The Main Roadblock to Peace

Middle East Update

The recently proposed "Road Map" peace plan has been met with both criticism and support. Despite hopes to the contrary, many doubt this latest effort will succeed where others have failed so many times before. How is this plan different from its predecessors? Is peace between Israelis and Palestinians possible?

Déjà vu All Over Again

With one exception this latest proposal is not dissimilar to those offered during the Oslo era, from 1993 to 2000. The major amendment in the current plan is the explicit promise of a Palestinian state. This point was only implied in the Oslo Accords, whereas now it's considered crucial to the peace process. According to the White House, "the Middle East road map makes clear that all sides must make tangible immediate steps towards [a] two-state vision."1

The hope is that once Palestinians understand that they will receive their own state, they will be more likely to make a deal.

Although the issue of a Palestinian state is indeed crucial to the peace process, it is not as straightforward or easy as some believe. The creation of a Palestinian state would mean that Israeli presence in the disputed areas would have to end. Israelis living in settlements in the Gaza Strip would have to leave, and Israeli outposts would have to be dismantled. It is a sensitive issue, especially to those currently living in the settlements, many of whom have declared that they will never move from their homes.

Yet another setback to the road map is how the terms of the peace plan will be communicated to the Palestinian people. Many of us witnessed the vast contrast between Western media coverage of the war in Iraq and reports given by Arab stations such as Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi. Whatever terms are proposed must first be filtered through the Palestinian leadership. Despite Prime Minister Abu Mazen's good intentions, he is not the only one trying to persuade the Palestinian people. Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian media, the Fatah leadership, Islamic clerics, Hamas, and many others exhibit influence over public opinion. After the Aqaba summit, Abu Mazen was painted by many of his own colleagues as betraying the Palestinian people.

The creation of a Palestinian state is not the only requirement; if that were the case the conflict could have been solved long ago. In 1947, the United Nations stepped in and voted to partition Palestine into two separate states - one Palestinian and one Jewish.

The Jews were not happy with the partition plan but agreed to the compromise. The Arabs, however, maintained an all-or-nothing position and refused to accept the UN's plan. Had they agreed, the Palestinians would have had their state in 1947. The opportunity for an independent state arose again more recently in 2000.

So why hasn't an agreement been reached?

The terms the Palestinians get in creating their own state seem to be as important as the state itself. Palestinian leadership has ardently resisted making any concessions toward Israel. Palestinians have demanded all of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem, as well as the right for all Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to Israel.

Of these, the demand for "right of return" is a particularly sensitive issue.

A "Historic Palestinian Homeland" Isn't Exactly Historic

Contrary to popular belief, there has never been a country of Palestine ruled by Palestinians. The Romans originally called the area Judea, but around A.D. 135 they renamed it "Palaestina" - presumably after Israel's enemies, the Philistines. After the Romans, the area was controlled, in succession, by the Byzantine Empire, Arabia, the Seljuk Turks, Mameluke forces from Egypt, the Ottoman Empire, and the British.

For hundreds of years, Palestine was a miserable backwash part of the Ottoman Empire. Poor administration practices by the Empire and a war with the invader Napoleon in 1798 severely reduced the population of Palestine. Both Arabs and Jews emigrated to happier locations and only a dismal, scattered population was left. In his book, Innocent's Abroad (1869), Mark Twain repeatedly notes how empty and desolate he found the Holy Land during his travels there. Even Jerusalem held a population of only 14,000 people, and Twain noted there was great variety in those 14,000, including, "Muslims, Jews, Greeks, Latins, Armenians, Syrians, Copts, Abyssinians, Greek Catholics, and a handful of Protestants." It wasn't until the last part of the 19th century that the Arab population started growing again.

Demand for Palestinians' "right of return" will never be voluntarily accepted by Israel, making the peace process a complex and seemingly impossible task.

For most Westerners it is difficult to understand why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has persisted for so long or why it has fueled so much violence. But in looking at a recent global survey by the Pew Research center the reason seems remarkably clear. The study reported that "by wide margins, most Muslim nations doubt that a way can be found for the state of Israel to exist so that the rights and needs of Palestinian people are met." (See The Pew Global Attitudes Project below.)

This is the main roadblock to peace in the Middle East: too few Palestinians truly desire it. Since its creation, Arab groups have fought for the elimination of the State of Israel. Most Arab nations have yet to officially recognize the right of Israel to exist, and many Muslim groups, like Hamas and Hezbollah, will not allow peace unless it comes in the form of Israel's destruction.

In the schools, Palestinian children are consistently taught to hate Israel and not to seek and pursue peace. The Palestinian leadership has long condoned terrorism against Israeli civilians. Peace proposals have been answered with greater numbers of terrorist attacks. When former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered the most far-reaching concessions ever, Yasser Arafat rejected them and the 2000 intifada started shortly thereafter. Until the Palestinians' desire for true peace is stronger than the efforts of the terrorists, no "Road Map" will work.

The Pew Global Attitudes Project surveyed 16,000 people in 20 countries and the Palestinian Authority in May, 2003.2

"Among other things, the postwar survey asked people their views on the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. By wide margins, most Muslim populations doubt that a way can be found for the state of Israel to exist so that the rights and needs of the Palestinian people are met.

"Eight-in-ten residents of the Palestinian Authority express this opinion. But Arabs in Israel, who voice the same criticisms of U.S. policy in the Middle East as do other Muslims, generally believe that a way can be found for the state of Israel to exist so that Palestinian rights and needs are addressed. In fact, Arabs in Israel are nearly as likely as Jews to hold that opinion (62% of Arabs, 68% of Jews). Outside of the Muslim world, there is general agreement that there is a way to ensure Israel's existence and meet the needs of Palestinians. This view is widely shared in North America and Western Europe."