The following remarks were originally presented to the Worcester, MA World Affairs Council on September 19, 2017.
President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, whom the president has entrusted with, among many other things, searching for an Israeli-Palestinian peace, said regarding that task: “We don’t want a history lesson. How does that help us get peace? Let’s not focus on that. We’ve read enough books.”
He’s wrong. Without taking into account the history of this conflict, one will never understand it adequately, much less be able to identify formulas that will furnish the necessary respect for, and meet the minimum needs of, both sides.
One could go way back, but let us instead skip to the point in history when war-exhausted Britain, responsible for administering the mandate of Palestine, was facing increasing violence from the contending communities of, on one hand, Arabs who had lived in Palestine for centuries, and on the other hand, Zionists who had begun to settle there over the previous few decades.
Britain dumped the problem into the lap of the United Nations, where the General Assembly approved in 1947 a partition plan for Palestine that would create two new states, one controlled by Jews and one by Arabs. The resolution approving the plan is the one internationally certified birth certificate of the State of Israel. The population of Palestine at the time was about two-thirds Arab and slightly less than one-third Jewish, with the bulk of the latter representing immigration in the 30 years since the Balfour Declaration. Jews owned less than 7 percent of the land. Under the partition plan, however, the Jewish state would receive 56 percent of Palestine and the Arab state 43 percent, with the remaining one percent being an international zone in Jerusalem. The population of the projected Arab state would be almost entirely Arab, while the Jewish-controlled state would be 45 percent Arab.
In the war that subsequently broke out, the superior skill and organization of the Zionist forces resulted in conquest of territory beyond the boundaries of the Jewish state in the UN partition plan, such that, at the time of the resulting armistice, the new State of Israel comprised 78 percent of Palestine, with Arabs left in control of 22 percent. Large population displacement occurred during the war. More than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs were expelled from, or fled from, their homes. Between 400 and 600 Palestinian villages were sacked, and Palestinian city life was virtually extinguished. This set of events is what Palestinians came to refer to as the Nakba or catastrophe.
This history is part of a single continuous story of issues that are discussed today as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the so-called peace process. One cannot excise that history. It is an inseparable part of attitudes, emotions, positions, and demands that exist today.
In the seven decades since those events of the late 1940s, Israel has grown into the state that is unquestionably the most militarily powerful in the entire Middle East, as well as being in many respects economically powerful. The next big accretion of territory under Israel’s control came from its conquests in the 1967 war, which Israel started with an attack on Egypt amid brinksmanship in the Gulf of Aqaba by Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser. Since that war, Israel has sustained a program of colonization of the conquered territories. Approximately 600,000 Jewish settlers now live outside Israel’s 1967 boundaries, in the West Bank and the eastern part of what Israel defines as Jerusalem.
Palestinian Arabs, in contrast, have remained sunken in a state of weakness and subjugation. For those in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, this status has included, among many other things, having nearly every aspect of life, from building of homes to daily movement to places of livelihood, subjected to the strictures of Israeli military occupation. For those in the Gaza Strip, the subjugation has taken a different form, in which Israel has maintained control of air, sea, and, with varying degrees of Egyptian regime cooperation, land access to the Strip. With a suffocating blockade in effect much of the time, punctuated by the destruction of periodic military offensives, the Strip is one of the more miserable densely populated pieces of territory in the world.
Changes of Posture in Response to Pressure
The political and diplomatic positions of both sides have changed significantly over these seven decades. Whatever movement there has been in a direction that would appear to make resolution of the conflict more possible has come in response to some form of force or pressure. This has been true on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides. A detailed accounting of such changes, and of the circumstances that have led to them, can be found in the excellent book by Nathan Thrall, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, published this year under the title The Only Language They Understand .