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 Commissionrecommended 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 declarationbecause 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.