The roots of the “Middle East conflict” can be explained under three headings: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Israeli-Arab conflict, and the Jewish-Islamic conflict.
When we say “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” we mean that the struggle is national: two peoples are fighting over the same land, and when these two peoples solve the problems between them, the conflict will be settled and all will be well. When we say “the Israeli-Arab conflict,” we mean that the conflict is not only with the Palestinians but with all the Arabs, and even if we reach a settlement with the Palestinians we will still have a problem with the Arabs in general, and in fact will not have achieved anything.
As for the Jewish-Islamic conflict, we repress the awareness of it. If the roots of the conflict are religious, and Islam does not accept the return to Zion, then it makes no difference what we will agree to with the Palestinians or with the Arabs; the religion of Islam will not accept a Jewish state or any manifestation of Jewish statehood.
Our conflict with the Palestinians in fact encompasses all three elements: it is a national struggle over the land, a struggle with the pan-Arab ideologies that reject Jewish statehood, and it is a Jewish-Islamic conflict as well.
The Palestinians have claimed over the years that they enjoy “independent decision-making,” that is, that when they want to end the conflict with us they will not need general Arab approval. It is their own issue, and whatever they decide will be acceptable to their Arab brethren.
The mythological leader of the Palestinians used to keep a pen in the pocket of his military uniform. What he meant was: My pen will solve the problem, and only I have the authority to make a decision.
The great proof that the conflict is indeed “Israeli-Palestinian” came in the form of the Oslo accords of September 1993. The PLO did not ask the Arab states’ permission and reached a historic agreement with Israel without them. Arafat drew the mythological pen from his pocket and signed despite the scowls of the Arab leaders.
But this “proof” did not hold water for very long, and was confuted at the Camp David talks in July 2000.
President Clinton brought together then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, for the ultimate test of the designation “Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” It was clear that Arafat would not make a decision without the approval of the Arab leaders. Clinton held an urgent round of phone conversations with President Mubarak of Egypt, King Abdallah of Jordan, and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, but they refused to give Arafat their backing.
To a considerable extent Arafat instigated the terrorist intifada, or “Al-Aqsa Intifada,” in order to maintain “the conflict” as his asset vis-à-vis the Arab states. It was already clear, however, that this was a conflict to which all the Arabs were connected, and that the Palestinians could not make a decision regarding it by themselves.
Thus when the ambitious Secretary of State John Kerry tried to achieve a breakthrough in the “Israeli-Palestinian” conflict in 2013, the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, remained in close consultation with the Arab states. The Arab League established a foreign ministers’ committee whose ostensible task was to support the talks. But so long as Abbas was the purported decision-maker and the Arab League’s role was only to approve his decisions, no breakthrough could be reached. Abbas did not want to decide, the Arab League did not want to be a second fiddle, and Kerry’s earnestly pursued talks came to naught.1
Have the Arab states been prepared to take the lead role in solving the Palestinian problem – that is, to change it from the “Israeli-Palestinian” problem to the “Israeli-Arab” problem?
So far that does not appear to have been the case. In 2002 the Arab League espoused the “Arab initiative” for a comprehensive solution to the problem; it, in turn, it is based on the “Saudi initiative” that Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud broached in his famous New York Times interview to Thomas Friedman.2
Although the “Arab initiative” may seem to expropriate the solution to the conflict from the Palestinians, in actuality it does not. The Arab initiative is based on the notion that, once Israel and the Palestinians reach an agreement, the Arab and Islamic states will proclaim the end of the conflict, recognize Israel, and normalize relations with it. That is, the key to a solution remains in the Palestinians’ hands. The Arab states only give them backing – something they did not do during the Camp David talks between Barak and Arafat.
Careful listeners have noticed that Saudi Arabia has stopped using the term “Israeli-Arab conflict” and is instead using “Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Precisely because of the renown of the initiative with which it is associated, Saudi Arabia has taken pains to clarify that it is not prepared to accept responsibility for solving the problem. In private conversations Egyptian and Jordanian sources said that in any effort to solve the Palestinian problem, they would not agree to circumvent the Palestinians or make decisions behind their backs. Thus in its current iteration the Arab initiative, which stemmed from the Saudi initiative, leaves the conflict within its Israeli-Palestinian boundaries.
This concerns the formal dimension, the framework in which the decisions on solving the conflict will be made. For now the Arabs are leaving it to the Palestinians. But what of the contents? What is the conflict about, and are its contents amenable to a solution?
The ongoing crisis in Syria gives us an opportunity to assess our relations with the Palestinians in general. When comparing the Palestinians’ positions with the sorts of positions taken by the forces fighting each other in Syria, a great similarity emerges. This is not by chance: Palestinian nationalism began in Syria, and the founding fathers of Palestinian nationalism began their trajectory in the Great Arab Revolt of the Hashemites, making their way to Palestine after the kingdom of the Hashemite King Faisal had collapsed. The flag now known as the flag of Palestine was first raised in Damascus, and to this day it serves the Syrian Baath Party.3
What characterizes the conflict in Syria? A radical unwillingness to compromise, a total rejection of the other, and the taking of absolute positions.
The bottom line is that the struggle in Syria is between two all-embracing outlooks – the pan-Arab one and the pan-Islamic one. Pan-Arabism is represented by the ruling party, the Baath headed by Bashar al-Assad, and pan-Islamism is represented by the groups fighting in the name of Islam, which are divided among themselves on many issues but united around a pan-Islamic conception that puts the supremacy of Islam over every other consideration.
These are two absolute ideological positions; they inherently reject compromise and engage in total war while thoroughly negating the other. In Syria before the Arab Storm, one could be an Arab or not be at all. In Syria after the Arab Storm, one can be an Arab or a Muslim but not a Kurd, Christian, Druze, or Yazidi.
The all-embracing pan-Arab stance in Syria, for example, could not accept Kurdish nationalism. The Kurds had either to be Arabs or not be at all. Because they insisted on not being Arabs, their Syrian citizenship was revoked.
“Pan-Islamic” reactions to news about abuse of Kurdish fighters in Afrin: “The Kurds are traitors, separatists, collaborators – so far we have done little to the Kurds and the [Assad] regime, but we will get our revenge, we will destroy them, we will scatter them to the four winds, if only for the sake of the Syrian revolution.”
Seen in this light, we are the “Kurds” of the Palestinians. The Palestinians’ attitude toward us, too, is one of total rejection. That is why they are not prepared to recognize Jewish nationalism, deny that we have any connection to Jerusalem, assert that the Temple did not exist and was never built, and proclaim that Jesus was a Palestinian.
Concerning the connection between the Palestinian problem and the Kurds in Syria, Saeb Erekat, secretary-general of the PLO Executive Committee, revealed very interesting details about a meeting he held in Cairo with a representative of the Syrian-based Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party). The Kurdish representative naively thought that because the Palestinians also seek independence, they would support the Kurdish demand for independence. Erekat, however, totally rebuffed the idea and saw things differently:4
The questioner will ask: What is the connection [between the Kurdish problem] and the Palestinian problem? And how will it affect it? What are our fears about the establishment of a Kurdish state?
We must say that there is a direct connection…. And it will negatively affect the Palestinian problem, because the establishment of a Kurdish state will be a poisoned dagger stuck in the [pan-] Arab body, and an encouragement to many to break away not only in Syria itself, but in many other Arab states, and I will add to this the covert and overt ties between the Kurds and Israel aimed at weakening the Arab position, and it is important not to ignore the secessionist aspiration of the Kurds and their ties with Israel.
It is not only, then, that the Palestinians, in order to solve their problem in bilateral talks with Israel, wanted to cut themselves off from the Arabs but could not. Rather, they saw themselves as part of pan-Arabism from the start, and their role in pan-Arabism was to liberate “their sector,” Palestine, as part of the overall pan-Arab struggle to establish an Arab empire.
In fact the Palestinian National Charter does not include a single article calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state. On the contrary, the first article states: “Palestine is the homeland of the Arab Palestinian people; it is an indivisible part of the Arab homeland, and the Palestinian people are an integral part of the Arab nation.”5
In other words, the current Palestinian demand for recognition as an independent state is inauthentic. Their basic position in their foundational documents is that they are part of the pan-Arab liberation, and their dream is the pan-Arab dream.
Hamas’ basic principles, too, stipulate that the Palestinians are part of the Arab and Islamic nation, that their struggle is a jihad on behalf of Islam, and that they are not grounded in Palestinian nationalism but in the Muslim Brotherhood movement.6In this regard Hamas represents Islam’s negation of Jewish nationalism.
The struggle between Fatah and Hamas is, then, simply part of the struggle in Syria between pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism. While we are familiar with frictions between Fatah and Hamas within the Palestinian Authority, PLO and Hamas groups also fought each other in the Yarmouk camp in Syria: the PLO on Assad’s side, Hamas on the side of the Islamic opposition. In other words, the similarity between the fight in Syria and the fight within the Palestinian Authority is greater than may appear at first glance.
One of the issues that the PLO and Hamas agree about is BDS. What is BDS? It is an effort to brand Israel as a leper state, thereby isolating it and achieving legitimacy to destroy it. That is, it manifests the fact that, notwithstanding all the uncompromising struggles between pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism, the two of them agree about the nonacceptance and destruction of the other.
In this light one can grasp the real nature of the Palestinians’ diplomatic campaign in the United Nations. The status that the Palestinians seek there is not to be accepted as a state beside Israel, but as a state instead of Israel. The illustration taken from PLO websites shows this clearly.
Nasser Laham, editor-in-chief of the Ma’an News Agency, which represents the mainstream of the Palestinian Authority, commented on the PLO Central Committee’s meeting in Ramallah last January. He said its message to the Jews was:7 “This land belongs to the Arabs. As for the Jews of the world: Your visit here, which has lasted 70 years, has ended. Go away to a place that is better for you.”
Note that in this context he did not speak of “Palestinians” but of “Arabs.” That is, he expressed the Palestinian aspect of the pan-Arab notion of the roots of the conflict.
Moreover, in commenting on U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence’s visit to Israel, Laham himself compared the situation in the Palestinian Authority with the one in Syria, and with the situation in the Arab world in general.8“We are the mirror of the Arabs. When we factionalized – they factionalized, and when we reconcile – they will reconcile.” That, of course, is a mistaken analysis, but it reflects the fact that the Palestinians are basically part of the Arab nation and hence do not see the conflict with Israel as a Palestinian-Israeli conflict that concerns only them and regarding which they are the ones who can decide. Instead, the roots of the conflict lie in the uncompromising outlooks of pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism.
Other statements by Laham clearly reflect the similar features of the Palestinian struggle to the struggles in Syria: unwillingness to compromise, absolutism, negation of the other, and viewing the struggle as a decree of fate.9“It is forbidden for us to make the slightest concession, we want all of Palestine – including Safed; the endeavor is ordained for us, we are faithful to the Palestinian axioms, to Allah and to Jerusalem. We will fight until America is defeated, until Israel is defeated. Everything must be invested in BDS.”
Nasser Laham is not expressing an “extreme” position of one terror organization or other, but the mainstream Palestinian position.
Syria is here.
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3 My paper on the Palestinians’ origins. ( JCPA series)