Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict
A briefing by Daniel Pipes
March 23, 2004
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Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum, a member of the presidentially-appointed board of the U.S. Institute of Peace, and a prize-winning columnist for the New York Sun and the Jerusalem Post. The author of 14 books, his most recent, Miniatures: Views of Islamic and Middle Eastern Politics (Transaction Publishers) appeared in late 2003. His website DanielPipes.org, is the single most accessed source of information specifically on the Middle East and Islam. He addressed the Middle East Forum in New York on March 23, 2004.
The recent elimination of the Hamas leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, is Israel's latest major contribution to the war on terror. Yet since that event, an interesting discussion has developed about whether such an action is helpful to Israeli interests. There are eternal verities about war, and one of them is the basic necessity to impose your will on the enemy, which you achieve through its demoralization. Some of us are of the generation that experienced America's defeat in Vietnam, so we should understand that for wars to end one side must give up. Therefore, if we keep in mind that there is truly a war underway in this conflict, it is unreasonable to think that Yassin's execution will benefit the Palestinians and harm the Israelis.
The Faulty Oslo Accords
Contrast today's situation with that of ten years ago. The Oslo Accords were considered a great example of what peacemaking could achieve. After his famed handshake with Yasir Arafat on the White House lawn, Shimon Peres asserted that the outline for peace in the Middle East was now clear. The accords were seen as a brilliant accomplishment whereby each side achieved what it most sought. The Palestinians got dignity and autonomy, the Israelis recognition and security.
However, ten and a half years later, it is clear that these accords brought quite different results. For the Palestinians they brought pauperization, corruption, suicide factions, a cult of death, and the rise of radical militant Islam. For the Israelis they brought the horrifying figure of over twice the number of people killed during the Six Day War, economic decline, and diplomatic isolation. No one now says that these accords were a success.
My analysis of what went wrong involves two faulty premises on the part of the U.S. and Israeli governments. The lesser of these was the belief in accords having an impact on the Palestinian population; but signatures on paper can only reflect reality, not create it.
An even greater mistake was the belief in the Palestinian promise that they had ended their existential war against Israel in the early 1990s. As Israelis made one concession after another during the next seven years, the Palestinian response was not the expected one of reciprocity but anger and ambition. The idea of destroying the state of Israel, which was moribund in 1993, became very much alive by 2000.
The PLO Becomes Hamas-Like
During the 1990s a lively debate took place amongst Palestinians between two approaches – one symbolized by the PLO, the other by Hamas. The PLO acknowledged that it was worth negotiating with Israel for all the benefits they could get through peace talks, but Hamas refused to bend its principles and talk to the enemy. The PLO approach predominated during the 1990s, but by the year 2000 – due mostly to the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon – the Hamas approach took over. As a result of Israeli concessions at Camp David in July of 2000, the PLO became Hamas-like in spirit.
Israel's assumption – that with Oslo the Palestinians had made a strategic rather than a tactical change – was the essence of what went wrong with the peace process. The concessions Israel subsequently made reduced Palestinian awe of Israeli might, made the state more vulnerable, and resulted in a radicalized and mobilized Palestinian body politic wherein the hope of destroying Israel has gained ever more traction.
Popular Palestinian Acceptance of Israel
Future policy towards this conflict must therefore acknowledge the faulty presumptions that underlay Oslo and all the subsequent, nearly-forgotten diplomatic efforts (Mitchell, Zinni, Abdallah, Roadmap, Geneva …). It must focus less on leaders and more on the Palestinian body politic, making Palestinian acceptance of Israel's right to exist the primary goal. Initiatives to deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict may be judged on a simple criterion: whatever increases popular Palestinian acceptance of Israel is a positive step; whatever diminishes that acceptance is a setback.
An Israeli victory in this war will mean the acceptance of the state's right to exist by its neighbors, especially the Palestinians. A Palestinian victory means the end of a sovereign Jewish state. Diplomacy can only work when the Palestinians have given up their anti-Zionist fantasies and the goal of extermination.
Jerusalem should go back to its pre-1993 policies and assumptions regarding Palestinian recognition of the Jewish state; the U.S. government should endorse this policy.
Two Other Dimensions of the Arab-Israeli Conflict
In addition to the problem of Palestinian acceptance of Israel, two other problems exist in the Arab-Israeli conflict that may be far more intractable. Firstly, the growth of the non-Jewish population in Israel could result in a more assertive Muslim population. A pattern exists that when a Muslim population reaches the 25 percent mark, it becomes ambitious in new ways; as the Muslim population in Israel approaches that number, we can expect a challenge to the Jewish nature of the state.
Potentially even more serious is the combination of antisemitism and weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. Israel and Jews are vilified in the Muslim world today in a way that brings Nazi Germany of the 1930s to mind, where the premises for the Holocaust were laid through dehumanization of the Jewish neighbor. An analogous dehumanization of Jews is taking place in the Muslim world today, with the potential to be a precursor to a like violence. Instead of Nazi death camps, Muslim regimes have weapons of mass destruction as tools with which to pursue a genocidal agenda. A former President of Iran, Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, has articulated this when he mused on the prospect that a nuclear exchange with Israel may be worth it, despite millions of Iranian deaths, if it results in the destruction of the Jewish state. This doomsday scenario is not an imminent possibility but it demonstrates just how dangerous current trends are.
Summary account by Robert Blum, research assistant at the Middle East Forum
Related Topics: Arab-Israel conflict & diplomacy, Palestinians | Daniel Pipes
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