas, teach Palestinian children that Palestine included all of Israel, and pay the salaries of imams who preached the coming of the one last great and mighty jihad that would drive the Jews into the sea.
Ehud Baraq won the 1999 Prime Ministerial election on a “peace now” platform, and promptly signed the Sharm ash-Sheikh agreement on September 4, 1999, in which Arafat agreed for the fifth time to honor the Oslo Accords and implement the Wye River accords. They both agreed to a deadline of September 13, 2000 for a final treaty.
Then came the biggest and best ever opportunity for a state for the Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza Strip since the UN General Assembly Resolution #181 in 1947 – Camp David 2. From July 11 – 24, 2000 President Clinton presided over the second Camp David accords. Prime Minister Baraq made what Saudi Crown Prince Bandar bin Sultan called the best offer that Arafat could possibly expect[iv]. This was an historic offer, with Arafat receiving 97% of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and 3% of Israeli land, and a Palestinian Authority capitol in East Jerusalem. All that was required of Arafat was an end to the conflict. He could not do it.
At Camp David, Dennis Ross has said, there was no comprehensive final settlement offered. The Israeli and American negotiators put forth ideas regarding borders, Jerusalem, and land transfers. One of those was a Palestinian state comprised of four cantons. Arafat rejected these suggestions, but did not raise a single idea himself. Shlomo Ben-Ami, one of Israel’s negotiators who took copious notes at the closed meeting and kept meticulous diaries of the proceedings, said that Clinton exploded at the Palestinians over their refusal to make a counteroffer. “‘A summit’s purpose,’ Clinton said, ‘is to have discussions that are based on sincere intentions and you, the Palestinians, did not come to this summit with sincere intentions.’ Then he got up and left the room.”
According to Ben-Ami, Israel tried to find a solution for Jerusalem that would be “a division in practice…that didn’t look like a division:” that is, Israel was willing to compromise on the issue, but needed a face-saving formula. The Palestinians, however, had no interest in helping the Israelis. To the contrary, they wanted to humiliate them. Nevertheless, Ben-Ami said Israel dropped its refusal to divide Jerusalem and accepted “full Palestinian sovereignty” on the Temple Mount and asked the Palestinians only to recognize the site was also sacred to Jews.
According to Denis Ross’ account[v], in his comprehensive and definitive exposition of the Camp David 2 proceedings, Arafat’s only contribution was the assertion that, in reality, no Jewish Temple ever existed on the Temple Mount, and the real Temple existed in Nablus. Not only did he not make any accommodation to Israel, Ross said, “he denied the core of the Jewish faith.” This stunning remark indicated to the Americans that Arafat was incapable of the psychological leap necessary — the one Anwar Sadat had made — to achieve peace. As a result, President Clinton’s press conference following the summit laid most of the blame for the outcome on Arafat. Clinton made it clear that the failure of Camp David 2 was Arafat’s fault, as did Ross.
There are some dissenting views about Arafat’s posturing[vi]; but even if these dissenting views were correct, the dynamics of the Camp David 2 negotiations remain unchallenged: Baraq offered, Arafat refused, and made no counter offer. And then he went to war.
The clearest demonstration of Arafat’s real intentions came with the outbreak of the 2nd Intifada on September 29, 2000. In English Arafat spoke of the Oslo Accords as “the peace of the brave,” but in Arabic he told his people that the Accords were merely a ploy to give the PLO time to build its strength so that it could more effectively attack Israel in the future. And, indeed, just six months after the failed Camp David 2 negotiations, Arafat was deploying suicide bombers and shrieking on Arab television about the great “Day of Rage” and the renewed terror war that would soon bring Israel to its knees. The ferocity and frequency of suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks launched during the 2nd intifada caught the IDF off guard; but after about 6 months, the Israeli military and other security forces were able to intercept and prevent most terror attacks. The fence around the Gaza Strip (built in 1996) and later the security barrier around much of the West Bank (started in 2002) were more than 90% effective in stopping attacks.
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