Is the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Solvable by kzgpwtxtim


									                      Is the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Solvable?
                           Some Lessons from the Oslo Process
                                          Ephraim Ya‟ar
                    Lecture Delivered at the Woodrow Wilson Center
                                              June 2 2004

I. A Brief Historical Background
The Israeli-Palestinian, or more precisely, the Israeli-Arab conflict, is over 100 hundred
years old, though it has become more intense and widely known since the late 1940's, when
on November 29 1947, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted Resolution 181
which called for the partition of Palestine into a Jewish State and an Arab State. At the time
of that resolution Palestine was under the rule of a British Mandate, entrusted by the League
of Nations in 1922. However, the later United Nations‟ decision called for the termination of
the British Mandate on August 1, 1948.

The partition plan, or Resolution 181, was accepted by the Jewish community following a
bitter internal controversy; the Palestinians and the Arab League totally rejected the plan.
This state of affairs led to two stages of warfare. The first stage involved a military struggle
between the Arabs and Jews communities inside Palestine – which at this time was still
under the rule of the British Mandate. Subsequently, on May 15 1948, when the British
forces departed and the Mandate was de facto terminated, Palestine was invaded by five
Arab states – Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon- in order to prevent the implementation
of the partition plan. On the day before, David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the establishment of
the State of Israel and became its first Prime Minister.

Eventually, the Israeli forces prevailed and the war ended in 1949 with a series of armistice
agreements between Israel and its neighboring Arab countries 1. As an outcome of its victory,
these agreements granted Israel a significant piece of territory (about 5000 squared

1 Of the five invading states, only Iraq, which does not have a joint border with Israel, refused to sign an
armistice agreement. As to the rest of the Arab and Muslim states, none of them have recognized Israel at the
time of this writing.

kilometers) over the area allotted to it according to the Partition Plan.2 At the same time,
Jordan gained the territory of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Old City,
while Egypt got under its control the Gaza Strip. The 1948 war also witnessed the creation of
the refugee problem, as hundreds of thousands of Palestinians left, or were forced to leave,
their homes during the war. Consequently, what has become known as the „War of
Independence‟ for the Jewish community was depicted as the "Nakba" (calamity) in the
Palestinian narrative.

During a brief war between Israel and Egypt in the fall of 1956, Israel conquered the Sinai
Peninsulas, only to return it back to Egypt shortly afterwards, under the pressures of the
international community, which was led by the United States and the Soviet Union.
Subsequently, the borders demarcated by the Armistice Agreements of 1949 remained intact
until the 1967 War (also known as the Six-Day War). Concomitantly, during those years
Jordan and Egypt kept under their control, respectively, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip,
while making no attempt to establish in those territories an independent Palestinian state.
However, as a result of its sweeping victory in 1967, Israel occupied the West Bank and the
Gaza Strip, controlling the entire territory west of the Jordan River. In addition, it conquered
the entire Sinai Peninsula, which was an integral part of Egypt, and the Golan Heights,
which belonged to Syria.

Following the outcomes of the 1967 War, Israel's official policy was that its territorial gains,
including the West Bank and the Gaza strip, would be held temporarily and used as
bargaining chips in order to gain recognition from and peace agreements with the Arab
countries. This strategy has subsequently proven itself, at least in part (albeit following
another costly military confrontation – The Yom Kippur War), when under the auspices of
President Carter, Israel and Egypt met in Camp David and signed a peace agreement in
March 1979. In return for the agreement, Israel withdrew its forces from the Sinai Peninsula
back to the internationally recognized border with Egypt. However, the other Arab states and
the Palestinians refused to participate in the Camp David negotiations, so that Israel
continued to occupy the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as well as the Golan Heights.

2 The total side of Palestine, west of the Jordan River, is about 28,000 squared kilometers. According to the
Partition Plan, the areas given to the Jewish and Palestinian states were about 16,000 and 12,000 squared
kilometers, respectively.

With no significant change in the political stalemate vis-à-vis the Arab countries in the
aftermath of the 1967 War, Israel has changed in practice its previously declared policy with
respect to the occupied territories, gradually allowing and later actually encouraging, the
establishment of Jewish Settlements in those areas. This shift in policy was due largely to
internal pressures originating from radical nationalist movements, some of which were
motivated by religious fervent and sentiments, others by secular right-wing ideologies. With
the passage of time the spirit of these movements gained wider popular support, though it
was limited mostly to the religious and secular right. However, it should be born in mind that
the construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories – Judea and Samaria in the
official Israeli terminology - has begun and progressed under the rule of left-wing coalition
governments, including the administration headed by the late Yitzhak Rabin, during his first
term as Israel's Prime Minister between 1973 and 1977. Of course, the policy of expanding
Jewish Settlement in the occupied territories had been considerably more rigorous and
widespread in the periods when the right-wing parties, led by the Likud, were in power.

My position, which is probably shared by most observers of the Israeli-Arab scene, is that the
tolerance and encouragement of civilian Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories by the
Israeli authorities, has been a grave historical mistake- the detrimental consequences of which we
witness these very days. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that the Palestinians and the
rest of the Arab World cannot be vindicated, having made significant contributions on their own to
these developments. Shortly after the 1967, eight Arab heads of state attended an Arab summit
conference held in Khartoum (August 29 – September 1, 1967). Among the resolutions adopted at
the conference was what has become to be known as the “Three No's" with respect to Israel: no
peace, no recognition, no negotiation. This decision weakened the moderate voice in Israel and
played into the hands of the right camp. Indeed, they convinced many Israelis that the Arabs
would not make peace in the foreseeable future, regardless of Israel's own policy. Moreover, in
addition to the right‟s ideological justification for the build-up of settlements, according to which
Palestine has historically been the "Land of Israel", some Israelis raised the argument that the
construction of settlements, at least in some areas, such as the Jordan Valley and the mountainous
vicinity of Jerusalem, was essential for Israel‟s national security. Still others invoked the original
position that the settlements improved Israel's bargaining position, if and when the Arabs would
change their attitudes and be ready to enter into peace negotiations with Israel.

II. The Oslo Accord and its Aftermath:

With the notable exception of the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, various
attempts that were made during the 1970's and 1980's by third parties, including the U.S.
government, to initiate peace negotiations between Israel and the rest of the Arab world,
particularly Syria, Jordan and the Palestinians, have failed. However, towards the end of the
1980's the combined effects of several critical developments at the local, regional, and global
levels resulted in the emergence of a new political climate that was conducive for a renewed
effort by the international community and the parties involved in the conflict to bring peace
to the Middle East. It is beyond the scope of this presentation to discuss these historical
developments, which led, first, to the Madrid Conference in 1991 and subsequently to the
signing of the Oslo Accord in September 1993 – an event that has been widely acclaimed as
a historical turning point in Israeli-Palestinian relations. For the first time in their long
history of hostility and bloodshed, both sides mutually agreed to recognize the legitimate
existence of one another and committed themselves to a peaceful resolution of their
disagreements via direct negotiations according to the principles and procedures embedded
in the Oslo Accord. However, despite the widespread optimism that surrounded this event,
particularly in the international community, it should be born in mind that the Israeli-Jewish
public did not unanimously welcome the Oslo Accord, nor was it accepted by large segments
of the Palestinian society and the Arab world.

As for Israel, the main opposition derived from the ideological considerations of those
members of right who refused to accept the underlying principle of the Oslo Accord, namely
“land for peace” and, implicitly, the creation of an independent Palestinian state. In addition,
a few observers have pointed to some major deficiencies of the accord, particularly its
vagueness with respect to mechanisms of implementation and handling of violations, as well
as the postponement of critical issues, such as the future status of Jerusalem and the problem
of the Palestinian refugees, to the final stage of negotiations. To be sure, there were some
experts who believed that this vagueness should be regarded as a classical case of
“constructive ambiguity”3, allowing both sides a degree of flexibility and adjustment in
future stages of negotiations. However, this view was not shared by a significant part of the
Israeli public. For the latter, such mechanisms were vital because Israel was expected,
according to the Oslo Accord, to give to the Palestinians tangible stuff, such as territory,

3 Watson, Geoffrey. An overview of the Oslo accords The Oslo Accords: international law and the Israeli-
Palestinian peace agreements. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

whereas the latter were expected to pay mostly in terms of political and symbolic currency,
such as the removal from the Palestinian Charter clauses that explicitly called for the
destruction of Israel. The closest to a concrete step on the Palestinian side was their
obligation to fight terror and abolish the terror organizations, notably the Hamas and Islamic
Jihad. Yet, the observation that from the very beginning of the Oslo process, Palestinian
terror continued on a larger scale than before4 convinced many Israelis that the Palestinians
could not be trusted and that the Oslo Accord lacked the means to ensure their compliance
with the responsibility to fight terror.5

Be it as it may, the Oslo Accord were accompanied by a deep divide in Israeli society, which
was reflected in the emergence of two distinct and nearly equal camps of supporters (the left)
and opponents (the right) of the Accord. With but a few and generally small fluctuations, the
relative size of the pro-Oslo and the anti-Oslo camps remained intact until about the year
2000, when the pro-Oslo camp had been gradually shrunk to become a small minority within
the Israeli Jewish community. The stability of these collective attitudes up to that time
should not be taken lightly, given the prior observation that most of those years were
characterized by widespread Palestinian terror, in which hundreds of Israeli-Jewish civilians
were killed in residential or commercial neighborhoods. As I have argued elsewhere, this
stability is largely to be explained by the political and ideological convictions underlying the
attitudes towards “Oslo.” Accordingly, each camp interpreted Palestinian terror and framed it
in a manner that was consistent with its own deeply entrenched pre-dispositions. Thus, the
left camp argued that the resort to terror essentially resulted from the Palestinians‟ state of
despair due to the protracted Israeli occupation, and that these acts of terror demonstrated the
urgency for advancing the peace process, even at costly concessions. Some members of the
pro-Oslo camp went as far as to suggest that those killed or injured by the Palestinians'
attacks should be perceived as "victims of the peace process," namely as a regrettable cost
that must be paid, if necessary, for the sake of the larger goal it serves. The anti-Oslo camp,
in contrast, viewed the intensification of terror, and the reluctance of the Palestinian
Authority to make a serious effort to fight against it, as an indication that the Palestinians
were not genuinely ready to make peace with Israel and that their moral standards, as

4Just in the first two years after the Oslo Accord was signed, Palestinian terror claimed the lives of about 150
Israelis, most of whom were civilians killed in suicide attacks aimed at crowded places such a buses or
shopping centers. In fact, some of the terror acts occurred during the first months following the signing of the
Oslo Accord.
5 This is not say that Israel has complied with all of its own obligations under the Oslo Accord.

manifested in the deliberate and systematic targeting of ordinary Israeli civilians, including
children, women and the elderly, made them unworthy partners for peace.

The virtual tie between the two camps was briefly broken during the elections campaign of
May 1999, when the then Prime-Minster and leader of the Likud Party, Benjamin
Netanyahu, was defeated in his race against Ehud Barak, the Labor‟s party candidate. This
outcome is reflected in the “peace index6”, which at that time reached one of its highest
levels since June 1994, when it was first measured and constructed. As indicated by the pre-
elections polls of the peace index, as well as by segmentation of the voters according to their
party affiliations, Barak won the race because he was able to get the support of some of the
right-wing voters, particularly of the moderate, more pragmatic members of this camp7.
Barak‟s added value for this group of voters mainly derived from his much-acclaimed
military background („the most decorated soldier in the history of the Israeli army‟) and his
image as „Mr. Security‟, namely one who would not compromise Israel‟s vital national
interests and security. However, Barak‟s personal victory against Netanyhu in the direct race
between them was not accompanied by a similar victory for his Labor party in the general
Parliamentary election. In fact, the right wing camp was able to preserve its power in the
Knesset, and it took Barak considerable amount of effort and manipulation before he was
able to put together a coalition government. His coalition, once formed, quickly proved
fragile and was finally dissolved just about eighteen months after it was formed.

6 Our main source of data is an ongoing longitudinal survey of Israeli attitudes toward the peace process,
known as the Peace Index. The time frame of the findings we present here extends from June 1994, when the
first poll was conducted, to May 2004 when the last survey included in this study was performed. The polls
continue at present. The main dependent variable is a monthly index constructed from two questionnaire items
pertaining to the Oslo process between Israel and the Palestinians. The first item is a standard attitudinal
question in which respondents were asked to indicate the degree to which they support or oppose the Oslo
process on a five-point Likert scale, with 1 coded for „strongly oppose‟ and 5 for „strongly support.‟ The second
item probes to what extent the respondents believed that the Oslo process would lead to a peace agreement
between the two sides in the coming years. This item also was designed as a five-point Likert scale, ranging
from 1 („do not believe at all‟) to 5 („completely believe‟). For the sake of clarity we rescored the original scales
from a low of zero (originally 1) to a high of 100 (originally 5), by: (old score - 1) x 25. This linear
transformation preserves the original distances between individual scores while presenting the results in a more
convenient metric, anchored between zero and 100. Correlations and similar statistics are unaffected.

7 Some experts on Israeli elections have suggested that Netanyahu lost the support of some members of his
own party because of their disaffection with his personal behavior.

                                                              Peace Index Over Time
                                              Rabin/Peres          Netanyahu               Barak          Sharon
                     Peace Index Value   50


                                              1994   1995   1996    1997   1998   1999   2000   2001   2002   2003   2004

                                                               Quarters (Three month groupings)

Indeed, within a few months following his electoral victory, it became clear that Barak‟s
policies had not yielded the promised results, due to little or no gains either in the Palestinian
or Syrian arenas. Furthermore, the public didn‟t appreciate the costs that Barak was willing
to pay in order reach an agreement, especially in light of the common belief that the
Palestinians have not given any sign of reciprocity, particularly with respect to the
elimination of terror and of the viciously anti-Israeli propaganda by prominent Palestinian
leadership, religious figures, school teachers and the mass media. In fact, findings of the
Peace Index polls have consistently shown that the majority of the Israeli Jewish public,
including a significant minority on the left, mistrusted the intentions of the Palestinians to the
extent that they did not believe that the historical conflict with the Palestinians would be
brought to an end even if the two sides were to sign a formal peace agreement.

    The trend of growing dissatisfaction of the Israeli Jewish public with the Oslo process was
clearly evident during the Camp David Summit Meeting of July 2000, when Barak‟s far-
reaching proposals, as reported by the media, were totally rejected and rebuffed by the
Palestinians8. Indeed, the Israeli public not only disapproved of Barak‟s concessions but also
widely believed that during the negotiations in Camp David, Arafat represented the
Palestinian national interests more wisely and shrewdly than Barak did. In short, just a little
over one year after being elected, by a comfortable margin, Barak‟s policy lost the support of
the majority of the Israeli Jewish public. The subsequent eruption of the Palestinian uprising
(Intifada) in the fall of 2000, barely two months after the failure of Camp David Summit, can
probably considered as the last blow given to the Oslo process and the leadership responsible

 For a systematic discussion of different explanations given to the failure of the Camp David Summit see
Rabinovich, Itmar: Waging Peace, Princeton University Press, 2004, pp. 160-180

for it. Towards the end of his term and after announcing his resignation, Barak still made a
last minute attempt to salvage the peace process by initiating an Israeli Palestinian
conference in Taba, Egypt. However, by this time he had already become a „lame duck‟ head
of state, lacking the legitimate authority to conduct further negotiations with the Palestinians.
Collective disdain was clearly evident in the outcomes of the elections of February 2001,
when Ariel Sharon defeated Ehud Barak by a landslide, with a margin of slightly over 25%
of the votes.

These political developments have been clearly reflected in the trend of Peace Index, both
during Barak and Sharon‟s governments, when there was a decrease from a score of almost
60 at the beginning of Barak's government, to nearly 30 points in last several years. The
observation that the decline of the peace index has been gradual rather than abrupt is telling.
It suggests that the disaffection with the Oslo process should not be interpreted as whimsical
and emotional – characteristics, which have often been attributed to fluctuations in mass
behavior and attitudes. Instead, it represents a learning process based on the accumulation of
Israeli experience with the Palestinians during the decade of the Oslo process. Interestingly,
the downward trend of the Peace Index has cut across all parts of Israeli-Jewish society,
including political parties and religious identities. This is illustrated the following graphs. In
other words, despite the differences between left and right in their initial dispositions towards
Oslo, both camps have responded uniformly to the signals sent by the Palestinians and have
adopted, accordingly, a deeply structured resentment and mistrust toward them. Indeed,
findings of the Peace Index during the last few years reveal that about 50% of the Israel-
Jewish public define themselves as right, 20% as center and another 20% as left (the
remaining 10% are undecided).

                                                           Peace Index by Religious Tradition

                                                   Rabin/Peres Netanyahu   Barak       Sharon
                       Peace Index Average

                                             30                                                   Traditional

                                             20                                                   Secular


                                                     1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003
                                                  1995                                     2004
                                                                 Date in Quarter

                                                      Peace Index and Political Identitiy
                                           Rabin/ Peres   Netanyahu Barak    Sharon

                  Peace Index Value
                                      60                                                       left
                                      50                                                       other
                                      40                                                       right
                                            1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 20032004
                                                          Date (in yearly quarters)

However, the shift to the right does not necessarily mean that the public still adheres to the
same views that were held before the signing of the Oslo Accord. In fact, the entire left-right
scale has moved considerably towards the left, so that many members of the right camp of
to-day are willing to accept some critical concessions that were totally rejected by the right
before. In particular, there is a clear majority within the right camp that supports the
establishment of an independent Palestinian state, the acceptance, with some modifications,
of the "Green Line" of the pre 1967 era, as the future border between the two states and,
perhaps most importantly, the evacuation of all the Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip
and most of the settlements in the West Bank. These prevailing attitudes suggest that the
spirit of Oslo has nevertheless left its mark on Israeli society. At the same time, it should be
born in mind that on two critical issues – Jerusalem and the refugees – the Israeli public is
unwilling to compromise, even at the cost of continued violence and no prospects for peace.
These attitudes imply that the collective state of mind of the Israeli Jewish community is, to
a large extent, pessimist in regard to the chances of genuine peace with the Palestinians, with
the latter considered totally untrustworthy and deeply resentful of Israel's existence as a
Jewish state. It is because of this state of mind that the Israel public overwhelmingly supports
the construction of a fence that would separate the two peoples, both physically and
symbolically. Indeed, since the construction of the fence has been underway, there has been
a considerable reduction in Palestinian terror inside Israel, though other factors affected this
trend as well. In other words, in contrast to the idea of a “New Middle East,” based on close
ties and economic cooperation between the countries and the peoples in the region, the
Israelis opt for a two-state solution, one that is based on mutual separation and closed

Under these circumstances, and given the large gaps between the two sides, particularly with
respect to the issues of Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees, it should become clear that at
present time, renewed direct negotiations between the two sides are not likely to be fruitful.
It follows that only through outside intervention, in which the United States should play a
central role, can put new life to the prospects of peace between The Israeli and the
Palestinians. Alas, with its current problematic situation in the Middle East and vulnerability
in other parts of the world, the chances for a rigorous effort on behalf of America to renew
the peace process are not very promising. At least in the short run, therefore, we should
accept the discouraging message according to which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may
perhaps be managed but not really resolved.


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