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Mordechai Nisan on A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and The Israel-Palestine Conflict: One Hundred Years of War

Filed under: Peace Process
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 21:3-4 (Fall 2009)

The last few decades have witnessed a profound change in the paradigmatic understanding of the “Arab-Israeli Conflict” as conventionally defined. The framework for popular discourse is comprised of three central political components:

1. The conflict is now termed an “Israeli-Palestinian” dispute, implying that the broader Arab regional aspects have been resolved or are no longer relevant to the equation;

2. The Palestinian national movement led by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) modified its traditional thinking toward Israel and has now accepted and recognized the Jewish State; and

3. The essential step to resolve the interminable Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies in the establishment of a Palestinian state, thereby fulfilling the vision of a two-state solution.

Armed with these near-universally accepted principles, which have in fact guided whatever progress has occurred on the peace track since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, the political accuracy and logic inherent in this paradigm appear unassailable.

Two recent books, both appearing in their second edition, attest to the academic panoply of the political rationale dominating the arena of discussion. Mark Tessler, a lecturer at the University of Michigan and scholar on a wide-range of Middle Eastern subjects, has written a sweeping, comprehensive, and exceptionally lucid history of “the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” Tessler defines his approach as bound by “objectivity without detachment,” and this is an accurate self-revelation. His text is detailed and balanced, buoyed by countless footnoted source materials. This single volume thoroughly expounds the development of Zionism and the Jewish yishuv, the Arab Revolt, and the United Nations Partition Resolution; followed by detailed accounts of the events of 1948 and the political aftermath with the evolution of the Palestinian Resistance Movement and the complexities attending “Israel and the Occupied Territories.” In its review of peace efforts in the 1980s it discusses the Reagan Plan, the Fez Plan, the Shultz Plan, the Shamir Plan, the Mubarak Plan, and the Baker Plan, culminating chronologically, if not essentially, with the Oslo peace process. However, after the spectacular launching in 1993, this process “ultimately failed,” concludes Tessler (847).

The author’s impressive tome reflects precisely what he judges to be the symmetry in Jewish and Arab national histories, while at the same time highlighting the contrast between the ancient foundations of the Jewish “sense of peoplehood” (Tessler, 7) and the recent twentieth century “emergence of Palestinian nationalism and sense of Palestinian peoplehood” (Tessler, 72). Different national narrative pasts merge politically, nonetheless, in our times.

James Gelvin, teaching history of the Middle East at UCLA, has written a far more nuanced study. The study’s ostensibly evenhanded title The Israel-Palestine Conflict contorts reality rather than reflecting it. The work focuses on the question of modern nationalism based on narratives and mythologies. It identifies Zionism’s success with British support, juxtaposed with the Palestinian struggle which over the generations has been characterized by the “guerrilla war” launched by Izz al-Din al-Qassam in the 1930s (Gelvin, 103), and the “consensus-building” and moderate leadership of Yasir Arafat that typified the Palestinian icon’s deft political transformation in the 1980s. Gelvin details the rapid flow of war/peace landmarks in twenty first century events, including the al-Aqsa Intifada (2000), Operation Defensive Shield (2002), the Separation Barrier (2003), the Gaza Disengagement (2005), and the Olmert Convergence Plan (2006). Much sound and fury, with stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, concludes the author, lie at the end of the road.

Both authors, Tessler more mildly and Gelvin more vindictively, place the blame for the political standoff upon Israel. The use of terminology such as “‘the occupied territories” and the definition of West Bank settlements as an “obstacle” to peace exhibit standard pietism. Yet the compelling argument underpinning and propelling this approach cannot be ignored blithely. A Palestinian state in Judea/Samaria and Gaza would address the Arab demographic realities on the ground coupled with the potential for Israeli-Palestinian political accommodation. By completely withdrawing from the West Bank, Israel would address the Palestinians’ national-political demands. It may be pointed out that alleged Palestinian moderation, though sullied by the rise of Hamas with its Islamic agenda and jihad ethos, is conventionally contrasted with Israeli obstinacy in these works.

Two alternative explanations can be proposed to explain the impasse. One relates to the objective parameters characterizing the political paralysis: the tiny geographic size of the country in which the aspirations and growth of the two national communities must be satisfied; the complexity, rather than criminality, of the Jewish settlement enterprise across the land; and the intermixing of the Jewish-Arab populations in the Jerusalem urban metropolis. A second explanation relates to the explicit Palestinian objection to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Both prime ministers Olmert and Netanyahu demanded this acceptance from the PLO/PA, while the latter’s adamant and consistent refusal suggests the deception and ambiguity of the entire Oslo process. Mainstream Palestinian personalities still unabashedly declare in 2009 that “peace is a means, the goal is Palestine”; that “the Fatah movement [of Arafat and Abbas] does not recognize Israel even today”; and that “the current [my emphasis] political program is to say that we want the 1967 borders.”[1]

The entire political edifice of the Oslo paradigm, based on PLO moderation and the two-state prescription, is challenged by the inherent logic embedded in the sacred doctrine of rogue Palestinian nationalism, and also in the transient character of a political solution limited only to the post-67 borders. Indeed, a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip may be less than a political solution for the Palestinian problem and more of a “final solution” to the Jewish problem. Perhaps sentimental optimism may eventually give way to a stroke of realism in consideration of such political affairs.

There are those who have remained doggedly committed to the Oslo process as the only option on the table concerning Israeli withdrawal and expanded Palestinian rule on the road to statehood.[2] Others have concluded that the process is flawed by the failure of the Palestinians in the “state-building” enterprise since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994. Violence, corruption, and factionalism on the one hand, and the persistence of exclusive uncompromising national ambitions on the other, have marred the effort – and virtually thwarted it.[3] Yet another opinion argues that the two-state approach is fundamentally immoral because Israel’s very founding was illegitimate; and therein is the crux of the problem. According to one author, the PLO was born not to end the Israeli occupation of 1967 but rather “to rectify the evils of 1948” with the dispossession of the Palestinians from their land.[4] Views abound, though no solution is found. There are those who believe that the Palestinians lost their right to a state, and others who believe that Israel never had a right to be a state.

Oslo constituted a historical breakthrough which inaugurated agreements, understandings, meetings, and negotiations between two rivals over the same land. A host of problems erupted – one of the primary ones being the wave of Palestinian terrorism against the Israeli population, another Palestinian frustration over Jewish settlement expansion in Judea and Samaria. Estrangement and bitterness followed, and there ensued a political breakdown which persists to this day.

A new political paradigm for conflict-resolution will arise and acquire public support only when, after stages of disappointment and disintegration of cooperative efforts, the inability of the old paradigm to solve the problem at issue is recognized. The two-state solution seems neat and simple, but is unworkable. The Palestinians and the Israelis both want more than the 1967 lines offer; neither is willing to consider those lines as their optimal choice. To repeatedly affirm the two-state solution, as practiced by presidents Bush and Obama, in no way confirms the validity of the idea. The new paradigm will presumably posit not two states – Israel and Palestine – west of the Jordan River, but only one,  meaning that there will not be a third state between Israel and Jordan. The one-state solution will forge in new ways the parameters of its social-demographic and political-constitutional makeup.

Mark Tessler has written a worthwhile, informative, and educational book; James Gelvin has authored a tract impaired by numerous errors of fact. Among them, he identifies Herzl as a “Zionist pioneer” (Gelvin, 276) when he was a theorist and leader; states that the Palmach (265) was born in the days of the Great Arab Revolt of 1936-9 (“Arab Revolt” would be sufficient) when in fact it was founded in  1941; claims that the Husaini family never engaged in land sales to the Zionists (110) when the facts speak otherwise;[5] writes that Rav Kook was the Chief Rabbi of the yishuv until the 1940s (190), when he died in 1935; and that Prime Minister Begin appointed Ariel Sharon as Defense Minister in 1977 (242), although it was in fact Ezer Weizman who initially served in that post. The blunders and bias in this book begin with its title, and continue throughout the volume.

There are many good-willed Israelis and Palestinians who live the experience of coexistence in the shared social space they inhabit and in which they work and interact. The diplomatic enterprise often ignores the daily realm of human reality, but it is there that maybe one day the solution – perhaps a very surprising one – will be found.

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[1]. Itamar Marcus and Nan Jacques Zilberdik, “Palestinian Media Watch,” MEMRI Bulletin, July 12, 2009.

[2]. Yossi Beilin, Touching Peace: From the Oslo Accord to a Final Agreement (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1999), 271.

[3]. Efraim Inbar, “The Rise and Demise of the Two-State Paradigm,” Mideast Security and Policy Studies 79 (April 2009): 1-21.

[4]. Ilan Pappe, A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004) 244.

[5]. See Kenneth W. Stein, The Land Question in Palestine, 1917-1939 (Chapel Hill & London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1984), esp. 233.

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DR. MORDECHAI NISAN teaches Middle East Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.