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.
Again, Israel offered peace and Arabs went to war, and lost.
In a desperate attempt to quell the violence, President Clinton sent George Mitchell to the region on December 11, 2000. After whirlwind meetings with both sides, the Mitchell Commission proposed that Israel would stop building settlements and return to the negotiating table if Arafat would put an end to terror and return to the negotiating table. His report was published in May of 2001. Since an on-going PA complaint was the continued expansion of the Israeli settlement population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, this was an ideal time for Arafat to leverage the opportunity created by Mitchell’s visit, to restrain his terrorists and return to negotiations. Israel accepted the Mitchell Plan. Arafat continued the terror war.
In another attempt to use diplomacy to quell the 2nd Intifada, Clinton suggested a “bridge plan” on December 23, 2000, to pave the way for a return to the negotiating table. This plan was similar to Baraq’s offers, and suggested a physical bridge elevated above Israeli territory connecting the northeast corner of the Gaza Strip with the southwest corner of the West Bank. In other ways as well it was more generous than the offers Israel made at Camp David 2 just a few months earlier.
Nonetheless, Arafat rejected it, and then had his spin-meisters tell the world that actually the plan was not a good one. Saudi crown prince Bandar bin Sultan thought otherwise, and told so to reporter Elsa Walsh of The New Yorker[vii]. So the Intifada continued and the pattern repeated itself: Clinton offers, Israel accepts. Arafat rejects, goes to war, and loses.
Still trying to use diplomacy to end the intifada and fulfill the vision of Oslo, Israel met with PA representatives at Taba, in Sinai, in January 28, 2001, where, by anecdotal ex-post-facto accounts, both sides were on the verge of agreement about many issues. Baraq tried to negotiate in good faith; but Arafat kept the Intifada raging, with from10 to 20 terrorist attacks per day. Arafat’s terror war cost Baraq the next election and brought Ariel Sharon to the Prime Minister’s office. The last meeting at Taba was on January 27, 2001, where Arafat’s team rejected the latest proposals from Baraq for Israeli concessions; but the talks closed with the expectation of further meetings.
Ironically, it is likely that the Taba talked demonstrated to Arafat that the intifada’s terrorist violence was a good tactic for the Palestinian Arabs. Dore Gold and Shimon Peres have noted that the more that Israel agreed to negotiations while Arafat continued to wage his terror war, and the more Israel offered greater and more comprehensive concessions at each negotiation, the more it became clear to Arafat that terror had its rewards.
On January 28, 2001, one day after the last meeting at Taba, Arafat and Shimon Peres (a former Prime Minister of Israel and serving at that time as the Minister for Regional Cooperation) participated in the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Both men delivered speeches at Davos. Shimon Peres gave a speech of peace and cooperation. Arafat, on the other hand, used Davos as a stage from which to launch a blistering attack on Israel. He falsely accused Israel of just about every barbarity imaginable and he blamed Israel for all of the violence of what by then had become known as the “al-Aqsa intifada. As Thomas Friedman of the New York Times said:
Mr. Peres did extend the olive branch, as planned, but Mr. Arafat torched it. … after the warm words of Mr. Peres [Arafat] made Mr. Peres look like a dupe, as all the Israeli papers reported.
Arafat’s outrageous speech at Davos ended any possibility of continuing the Taba negotiations. When he learned of the speech, Prime Minister Ehud Barak cut off diplomatic contact with Arafat until after the election. US Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Cal), a participant at the Davos Conference, made it clear in her speech to Congress on March 7, 2001 that Arafat had squandered a splendid opportunity for peace and statehood, and Israeli leaders had made every conceivable concession to induce him to stop his terror war and enter into serious negotiations. Ariel Sharon’s landslide victory on February 6, 2001 was due in part to Arafat’s speech at Davos.
For the 18th time, Israel offered and Arab leaders refused. At Davos Arafat initiated a diplomatic war, and the Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza Strip once again missed an opportunity for peace and political self-realization.
On February 24, 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell came on a special fact-finding mission.
The facts that he found were very straight-forward: “Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon showed openness and a willingness to leave his past behind, while PA Chairman Yasser Arafat is entrenched in stubborn positions and may not be doing everything possible to calm the situation.”
As Arafat’s terror war escalated, President Bush sent in the CIA. George Tenet, CIA director, came to Israel for another whirlwind round of talks, and proposed the “Tenet Plan” on June 13, 2001. Resumption of negotiations between Prime Minister Sharon and Arafat was conditioned upon a single week free of Arab terror attacks. Arafat could not bring himself to forego terrorism for even one week. In desperation, Sharon agreed to drop the demand for one week without terror attacks, but Arafat refused to do anything to stop his terror war. The plan failed.
Israel’s reprisals to a sudden spate of sequential Palestinian terror attacks in early 2002 seem to have prompted a ground-breaking UN resolution, initiated by Secretary General Kofi Anan. UN Security Council Resolution #1397, 3/12/2002, called upon Israel to end its “occupation” of Palestinian territory and upon Arafat to end his “morally repugnant acts of terror.” The resolution affirmed a “vision of a region where two States, Israel and Palestine, live side by side with secure and recognized borders.” It further demanded the immediate cessation of violence, terror, incitement, provocation and destruction, urging both sides to co-operate in the implementation of the Tenet and Mitchell plans.
This was the second time in its history that the UN called for a two-state solution. James Zogby, President of the Arab American Institute, noted that “…there is a positive and constructive role for Arab leadership to play at this stage. What is needed is a strategy designed to win the political and diplomatic battle… These objectives can best be accomplished by serious political engagement.” But Arafat was interested in no such engagement. The terrorism continued and the UN call for the creation of a State of Palestine via peaceful negotiations went unheeded, even by the leaders of the people who would most benefit from it – the Palestinians.
Even the Saudis joined the “make peace, not war” initiatives. On March 27, 2002, the Arab League met in Beirut to discuss an idea that originated with Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (apparently arising from an informal conversation with reporter Thomas Friedman). The Beirut Declaration demanded of Israel the complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from all “occupied territories” back to the 1949 armistice lines, a solution to the “Palestinian refugees” problem, and the creation of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In return the Arab states would consider the Arab-Israel conflict over, sign a peace agreement with Israel and establish normal relations with Israel.
Israel’s response was guarded but positive. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon publicly announced that he was willing to meet Saudi officials, publicly or behind the scenes, to explore the proposal, and Defense Minister Ben-Eliezer indicated that the plan was positive and worth pursuing. Other members of the Israeli government called for immediate dialogue with the Saudis about the plan, stating that it was a positive trend and a new opportunity. The Israeli government, in response to the plan, re-opened negotiations with the PA to stop violence, but Arafat cancelled the meetings.
Coincidentally, or perhaps by design, a suicide bomber self-detonated at the Park Hotel in Netanya, during a Passover Seder, killing thirty Israeli civilians and injuring 140, on the same day that the Saudi initiative was adopted by the Arab League. That and almost a dozen other terror attacks in quick succession over the next two days put an end to any consideration of the “new opportunity” and drove Israel to re-occupy the West Bank in Operation Defensive Shield on March 29.
References below and in hyperlinks have been drawn from pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian, neutral, and official government sources, with the intent to offer a comprehensive and broad-spectrum approach to the issues discussed above.
Shazly, Saad. The Arab Military Option, American Mideast Publishing, San Francisco, CA 1986, pp 180ff;
Rabinovich, Itamar and Reinharz, Jehuda, Israel in the Middle East, Brandeis University Press, 2008, pp. 395 ff.;
Kelman, Herbert C., “Conversations with Arafat,” American Psychologist, vol. 38, #2, February 1983, pp. 203 ff.
[ii] Cobban, Helena, The Palestinian Liberation Organization: People, Power and Politics, Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. 115 f.
[iii] For Arafat’s day by day betrayals of his commitments to the Oslo Accords, see Seliktar, Ofira, Doomed to Failure? The Politics and Intelligence of the Oslo Peace Process, ABC-CLIO, 2009.
[iv] Walsh, Elsa, “The Prince” The New Yorker, 3.24.2003 – not available on line.
[v] Ross, Denis, The Missing Peace (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, NY, 2004
[vi] see Robert Malley and Hussein Agha, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2001/aug/09/camp-david-the-tragedy-of-errors/;
And for critique of these views see
[vii] Walsh, Elsa, “The Prince” The New Yorker, 3/24/03, pp. 49ff.