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Reflections on Palestine-Israel Peace Efforts

04 April 2024

I have been a strong supporter of Arab-Israeli peace with the conviction that the rational center on all sides prefers peace to confrontation. However, more than seventy years since the Nakba, with the voluminous forceful displacement of Palestinians, and the numerous unsuccessful efforts to comprehensively resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, one must ask: Why have we had so many failed attempts?  Who is responsible for these failures? More recently, I've started to question whether achieving peace in the Middle East is truly possible.

Irreconcilable Differences?     

A quick response to the first question is that Arabs and Israelis have had incompatible approaches and objectives in adopting incrementalism to govern their engagement with one another.

Egypt and Jordan sought incrementalism to retrieve their occupied territory and to create mutual trust for Israelis and Palestinians to make difficult decisions associated with solving the Palestine issue. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) agreed to a five-year implementation period for the OSLO agreement and left the most sensitive issues to be negotiated at the end of the process. The hope behind this approach was that the confidence generated would facilitate a resolution. Israel pursued incrementalism as a tool to diminish potential security threats and enhance its negotiating leverage through compartmentalization besides postponing difficult domestic politicking. 

All these parties have achieved partial success but failed to accomplish their ultimate objectives, be it the complete cessation of occupation or the establishment of permanent security. Prolonged negotiations and the extended implementation of agreements have suffered as a consequence of changing political landscapes. Frequently, the onus for the failed attempts is placed on Palestinian circles, often by Israelis but not exclusively so, due to differences in their ranks. 

Most recently, Israel has also argued that the events of October 7th have made the prospects of a two-state solution untenable for the overwhelming majority of its people. These events were undoubtedly a shock for Israelis, and their government's lack of preparedness and delayed response to the Hamas attack exacerbated the situation. In fact, October 7th was a direct consequence of failed peace efforts and ongoing conflict.   

The Palestinian Position: Compromise and Adaptability

Interestingly, however, despite longstanding, immeasurable human suffering under Israeli occupation, the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian body politic has moved increasingly towards a compromise over the years. After initially rejecting the United Nations resolution 181 calling for a Partition Plan consisting of an Arab and Jewish state, Palestinians ultimately agreed to less than 22% of that territory for a homeland that remains beyond reach. Today, even some Hamas leaders have publicly announced their readiness to negotiate a two-state solution as they discuss the release of hostages and a ceasefire, thus implicitly recognizing Israel.

This significant shift to a more progressive middle-of-the-road position, despite an ongoing humanitarian crisis, is concrete evidence that Palestinian differences have never been, and are not today, the root cause for the continuous, bloody conflict in Gaza and the West Bank. 

Israel’s Stance: The Rise of the Right

The majority of the Israeli body politic, on the other hand, has been increasingly moving away from a compromise with Palestinians. Over the past fifty years, it has shifted from left, to center, then towards the right, and finally towards the far right. 

At the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, the Zionist movement was led by left-leaning politicians, such as David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Sharett, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin, from the dominant Mapai socialist party. In 1968, Mapai merged into the Labor Party. Following this merger, Israeli  leadership shifted to right-leaning politicians such as Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, and Benjamin Netanyahu from the Likud party, with  brief intermittent periods when leaders from the Labor Party, such as Shimon Perez, Yitzhak Rabin, and Ehud Barak, held the premiership.

Since the early years of this century, the premiership has once again shifted to the right. Ariel Sharon from Likud, Ehud Olmert from Kadima, Natalie Bennet from Yamina, and currently Benjamin Netanyahu have held the position. Netanyahu is the longest-serving Israeli Prime Minister and is presently in coalition with extreme right-leaning politicians including Bezalel Smotrich, the Minister of Finance, and Itamar Ben-Gvir, the Minister of National Security. 

This sustained political shift to the right is a clear and alarming indicator that Israel prefers to tread towards quasi-fundamentalism and Jewish exceptionalism rather than integration and cooperation. It has also essentially derailed the prospects of a comprehensive Arab Israeli peace, especially with the Palestinians.

An Unjustified Stance

Traditionally, political shifts to the right tend to be a reaction to acute socio-political and economic concerns amongst the public constituency. In Europe, several centrist and left-leaning constituencies have shifted towards the right, mostly out of concern about the rising numbers of refugees, the evolving global identity of Europe, and economic issues. This is particularly noticeable in a number of countries such as Italy, Sweden, and most recently Portugal.

Throughout the present century, however, Israel has not been exposed to serious existential threats or extended economic crises. In fact, with the conclusion of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace treaty in the 1970s, it has only sporadically faced significant conflicts and when so with non-state parties across the Gaza or Lebanon borders. Economically, Israel has also witnessed substantial growth rates, of 8.6%, 6.5%,3.1%, and 3% respectively from 2021-2024. This places it, along with Ireland, very close to the top of the pyramid among developed countries. Based on GDP criteria, it is ranked 28th among major economies.

The shift to the right in Israeli politics is also evidenced by the present composition of the Knesset. There are no members from the left-leaning Meretz party, which is a significant decrease from the 12 members in the late nineties. Additionally, the membership of the Labor Party has greatly diminished.  This means that left-leaning quasi-pro-peace players in Israel, both within political institutions and civil society, are essentially ineffective players when it comes to defining Israel’s political future.

Missed Opportunities 

Members of Knesset openly promote positions that are incompatible with the peaceful resolution of the conflict. They emphasize “Eretz Israel “in the West Bank, the annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights, and an increasingly aggressive expansionist settlement policy. More recently, they have called for the reoccupation of Gaza along with growing public opposition to a two-state solution altogether. Some officials have even audaciously supported the forced displacement of Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank.

The fact is, for more than half a century, Israel has consistently thwarted numerous efforts and initiatives to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Initially, it denied the existence of a Palestinian nation, dismissing it as a myth. Subsequently, it relied heavily on security concerns to justify its stance. More recently, Israel has clung to rigid ideologies, further hindering progress toward a resolution. 

Among the missed opportunities for Israel, one of the most prominent was the Camp David Framework Agreement signed in the 1970s, in conjunction with the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty. Other missed opportunities were the 1990s Madrid Middle East Peace Conference,  the Oslo Agreement, the Beirut Arab Summit of 2002, and the Annapolis Agreements in 2008.

Ironically, after reaching agreements with Egypt, and Jordan, and signing the Oslo process, which would have drawn to a close the core issue,  Israel veered further to the right. This shift was driven by the belief that Palestinian self-determination was incompatible with Israel’s continued control over the West Bank.

Israel’s Domestic and Regional Dilemmas

Israel faces challenges in defining its contemporary identity on two crucial and interconnected fronts. The first issue is ontological and domestic, pertaining to whether the Jewish state ought to be a quasi-secular, liberal state or a fundamentalist theocracy, both rooted in Judaism. The other, less prominent but inherently important issue is region-specific, concerning whether   Israel truly wants to be part of the Middle East and is willing to embrace mutually compatible solutions and pathways with other peoples in the region. 

The Path Towards Sustainable Peace

We are at a point of inflection in the Middle East. The regional parties must make wise and courageous decisions to pursue the challenging path of compromise and coexistence, rather than succumbing to a complacent route that leads to inevitable catastrophes and continued cycles of violence. Even then, courage and wisdom will regrettably not suffice. The region cannot surmount long-standing obstacles or navigate deep crevasses that require multidisciplinary solutions. To give peace a chance, both the international community and regional parties must once and for all come together to provide fundamental, comprehensive solutions with defined outcomes that bring closure for Arabs and Israelis alike.